May 5th, 2015
The young Dutch couple from Den Bosch have woken up stealthily and migrated to the dining area outside for breakfast, cheerily greeting me as I glare at them somewhat incomprehensibly, the early morning never the most social part of my day.
Having booked the last evening of their stay in Gunung Mulu park in one of the exclusive and expensive bungalows, they are positively radiant at the idea of spending one night in luxury, irrespective of how much money they may have spent for the privilege.
Her pretty face belies the critical perspectives she takes to her experiences visiting the park as well as her residency in Palembang in Indonesia several years ago. The quality of guiding was hardly that professional, considering the fees being charged, and then much of the sites being visited here could really be visited independently – at marginal cost.
Considering that the park management concession is in private hands, a substantial motive exists to bleed cash from visitors’ pockets. It certainly would not seem unreasonable to find sly mechanisms to pump the bottom line.
Just as the young Dutch couple are set to leave, who shows up but Frank. It was only one short day ago that I had visited the pride and joy of his shabby hostel, but those were different times. Not that it really matters to him, as he spent his night in the luxury of Alison’s bungalow, relishing the fine food, accoutrements, excellent air conditioning, fine wine, and of course most of all, the intimate moments he makes broad references to as we finish breakfast.
We switch to the inevitable subject of his travel experiences and his Italian background. His family was originally southern Italian, and emigrated to the United States from the area of the Amalfi Coast several generations ago. Frank was the first member of the American branch of the family to reconnect with the Italian branch at the young ripe age of 19.
It was an amazing experience, but he finds native Italians just a bit too emotional for his liking, suppressing his more passionate instincts to speak on behalf of his circumspect side. The idea of him being 19 in 1988 seems a bit far-fetched, never mind the idea of me being 19 at any time. The same year he had traveled through Brazil, having contacted some Brazilian friends in Rio that he knew from the U.S. , where he took in the carnival and all the other earthly delights.
He shakes his head at his luck at having traveled through the country when it was still very cheap, the costs in the country’s recent memory sooner ranging on the stratospheric. Perversely, travelers benefit from the relative political and economic malaise to drive down the costs of visiting a country, our romance of adventure and freedom laced with a healthy dose of cynical narcissism.
Continuing with Frank’s journeys, he tells me he traveled over three weeks through the Amazon, an utterly amazing experience, the temperatures never excessive, and the broad river offering a cool refreshing breeze at all times. The boats on the Amazon were real parties, while the boats on the Peruvian side were somewhat more staid.
Frank traveled extensively in South America between 1997 and 2003. Probably his favorite country in Latin America was Peru, which he visited a number of times, in terms of the diversity of its landscapes and the warmth of its peoples.
He confirms what I have heard from a number of other people about Bolivia – the country’s geography and culture are reasonably interesting, and certainly quite similar with that of Peru, but the people are somewhat obdurate and intransigent. That said, his travels through Bolivia had been sweetened with the friendship of some wealthy and highly placed locals, who provided him with the most exceptional experiences, in particular with some of the incredibly beautiful women in their social circle.
As he describes the tapestry of his experiences in Latin America, I envision yet another travel itinerary, this one taking me from Buenos Aires through Paraguay, Bolivia, across Peru, through Ecuador, and culminating in Colombia. Wait – that was the trip I was supposed to have embarked on this winter, had it not been for the fact that I decided to come to Southeast Asia, yet again!
The more time I spend with Frank, the more he opens up and proves to be a far more enigmatic persona than I would have imagined. He is by the far the most widely traveled American I can remember having met. He actually has only been on the move again in the last few years, as he spent seven years working in the U.S. attempting to recoup his total financial depletion in 2004. Eventually he will have to return home again, and that may be a daunting task, given that the paradigm for medical accounting that dictates his career has changed significantly.
For the moment, he wants to stay in Thailand, but is not sure exactly how to proceed once the cash supply diminishes, certainly a challenge I can empathize with!
I prepare my things for the morning, for the first time remembering to spray mosquito repellant on my arms. As banal as it sounds, I feel like rejoicing, not because I am that motivated to spray mosquito repellent all over my body so much as that I am finally getting some use out of the mosquito repellent that I have been hauling around for the last few months.
I check with the reception to see if there are any guided treks available in the next few days that I haven’t been scheduled for already. No, no multi-day trek, and no technical caving, thank you very much – I don’t want to get drenched, coated in mud, and covered in leeches, nor do I have any romantic attachment to caves that a pleasant and short walk through the darkness can’t satiate.
I had originally been slated for the 10 am Tree Tops trek, but one look at the composition of the group drives me to cancel the trip, as I have no desire to spend the entire time in a loud Russian family setting. It turns out that Frank is on the 10:30 am group, which is even better.
I find Jen glowering over her breakfast, not very impressed about the perceived lack of accessibility of the park management, given her ongoing debacle in attempting to organize an alternate trip to the Pinnacles. A humorous interlude arises subsequently with Frank, who points to a leading page of the Borneo Times, expressing disgust at the fact that even here, the prominently displayed story on Kim Kardashian and Bruce Jenner shows we can’t get away from the irrelevant dross of the American media world.
The canopy walkway is apparently 500 metres in length, and suspended between small wooden platforms loosely attached to the upper trunks of tall hardwood trees. The canopy walkway is reached by means of a square brown wooden staircase that rises to a raised platform. Pairs of planks are locked onto a mesh underlayer, the mesh extendinh 4′ up both sides of the platform.
The walkway is stabilized with heavy gauge cabling running the length of the mesh siding, and attached to ropes running in parallel above the sides of the platform, suspended from the mesh structure at regular intervals.
Slightly unstable in the mid-sections, there is really no way of being able to swing or tip the suspended platforms, despite the fact that the base is so narrow. We are only allowed to traverse each segment of the canopy walk in pairs.
Just as a lot of time and money has gone into securing the structural details of the raised walk, the limitation on numbers in such cases also eliminates the possibility of anything going wrong, not necessarily because it couldn’t support the weight, but because more people on the suspended walkway could induce an undue amount of shaking. As it is, even the smallest amount of shifting of weight as I try and refocus my camera creates a shaking effect.
The concern of being on the suspended platform with too many people is moot, given that I lag far behind the others on the trek, clambering slowly along the swinging platform, scanning the foliage around me for unusual patterns and groupings in the branches, leaves, epiphytes and vines unfolding in their unique aerial world.
Here as elsewhere in the park, there are virtually no flowers to be seen, other than the typically brilliant red flowers of bushes of the ginger species. The canopy walkway veers off into differing directions at wild angles, providing unrelenting precipitous views of both the tropical giants around us as well a the foliage-speckled limestone cliffs above.
The crowns of elegant hardwoods billow up above, and below, the low-hanging bushes and fallen logs are mirrored in green brackish waters. The long undulating tree trunks are enveloped by every manner of vine, with leaves in all shapes and sizes, many of the leaf types ones I may have never seen before. Despite the fact that there is very little wildlife of any sort to be viewed here, the variety of vegetation is just stupendous.
The meranti is a hardwood used for construction, its bark used for building roofs, floors, and walls, its resin for caulking boats, and fruit eaten by wild boar.The Peran/Bilat is a pale, medium dense wood used for heavy construction and housing, the bark used to construct temporary housing and jungle huts, and the fruit eaten by wild boar and other wildlife.
The Kasai has a thick rounded trunk that provides substantial amounts of quality timber, and is favored by pygmy squirrels. Its sweet fruit is eaten by large squirrels, monkeys, birds, boars as well as humans. The Iban also use this tree to treat chickenpox. The Betang provides a very dense timber that assures longevity, and its fruit are eaten by the ground squirrel and a variety of birds.
Frank is intent on continuing to the Paku falls, which I would in theory like to visit, but I have another hike following in the afternoon, and relaxing at the waterfall several kilometres from the park headquarters may not be the best way of arranging my time. In any case, he has greater plans than just enjoying swimming in the pool below the waterfall, as he is also meeting Alison, who I meet trudging further along on the boardwalk, enjoying the panoply of vegetation around me.
On a whim, I decide to follow the trail to the Tree Tops viewing platform, where I find a young Japanese man descending the stairs as I ascend. He motions that he needs to return the key, recalling that this viewing platform can be used for free, but the key for the admission gate is issued with a deposit. Which means I can’t stay here now, as he has to return the key, and then it’s just as well, as I have to go back to the headquarters, eat, and get ready for the next hike.
He is on a whirlwind trip through Malaysia over a 10-day period, having spent a few days in Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Kuching, Bako National Park, and now here, half the time spent traveling. But such is life when you work for a living. He seems somewhat shocked that I would be traveling for five months, but then it seems somewhat shocking for me too. I would hardly label what I do as traveling so much as just treading water in different locations in the world.
We see fat mottled brown skinks scurrying along the platform, slowly enough to allow us to capture some decent photos. However, approaching too closely results in these intriguing salamanders throwing themselves off the boardwalk into the mat of foliage immediately below.
Lunch is getting to be somewhat boring and predictable, but I suppose that is the downside of being in a wild natural setting. The alternative would be eating the food at inflated cost at the cafeteria, or trekking over to the Marriot for truly overpriced food. The young boy who habitually inhabits the same place in the restaurant is gesticulating on the countertop as usual, and is simply best ignored.
Returning to the hostel, any hope of even momentary privacy dissolves when I see a larger group of younger Malay men milling around the balcony. A number of them smoke on the terrace, meaning that all the cigarette smoke will come billowing through the open windows.
My heart sinks – I am well over the hostelling part of my life, and really don’t want to deal with a big crowd of anyone, especially not if these men are the drinking kind, meaning that the showdown will really kick in later on in the day.
The next endeavour involves visiting the Fast Lane and Lang caves, which includes a trek by water towards the cave entrance. Four passengers climb into each longboat, donning life jackets if the desire arises, the engine sputtering as we move into the rushing current, the heavy limbs of trees looming overhead and giant balls of white fluff rearing up against the cerulean sky.
Palms jostle for space with hardwoods and softwoods, alternate and rosulate leaves with cauline and whorled, scurfy and verrucose with farinose and lepidote, lobate and sinuate with crenate and crenulate. Smaller passages weave into the darkened hues of the dense foliage, the bursts of extravagant porcelain cumulus erupting from the thick canopy above.
The distant mountains reveal themselves at occasional turns, then vanish behind the avalanche of green and rushing water. Innocuous vines twist sinuously against the curvaceous rinds of arboreal giants, heralding the eventual death knell of the host tree. The wooden platform weaves into the deceptively narrow entrance of the cave, with refreshing gusts of wind blowing through, and clusters of lengthy, oblong leaves drooping from vines creeping up the exterior rock face.
The guide is an older Penan man, who comes from a family of medicine men. He alludes to the fact that while the knowledge of medicine was once used to perform magic, it is now used strictly for healing purposes. He speaks in vague aphorisms to presumably avoid potential collision with his conservative evangelical beliefs. He tells us of the manner in which he met the love of his life, by letter correspondence eons before the emergence of social media.
He points out individual plants and their medicinal benefits, the Englishman in our group finishing the guides’ faltering explanations with doubtful disclaimers. If he attached signs to the plants, the ones promoting virility would be picked clean by Malaysians of all persuasions, be they Malay, Chinese or Indian – hence no plants are marked. One particular tall hardwood has magical properties to both the Penan and Iban, the people believing that only a chief or powerful member of society may approach the tree, as commoners could get sick and die from it.
The passage broaches the interior of the Lang cave, the raised wooden walking platform weaving through the eroded bed of limestone over the granular rocky moraine. The water has migrated from the surreal contours of the nocturnal caverns to subterranean chambers beyond our purview.
The incursion of life is marked by the fluttering orbits of clicking swiftlets, their futile attempts at distraction dissipating as we move beyond the intimacy of their mossy nests. The bats are relegated to their ominous pendulum-like hypnosis, suspended from the shallow cave ceiling.
Pebbled, iron-rich stalagmites drip their elixir onto the underlying stalactites, the gathering pools of water waiting an eternity for communion, limpid bulbous tentacles drooping from the ceiling, hardened in abandonment. Surreal shadows erupt along the rippled cave walls as our lights pass over the inscrutable architecture of this subterranean environment.
The waters of time splay the gills of one limestone wall, wide in amazement at the sight of the gigantic stone cocoa pods reaching out to the cascading columnar cerebrum and its sordid ilk. Sparkling crystalline waters gather in forgotten fountains, collecting their riches from the iron-rich confection of the aborted rock suspended overhead.
Gigantic scaled stone fangs rear against our lights in Mesozoic hunger, yielding to bared talons that barely elude our tender passage. Massive angular cracks break open before us, relics of ancient seismic upheavals exposed to the relentless onslaught of waterborne erosion, its legacy pregnant in the limestone ceiling’s rippling wake and poorly concealed swiftlet nests, the bristling feathers of the young spilling out from their mossy domestic enclaves.
Torrents of water gushing from darkened passages spill into the mottled groundswell of floodplains condensed in the wash of our torch light, and then another bend, deeper into the antechambers of this sinister antediluvian world, with its lurid stalagmites and the bared fangs of the stalactites.
And finally, the terse boundary between the Lang and Fast Lane caves, the small locked gate guarded by the razor snake, languidly eluding us as it slithers into an adjacent crevice. It waits for its crepuscular prey while suspended on the gate, its brethren the huntsman spider suspended on the opposing cave wall.
Back at the Good Life restaurant, the young boy provides a somewhat less romantic insight into contemporary native life in Borneo, as he spends his entire day performing antics in front of a television blaring American cartoons while perched on his counter top, roundly ignored by the sullen employees.
The food prepared by the kitchen is consistent in quality and affordability, although no one would win top marks for enthusiasm. Once dusk sets in, the boy begins romping around the restaurant, playing interactive acrobatics with the patrons, whether they like it or not.
Being perennially bored and understimulated, I can’t resist chatting up the young German couple that has just returned from the Fast Lane trek. He looks at me somewhat askance at the disparaging references I make to the city of Mainz being a disconsolate industrial workhorse of the Rhineland, but so it is.
Perhaps it is simply a problem of the impressions I made over the years of passing through the city on my travels through central Europe, but nevertheless my remarks are not intended on being demeaning. The city’s contemporary appeal plays against the tremendous incongruities between the neighboring cities of Frankfurt and Wiesbaden, while the nearby trio of Heidelberg, Mannheim and Ludwigshafen represent another anomaly of urban German centres.
They concur that Germany is a very affordable country in Europe in terms of the cost of housing and going out. Countries such as Holland and the U.K. having encouraged a highly speculative approach to housing, having served to drive the costs of homes up to unreasonable heights.
Germans buy homes that they intend on spending their lives in, he intones, and they would not dream of buying a place without a significant amount of cash to pay for it. As a result, the speculative aspect of the housing market in Germany is minimized. Coming from a ridiculously overgalvanized city such as Vancouver, I can only fantasize about Germany’s affordability.
His latter-day hippie countenance belies the reality that he works as geological engineer for Shell. He actually came very close to moving to Calgary, although having decided last moment to take a position in Kuala Lumpur. The position in Alberta certainly would have allowed the two to see much of western Canada, but would also have imposed limitations they would not experience in Southeast Asia, in particular, the cost of travel to more remote destinations, never mind the cost of being a tourist in western Canada to begin with.
They believe they don’t have the opportunity to travel extensively, but in fact they do, given that they are living in the hub of AirAsia, and have so many relatively interesting spots at their disposal. While they typically can only travel weekends, they try to stay in more offbeat places. They use the limitation of short stays to their advantage by making multiple trips to gems worth revisiting.
He comments that while the Marriot was the only accommodation choice left, as no park bungalows were available for the week period that he booked the hotel, their current hotel offers no value when it comes to food, everything being in the range of three times the local price.
She remains cheery but diminutive during our extended conversation, saying next to nothing, politely confirming my remarks when I make eye contact. The few remarks she makes about her personal career choices as we leave confirms that she is exceedingly sensitive, thoughtful and beautiful.
An elderly woman swathed in clothing is standing by herself on the platform in front of the park headquarters, somewhat of an enigma in this quasi-outdoors environment. I have to hand it to her for her feistiness to go jungle trekking in Borneo at her age. Even better, she turns out to be a real sport, helping fellow hikers with her flashlight, shooing them away from any possible agglomeration points for nasty bugs.
We partake in a somewhat giddy conversation, erratically shining our flashlights into the surrounding bushes, standing little chance of discovering anything of merit relative to the guide Ishmael’s trusted high-power flashlight. Her youngest years were spent in Germany in three entirely different cities, Múnster, Saarbrücken, and some other town. After the war she had decided to live in England for twenty years, and never experienced a moment of rancor, although she was beaten up once.
At the end of her period in England, work in Canada beckoned, mining in southern Ontario followed by retirement in Fort Langley. She complains of the lack of sense of community modern Germans feel, yet another issue that left my mother at sense of loss with the contemporary world. I think the issue is more a problem of westernization, of a people driven to spend their times working to become model consumers, with little else in the line of redemption.
Peering into the faces of the people who have remained behind, I see that I am the only person from the 7 pm group standing under the canopy, the secret command to run for the park headquarters somehow having eluded me.
Independently of the others, I leave, only to find the last remnants in addition to Ishmael standing in front of the office. He tells me that I have no right to a credit on a future night hike, since the moment the group has left, the park organization’s duties are fulfilled.
I disagree, and he recommends I take the issue up with the park tomorrow. I think this issue occupies a grey area, but don’t expect miracles from them. It would be good for the public to know what their policy on treks is, given the potential number of cancellations that may occur in the wet or shoulder seasons. I am secretly happy that the trek is over, as I am critically behind in my journal and don’t want to have to piece together all memorable moments from vague recollections months down the road.
I love to write my vaunted memoires when the experiences are relatively fresh, although not necessarily on the same day. The next morning is always perfect, although mornings are also the time when you are supposed to focus your sightseeing efforts, and not in the blistering heat of midday, a serious failing in my approach to traveling.
The rain abates somewhat, although I am now down to a minimum of things to wear, and am worried that none of my clothes hanging on the lines outside stands much of a chance of drying. I arrange my affairs and sit down to edit photos and write, with the trusted assistance of the small flask of rum I had the insight to buy in Miri.
The large group of Malaysians from Kuala Lumpur arrives, but all is well as they settle in for the night, largely staying away from their smoking habit. I won’t be too fanatical, at least not for the evening, considering how late it is.
Later at night, I lie awake in my bed, unable to sleep. A bright green phosphorescent firefly undulates towards my bed, then lies on my bed for a while before lifting off, weaving around in the darkness, then disappearing entirely as I slide off into deep sleep …