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Borneo Travel Report

I arrived in Borneo the first time in 1981 and from then on I always promised myself I would go to the Mulu Caves National Park in Sarawak but I always got distracted by the hunt for textiles and would run out of money. Last year I finally made it!

My oldest friend in Kuching Lorna Yong invited me to go with a group of her lady friends including my long time Singaporean friend, Georgia Kan and travel  as a local; it was an offer I could not refuse! The caves are in a remote mountainous rainforest situated on the Malaysian side of the border between Sarawak and Brunei. It is a place famous for its limestone rock formations, underground rivers and giant caverns. You can fly in part way by small plane but the rest of the way must be traversed by longboat and depending on the time of the year, shooting the rapids.

Here is the whole story:

We had a bit of a bumpy landing in a tiny strip airport surrounded by jungle. It was great to see how well preserved the forest was from the air, which regrettably is not the case everywhere in North Borneo, as you know!  We were taken to what was called the Mulu Lodge Resort and I must give that place credit for being well maintained and just the right level of rustic, all-wood, somewhat primitive sensibility that struck the right chord with me. 

After dropping our stuff, we headed out with our lovely guide, a local Dayak woman with classical fine features and round face that bespoke of migrations from China so long ago. We marched out towards the caves on a wood boardwalk that cut through the jungle and permitted sightings of wild animals. We hoped to see hornbill birds, shrews, the Borneo Tarsier, three types of deer, including the barking and mouse deer and the sun bear…But I regret to say we saw not; the wild and woolliest creatures we encountered were mostly exotic caterpillars and small green lizards. This was a very long walk, probably turning out to be at least a good two miles in each direction, which added up in the heat and humidity so thick you could cut it with a butter knife. We made it to the caves and again I was pleasantly surprised by how sensitively the walkways were designed with the formations being discreetly lit and protected. We climbed through two caves that day and were leaving towards twilight, just in time to see the estimated million bats leave their home in the caves, flying out in great swirling "ropes” looking so much like giant black boa constrictors in the sky... They eat so many bad bugs that I hardly encountered a single mosquito while I was there! So that was a pretty satisfying sight before heading back to the lodge.  

I will confess to feeling truly exhausted and I was not alone in that estimate... but we started our recovery after being well fed at the smorgasbord style restaurant that also had good breakfasts, at night they showed local cultural entertainment, i.e. dances that rather than being too hokey, actually were fun to watch. Little kids got to blow darts at balloons. No one left without successfully popping a balloon, a real self esteem booster for some of the little guys! On the road I encountered many nice Europeans moving about, mostly Dutch, some with children. It was nice to see them building memories as families, which took me back to some of my childhood memories of adventures on the road…just not this fare down the road!

In the morning we went by longboat, which is kind of like a canoe with an outboard motor to another cave, with a stop first at a fairly recently settled Penan village where the culturally nomadic people were "given an offer they could not refuse" by the government to settle and now they make their living selling handicrafts based on their fine mat weaving, while demonstrating such traditional arts as playing the nose flute. Further up river we arrived at the caves, again two different ones, required far more up and down, with really steep stairways to permit access but it was all worth it when we were rewarded with an underground lake and even more exotic formations!

We had a picnic on site outside the cave and even went swimming in what was a giant natural spring that was the start of the tributary we had come up, the egress of the underground lake. It was good, clean fun! Please note the shot of me surrounded by what must be all the women in the cave… I was Mr. Popular for a short time!

So the last day was a free morning before heading back to the airport with different members of our group doing different things. I chatted-up Lucy Belawing, the lovely woman who had been our guide about what her life was like at work and away from it and what it was like to be the daughter of two mixed Dayak blood... all very interesting, and then off to the airport. And the funny thing is that I took a chance on the little restaurant in the tiny Mulu airport and it was delicious, tastier food than we had at the lodge, which had been more than OK. So the moral of the story is, if you find yourself stuck at the Mulu airport owing to a flight delay, do not hesitate to order up some fried noodle mie gorang at the café!