Hello from the jungle of Borneo,
We were looking for some adventure and it seems we found it. No more pounding the pavement of European cities, we're now tromping through the mud, picking off leeches before they can latch on to our skin, and wading across rivers in Borneo. And loving every minute of it.
My part of the story starts in Miri, a seaside town in northern Sarawak close to the border of Brunei. It's a sleepy little town with few tourist attractions. We enjoyed just wandering the streets, trying the local restaurants, and browsing in the shops. There was a very popular outdoor restaurant about a block from where we were staying called New Fun Lin Seafood Restaurant. They had about 30 tables lining each side of the street and another 20 clustered at the end of the building. It was always packed with people so we decided to give it a shot. The first night it took 3 different waiters to come up with one that spoke enough English for us to order. Reading the menu wasn't the problem since there was no menu. I wanted noodles so I asked for noodles with fish. They don't serve the noodles with fish so I got it with meat and Snow ordered rice with fish, apparently fish is better with rice. We really weren't sure what we would be getting and figured the mugs of Tiger beer would help and if all else failed there was KFC around the corner. Turns out it was one of the best meals we'd had in Malaysia to that point. So good we went back the next night. Having no menu meant we had no idea how much anything cost and we were blown away when our bill came. It was 15 ringitts, about $4!
Our time in Miri was very lazy. It was nice to be in a town and not be running around figuring out logistics for our next adventure or spending a day at the internet cafe doing a trip journal update. More often than not that's all we do in cities.
In Kuching we had booked a 4 day/3 night jungle trek in Gunung Mulu National Park with Borneo Adventures, the same company we went to Batong Ai with. The National Park is a 25 minute plane ride inland, directly east of Brunei. There is an international airport (flights to Brunei make it international) and small village that mostly houses the people who work in the park. The parks major draws are 4 main "show caves", referred to as such because they are easily accessible, not requiring any special caving equipment, lush jungle, and the Pinnacles, 45 meter high, razor sharp limestone spikes towering above the surrounding vegetation. Our trip included a night at the Park Headquarters with visits to the 4 caves and an 8km trek into Camp 5, where we spent 2 nights. The middle day at Camp 5 is the climb to the the Pinnacles. The last day is the trek 8km back out to the river to return to Mulu.
Our guide for this adventure was a 28 year old guy from the Iban tribe, named Wayne, who is a freelance guide in the park. Borneo Adventures hired him to lead us. He had been guiding for about 4 years and was impressively knowledgeable about the area and many of the flora and fauna found in the area. There were two other couples at Camp 5 with us each with different tour companies and their own guides. The general consensus among us was that Wayne was the most professional, knowledgeable, and skilled guide of the 3.
The first day at the park he took us to Lang Cave and Deer Cave. It was a 3km walk through the jungle on a wooden plank walkway. Lang Cave had beautifully formed stalagmites and stalactites that continue to grow and change shape. The wooden walkway through the cave follows the strategic placement of lights throughout the cave to illuminate the formations. The white limestone glistens with the constant drips of water coming through the rocks. The pictures don't do it justice, but they turned out ok. I liked Lang Cave way more than Deer Cave because it was clean and pretty and not spooky. Deer Cave sports the world's biggest cave passage, meaning it's opening is a massive, gaping hole in the limestone wall, about 122 meters high. Because it has such a huge mouth it is home to over 4 million bats! They like the big mouth so they can leave en masse every evening around sundown to swoop around for the night devouring all the pesky mosquitoes--as long as bats don't bother me, they are my friend. Mosquitoes, on the other hand, suck. Actually, leeches suck, but that comes later in the story. Back to the bats and Deer Cave, there are 12 different species of bats residing in Deer Cave, the wrinkle lipped bat being the most represented at 2.5 to 3 million. Not only does Deer Cave lack the intricate formations of stalagmites and stalactites, the walls and the floors are bathed in bat guano (yes, that's bat poo). In addition to the strong ammonia smell from the guano it also makes the cave very dark and spooky.
The next day after breakfast we hopped in a long boat with our packs and Wayne and headed up the Melinau River. We were forewarned that the river was very low and at various points we would need to get out of the boat to help push it up through shallow rapids. Before we got serious about pushing the boat up the river we stopped at two more caves, Wind Cave and Clearwater cave. Wind Cave was much more similar to Lang Cave, beautiful white stalagmites and stalactites, clean, strategically lit. It also is where the serious caving groups start their expeditions. They are much more hardcore than we are with powerful headlamps and ropes. There's a narrow, twisting tunnel that connects Wind Cave with Clearwater Cave. I'm not a big fan of tight, cramped spaces so we took a pass on the Adventure Caving options. By the entrance of Clearwater Cave, so named because the river running through it is truly crystal clear, we enjoyed morning tea in the jungle. After we explored the cave we were served lunch at the same spot.
Our trip further up river to our starting point for the trek took about an hour. Our frequent dips into the river to push the boat were refreshing in the mid-day humidity. We started hiking in our sandals for about 15 minutes to our first river crossing. The river was low so the crossing was more refreshing than difficult. There was a rope across the river that we could hold onto to keep from slipping on the rocks. We had about 4km to the next river crossing so we changed into our hiking shoes and continued on. Though a bit muddy in places, it was an easy, flat trail through the jungle. Since it hadn't rained for a few days we didn't really need to worry about the leeches, thankfully.
The next river crossing was the halfway point for our trek. We crossed at a wider point in the river and it was never above my knees. It was tempting to take a swimming break as we were very sweaty and dirty, but we pushed on, arriving to Camp 5 around 5pm. After dropping our gear in our "room" our first stop was the river. We plunged in with all our clothes on. There were huge bees in the area that were very attracted to sweat. Rinsing our sweaty clothes in the river minimized their tendency to swarm around us. There was not much we could do about our shoes, though, so we just left those out away from where we were sleeping and the bees had a heyday. There were plenty of stinky shoes to keep them busy.
Camp 5 is run by the park service and there are always 3-4 Park Rangers staying up there for a week at a time. The main structure is a long building with 5 "rooms", a covered porch area with picnic tables, a partitioned cooking area and a bathroom at the back with flush toilets and sinks. The "rooms" are actually separated by 3/4 wall from each other and have 7' deep platforms on both sides with a narrow aisle in between. The platforms are for sleeping and, when full, could probably sleep about 8 people on each side. The rangers and the guides occupy one room and the rest are for tourists. We were actually given the VIP room because there were already mattresses and mosquito nets set up in there. Snow asked why it was the VIP room, as it seemed very similar to the rest of the rooms, but we had a door, thus it was the VIP room. The door was helpful to keep the bees out.
Our original plan was to climb the Pinnacles the next day, however, it was pouring rain when we woke up. The park won't let people climb in the rain, as it is a very steep, hand-over-hand climb up the limestone side of a mountain to get to the view of the Pinnacles. Several portions of the climb are only accessible by ropes, to aid in both the assent and the decent, and ladders, to climb the near 90 degree inclines. We were disappointed we weren't able to go, but had a wonderful day exploring the area anyway. The rain finally let up about 9 am, too late to start up to the Pinnacles so we went out for a walk through the jungle. That was our first experience with the onslaught of our gross little friend, the leech.
We've all heard of leeches being used in early medical practices for bloodletting. So, they are, admittedly, perfectly harmless creatures, but the thought of something latching on and sucking our blood uninvited gave us the willies. From the point that we started reading about trekking in Borneo and the mention of leeches, Snowden has been obsessing about them and been worried about getting one. He gets very queasy at the sight of blood, especially his own. He had visions of passing out and being attacked by more leeches while lying, helpless, on the floor of the jungle. But, also, in the interest of fully documenting our experience I was given strict instructions that if he did get a leech that I was to, first, pull out the camera, take a picture of it attached to him, THEN help him remove it. Fortunately, for all of you viewing our pictures, the only time he got a leech I was not with him because he was running back to the camp to get our camera to take a picture of a poisonous snake. He was so focused on getting the camera that he just reached down and removed it on his own. Distraction can really work in your favor sometimes.
The pictures of leeches in textbooks that I remember seeing were fully engorged leeches and seemed to be about the size of my thumb. Pre-attack leeches are actually very small creatures. Right after it rains they seem to be absolutely everywhere. They are kind of oblong in shape with the skinny end, presumably it's head, if it has one, waving in the air, perhaps trying to find something to latch onto. We saw many on the path, and even more on our shoes and socks trying to find our skin. About every 5 minutes we would stop and check our shoes and socks. For the first hour every time we checked we would each pull off 4 or 5, but always before they could find any skin. The two other couples also out tromping around with their guides were not as lucky. One guy found 3 securely attached to his legs upon returning to camp for lunch. Once the leech latches on it releases an anticoagulant to keep your blood from clotting, which makes it a pretty bloody mess.
Between obsessive vetting for leeches we also saw two different species of pitcher plants. These are carnivorous plants shaped like a cup or a pitcher that holds water when it rains (see pictures). They put of an appealing smell to insects, which lure them over the edge into the water where they drown, then the plant slowly digests them for nourishment. Not too many plants are that far up the food chain...it was pretty cool, though we didn't see any in action.
Wayne also took us to see a headhunter burial ground up in a tall limestone formation. It required so tricky climbing to get up there, but it was worth it. Although it was kind of creepy, it was interesting to see how they separated all the different bones and buried them with different ceramic vessels.
After lunch Wayne took us up the first 3rd of the Pinnacles climb. Although it is less than 2 km to the top, it is all straight up and having climbed the first part I understand why they don't let people climb in the rain, nor start climbing after 8am. It would be precariously slippery in the rain. It tends to rain in the afternoon so they want people to be well on their way down, preferably back at camp when that happens so they want you to get a good start. And it is a very rigorous climb so it can be a very long day. We were completely bathed in sweat when we got down...another plunge into the river fully clothed was next on the agenda. But first, on our way to a deeper swimming hole we walked right by a small tree where a viper was just hanging out. It was really beautiful (check out the picture) and very peaceful just sitting there. I had never seen a poisonous snake in the wild so it was kind of a thrill.
That night it started to rain around 6pm and continued full bore through the whole night, letting up around 6am. After 12 hours of torrential rain the benign, shallow river we had crossed twice to get to Camp 5 was now a raging torrent. We set out for our 8km trek back around 8am. We had covered our feet, ankles, socks and shoes with bug repellent to beat the leeches, and were pretty successful. The first 4km were pretty uneventful. Our pants were wet from swimming in them the day before (after climbing the Pinnacles trail in them) but they started to dry out a bit as we hiked. Our shoes were muddy, but not too wet. We got to our first river crossing and it was immediately apparent that we could not just plunge right in and cross. The other two couples (a 60-ish kiwi couple, and a 60-ish European guy with is 40-ish girlfriend(?) from Hong Kong--we never really figured out their situation) and their guides where with us. The guides went to look for the rope that would help us get across, but they never found it. We bushwacked down river a ways, led by the machete-wielding Wayne, and found an alternative place to cross. The first crossing was deep, over my waist, but narrow with a pretty strong current. There were vines and tree branches to hold onto and the guides helped hold us. That was pretty quick and painless, but that put us on an island in the middle of the river. One of the guides had cut six 7' poles for us to use to cross the rest of the way. When I first looked at them, I thought that was ridiculous and didn't see how those poles could help us. I now know that I would not have made it across without it. It was very scary, even with the help of the pole.
We had about 50 meters to go up river, into the raging current, and across. In the full current it came up past my waist full bore. I felt like I was being tackled by a big football player. Having my pole to anchor behind me was the only way I was not swept down the river. Snow and the other two men were big enough and strong enough to power through on their own, but the other two women and I needed some help. I got stuck halfway across, my legs growing more tired by the second. Once Wayne got in front of me to break the power of the current a bit, I was able to get across. When we left Europe we were looking for adventure, but that river crossing was, perhaps, more than we had bargained for. Fortunately, we all made it, a little battered and fatigued, but all in one piece.
We were rather intent on keeping our shoes relatively dry so we had changed into our Tevas to cross the river, then changed back into our shoes to continue hiking. The last 4km had a lot more standing water that the first 4 km and after about a kilometer of trying to avoid the huge puddles by picking our way through the jungle around them we said "forget it!" and marched right through with our shoes, socks, and pants. It was quite liberating to not care anymore, but made for some really stinky clothes at the end of our trip.
Since the river was so high the longboat could pick us up at the next river crossing so we didn't have to risk our lives again. Our trip back down to Mulu was really fast and got us back in time for lunch. We were exhausted, wet, stinky, and very pleased with ourselves.
We had a quick 25 min flight back to Miri where we spent the night, then jumped on another plane the next morning to take us up to Kota Kinabalu (KK), the capital of Sabah, the northern Malay Province on Borneo.
Once again, our time in a city has been spent TCB--taking care of business. First stop, laundry, next we bought the Lonely Planet for Laos. At Camp 5 we spent some time chatting with a British/Australian couple who have been living in Singapore for 5 years. Just before they came to Borneo they spent about a month in Vietnam and Laos. They raved about Laos. I had heard similar raves from other travelers over the years, and we decided, since we are so close, maybe we should check it out. Yesterday we moved some flights around, vaguely planned our next 10 days in Sabah and book flights up to Chiang Rai, Thailand. From there we will figure out how to get to the border of Laos.
We've gotten some great entries for the Jumping Contest! We're looking forward to receiving everyone else's entries in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, we're heading back into the jungle. Stay tuned for more adventures with leeches...
Hope all is well with everyone!