Borneo Travellers Part 1 of 3

Avid travellers Graeme and Sue share their adventures through Borneo.


The Kuching Experience

Sue and I were met by Rose, our Chinese-Malay tour guide, at the Kuching airport after a 1 ¾ hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. She was fantastically knowledgeable about everything to do with Sarawak, and in a polite way, talked non-stop in very good English. She was educated in England in her middle years (now aged 68), changing from being a primary school teacher to a lawyer, eventually hating the ‘rat race’ and became a tour guide, passionate about conservation (especially orang utans and orchids … actually… everything).

We had the remainder of the afternoon free and braved the sweltering heat, humidity and traffic, to explore the waterfront (Sarawak river). The exchange rate for RM (Malaysian Ringgat) was 1NZ = 2.5RM. To be taken across the river cost 2RM return each (80 cents each). We ended up back on our hotel side (Riverside Majestic, but losing the majesty!) and walked down India Street (full of colourful street hawker stands), Carpenter St and Jalan Ewe Hai (Chinatown), and finished up for tea at the recommended James Brooke Café. Brilliant food, service, and cold tasteless Tiger beer. We ended up eating there every night and tried everything that was authentic Sarawak food. The curries/laska were only RM12 each and it felt odd eating out with a couple of beers and only spending RM48 (about $NZ18). We did nothing much after 7:30pm each evening as the time difference meant we were eating about midnight.

The hotel’s saving grace was its breakfast buffet, which set us up well for the rest of the day, as we were heading to Bako national Park, jutting out into the South China Sea at the mouth of the Sarawak River. Interestingly, we were asked by Rose how we found our room … we weren’t very complimentary, and she put into motion a room upgrade so on arrival back from an overnight in very basic hut accommodation in the Bako NP, we were approached by the manager, and taken to the top floor to an Executive Room complete with access to the Executive Lounge (complimentary coffee, snacks and extraordinary view over Kuching). But I digress. To get to Bako NP requires a boat ride that starts off extremely pleasantly down river, then changes to a bone shattering bumpy (understatement as my coccyx well knows) ‘ride’ (like a bucking bronco) as we hit the South China Sea breakers and swell. Tide was out so we waded to shore and encountered the most stunning rock formations I have ever seen, with vegetation clinging to cracks and crevises (you had to be there). The sand was riddled with Port Douglas-style ball-forming crabs (but they didn’t compare with the hundreds of bright cobalt blue fiddler crabs we saw as we originally boarded the boat). We are finding that each of the National Parks we visit have their own uniqueness – Bako NP is all about rock formations jutting into the sea, mangrove forests in the estuarine areas (7 species in Bako alone), the incredible change in forest type moving up only 150 metres in altitude, and the three species of monkey that hang around the trees bordering the park headquarters. We were only walking for five minutes before we stopped to watch groups of proboscis monkeys defying death as they jumped from tree to tree, the quieter, sedate, silver leaf monkeys, and the appallingly bold (aggressive) macaque monkeys. Later at park HQ for tea we watched as successive tourists were startled as the macaques leapt up on their tables, stole the food off their plates and headed away. We had been warned and ate inside.

On our big walk for the day (10am – 2pm) we headed through the mangroves and up the steep rocky outcrop track up onto a plateau that proved to be a goldmine for Nepenthes (pitcher plants)  …. 5 species! … AND … the epiphytic Ant Plant complete with mutualistic ant hostel … in fact three separate species of Ant Plant. Brilliant Attenborough-style biology. Enough to take in for the moment we headed down, had curry for lunch and had an afternoon rest. I got twitchy legs after an hour and asked Rose to take me on a different track. This one wasn’t steep and took me past a huge and diverse tree species, mostly the typical Dipterocarp (winged fruit) species found all over Borneo. As we got closer to the coastline around the headland, we came across a large (15+) band of Proboscis monkeys heading towards the mangroves where their favourite feeding tree occupies a zone adjacent to the mangroves. One last feed before bedtime, apparently, and with some urgency/anticipation. Back for the aforementioned evening meal (curry again … actually curry for every meal including breakfast .. I didn’t really mind…) with the occasional macaque foray. We went on the night walk at 7pm and were mainly excited by the three stick insect species, amazingly spiny centipede, huntsman spiders, improbably loud but small frog species, a flying lemur (colugo), large monitor lizard, and a couple of smaller-than-you-expect snakes.

Curry for breakfast, packed and apprehensively ready to head back in the boat (longboat). Said ‘goodbye’ to the family of bearded pigs that overnight had turned the nice grass area in front of our hut into a ploughed paddock resembling land recently shelled. Going with the tide was less painful, and soon we were in a minivan on our way to Gunung Gading National Park, hoping to be ‘as lucky as the Bromleys’ (now an accepted botanical expression) and see some flowering Rafflesia (largest petalled flower species in the world). Sadly only two decomposing flowers and four cabbage-sized unopen 6 – 8 month old buds. Lovely massively tall trees, some with 3 metre tall buttresses, and lots of fierce rattan vines, and excessively spiny palms. Next to the boardwalk on the way back we suddenly saw a 1.5 metre tall Amorphophallus bloom, David Attenborough-style again. On the way to Gunung Gading NP we had stopped for lunch at Lundu, the first Malay community established by James Brooke (first white Rajah of Sarawak). This time had a RM 5 Sarawak Laksa (for a change). Magnificent. Visited the most extraordinarily diverse local market … recognised nothing apart from ginger and turmeric. Could have spent hours sampling local fruit. Also stopped on the roadside as a villager was making and laying out to dry, prawn crackers. Bought some and ate them desoute the very strong dried fish/prawn flavor. Half the villagers had new Toyota Hi-Luxes. Business must be good. Back to Kuching, our Executive Suite and another exceptional meal at the James Brooke café. Shouldn’t have ordered the rice wine though … basically pure alcohol in a 100mL glass (RM5 each) …. Slept well.

Easy and very exciting next day …. Picked up at 8:00am and off to the Orangutans in the Semenggoh Wildlife Sanctuary. What a marvelous place! As we walked up the road towards the viewing platform the walkie-talkie-clad park rangers were hurrying us as Anuka, the dominant male, had decided to eat breakfast (sweet potato, bananas) early …. and close … very close … 3 metres away, languidly swinging on the rope bridge, one-handedly and unconcerned that he was being observed and photographed by 15 delighted onlookers. I mention the population because (and reinforced in Mulu soon) apparently we have accidentally arrived just before the rainy season (late October) and after the tourist crush of early July to late September (Europeans, Americans, Japanese and Chinese). Having said that, I am writing this in the Gunung Mulu National Park in the mountains on the Brunei border where it rains very heavily at about 3:30pm every day. Very heavily! Semenggoh NP was brilliantly sunny and uncrowded. We ended up watching a huge amount of orang utan behavior as Anuka decided, selfishly, that he liked all the attention and would sit around for a while. The other younger male orangs kept their distance and were visibly agitated. The highlight of unexepected behavior came when Anuka was thrown a coconut. He deftly caught it one handed, skillfully tore off the husk with his teeth, then non-chalantly, without looking, swung his arm back, cracked the coconut on the tree trunk behind him and started to eat the white flesh. The waiting smaller male in the meantime had crept (yes .. crept) closer … to avoid an altercation the ranger quickly threw him his own coconut. He scarpered and repeated the tearing and cracking behavior. With that we were sent to another location about 400m away to see more orangs keeping even further away from Anuka, including mother and clinging baby … great. As we left we were shown a ‘secret’ garden of rare pitcher plants and unusual palms.

Back in Kuching for the remainder of the afternoon we visited the cultural museum (superbly informative) and the very old-fashioned, poorly set up and maintained, Natural History Museum. Then off to the James Brooke café for our last Kuching laksas.

The Mulu Experience

Rose picked us up for our 1 ½ hour flight to the aforementioned Mulu NP. We picked this destination based on its limestone formations and cave systems, complete with millions of bats and swiftlets (of Chinese birds’ nest soup fame). Phillip, our guide for this leg, was from the local village, and a terrific botany/ecology enthusiast. At 2pm we set off on a superbly maintained 3 km two-lane boardwalk to two caves. The first, Lang Cave, was absolutely chock full of the most exquisitely detailed limestone stalagmites and stalagtites … so elaborate … beggars belief how beautiful they are. That took about an hour, then we walked around to the entrance of the massive Deer Cave, reputedly the largest cave entrance in the world, from which each night at 6pm, over 2 million wrinkled-nosed bats fly out to consume overnight a total of 15 tonnes of mosquitoes. The cave itself was an experience … the boardwalk tip toed between massive bat guano deposits teeming with insect, crustacean and myriapod life. The bats themselves were in equally massive black communes far above us (actually not quite above us otherwise we would have been showered with shit as we walked). At 4:45pm they were becoming agitated, and the intensity of the high frequency buzzing (which I couldn’t really hear) increased. In the meantime there was a constant clicking sound as the thousands of swiftlets (daytime hunters) were returning to their safe roosts/nests, using a form of echolocation in the dark. A massive cave, impossible to photograph, but will remain in the mind’s eye forever (I hope). At 5:45pm we emerged to sit at the appointed viewing platform to await the evening exodus. It rained …. bugger … bats don’t like hunting mosquitoes in the rain … even the circling black eagles had decided they were going to have to go after the last of the returning swiftlets (aptly named) … then …. The rain stopped. We watched the mouth of the cave intently (15 of us) … nothing … it required the ranger to call us out from where we were seated to see huge ‘starling-like’ hordes of bats cork-screwing their way across the sky like an airborne peloton. Sue had noticed what looked like ‘mist’ behind the mouth of the cave, and guide Phillip informed us that the bats don’t all come out at once … log jam disaster .. ready-made eagle prey .,.. instead they gather in lots of 10,000 or so and practice their corkscrew formation-flying inside the cave by circling round and round like a doughnut, then out they come … BUT … we can’t see them against the dark vegetation surrounding the cave entrance, and they are only visible as they ascend above us… wave after wave leave the cave in 2 – 3 minute intervals, always about the same density. We left after 40 minutes and walked the 3km back in the gloom, but got significantly rained on with 1 ½ km to go … the bats would be cursing their bad luck! Back at the Mulu café we had curry for tea and a couple of cans of tasteless but refreshing Tiger.

Our room for two nights was fantastically appointed. Four single beds, full air con, hot water shower and resident gecko etc… just what was needed. The air con dried all the wet clothes and shoes overnight. Frogs all night long.

Surprisingly, muesli, melon, banana and papaya for breakfast, with an option for scrambled eggs, toast, beans and jam. Today we were heading downstream on a longboat to another two cave system, Wind cave and Clearwater Cave. Again… superb .. each uniquely different from the other. Wind Cave was notable for its stalagtites, stalagmites and unworldly King’s Chamber that appeared to have chandeliers and ornate statues arranged like a stateroom. The cave name comes from a connection with another cave system, from which, half way into the cave (about ¾ km) you suddenly experience an unearthly, persistent and cooling wind. It also carries a reminder stench of bat guano. Then into Clearwater cave, named after the sparklingly clear water flowing through it. This is also a massive cave, and you descend on steps and walkways into the bowels of the earth before having to circle around and climb back out. At one point on the way down you see in the distance across the vast cave, people about 50 metres higher on a walkway about 100 metres away… hard to imagine that they are on the same track as you. It was a bit of a challenge for Sue’s hip as to get to the entrance of Clearwater Cave alone, there was a steep 250 step climb similar to Tibetan hilltop monasteries. This ascent was from the most idyllic Hokitika-style swimming hole complete with covered picnic tables (which we had a curry lunch on). We may have traveled to the caves by boat (visiting the local village along the way) but we certainly deserved our refreshing swim after the cave expedition.

Back at 2pm and thought I would start this travel log before I forgot all the details … a few Tigers and a nasi goreng deluxe (fried egg on top) meal later and we are about to head out on our night walk in Mulu.

OK … back from the most amazing night walk … no mammals, one bright red trogon bird, one bat, one giant snail, a hammerhead worm (bizarre) numerous frogs (one impossibly small < 8mm) but the most extraordinary collection of large phasmids (largest stick insect was 28cm!), two were mating. One very colourful (distasteful) and hugely hairy caterpillar was in a real hurry to get somewhere. Lovely small group of 8 of us absorbed the cacophony of frogs and insects, including one Katydid that produces a sound like a cellist warming up. One frog sounds like a whining puppy while it is warming up then it develops into a fully-fledged bark. Again, our guide was extremely knowledgeable and able to spot animals that were incredibly camouflaged … all with a flashlight in the pitch black of the tropical forest night. Sue managed to record some of the sounds of the forest on her cell phone … incessant and diverse.

Off on the high canopy walk with Ismail, this morning. He was a little too magic herbs-reflexology massage-shaman for my liking but 50% of what he said was biologically or socially useful. Two monkeys in the park, the Red Leaf monkey (Maroon Langur) and the Long-tailed Macaques may have been visible but not today. The canopy walkway itself appears like something out of the first Indiana Jones movie. 16 magnificent canopy trees with octagonal observation platforms around the perfectly round 90 cm diameter trunks, linked by 30 – 45 metre swing bridge style walkways. Actually quite scary. Narrow, 30cm wide with stout wires and netting. No danger, but … and it didn’t rain. That might have been a little too challenging. The platforms were just comfortable with the six of us, and I took a few photos of the tree tops but nothing extraordinary like rare canopy orchids or reticulated pythons. Relaxing walk back with all anxiety fading away, chatting with a lovely couple from The Netherlands.

At present we are packed, checked out, watching the incredible deluge surrounding us in the indoor-outdoor café over the river, contemplating our flight not being able to land or take off. Out of our control. The barking frog is in full yap mode.  

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