Nicholas meets us at the airport. He is our Iban guide, descended from the legendary headhunters and heavily tattooed in traditional fashion. He will be looking after us for our few days in Mulu, in the heart of Borneo, bordering Brunei.
We have flown here from Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo. Our hotel, the Ranee Suites, is on the Grand Bazaar, trading centre of the ancient river port of the city, which was ruled for years by Rajah James Brooke and his descendants, until the British made Sarawak into a colony after the 2WW. It is Chinese New Year and the old Chinese shophouse-lined streets are quiet as we promenade along the front – everyone is at home feasting, save for a few girls practising their kung fu; and a few families queuing up for revolting-looking fast food.
Just as more revellers arrive to party the heavens open and torrential rain, thunder and lightening envelop us all. It does not bode well for our trip whose objective is a 2-day trek along the ancient Headhunter Trail through the rainforest – it is, we are told constantly, the height of the rainy season.
The next day we set off in the same thunderstorm for the one-and-a-half-hour flight to Mulu, where we are to spend the first night and visit the largest cave system in the world, and see for ourselves what 3 million bats going hunting look like.
As we come to land, I look out of the window and see miles and miles of impenetrable jungle, punctuated by brown rivers snaking their way, higgledy-piggledy, and by limestone karsts jutting out of the green carpet beneath us. Low cloud suspended in mid-air adds to the eerie scene.
We are blown away by the scale and beauty of the caves, two of which we see on the first evening, and two more on the second day. Beautifully maintained by National Parks, who have installed walkways around the vast interiors, which take us past spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, jelly-fish and chandelier formations, all of which Nicholas, in true Asiatic fashion, says resemble queens, kings, witches, fairies, and even Abe Lincoln (!). The Chinese must love this, we say to each other!
Inside we can hear the twittering of the 3 million wrinkle-lipped bats who roost in the largest of the caverns, Deer Cave, while little swiftlets zoom around us. Amazingly there is no one else in the caves when we are there which adds to the experience.
As dusk falls, we sit outside waiting for the great exodus. Due to rain the bats have not flown for the past two nights, so we are anxious, as it is raining on and off. Suddenly there is a shout: ‘There they are!’ and lo and behold great snakes of bats arise from the caves, like Chinese acrobats playing with scarves, twisting and turning; at first they come in a few short bursts until finally the big group takes to the skies, on and on they come, for about 15 minutes without stopping. They shift and shimmer, twirl and whirl, a tornado-like force that reminds me of a mesmerising murmuration of starlings. Watch the video to get the real effect!
Walking the 3 kms back we chat companionably to fellow travellers, all of whom are as overawed by the sight.
Nicholas picks us up by boat the following day to set us on the way for our trek, via some more caves – in one we see a green pit viper – and en route we stop in a Penan handicraft village. Normally I hate this sort of trip, but here we feel compelled to buy some local basket-weaving out of sympathy with the last of the hunter gatherers of Borneo, who have been forced into settlements and converted to Christianity, just like the Iban. This is a tribe who have lived in harmony for centuries, building shelters in the jungle, hunting for what they need and respecting the forest and its inhabitants, whose governing rules centre on the concept of sharing and where the only recognised crime is the inability to do so.
And now they have been contaminated by our so-called moral code, forced into permanent settlements, complete with a school and a church. Traditional education revolved round learning how to be good members of the tribe, how to hunt and live together in peace. Now they, like the Iban, sit around making handicrafts for tourists and imbibing huge quantities of rice wine (more on that anon).
Unexpectedly Nicholas announces that after taking us on the first part of our jungle trek to Camp 5, he will be leaving us and handing us over to one of his relatives, from a nearby longhouse. The 9 km walk underneath the canopy is airless and extremely hot and we seem to move a snail’s pace. We are clad in long trousers and leech gaiters, plus proper walking boots for protection. I feel like a piece of lard oozing liquid fat from every pore – we simply melt at 29 C and 95 % humidity.
Somehow we get to the camp, mainly spurred on by Nicolas’s travellers’ tales of former clients – Columbian girls who don’t understand the meaning of modesty and strip naked to swim the rivers, go bra-less and wear shorts so miniscule you can see everything; an American girl who found a ‘happy ending’ (Nicholas’s euphemism, which took us a while to work out) with a man pretending to be a guide, which turned out to be anything but – she discovered she was pregnant a few weeks later.
The camp is set by the river, and we quickly put on our most demure swimming costumes and plunge into the fast-moving water. All memory of melting fat is washed away!
We will be sleeping a dorm with 10 others, and unroll our sleeping bag liners and I blow up my pillow. But first we have a good dinner cooked by Nicolas and meet Jackli, our guide for the next few days. He is a funny looking cove, missing a tooth (all Iban men seem to have bad teeth) and with a flat shiny face and rather slanting eyes. Later, I wonder if he has suffered from foetal alcohol syndrome as he is a bit simple, though friendly enough. Not that stupid though to say plaintively ‘I so tired, walk very far’ and, abetted by Nicholas, negotiates a good fee to carry my rucksack!
Our fellow travelers are all climbing the Pinnacles, a legendary expedition here, affording magnificent views but 2.4 kms of sheer ascent. Not for me, thanks. Very few people do the headhunter trial we are told, and the path, like yesterday’s, winds in and out of tree roots, rocks and over streams and rivers, where we have to use traditional rope walkways – a bit hairy. Jackli – or Borneo Bill as I have nicknamed him – is very proud of his rifle ‘for safety’ he says, but admits if he saw a bear he would kill it! Luckily we didn’t. He chain smokes all the way and lurks behind us so the smoke doesn’t bother us.
Despite Jackli’s promise of ‘you see monkeys, birds and leeches’, we see no wildlife, but hear, tantalisingly close, the cries of ‘the red monkey’ or orangutan. And then, nearing the end of the 12kms walk, we hear for the second time the eerie rhythmic beating of hornbill wings, sounding like an ancient Aboriginal bullroarer – and are rewarded by a fleeting glimpse of a pair overhead. But leeches a-plenty – I had to remove four, two from my face, one from my trousers and one from my arm! Jackli, who is wearing shorts, gets a whopper on his toe and bleeds profusely.
Dripping again, we finally reach the river, where Siga, the local area chief and our host, is waiting to meet us with his wife. It’s a hairy 1.5 hour trip by long tail boat, shooting rapids and trying to avoid getting grounded as the river is very low and dangerous.
We have no idea what to expect for our night in a longhouse: suffice to say our expectations, low as they were, were way off the mark!
All the old longhouses have been allowed by the government – despite their promises to preserve them – to decay and fall into ruin and have been replaced by spanking new modern versions, where the communities do still live together, because for the Iban community living is what defines them, but in new concrete – and in our case pink concrete – blocks. The traditional ‘corridor’ still exists, where children play, women weave and chat, and men drink rice wine (as we were to discover that night with Jackli and his sad cousin Robin, who like many men is unable to work), but the units are deceptively large, going back a long way. We are shown into a room which has obviously been hastily evacuated as the sheets are far from clean, and there is debris of the previous inhabitants strewn around. The bathrooms are modern and I just close my eyes when I shower or pee!
No-one pays us any attention, and it is only 4pm. Siga and his wife have vanished, the other family members act as if we are not there. What on earth are we going to do until we can escape – and how ARE we going to escape???
Jackli to the rescue: he shows us round the village, its huge school (as this is the chief’s long house the school serves all the longhouses in his jurisdiction) and then takes us back for a cup of tea and dinner – produced in the hugest kitchen imaginable, decorated with every imaginable colour and type of Tupperware and no less than five rice cookers, by a fat daughter-in-law. Her husband is in KL training as a Paralympic swimmer; extraordinarily of the other two sons of the house, another is also paraplegic (car accident, very common here we learn) while the remaining son is the travel agent who fixed up our trip…so now it begins to make sense! This is true community loyalty: keep the money in the family/longhouse.
The supper was delicious, by the way. Chicken cooked with star anise and cinnamon, with Chinese mushrooms, served with traditional ferns, of which there are over 70 species but only 5 are edible. We ate fern several times – always delicious. Siga arrives home from rescuing the canoe from the downpour and we negotiate our departure time. He is a charming man, 72 and almost toothless, shyly hiding his mouth when he speaks as is the way here. He speaks good English and we have long chats about life in the Iban communities.
Jackal reappears, freshly scrubbed and with a huge Mohawk quiff nicely greased up, centre of his head. He produces an opaque bottle of revolting-looking home-made rice wine or tuak. It is an acquired taste. We sip our plastic mugs gingerly while he and Robin down it quickly, he then tells us it cost 10 Ringgit and produces 2 more bottles…so we give him the money and run for it! And so we are in bed by 8.30 am and can’t wait for morning!
We make our escape in the the clapped-out Land Cruiser belonging to the headman of this longhouse, who drives like a bat out of hell over the potholes: it’s better just to look out and admire the view of the mist-wreathed valleys coming to life in the morning sun. Deep in Iban territory it is still rainforest, but as we approach the town of Limbang, we see evidence of logging and palm oil cultivation. Nevertheless, we feel ambivalent about palm oil: the Iban, who like all marginalised tribes (despite having numerical majority they are subservient to the Malay rulers) have to make do with what they can get and supplement their rice farming with palm oil, rubber, pepper and of course the tourist dollar. They do not really grow vegetables. And it did seem as if there was massive unemployment unless you escaped to the town or city to work. All there is left to do is drink.
More hanging around in Limbang – Jackli limpet-like ‘showing’ us the sites, which really involves devouring a big bowl of mee and spending his new money like a kid in a sweetie shop on phone accessories and a cheap watch (at least it wasn’t on rice wine) and getting another 50 Ringgit off us – and finally we escape back to Kuching via Miri.
It was a fascinating trip which stretched us in all sorts of ways – and for those who also want to do it, just inquire a bit more deeply about the longhouse experience – we saw the dire place they put bigger groups…in fact, you might choose to miss out on that night, but you would then also miss out on learning more about the Iban and their way of life and, despite the discomfort, in retrospect we enjoyed that aspect of the trip (the anthropologist in me still lives!). Maybe not to be repeated in a hurry!
Not content with all that walking (36 kms in the three days we were in and around Mulu) we did one more hike to Bako National Park, where we saw proboscis monkeys, silverleaf moneys, flying Loris (rare), and the ubiquitous macaques. That’s an excellent day trip and, again, remarkably uncrowded.
So now a quick breather before we set off for Laos next weekend for 2 weeks!
PS for professional pics of the caves etc see Ross’s website