“Mom, is this mud or guano?” Clara asked as she put one foot carefully onto a slim wooden stair.
I was holding her hand as we headed into Niah Cave in Sarawak. “It’s hard for me to tell in this darkness, but given the smell I’d guess guano,” I replied. “Don’t touch the railing either so you don’t get bat poo on your hands!”
Three weeks in Borneo during the monsoon months with almost no rain allowed us to travel easily. We took a five day trip to Gunung Mulu and Niah Cave National Parks in Sarawak. At Niah, the air was alive with bats and swifts, clicking and squeaking. Bamboo poles coupled with wooden pegs extended toward the cave floor from the ceiling some 250 feet above. Seasonally, villagers shimmy up the dangling poles to retrieve valuable swift nests – a lucrative and highly dangerous undertaking. Cooks desire the nests, made from feathers, twigs and leaves stuck together with swift saliva, for the main ingredient of the Chinese dish, bird’s nest soup.
The staircases, slippery from dripping water seeping from the surface through the limestone, creaked and shifted as we climbed deliberately into the darkness.
I was very glad I’d put fresh batteries into my headlamp.
Niah felt wild and active; at once both imposing and exhilarating. Long ago, some 40,000 years ago, humans began to bury their dead inside the cave mouth. Since then humans have been interacting with the cave as we were now. After about an hour, we emerged on the other side of the cave to pass into another cavern, Painted Cave, where ochre images of people traveling in boats are still visible.
Although I pride myself on being familiar with world geography, I have to admit while researching our trip I had to scour the map to find the state of Sarawak. Then I had to learn that Malaysia and Indonesia share the island called Borneo, and that Sarawak and its neighbor state, Sabah, became part of Malaysia as recently as 1963. While in Kuching, the capital, I learned Sarawak was originally carved out of Brunei and founded by James Brooke, a Brit who became the first white Rajah of the newly formed independent country. His family’s rule was broken in the third generation with the onset of WWII, after which Sarawak became a protectorate of Great Britain. The cultural mix of Chinese, Malay, and multiple hill-tribe villagers – including former headhunters – has created an open atmosphere where followers of the world’s major religions – Islam, Buddhism and Christianity – live and work side-by-side.
In addition to visiting Niah, where John got his start in Borneo some 20 years ago conducting his PhD research, we visited UNESCO World Heritage Site Gunung Mulu. Famous for The Pinnacles, limestone peaks carved razor sharp by wind and rain, and Deer Cave – the world’s largest known cave passage until a new cave was mapped in Vietnam recently – Mulu also protects rainforest ecosystems threatened by logging operations.
Travelers lodging at the park gathered at the canteen to eat, drink astonishingly over-priced Tiger Beer and swap stories. Clara became a social butterfly there, introducing herself to the newly arrived and chatting them up. After a day or two she was the star of the park. Everyone knew her, and she flitted from one table to another as she avoided eating yet another meal.
We made quick trips from our home base in Kuching – the historical Segu Bungalow, former home of former Sarawak Museum curator Tom Harrison.
Clara fell in love with proboscis monkeys during our two days in Bako National Park – 6,739 acres of forest perched on the end of a peninsula that juts into the South China Sea. (Our little boat caught air a few times on our shuttle ride to the park. Clara became very cautious of small sea-faring boats after that. Luckily our return trip was very smooth.)
Bearded pigs roamed the park’s beaches, while reasonably well-behaved macaques climbed shoreline trees and scrambled over rocks. On our second day there, Clara hiked nearly 6 km over rough terrain in hot, hot sun through a forest of scrub and carnivorous pitcher plants.
On a day trip to Semengohh Rescue Center we were agog when an extended family of seven Orang-utan came to the visitor center for the second of two daily scheduled feedings. One baby still clung to its mom, and another 5-year-old ape wrestled with his. We watched a juvenile orangutan try to open a coveted coconut by smashing it against a tree. What was accomplished in one try by adult orangutans took the youth at least 15 tries, all while he scrambled higher in the treetops to keep the adults from taking it from him.
Of course, Clara and I also tramped around the city itself. Shopping became our main destination, including stops in the old Chinese shophouses along the river and India Street, where Clara insisted on buying a headscarf because they are “fancy.”
We visited open houses with our friends Ipoi and Lydia and enjoyed some of the most insane fireworks ever. In fact, some of my favorite time was spent with friends who live in town: Louise, who runs the non-profit Friends of the Sarawak Museum; Ipoi, Lydia and Kat, her husband and their kids; Helen, and Jayle and his wife Anne. They all showed us incredible hospitality and kindness.
John spent most of his days in Kuching working at the museum, which was good for his ongoing project and also raises the likelihood that one day our family might be able to return to this beautiful place.