A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December
A slow start to the day is a good start. After brekky we attempt to book the canopy walk which seems to be really popular and all of the four or five for the day are full. The Ongs will miss out but I book in for tomorrow. I’m a bit worried about accommodation bookings for the rest of our trip as I haven’t made any – partly because i thought i would have a good window in Sarawak to do it before entering Sabah and partly because I thought it would be good to have some flexibility about where we stay and what we do. At heart I’m a planner but aa also intrigued by this notion of going with the flow.
I spend an hour online in the gift shop with a slow connection trying to find accommodation in Kota Kinabalu but because Nani wants a private family room that can fit us all in, these are scarce and booked out. We try three or four places with no luck but we do manage to book our first night in Sandakan. I’ll have to pull my finger out and do some serious organizing but not having 3G due to my SIM disaster I’m a bit crippled.
We go for a swim by crossing the Sungai Melinau river and heading down behind Good Luck Cave’fe (can you believe the play on words?) who have a Sunday special menu. The current is quite strong here but gently sloping and we only get knocked off our feet beyond waist deep. Abbey brings her new friend Olivia from Vancouver and her parents Heather and John who have travelled Asia extensively and rate Borneo one of the best places they’ve been.
Lachie cuts his toe on the river bank after pushing off and swimming across to one of the longboat pontoons. The 2cm gash is bleeding freely so we swim back and I push it shut praying that the river is clean enough to have flushed the wound. I wished I had my first aid kit to irrigate it properly with boiled water but it is big and bulky so I don’t carry it in my day pack. Maybe I should split it in two. Mark sprays the wound with adhesive water proofing and I bandaid it to stop it reopening. I hope he can walk on it because we’re off to the caves again this afternoon.
Nani refuses to eat at Good Luck Cave’fe (hmmm). Mark and I are keen because of the Sunday specials and cheap beer but Nani has her I’m-not-happy-face so wisdom prevails over courage and we head back to HQ for okra and eggplant with a sides of kaya French toast and roti canai.
After a snooze we’re off to the caves with our guide Jenny. Along the way she shows us the kind of tree that pygmy squirrels live in, the we see one – around the same size as a mouse busily feeding on small insects. She identifies the Ipoh tree where the Penan hunters get their poison sap for their blow darts. The blow pipes are armed with a knife so it can act as a spear to finish off wounded prey. She shows us caterpillars – the hairy ones become moths and the smooth ones butterflies. Oddly Nani loves butterflies but has a meltdown screaming if a moth flies near her head. We see inchworms, centipedes, and identify all kinds of frog and bird calls. Strange leaf hoppers sit on the hand rail with freaky looking giant stick insects. Some 50% of planet earths biodiversity is found in the 2% of equatorial rainforest that we are wandering around in.
Lang cave is beautiful. A powerful river flowed through here to carve it out then dripping water created all kinds of beautiful white formations; curtains, abalone shell, icing melting on a cake, jelly fish, and twisted columns. For some reason the ones i love the most are where a stalagmite and a stalactite are almost touching. I feel like rooting for them “keep going! Not far to go!”
Deer cave is named for the sambar deer that used to venture in to lick salt in the largest cavern. That is until hunters started to ambush them there and they stopped coming. Two things hit you at once; the warm ammonia and fecal smell coming out and the sheer scale of it is equally overwhelming. Inside powerful shafts of sunlight penetrate past a rock that forms the silhouette of Abe Lincoln’s face. Where light reaches the cave walls turn green with great hills of warm steaming guano underneath any of the overhead roosting spots. A trickling river runs through it past the Garden of Eden where a hidden valley is located that only 6 adventurers can pass each day.
Swiftlets circle in the mouth of the cave and curtains of water drops fall from the roof while sun glints off both bird and water alike. We are tiny in comparison to the sheer size of this cave and it feels like a “Journey to the centre of the earth” experience. There is something very primordial about this place.
There are thousands of bats – 10 species in this cave alone along whole ecosystems of insects feeding on bat shit, earwigs feeding on dead skin cells, cave crickets feeding on god knows what, and spiders and worms creating silk like webs that dangle from the ceiling. When these are pointed out Nani says “sick”.
I photograph a giant mutant cave cricket and take a large step over a gap in the rocks to get close enough Abbey tries a similar step but doesnt make it and stands calf deep in mushy guano. She isn’t happy but to her credit she doesn’t have a meltdown and I make her wait until as we exit Deer Cave I let her wade in the river to try and clean her leg and shoe. I feel sorry for her but grateful she’s fairly resilient. We notice a dying bat lying on the ground and step around it. I take a snap. As the kids head to wait for the dusk emergence, I sneak back into Lang Cave by myself to get some footage. As I enter I trip the sensor and all the lights come on. Everything is silent and I film a few minutes on my camera.
Back at the observation area the kids play Humburger which is rock paper scissors with some violence to spice it up. After each round the losers have to put their hands down in the centre. Players free a hand by winning. Once both your hands are in the “hamburger” you must wait until a winner has two hands free and gets to pound as hard as they can on the hand-burger.
Lachie, Oscar and Jonathan are the band of brothers. They’ve become quite attached and have developed a new martial art which looks like tiger style to me but the call it nipple cripple style which seems to be the objective.
The bats in time dutifully stream out and circle in donuts and tornadoes and great long black ribbons for self preservation making great entertainment for us in our little amphitheater. A lone bat hawk flaps about eager for a meal.
I record sounds on the way back as I walk alone in the dark jungle intrigued by the moans, barking frogs, pips, and chirps. Bats hurtle deftly down the corridor cut by our path. I’m glad at their presence because they love to eat mosquitos and these are my enemy.
After dinner we head back across the swaying suspension bridge (it positively bucks when we cross) over the Sg. Melinau and drink Heineken with the our new Canadian friends and talk about travels in Asia. The kids entertain themselves playing UNO and after that begin collecting empty beer cans from all over the restaurant and building a massive tower right in front of the screen on the wall. Other patron’s take photos of the tower. I tell them our kids are Aussies and that explains it all.