Ok, where was I? We left Kuala Lumpur and flew to Borneo. Home of the wild man and head hunters. Borneo itself is a huge island which is now split into three parts. Most of the north is owned by Malaysia. The south is owned by Indonesia. The other part of the north is Brunei. The oil rich Sultanate ruled by the Sultan and protected by the British.
We flew into Kuching which means 'cat'. Our plan had been to visit the national park just outside the city. Unfortunately when we went to the tour office and the national parks office it wasn't possible to arrange accommodation in the park. We would have had to hang around for 3 days. Kuching is ok but we didn't fancy another 3 days there. Plan B.
Plan B involved a flight to Mulu to visit the famous caves. Unfortunately there are only 3 direct flights a week. Next flight was 2 days away. Plan C.
We flew to Miri and went into a tour office there. As Sarawak, Borneo is a separate part of Malaysia they issue another visa and you have to pass through immigration. I had one of those Two Ronnies/Benny Hill moments with the immigration officer.
He checked my passport then pointed to the fingerprint scanner. 'Four fingers' he said. I duly put the four fingers of my right hand on the scanner. 'No, No fore fingers, you sirry iriot' he said. 'Oh, you mean my two fore fingers'. It made me laugh. Obviously not him as all immigration officers are humourless.
Anyway we were able to book 2 days in the Mulu national park (Borneo's only UNESCO heritage site). We managed to get flights, transfers, accommodation and meals for a really good price.
We enjoyed our upgraded room at the hotel. Even found time for a dip in the pool.
There are two ways to get to Mulu which is a jungle wilderness. You can travel by land and river over 2 days or take a 30 minute flight. No contest.
We were collected at 8am by the tour company and taken to the airport. This was the day after the twin engine propeller driven plane had crashed so tragically in Nepal. Our plane? Yep a twin engine propeller driven. Does lightning strike twice? Well I'm writing this so maybe not.
It was only a 30 minute flight. Looking out the window as we came into land it was rain forest and hills as far as the eye could see. Amazing.
We walked out of the airport to be met by Ting our guide. We climbed into a mini bus that wouldn't pass an M let alone an MOT. No mirrors and the seats lifting from the floor pan. Oh well it was only a 10 minute drive.
Our accommodation was basic. Rooms on stilts. A bed and a bathroom but actually better than we had expected. We were given a nice lunch and had some time to explore the area on foot. At 2pm Ting and Jak met us and we headed for the caves in the bus. The caves were our reason for coming here. Not just to explore them but to see the night time exit of the bats. Those of you who have watched Planet Earth on the BBC may recall David Attenborough visiting them.
We went first to the Deer cave. This where most of the bats roost. It has the largest cave passage in the world at over 1.2 kms. The main cave is five times the size of St Paul's cathedral and is truly awesome. As you enter you become aware of a strong but amazingly not unpleasant smell. The ground is a carpet of deep brown powder. 'Guano, bat sheet' says Ting. He seems to like the word sheet and uses it at every opportunity. When you look up you can see large patches of black. Bats. Between 2 and 3 million of them. They roost high on the cave roof during the day and come out to feed on insects at night. Nature is clever. The bat s*** is home to Golden earwigs which feed on small microbes which live in it. If it rains heavily the bats don't leave the cave as the rain affects their sonar. So they eat the earwigs.
We explored all around inside the cave before moving on to Lang's cave. This was equally impressive filled with stalactites and stalagmites. If you don't remember the silly schoolboy way of remembering the difference it's 'when tights come down, you might get it up'. When they join in the middle they are called columns. They form at the rate of about 1cm every few thousand years so it's not a great spectator sport. The caves were formed from limestone rock when the area was under the ocean and the current was running through it.
The sun was now starting to set and so we moved to the viewing area to watch the bats come out. As with all things involving animals it is impossible to predict when things will happen. Ting said the bats had emerged at 5.20pm yesterday while it was still light. Not today though.
It was nearly 6pm with fading light when they started to come out in waves. Probably several thousand at a time. We had hoped to see millions in one go but this was still pretty amazing. Eventually the light faded and we couldn't see them. Time to head out of the park.
Back at the lodge we were fed and had a couple of cold beers. It was very hot and humid. The power supply is from a generator and it is only on from 6pm to 11pm, so it's eat, shower, bed. The room fan helped a little but it was going to be a hot night. Fortunately the skies opened and boy did it rain which cooled the air.
Next morning and the cockerel is in full crow so no need for the alarm. After breakfast we headed to a local Penan tribe village. It was an opportunity to see their homes and this was where we would get a boat to the next caves.
The Penan are an interesting people. Although they live in the forest they have no word for it. They have no hierarchy, even children have a say. They have a sharing ethos. Each person helping the other. The greatest disgrace is to be found keeping things to yourself. Interestingly they don't have a word for thief.
Since they first came to the area they had been a nomadic tribe, living off the forest. They believed the forest and its animals had a spirit. Then came the British and the Christian church. They basically blackmailed the Penan. In return for education and medicine they convinced them to leave the forest and live in villages. They persuaded them to stop hunting and start farming. The church fed them s*** about God and told them the birds of the forest were evil and they should not go in there. Meanwhile the government was logging the forest hunting grounds for their own profit. 1754 maybe? I'm afraid not. This all happened in 1930. A once nomadic forest dwelling people are now reduced to farming and selling trinkets to tourists.
After our short meeting with the Penan we boarded a long boat to head up river to some more caves. It hadn't rained for the last 10 days and so the river was low in some areas. This meant the outboard motor couldn't be used in places and Ting and the boatman had to use poles or push it through the shallows.
We docked at a small platform that had a walkway up to the first cave. At the lodge there is a sign which says 'This is a wilderness area. We do get rats. We have a cat and snakes to keep them under control. If you meet any of the wildlife please remember they were here first and do not harm them'. I have a fascination for snakes. They bring out our most basic fears as they are always cast as demonic and dangerous. On the other hand they are a superb example of evolution. A top predator ideally suited to its environment. We had been through many countries and remote areas but I still hadn't seen one.
As we left the jetty and started to ascend up to the cave Ting called out 'Snake'. There about 20 ft in front of us on the walkway was a snake. It was long, about 5ft and slender. It was perfectly still and at first looked dead. I hadn't expected to see one so close to a human path. Ting said it was a Racer. They are non-venomous and eat rodents etc. Ting said I could approach it and take some photos.
As I moved slowly forward it lifted its head and turned to face me with its mouth wide open. Back off or I'll bite you was the clear message. I took the hint. Even a non-venomous snake is pretty threatening. I managed to get some pictures before more people arrived and it slithered off into a nearby tree. A real highlight for me.
Onwards and upwards we went to the Cave of Winds. This has a series of tunnels in it which connect to Clearwater cave about 5 kms away. It is possible to go through the tunnels but it is several hours of hard work. It is called the Cave of Winds because the air temperature inside and out is very different and it creates drafts through the tunnels. Each cave is different from the last. Ting knew his stuff both scientifically and as a guide. He had timed everywhere so we were the only people in the caves. We had expected the Mongol hoards.
Leaving this cave we went to our last one, Clearwater cave. Again very impressive. It has the longest underground river in South East Asia running through it. We returned by river and then back to the airport to fly back to Miri.
2 days, 4 caves, a river trip, jungle, bats and a snake. We had had a great time feeling like jungle explorers.
It was back to the airport for a 30 minute flight back to Miri. We stayed another night there before doing a 2 flight day. First a flight to Kuala Lumpur, then a quick change, and on another flight to Bangkok. Goodbye Malaysia and hello to Thailand.