Ahh. The jungle depths of Mulu, Sarawak's biggest and most spectacular National Park. Says so right in the brochure. Land of soaring jungle-clad mountains, dark caves, and strange beasts. Haunt of the headhunters and home to eaters of flesh, drinkers of blood.
I took a plane to Miri, then small plane to Mulu. We flew over the flat coastal area, then some small rumpled hills. A constant writhe of river broke the green into interlocking lobes. Then in the distance, the mighty mountains of Mulu rising to nearly 8000 feet. But still covered in green to the top. How is a guy supposed see the mountain if there's all that vegetation all over it? Landed at the cute little airport and checked into the 18-bed national park hostel.
First on the adventure list were two caves and the Evening Exodus Show of Shows. I headed down the boardwalk trail through the swampy jungle with Josh and Justine, a couple from San Francisco that I'd met on the plane.
Deer Cave. Largest cave passage in the world. Sounds good in print. In reality it was friggin' huge. Just so big that it was hard to "get it." Yes. You are inside. No. You are not lacking for elbow room. Look at the small streams running in the bottom. See the cave walls frozen in a slow millennial drip of liquid limestone. See the black stain on the cave ceiling 400 feet above. Boy is that stain noisy. Chitter, chitter, chitter. Hey wait. That is not a stain on the cave ceiling. That is a portion of the 2 million bats that live in this cave. Hey look. Here below the bats on the floor of the cave. THAT is the stain. Piles and piles of "stain." Smell the strong odor of the stain. See the happy community of cockroaches, spiders and centipedes that live off the guano or each other. Do not drop your gum here, even for a minute. Be careful of the slippery path. Put your hand here on the safety rail. Feel the safety rail crawl beneath your hand. Shine your light on the large earwigs that live by eating the grease that protects the skin of a rare species of naked bat. Shake the earwigs from your arm.
The three of us wandered back out of the mile-and-a-quarter long cave and ambled "next door" to Lang Cave. Much more intimate surroundings. And much more decorative. Stalagmites poking up. Stalactites hanging down. Limestone curtains. Towers of flowstone. Wedding cakes. Pillars. Big poisonous cave spider. All the cool cave things.
Josh and Justine were good companions for this sort of thing. Josh was really into caves and Justine was excited by every cool bug or bat or other creature we saw. With more sets of attentive eyes, we caught more of the details and saw more small creatures.
It was time for the Big Show. We headed out of Lang cave and saw that it had already begun. A plume of smoke pouring from the mouth of Deer Cave. But no. Not Smoke. Bats. A swirling, shifting black stream of bats. Looked like the small tornado I saw in Colorado one time. All writhing and twisting and flowing. We headed for the bat observatory, which is just far enough back that you can look without getting a crick in your neck. Saw a bat hawk cruising for dinner. Watched as some of the bats would get in a circle following each other and spin off the main stream like a giant poppyseed bat bagel. A guide told us that the bats eat about 9 tons of insects in one night. Which helped explain the size of the stain in the cave.
Finally, after watching only about 1,587,403 of the bats emerge, we headed back down the long boardwalk into the night, into the dark, into the jungle.
Pictures don't give you any sense of the jungle. Or rather, they only give you one sense: the sight. But the jungle is a multi-sense experience. It may have more to do with the air than with the sight. There is, first, the thick pad of water that seems to be a part of each breath and every movement. Despite the rich oxygen, there can be a small sense of suffocation -- or is it drowning -- with each too-moist inhalation. The air is also laden with a mat of smells that burble up from the leaf litter and down from the trees. Smells of life and of death and of recycling that stay short of the smell of nasty compost, but still ring rich in the senses. And the air is filled with sound. Big sound. From small creatures. Nighttime is loud.
As we walked, there were crickets and cicadas and katydids and grasshoppers and frogs in the trees and frogs in the swamp. All shouting at the top of their lungs or thoraxes or whatever, "I want sex! I want sex! I want sex!" Even nice quiet bugs were flying among the trees flashing their butts in a green-light code for "I want sex! I want sex!" Goodness gracious. Whatever happened to love?
Next day we headed for another pair of caves a couple hours away. The riverside path was cement and boardwalk again, but we saw plenty of wildlife. Bugs are wild. The whole Mulu NP is a hunting ground for native people so big critters try not to show themselves. Saw a walking stick insect. Bright orange and black pill bugs that rolled into a ball the same diameter as a quarter. Millipedes bigger than some snakes I've seen. Butterflies of every imaginable color and a few colors more. A leaf insect that looked so much like a leaf that I'm pretty sure there was some hanky panky between a plant and a bug at some point in history. Dragonflies with emeralds inset on their wings. Shiny black scorpions. Crazy green long nosed lantern bugs. Beetles big enough to give a Volkswagen a run for its money.
Got to Wind Cave. Nice cave with some nice formations. But the real fun was just down the path at Clearwater Cave. We passed the picnic area where the few classy Mulu Resort guests who had taken boats up the river sat eating their catered lunches or swimming in the clear water that flowed from the rock. In the cave we walked the approved semi-lighted boardwalk paths, just as we had in all the other caves so far. But "bored-walk." You know. We were ready for some adventure caving. The National Park has scheduled adventure cave expeditions for visitors. We didn't let that bother us. We just climbed over the railing and waded along in the flowing Clearwater river into the darkness.
The Clearwater Cave system is the longest in South East Asia. Over 107 km mapped so far. Much of it partly filled with water. Which makes it seem like a stupid and dangerous place for three idiot travelers to wander without adult supervision. But travel without danger is not adventure. We waded and nearly swam and crawled and climbed and crept and slipped and splashed. Then we got a little confused about where we'd come in and saw a snake in the dark water. Cool. We had a great time. And made it back out to swim in the refreshing sunlit water and to eat lunch in the jungle shade.
New day. New adventure. Josh, Justine and I hooked up with two more Americans, Paddy and Polly, to share fees for the trek to the famous Pinnacles of Mulu. The first leg was a boat ride up the Melinau River. Our unsmiling boatman, Laing, distributed our packs and us into his boat. Then with three mighty pulls of the starter rope, got his chipped outboard revved up, pointed the prow upstream and away we went.
This lasted for less than a minute. Then the prop hit the shallow bottom and the motor died. Low water level in the river. Another three pulls got the motor going again and Laing revved it to the top and set the prop partway into the water for a little slow progress. Then it was even too shallow for that. The prop hit bottom and the motor died again. Laing jumped out and pushed the whole boat, loaded with five large white people and gear. (Which explained why his leg muscles were so huge.) And that only lasted until it got so shallow that we all had to get out.
That cycle repeated over and over. Laing raced the motor in the deeper sections to gain speed to try to slide up rapids or over the rocks or the submerged logs (The average Borneo tree sinks in water). We stayed in the boat if it was floating. We walked if it was shallow, and we helped push if the current was strong. I pretty much kept smiling and had a damn good time. Just like an adventure in Borneo. And I helped push the boat any chance I got -- because I found it was easier to walk on the slippery round river rocks if I could hold onto the boat. We probablly walked about half of the the two hour boat "ride." Then we hoisted up our packs and headed through the jungle toward the Headhunter Trail and Camp 5.
Camp 5 was the reward for the dark muddy jungle hike. We emerged into the open space at the edge of the clear river and could see the high cliffs of the Melinau Gorge. Clouds wreathed the cliff tops. Jungle gripped the sides. Caves pocked the surface. I went for a refreshing swim in the river. Paddy and Polly pulled leeches out of their boots. Paddy even had a really nice leech bite on his shin that kept bleeding and bleeding.
That evening we talked while we boiled water over a fire and prepared our simple meals. I tried to figure out what Paddy and Polly were doing in Borneo. Polly had been an editor for a wildlife organization. But unlike Josh and Justine, who were fascinated by every creature we saw, Paddy and Polly were afraid of most of them. Afraid of bugs and spiders and snakes and leeches and mice. As we sat under the camp light, Paddy would yelp and duck-and-cover every time a big bat would swoop by to scoop up insects. Which was pretty much constantly. Justine, once she realized that these things scared them, told tales about Asia adventures with bed bugs, giant bats, attack rats, and the reptiles they'd seen.
Next morning the real hike began. A measly one-and-a-half mile trail. But about 4000 feet in elevation gain. Our taciturn guide was built like a tank, presumably from hiking this trail so many times. Josh and Justine led the way for a while and intercepted leeches. Paddy and Polly scrambled along behind, Paddy puffing and planning on dying partway up. Complaining that his elevator and automobile training regimen did not seem to be helping him. I stayed with the group until we were halfway, then kicked my bicycle quads into high gear and hammered toward the top.
The trail was a challenging combination of difficulties. The surface was very rough. Rock and roots and vines to trip on. With a relentlessly steep incline. And everything was slippery. Slippery roots. Mossy rocks. Plus, the limestone was very sharp. Miniature versions of the giant pinnacles we were on our way to see. On the lower part of the trail, I was able to step up everything. But higher and higher, it was steeper and I required more and more handholds, until, at last, it was full four-limbed climbing with some ropes and ladders and steel steps bolted to the rock. Finally, shins bloodied and swimming in sweat, I emerged from the trees onto a rocky outcrop and saw... Nothing. Wait! There in the fog. The Pinnacles!
Wow. The clouds swirled away and the view crystallized. Really an amazing natural site. And way closer than it had seemed in the picture postcards. Tall gray razor-sharp spines sticking up out of the green jungle. Green jungle mountains rolling into the clouded distance. And over all the distance, something very close to silence.
Josh and Justine joined me. Our guide. Polly. And even Paddy came huffing to the top before too long, soaked to the skin in his long jungle pants and long-sleeved shirt. We took a million pictures. Ate our lunches. Saw some shrews. Took some more pictures. And headed back.
We had been warned that it would take even longer to get down because it was so slippery. But it didn't. Not for me, at least. I jumped and scrambled and climbed and swung down like some kind of monkey man. About two thirds of the way down I stopped to try to spot some real monkeys that I thought I had heard crashing in the trees. Our ever helpful guide caught up with me on his way back down to the river and a swim. So we raced the rest of the way down. Or at least I did. I only looked back one time. He was smiling. But he did not catch me.
I was driven. By pain and heartache. By empty desperation. By the torment of rejection.
Everyone else in our group had gotten leeches. Justine had gotten some our day at the caves and more on the trail to the Pinnacles. Paddy and Polly, despite long pants and long sleeves and boots and socks, had found the little suckers feeding off them. But here I was, wearing only Hawaiian shorts, a mesh shirt and sandals -- after coming all the way to Borneo -- and not a single leech had tried to suck my blood out. I felt ripped off.
I took a refreshing swim in the clear water, then crossed the river and sulked off into the jungle near the Headhunter Trail. For about an hour I prowled the jungle in just shorts and sandals. I smelled the jungle fruit. I listened to the jungle sounds. I stood very still and watched jungle birds.
When I got back to camp I was rinsing my feet and there, a slimy black line. And another and another. Two small leeches near one ankle. And a larger one on my big toe. I scraped them off and bled for an hour. Loved at last by the leeches of Borneo.