Bat Caves and What-what Frogs

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After a short half an hour flight we arrived at the tiny airport in Mulu. We are here to visit Gunung Mulu National Park. Ever since we saw the BBC Planet Earth documentary about caves, we wanted to come here to see the largest cave passage in the world which is filled to the brim with bats.
We arrived in the afternoon and there was not much we wanted to see since it was getting late.  We were sleeping inside of the park at a hostel. Accommodations were basic–a large common room with many beds–and expensive for the stained mattresses we were sleeping on. However, the place, as well as the sheets, was generally clean.

In general we had mixed feelings about this place. On the one hand we were in the middle of a national park in Bornean jungle. A fantastic variety of plants surrounded us as we wandered around the park headquarters area. On the other hand, everything was priced high since it had to be flown in as the road and river access is quite inconvenient. The tours and excursions have lofty prices to match the water and the produce. It’s not really outrageous, but when you are on a tight backpacker budget, triple digit ringgit prices echo loudly in your ear.

We were quite happy with the insect situation. By now no one has seen any bed bugs which we were afraid were hitching a ride with us from near the beginning of the trip. There were plenty of mosquitoes, but they were quite benign and I estimate that each of us suffered on average one bite per day. I get bitten more at an evening barbeque in New Jersey, although granted, the mosquitoes there do not carry malaria, dengue fever, or worse. The best part was the magnificent symphony of cicada’s, lizards, frogs, and other critters which intensified in the evening and went on through the night. The frogs in particular had a call which sounded as if the were constantly calling out “what what what”, so we dubbed them the what-what frogs. It was really pleasant falling asleep to this music, with the occasional glitter of a firefly.

On Tuesday morning we set out for an easy walk to a nearby waterfall. Contrary to the fears of some of the girls, there was a boardwalk and/or paved walkway through most of the jungle. When we veered of the main path, we followed a well maintained trail laid out with pebbles. Occasionally we had to trek through mud, but the fears of scrapes and leeches quickly went away. At the waterfall we went for a refreshing swim in the river and headed back to the headquarters to meet a guide for a canopy walk followed by some cave exploring.

Mulu National Park is home to the Deer Cave, the world’s largest cave passage. This was one of the “can’t miss” things that I wanted to see on this trip, and it was not disappointing. The cave is truly monstrous. It is difficult to describe in words, and pictures cannot quite capture its grandeur as well without a reference point. I have never been inside of an enclosed structure this large before. The cave is also home to over a million bats. These critters hang around all day dropping guano into enormous piles which then feed the rest of the ecosystem. While somewhat dismayed that there was a comfortable walkway leading through the cave and we would not get to do any proper cave trekking, we were comforted knowing we did not have to wade through bat droppings which over hundreds of years could be quite deep in certain spots. After the cave walk, we sat outside and watched as thousands upon thousands of bats streamed out of the cave in corkscrew shaped ribbons for their nightly feeding time.

At night we met some other traveler’s with whom we ate supper and talked for a while. One of them was a Belgian named David, who was seven months into his year long trip around the world. While going to sleep, we all took guesses as to what his profession could be. Weronika had the most creative guess that he was a priest.
The next day we packed out bags for three days and headed off for our adventure of climbing the world renowned pinnacles. Iza and Tomek opted out on account of Tomek’s back pain, so it was only four of us that headed off. Along the way we stopped at a local village where we bought some souvenir blow darts and a nice woven rattan mat. Later, we visited three more caves: Cave of the Wind, Clearwater Cave, and Lady Cave. These were also pretty nice and each one had different features from the other. In the middle of the Cave of the Wind there was a particular smell in the air. It was sort of stinky, sort of musky, but not altogether unpleasant. Ola and Weronika were convinced that it was fried chicken, while Paddy and I guessed bat guano. Can you guess which it was?

We ate a lunch of pre-made instant noodles from a zip lock bag we had prepared in the morning and went for a swim. The water was crisp as it just emerged from an underground passage through the Clearwater Cave. Little fish swam around which nibbled on our feet similar to the fish spa in Kuala Lumpur.

We continued up the river in a slim long boat as the navigator used a long pole to push us through some shallow areas. Thick jungle forest surrounded us on both sides, as trees arched over the water grasping for any sunlit real estate. Occasionally, through a clearing, we could see mountains off in the distance.

At some point the boat pulled over to a bank and we were told to get out and walk 9km to camp 5, which would be our home for two days as well as the embarkation point for the pinnacle hike the next day. The walk through the jungle was quite pleasant as we passed numerous small streams on wooden planks as well as the winding river on larger rope and steel wire suspension bridges. While it was not paved with pebbles as the other trails close to the headquarters, this trail was not a wild jungle walk either. We walked along a clay and dirt path and arrived at camp 5 about three hours later. It would have been much quicker had we not stopped numerous times to photograph insects, search for monkeys (nada) and look for raw materials to make blow gun darts, which we will need to continuously replenish as the original ones get lost easily.

Camp 5 had very basic but cozy accommodations. We slept in an open air room with a roof over our heads and our mosquito nets protecting us from whatever critters decided to come and visit us at night. There was the river which made for some nice and refreshing swimming after the sticky hot hike. The spacious kitchen gave us enough room to cook up our fancy meal of rice noodles and various curries from a can.

As I mentioned earlier, various bugs flew and ran around. This is the majority of jungle life which is easy to find, as the larger creatures hide really well and are not as easy to see. Ola at one point summarized the situation pretty well. She said she learns something new about herself every day. She was already well aware that she does not like bugs. However, she makes an exception to butterflies. However, this day she made an exception to the exception in the case that the butterfly is larger than her face.
The rain came down hard but passed quickly, and it got dark a few minutes later. We were all in bed by 10pm ready for the next day’s strenuous hike.

Bagley, our guide for the day, made the early morning assessments. Water? Check. Sturdy hiking shoes? Check. Flashlights? Check. Gloves? What gloves? You can do without. First aid kit? Tomek has it, but it’s of little use since he is back at park headquarters. We’ll make do with some insect repellent, zinc ointment, and a compression bandage. And so we went off into the jungle.

The hike to the pinnacles is only 2.4km one way. However, in this short distance we ascend 1200 meters. That’s an average slope of 22.5 degrees. Through the hot jungle, on slipper rocks, tree roots, and other tricky terrain. And that’s the start. The last 300 meters is ladders, ropes and climbing the sharp limestone kearst. We were having a blast. True, it was not an easy hike, but the last part was really fun as we climbed through a three dimensional labyrinth of rocks, moss covered trees, and liana vines. We were drenched in sweat from head to toe and not smelling well at all, but all that was easy to forget as we were absorbed by the unreal terrain and the challenge presented to us.

We finally made it to the scenic overlook. In front of us were the pinnacles. These are sharp limestone formations jutting out from the mountainside high above the treetops. It looks as if someone took a bunch of enormous arrowheads and planted them tip-up in the forest. We were very pleased to be able to see this with our own eyes.

Unlike the great views, our lunch was horrible. We brought crackers and canned meat–spam-like ham we were hoping–and were sorely disappointed. How, you may ask, you set your expectations as high as spam and are let down. Well, it is possible. It was an unfoodlike color of pink with white grains of something. It was crumbly and tasted like ground cow udder (no, never tasted this either and am just guessing) flavored with salt and sugar. Quoting Weronika: “I have known Krystian for five years and up until this moment I have never seen him spit food out.” And so we ate dry crackers with salted peanuts.

The descent from the pinnacles was not easy, but quite manageable. The real challenge was the remaining 2.1 km of wet slipper rocks and roots that awaited us. It was slow precarious going. We had to watch every step. Every available tree was a blessing as you could hold on for extra security. Frustrating and long, the descent did finally end and we arrived at camp 5. Wet from head to toe, I took off just my hiking boots and went straight under the shower for a combination of shower and laundry.

That evening more people arrived from the Mulu headquarters, and amongst them David. We ate a dinner of instant noodles and played cards, when David revealed that he has indeed just finished seminary school and was traveling the world in order to decide whether he wanted to be a priest or missionary. Weronika was elated to have guessed so well.

At night it rained, and it rained a lot. The river swelled up by at least half a meter. The trail back was not a lot more muddy and slippery and some of the planks were taken out by trees being washed downstream. Still, we were happy to be walking on flat ground and made it back to the boat pickup point with smiles on our faces.

We got back to the headquarters and met with Tomek and Iza. The first thing that Weronika did was brag to them how she guessed David’s profession so well. They burst out laughing, telling her that two nights back they all sat together and came up the whole priest story. David played it very well and we were all impressed with how he was able to keep a straight face the entire evening. He fooled us all really well.

We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting and recounting our respective adventures to each other. Later in the night, we made a beer run and spent the rest of the evening sipping cold brews and reminiscing what a great trip it has been so far.
Things I learned over the last five days in Mulu:

  • There is a bug called a giraffe insect. See the photos.
  • Bat pee by taking the opposable thumb evolution left them with, grabbing a hold of the ceiling, and pulling themselves up to a horizontal position.
  • There is a plant called a strangler fig which grows roots down from the canopy of a host tree, eventually enveloping it with vine-like stems and covering the top of the tree with its own canopy. The host tree dies, leaving a lattice tower of the strangler fig behind and enriching the soil.
  • Bat guano can smell like fried chicken under the right circumstances.
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