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Sandakan, Mulu and Beyond Borneo

We never imagined criss crossing the rather large, rugged and beautiful island of Borneo would be so difficult, but the locals seem to blame each travel discrepancy we encounter on “the holiday”, which we eventually learned was a reference to the recent two-week school break. Needless to say, we didn’t expect things to go any smoother when we set off from Mt. Kinabalu toward the coastal town of Sandakan – home to an orangutan reserve and the funny-lookin’ proboscis monkeys.

Here we were again…sitting on the side of the road atop the same over stuffed bags in the very same muddy spot we found ourselves in while trying and failing to hitch a ride to Poring Hot Springs ahead of our Mt. Kinabalu climb. The only difference this time was the blazing sun instead of the heavy rain and the extreme pain that had settled in our legs along with utter and total exhaustion.

Again, we waved down each charter bus or van that approached, but each rolled past taking a piece of our now fading hope along with it. Minutes turned to hours but produced nothing aside from a blossoming friendship with a Canadian family stuck in the same situation.

Finally, we considered ourselves fortunate to have flagged down a newer, green minivan bound for Ranau, a small town just an hour down the road. “Catch bus there,” the driver said. “Bus office,” he reassured us as we piled into the van.

The bus wound down the mountain spending much of its time on the other side of the road facing oncoming traffic with fearless bravery. Arriving alive, we spilled out the side door, our luggage sprawling into the busy roadway. There it was, like a shining beacon of hope, the small, worn bus office with bars covering the windows but a door wide open and welcoming.

Unfortunately, it was too good to be true. Each and every bus until 6pm was sold out leaving us running out of options and time. I settled in to my now favorite seated position with our bags (at least I had a change of scenery this time), as Dan once again set off to find a solution. A little under an hour later he returned. “I found a KFC,” he announced proudly. “And, another van leaving from a little local station down the road that will take us two hours closer, but not to Sandakan.” Those were our options…eat fried chicken and wait five hours before catching a bus four more, or try our luck in s small van packed with locals to head a bit farther down the road, but not to our final destination. We opted for the latter.

Sore and in sour moods, we were too tired to seek another solution. As we approached the skeleton of a bus shelter, it was clear – this is not an avenue heavily trafficked by tourists. Locals, who spoke no English, gawked with eyes wide open, but somehow seemed to sympathize with what they imagined was our predicament. Eventually, a kind, young girl approached to ask where we were going. After a few short minutes, she flagged down a small, beat up minivan, already overloaded with locals, gave the driver instructions and wished us good luck. To be honest, we didn’t know where we were headed only how much it would cost to get there.  In a moments notice, our entire faith was placed upon the innocent girl with broken English who stepped in to help.

Our bags were jammed between the black seats of the van alongside bright blue plastic bags filled with plants.  A large skull and cross bones sticker bearing the words ‘Borneo Head Hunters’ was affixed to the upper right side of the windshield while two rabbits feet dangled from the rear view mirror.  As we rolled down the narrow dirt road washed out by recent heavy rains, the driver reached over to dial up the volume on his after-market CD player.

“Smack that all on the floor, smack that ’til you get sore.”  The vulgar words of Akon blared through the speakers followed by Snoop Dog and other reputable artists.  “Great,” I thought to myself.  “This is American influence in rural Borneo. Nice.” Dan could only laugh, and unfortunately, we both sang along.

Minibus #2

Minibus #2

The heat was unbearable, the lack of space miserably uncomfortable and the winding road sickening. For two hours we slowly made our way past rolling mountains still tangled with overgrowth and by the rolling palm plantations that now mark a staggering portion of Borneo’s landmass. As far as the eye can see, seas of palm trees reaching toward the sky in perfectly planted rows grow as if they were stalks of corn planted in America’s farmland.

Minibus Transfer #3

Minibus Transfer #3

Amid the rolling fields of palms, we were tossed from the van in a dry, dusty parking lot surrounded by Muslim eateries and clothing shops. A series of grunts exchanged between our driver and another man led to our bags being thrown into yet another mini-van, and we followed suit. The van raced through Borneo’s beautiful countryside and along the road dotted with clapboard shacks the served as homes.  Outside their was laundry hung neatly to dry and told the story of those living within.  A young mother, a man’s work clothes and toddlers t-shirts adorned with angry birds or other characters.

The rush of our initial adventure was waning as we eventually pulled past armed guards checking for illegal Philippino immigrants outside of our final destination of Sandakan. While the US failed to initiate a travel alert for the area, both Australia and the UK had advised citizens not to visit the region as recent battles between Phillipino soldiers and the Malaysian government over land recently lead to dozens of deaths. Still, we pushed forward and pulled to the side of the road just past the military check point. As our driver hopped from the van to use the restroom behind a ripped, blue tarp that served as the wall for a local market, we couldn’t hide our exhaustion. Maybe he sensed it or maybe he was just being kind, but as our driver made his way from the makeshift toilet he grabbed several snake fruits from the nearby market stall peeling them and handing them to Dan and me.

“No, thank you,” I said, patting my stomach. But, hesitantly Dan took the fruit from his unwashed hands and placed the tender, white fleshy fruit into his mouth. Both the driver and the little lady who sold the fruit seemed to be satisfied by Dan’s manufactured nod and smile, and we quickly found ourselves on the road again.

After six hours and three “mini-buses” later our driver pulled into the Four Points by Sheraton along the trash-filled waters of Sandakan’s coast. The travel headache was over, and as we settled in to the newest hotel in a truly rundown and dirty town – we pulled out the computers and booked our flight out.

The next day we set out to experience what we came for – the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary and the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, but also found ourselves wandering through the rundown water village – a government housing of sorts for Borneo’s poorest residents – and at the Sandakan War Memorial, the site of former prisoner of war camps and the beginning of the death marches during the Pacific War.

The next morning a driver was waiting to take us to the airport for some less complicated travel. This was Dan’s adventure. After his Malaysian co-worker’s family mentioned Mulu National Park was a must on any visit to Malaysia, we splurged on the airfare and counted our blessings we were able to find a place to stay as the only accommodation within the park books up months in advance.

As our flight descended from the crystal blue sky and deep into beautiful limestone karsts shooting from the earth like spears, we knew we had found the wild Borneo we had been searching for. The only way in and out of the park is by air, leaving this 130,000 acre swath untouched by the development and palm plantations currently leading to the destruction of Borneo’s rainforest. Inside park boundaries lies one of the largest and most impressive cave systems in the world. We lugged our bags from the shuttle and across an old, rope and wood bridge spanning the Melinau River and the colorful wooden boats bobbing in the clouded water below. Once inside the park office, our summer camp-like experience began. We were tagged with a glowing neon wrist bracelets indicating our departure date, and a schedule of guided cave tours from morning to evening was organized. Our  cabin sat alongside a wooden boardwalk surrounded with swampy, mosquito-infested waters, but much to our relief was clean and inviting.

Arriving too late to catch any tours into the caves, we settled for a self-guided walk through the heart of the Borneo rainforest along the Botanical trail to the Birdwatching tower. The thick, vibrantly green growth stopped the sunlight from falling to the forest floor and stunted any breeze that tried the rustle its way through. The sound of Mulu’s creatures rang in our ears and tree frogs barked from deep within the forest – their call sounding eerily similar to the yapping of a small dog.

As night fell on the already dark, damp rainforest, we made our way back to the park headquarters. The following morning we awoke early to set out on our first tour. The Cave of the Winds sits upriver from the lodge and is accessible by a relaxing longboat ride through the murky green waters. As we climbed into the thin, brightly-colored and lengthy wooden boat, it rocked beneath our feet. Within moments the car engine perched atop the back roared to life and our driver thrust a small spinning fan blade deep into the water. The boat glided upstream through heavy trees shrouding the riverbanks and small limestone karsts creating cliffs overlooking the swift waters.

Little development surrounded the river, but young, shirtless children fished from the banks and women emerged from small, thatched-roof houses to wash their clothes in the river water. Moments later, the boat glided gracefully ashore at Batu Bungan, a small village boasting a local market.

A Woman Washes Clothes in the Melinau River

A Woman Washes Clothes in the Melinau River

As we stepped off the boat and walked up the embankment we were led through rows of homes that proved to be nothing more than a wooden shack with a floor raised from the dirt to keep the critters out. Here there were no homes with bedrooms, kitchens or even bathrooms, instead the wooden boards tacked together proved useful only to keep out the rain and maybe a stray animal or two.

A few hundred feet away sat the market. A row of worn, wooden tables laid beneath a tin canopy filled with cheap string bracelets and woven baskets. No English was spoken – an exchange of smiles, points and nods was enough to complete a sale.  Nearby information panels detailed the Penan people who call Batu Bungan home and their forced transition from life as nomads inside the national park to their current life in a government settlement.  My heart broke. This small tribe, once roaming and foraging in the area now dubbed a national park, has been relegated to an unfamiliar way of life.  Not only that, they seemed to be living within the lowest levels of poverty.

Disheartened by the cultural disintegration in Batu Bungan, we boarded the boat once again and were carried farther upstream to explore our first of many Mulu caves. From the river we climbed steeply up a concrete path covered with water dripping from the nearby limestone and a buildup of moss that created a natural skating rink. We slipped and slid our way into the Cave of the Wind opening.  As the light from the caves opening faded, the glow of the park’s electric light system set dozens of beautiful stalactites and stalagmites aglow.  The narrow passageways of the cave were filled with a cooling breeze that dried the sweat once dripping from our faces.

From the first cave, we hiked a short way along a boardwalk built slightly above the river bank below. A steep set of stairs lead to the mouth of nearby Clearwater Cave, and with each step sharp pains shot through our incredibly sore legs still tender from our one-day climb up Mt. Kinabalu. The result? A slew of  unladylike obscenities shot from my mouth with each excruciating step.  Inside the less impressive cave, the roar of an active underground river system echoed off the limestone walls.  The river cooled the cave as it ever so slightly worked to wear away the limestone alongside it’s flowing water.

As the morning turned to afternoon, we climbed back aboard our longboat squatting to the wooden plank that served as a seat.  With much less effort, the boat glided downstream and returned us to park headquarters.

After a quick nap and lunch, we met our guide once again for the 3 kilometer hike to Lang and Deer caves. Again, the light gently faded behind us revealing nothing but dim lights lining the pathway as we entered Lang Cave.  It’s the smallest of Mulu’s tourist caves, but in my opinion the most magnificent.  Here rare limestone formations are proof of mother nature’s continuing work over millions of years.  Lang cave was created not by the flow of an active river, but by the slow disintegration of limestone from standing water.  It’s home to small clusters of the rare glowworms, which emit a dull light to attract insects into their sticky, dangling strings.

Nearby Deer Cave boasts arguably the largest cave passage in the world. Walking alongside the towering entrance, I’m reminded how small humans truly are in magnificent eye of mother nature.  We meandered deeper into the cave and past a massive chunk of rock that once slid from cliff above.  As we pushed forward with the light still pouring in from behind, we turned to see one of Mulu National Park’s most famous formations.  Yes, the perfect outline of none other than good ol’ Abe Lincoln has been naturally carved into the opening of Deer Cave over time. As comical as it is intriguing, it has become one of several iconic symbols of the national park.

While every cave shares a variety of the same stench resulting from the lack of fresh air, there was something different about Deer cave. The overwhelming filthy smell left me hesitant to go deeper into the darkness. With each step my feet, cloaked in clunky hiking boots, slid on a dark substance covering the concrete pathway. As we rounded the corner, there it was..a pile of guano the size of a dump truck load. “Just one,” our guide chuckled as he kept walking. As we made our way deeper inside, gigantic piles of bat poop rose from the floor of the cave like massive sand piles at a construction site. I grabbed my shirt thrusting the neck up over my nose and mouth trying to filter out the invisible particles of crap I was sure were now filling my lungs. 3 million bats call Deer Cave home, and while they do sleep during the day, dozens still flapped overhead or squabbled and squeaked as they resettled into their spots hanging high above us.

As we reached the farthest point we would go into the cave, our guide began to detail the Garden of Eden lying just beyond the cave walls and visible through a rather large opening in front of us. Sensing the end was near, I ditched the talk and darted back along the pathway moving swiftly through the slippery guano, my shirt still serving as a guano guard of sorts. Gasping for air at the opening of the cave, I nearly broke out into a jog as I moved toward the fresh air. Minutes later Dan joined me outside. The smirk on his face let me know he thought I was being ridiculous.

As the sun started to sink toward the horizon, we settled into a seat just below Deer Cave to witness the great Bat Exodus.  After what seemed like an eternity, the first group of  small, winged, insect-eating mammals swarmed in front of the cave. Soon, group after group of tiny black bats circled in front of the cave, swirling like a tornado before snaking across the sky and deep into the rainforest in search for food.  With the bats now foraging in the cover of darkness, we made our way back along the lit boardwalk to grab dinner and pack for our flight out the following morning.

In only two days in Borneo’s Mulu National Park we stumbled upon some of the greatest natural sights known to man, and were introduced to a remote way of life that sadly is lived side-by-side with a tourist destination designated for those who have the money and means to get there.  It was a seemingly strange yet perfect place to celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary.  Not only are we learning more about each other, but also gaining a global perspective on life that is sure to remain with us throughout our marriage and our lives.

Overwhelmed by Malaysia’s political, socio-economical, environmental pitfalls and successes along with its cultural diversity and natural beauty, we boarded our flight back to the capital of Kuala Lumpur to sit for hours inside the central transportation hub waiting on our overnight train bound for exotic Thailand.