Hello everyone, sorry for the massive gap in communication. I have been in the land of very expensive internet. I know I keep promising this, but my blog really should be up to date by the weekend.
There's not a lot to report for Thursday as it was just a travelling day. We flew from Kota Kinabalu to the very boring town of Miri. I did, however, get a picture of a plane decked out in Manchester Untied colours (see photos, which are at the moment a little ahead of my blog). I did also get a room to myself that night as there was an odd number of girls in my group. Oh, how I treasured that sleep in a double bed.
We met up with our new group that night too - Kelli and Eric, the Americans from our first trip were still there, as well as Australian Felicity. There were also four more Australians and 2 Danes. I was the second youngest again but nobody was over 30 so it seemed like we were all going to get on pretty well.
It was an early start the next day for a total 11 hours of riding on ferries. I was expecting your standard P&O boat moored at the river harbour but what we actually got was a very long red boat that looked more like a submarine. We rode on this for two and a half hours, sitting on the curving roof and trying very hard not to fall into the river, where we would surely be eaten by the many crocodiles that we passed on the banks.
After a quick stop for lunch, we climbed aboard another ferry for the five hour journey to our next port of call. We sat on the roof again, this time with a load of locals. They spoke barely no English, but more than made up for it with their enthusiasm, and the luke-warm beer which they shared with us. They tended to be fisherman who had taken their catches into the town to sell - they did this about once a week. As we moved upriver they got progressively more drunk, before gradually being dropped off at their villages. These villages were so secluded it was quite hard to believe. Only reachable by river they seemed to contain only a cluster of shacks or one big longhouse. Their families came to meet them at the river - all evidently drunk as well. I suppose when all you do is tend to your animals and crops all day you may as well get a little wasted from time to time.
Our ferry was late dropping us off at the next harbour, because it had been loaded down with so many people, supplies, even a motorcycle. Our next mode of transport was a group of motorised longboats, which sped us through the much narrower, shallower river towards Mulu. The last part of the journey was extremely slow as it was now dark, and we negotiated the treacherous boulders and logs by torchlight. I was so desperate for the toilet that I even considered weeing in the bottom of the boat and pretending I didn't know where it came from.
We stayed that night at the main hotel complex for the Mulu National Park, but again it was an early start the next morning. We travelled down river by longboat (or rather, we pushed the boat through the extremely low water) to a selection of caves. Because the hills in the area are made of limestone, there is an incredible maze of caves, which are full of stalagtites and stalagmites in beautiful formations. We explored these at length before lunch and a swim in the ice cold, crystal clear pool outside one of the caves.
Again we travelled upriver to the start of our 9km walk to Camp 5, the start of the Pinncacles climb. The walk through the rainforest was pretty tough due to the heat, the leeches and mosquitos, and the fact that we were carrying all of our equipment and supplies for the next 2 nights, but it was immensely enjoyable because it was so exotic. We arrived at Camp 5 and went immediately to wash in the river, as there are sweat bees there, which sting you when they smell your sweat (trust me, it hurts). On the way to the river, Kelli stood on a blue furry caterpillar, which gave her the most incredible sting in her foot. As I tried to shoo it away with a stone, it also stung my hand. Our guide came along and told us that he needed to get the stings out or the area would swell to about twice its size. He did this by pouring hot wax onto our skin, waiting until it dried, and then peeling it off. It hurt quite a bit!
We had dinner in Camp 5, and then spent the night in our room. "Room" is perhaps a little bit of an exaggeration in describing this, as it was a wooden hut with a corrugated iron roof, the walls didn't reach the ceiling and there was no door, plus we were sleeping on very thin plastic mattresses on a wooden sleeping platform. All the same, it was quite a lot of fun and pretty novel.
The next day we were due to climb the Pinnacles. I was more than a little nervous about this as I was told it required free climbing skills and was tremedously steep. In addition, it had rained loads in the night, and we were told that the limestone and dead leaves would be extremely slippery. I decided to give it a try but almost immediately realised it wasn't for me. After climbing the first cliff I already had a big bruise on my knee and was terrified of the height. As I knew the last part of the climb was a series of ladders, about 7 metres high with no support, I decided to turn back. I later found out that someone had previously fallen off that part of the cliff face and died of blood loss so I felt a little more justified in my fear! The others carried on though, and made it back by mid afternoon. Their photos were great but they had found it extremely hard and were covered in cuts and bruises. I had gone for a walk in the rainforest instead which I enjoyed a lot more.
We spent the afternoon swimming in the river and playing cards, as well as watching the impressive tropical thunder storm, then it was another night sleeping on the wooden sleeping platforms.
On Monday morning we were up early for the 9km walk back to the longboats. We did this in two hours, and enjoyed a much more comfortable ride back as the rain from the night before had swollen the river. We very much enjoyed the hot showers and comfortable beds, before heading out to see a couple more caves. One contained many of the beautiful stalagtite and stalagmite formations that we had seen a couple of the days before - they were millions of years old. The second cave was slightly different. It was huge and housed between 2 and 3 million bats. As we walked around we watched the water falling in cascades from the roof of the cave, and avoided the metres-high piles of bat poo. We also had to dodge a few dying bats - the thunderstorm from the night before had apparently injured them in some way, although I'm not quite sure how.
We left the cave at 5.30 and settled down to watch the bats emerging from the cave. The process takes about 40 minutes as there are so many of them - they emerge in circular swirling motion looking like a plume of smoke, which confuses predators, and it's quite a sight.
After this it was another barbecue and some dancing, games and rice wine with the locals, before a much cherished sleep in a soft bed!
The next day was a day I'd been dreading, purely for the fact that it involved two flights, and one of them was on a 50 seater plane which had propellers, which I had decided could not possibly be safe. After a bad night's sleep and a lot of tears I climbed aboard this minute looking plane (there would be a photo but I was too scared to take one). Luckily, one of the Danish lads called Mikkel came and saved me, and sat next to me for the whole flight. He did an excellent job of taking my mind off the plane, as well as explaining the different and highly concerning noises it was making. so much so, in fact, that I was relatively calm for my second flight of the day.
For the duration of the three and a half hour gap between flights, several of us decided to live it up in the executive lounge of the airport. This cost 6 pounds to enter, which although not much for us, was a huge amount to Malaysians. Consequently, we got to enjoy the Sky TV, free food and drinks and free internet completely undisturbed!
That night in Kuching was fairly uneventful. After a delicious Chinese meal we climbed into bed for a sound night's sleep before our journey to the longhouse the next day.
On Wednesday morning we climbed aboard a longboat for the journey to the Iban longhouse, which can only be reached by river. The longboat was the most rickety yet - there was a woman in ours whose full time job was to bail out water with the dustpan part of a dustpan and brush. Much panic about passports and cameras ensued but we needn't have worried - we spent at least 70% of the time pulling the boats over pebbles as the water level was so low.
After about an hour's journey we arrived at the longhouse. The Iban people are semi-nomadic and they move areas about once every 20 years - this particular family has been at the Skandis longhouse for over 15 years now but they seem happy there for the moment. The longhouse is about 80m long, stands on stilts and is made out of extremely rickety wood with massive gaps in it (Mikkel dropped his ipod through one of the gaps when he was drunk and had to climb under the house to retrieve it.) There are 14 rooms branching off the main corridor, each containing a family, which live in these little rooms and sleep on the floor. The longhouse has electricity via a diesel generator between the hours of 7.30pm and 10pm, and during this time they can watch their favourite, crap-looking malaysian soap via the satellite dish which is mounted on bamboo in the garden. Day to day life seems to consist of smoking, washing in the river, harvesting rubber from rubber trees to sell (this stuff really does stink like blue cheese and poo) and getting their roosters to fight one another. It's a bit of a strange affair really because it seems extremely cruel but the men don't see it that way; rather like teenage boys with their cars, they treat their roosters with great pride, carrying them under their arms and stroking them.
On the first night there we sat up drinking rice wine with the locals. This stuff was pretty strong and all of us were wasted after about an hour. Drinking is communal with a great deal of cheering, and is a lot of fun. Most of the Iban people speak no English but much communication can be managed via sign language. Those of you who remember that finger clicking thing called a dip that I always used to do will be pleased to know I have taught it to these people and they were loving it! The head man, Unsa, is in his 50s and has been head man since the age of 26. He speaks very good English, having learnt it through a combination of an Iban-English dictionary and the English speaking people who have visited the longhouse. I spent a good deal of time talking to Edward, who is 2 months older than my dad. He was up pretty late drinking and smoking, and is still fit as a fiddle. On our last day he pushed the boat for most of the way over the shingles, with two of us inside it - he wouldn't let us get out and help! At the market the following night I bought a mask made out of iron wood that he had carved - it took him about four days. It's nice to have something made by somebody I have actually met and spoken to.
After a coma-like sleep on the floor in the communal area, Thursday was a low-key affair. This was partly due to there being nothing at all to do in the longhouse unless you happen to be a chain smoker, and partly due to the fact that we were all so hungover we felt close to death. A sweaty, humid jungle where the sweat pours off you when you are sitting still, and roosters and children are screaming all day long is not the place to nurse a hangover.
On Thursday night we realised how lucky we were to have been sleeping drunk the previous night. Sleeping on flea-infested matresses on a wooden floor in the communal area is hard enough. Stinking rubber, roosters crowing all night but especially after 4am, the constant fear of mangy, disabled dogs and cats trying to climb into bed with you, people walking up and down and shaking the floorboards, various insects intent on chewing you to pieces, screaming children, people smoking and the radio playing Malaysian dance music from 5am make the task a lot harder.
After saying goodbye to the tribe we travelled downstream in the longboats again to get into our taxis home. The van I was in seems to have been purposely designed to deprive us of sleep. The suspension was so bad that it was perfectly possible to hit your head on the ceiling when going over a bump, and the driver treated us to the Crazy Frog's album at ear-splitting decibels (I didn't even know that such an album existed until then). Kelli, who is American and has never heard the delights of the Crazy Frog before told me that it sounded like robots having sex. I reckon that's pretty accurate.
There was no chance for a rest though, as we were due to go out for the night for our final night together. Most of us enjoued as delicious Lebanese meal while Mads, one of the Danes, received a tattoo on each shoulder. These are designed to look like the eyes of dogs and are traditional Ibanese designs, hammered into the skin with a needle and hammer. Pretty painful.
After that we sat up and chatted for a while, before heading to a club for the rest of the night. Because I a) had no money and b) had to be up at 6 for my flight to Singapore, I went home at 2, but I was really sad to say goodbye to this group, they were fantastic and I miss them all so much.