A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December
This morning we had the most amazing French toast for breakfast. The bread was fresh, soft and sliced thick dipped in egg and folded in half with kaya (coconut pandan egg jam) inside. We boarded longboats for the Wind and Clearwater caves via a local Penan village.
The long boats are just that – long and thin, they remind me of a Lebanese cucumber. Made of wood they require two operators – one at each end. They are colorfully painted, sit low in the water and passengers sit on moveable boards in single file. The operators are skilled at picking the best route through the sometimes shallow, rocky or log jammed river. We loved gliding along the turquoise jungle lined river with overhanging trees and vines dangling into the water from above.
The guided walks through the Wind and Clearwater caves are spellbinding. Many features of the wind cave are illuminated creating mysterious shadows and effects. Milk cave at the Wind cave entrance was somehow formed from limestone with the aid of bacteria but scientists aren’t sure how. The wind cave is named for the convection from warm and cool air meeting in the cave. The breeze was welcome relief from the ever present heat and humidity. At the end of the walkway inside is an enormous cavern called the kings chamber. Apparently he is out because it is Saturday. A group behind us is talking loudly in Chinese so I shoosh them in the dark and it carries well. They get the missive and tone it down. Deb says “good on you”.
Our softly spoken guide says he is a headhunter even til today but he only takes chicken heads. Hey me too! He says underneath us is a piece of tin and underneath that are skeletons that have been headhunter and says that’s why we don’t stay here. I can’t tell if he’s joking or not so I decide to believe him because it’s more exciting. He tells stories of his friend losing an arm in a caving incident and shines his torch and sure enough there is a formation that looks like an arm. Another is a frog, eagle, iguana and Pinocchio. The kids love it and are encouraged to use their own imagination.
Clearwater cave is the eighth longest in the world (was the 10th but more has been discovered) and reckoned to be the largest in cubic volume. We hear bats flying overhead, sonar chirping as they navigate blindly through the chambers. A river runs through this one and connects through to the Wind Cave along which spelunkers can take an adventure trip lasting six hours comprising walking, crawling, swimming and climbing ropes. Cyanobacteria through photosynthesis and respiration have produced carbon dioxide which sediments the limestone forming long needle-like structures at the cave entrance.
The Penan village was interesting but a bit sad as well. The Penan were the nomadic jungle people who in the tens of thousands roamed Borneo living a simple life. They were expert hunters using blow pipes that could kill a human in minutes. Some of them bathed in the river as we approached. Interestingly in their culture they had no word for thief or forest. No one owned anything and they had six different words for “we”. Peace loving people they have not been known to fight. For decades now first the missionaries and later the to government have been moving them into settlements and converting them to a cash economy. I felt sad to think their precious ancient culture was being eroded. In the village they have multiple boat loads of people arriving daily to whom they sell trinkets. The kids didn’t smile when I said hello which is unlike kids. I buy a wooden spoon made from nibong to remember the Penan but I guess they never had to suffer the stolen generation or life on a reservation like our indigenous people.
Lachie tells me he is somewhat torn about these people. He (and I) are attracted to their simple lifestyle but he is concerned about what appears to be a problem with poverty given the shanty type dwellings and complete lack of infrastructure. I tell him that the reason the government moved them was to provide free medical clinics and education.
Before boarding our long boats back to Park HQ we jump into the clear river and cool off. I just swim in my quick dry shorts and the kids are in their undies like kampung kids. I line the kids up on a submerged log and like a row of monkeys take a shot. Then I back flip off the log and find out that an even deeper log which I didn’t see took a liking to my leg. I bark half my shin on it and it goes red and bruised immediately. Obviously the reason for the no diving sign. Lachie says “Whoa I didn’t know you could backflip Dad!” so I guess it was worth it. Nani says I should show the kids the damage so I can be an example – of what not to do. Her sympathy is touching.
While the boys walk to Paku Waterfall – a 2.5 km walk along a muddy trail, Nani Abbey and I venture across the suspension bridge outside the Park in search of cheaper food. On the way out an American boy has caught a fire fly in his hands. He cracks them slightly and there it is a blinking LED made by mother nature. Nani tells me that her grandfather wouldn’t allow her Dad to have any light at night so he would catch a jar full of fireflies to study by their light. Sounds a bit like one of those “You think you had it rough?When we were young… ” stories. (My sisters and I grew up in a town of 1100 called Yea and had to milk cows before we went to school and walked the six miles in bare feet to get there).
Outside the park The Good Luck Cave’fe (I kid you not) have a banner stating 6rm (two Aussie dollar) beers after 5pm. I feel this would be a good place for dinner.
Further along the road as the sun is setting we walk along a grassy open plain with a few trees and the odd house dotting the landscape. One or two motorbike pass us. Nani says this place is so beautiful she would like to come back. I snap some shots of her with the dramatic mountains in the background and then I spy a rambutan tree that I noticed on the way in yesterday. Rambutan is a red hairy fruit similar to a lychee and the kids and I love them. I decided to try and pick a bunch and notice some peelings on the ground where others have done the same. I cross a plank over the roadside drain and easily swing up into the tree. As I stand surveying for the ripest cluster I notice fire ants marshaling an attack on my shoes. This scares me into jumping higher in the tree to a branch which looks clear of them. I brush the few that are biting my shoe but with dismay notice that now my new perch is swarming. Higher again and things are not improving. I’m shouting Fire Ants!! to Nani who has wisely stayed on the bitumen and I’m freaking out imagining being swarmed from head to toe. I decide I’ve got to forget the fruit and make for safety. I try and spot up some clear branches and Tarzan swing to the ground. There is one biting my neck, another inside my shirt so it’s off with that and a good shake out. I’m rattled. I didn’t know the little pricks were so aggressive. I tell Mark later and he laughs. He used to have a huge rambutan tree and the ants would have up to twenty nests throughout which if the branch supporting it broke would explode ants everywhere as it hit the ground. He got an arborist to cut it down and even though they smoked the ants out, three of the workers were hospitalized as a result of the stings and Mark had to pay their medical costs. I decide to just buy them in the future.
Back at the dimly lit but recently opened Good luck Cave’fe (yes that’s it’s real name) we tuck into Tiger Beer and Heineken while waiting for our meals along with a roomful of westerners (including a bunch of young Aussies who save money by staying at a Homestay round the corner). The kids watch Spongebob Squarepants projected onto the back wall. Our meals take forever because it’s a mom and pop operation. One of their kids that looks around 9 is bringing our food but none of the tables that have finished are getting cleared. It’s cheaper but the serves are a bit smaller. Suits me though because I try and eat to match my output. Nani reckons they’re slow so people buy more beer.
We cross back over the suspension bridge and because it’s dark I deliberately rock it up and down then notice a Chinese girl further down hanging on for dear life and walking in what looks like slow motion so I ease up. I pass the cafe at HQ and buy six small bananas for 2rm. They’re tasty and fire ant free.