#31 A Cave in Sarawak

Sent: Friday, April 5, 2002 7:54 AM

Early Feb in Travelogue land......

The lay of the land in this part of the world is dictated by the edicts and agreements made between various interested parties a couple of hundred years ago. As budget travelers we tend toward road travel. But to get from Sabah to Sarawak via Brunei takes 2 bitty, overly complex days and the total cost is more than the 70 Malaysian Ringitts (13.00) it costs for the 40 minute flight from Kota Kinabalu to Miri in the far east of Sarawak. So we take to the air in what really is flying as a bus service.

Having queued behind Mrs Loudly-Complaining Hoighty-Toighty we finally clear Sarawak Immigration and make our way via a couple of local buses to Niah National Park. Civil Service, working for the government, has the same connotations in Asia as at home, the same implications of job security that outstrips any requirement to perform, but here and throughout Asia also implies the necessity to provide employment for vastly more people than any task requires. Staying at Niah National Park is a reminder of some of the traits that I remember in local authority service provision many years ago at home. Booking in involves long forms, carefully scrutinised before we are directed to our accommodation.

We have paid the magnificent sum of 11 MR (2) each for a dorm bed. In return we are provided with 2 beds in a four bed room, a vast living space, full kitchen, ensuite bathroom, and no-one with whom we have to share. All this in an immaculately clean, light, airy, huge wooden chalet. It is definitely the best value accommodation we have found since we left home, even the huge cockroach in the bathroom looks like he has scrubbed up specially in order to greet us.

We are here in low season which accounts for the peace and quiet, but also means that none of the other National Park facilities are open. In the evening we have to walk out of the Park compound to join the Park staff eating on the tiny terrace of a little cafe just outside the gates. Our meals there are memorable for two reasons. The owner's little boy is the energetic king of his tiny domain which he rules with a cheeky grin and a strongly mischievous glint in his eyes. As our food arrives, so the little king goes to bed and his dad emerges to clear a neighbouring table recently vacated by 6 locals. Dad starts by chucking over the edge of the terrace any food left on any plates. He then carefully scrapes each plate over the balustrade, closely followed by any left over drinks, the contents of the ashtray and the serviettes. We sit there feeling grateful for the enveloping darkness and leave determinedly not looking over the edge of the terrace at whatever local wildlife lives below on the pile on the pile of leftovers. Dad's day job is revealed the next morning when we set off to visit the caves. Our accommodation sits in the crook of a bend in a small brown river and the walk to the caves begins 10 metres away on the far bank. Dad sits fishing and smoking, reeling in as we approach, making ready to carry us across the river in his small boat. I can't help but think about how small this family's world is, all their work occurring within 50 metres of their home in such stark contrast to most people's urban lives.

Reading about Sarawak one name comes up time and again. Tom Harrison first came to Borneo as an officer in the British army. He stayed, becoming curator of the highly regarded Sarawak Museum in Kuching and rewrote the rulebook on the evolution of man with his discoveries in the caves at Niah. In typically euro-centric fashion scientific opinion held that important stages of man's evolution had occurred in Europe prior to the descendants of these early europeans walking all over the planet developing civilisation as they went. For this to be true the oldest bones of any given type must be found in Europe with similar but later bones dispersed at ever greater distances. But in the caves at Niah Tom Harrison found bones of a type and age (40,000 years) that proved the existence of communities that could not have arrived from Europe and in so doing broke forever the euro-centric view of man's origins. The Niah Caves lie at the end of a 4km raised wooden boardwalk through the rain forest. The forest creaks and groans wetly as we make our way. 800 years ago when the Chinese first started to arrive in South East Asia the locals must have clapped their hands with glee when they realised that the newcomers would pay good money for bundles of sticks, feathers and spit. Because of the fondness of the Chinese for Birds Nest Soup the Trader cave, the first cave we reach, has been in use as a market place for 800 years. Today the trade continues, but not in the Trader cave, the first cave that we reach, where all that remains are the wooden skeletons of the trader's huts, which were built with no roofs. But the word 'cave' is pushing it a bit, for the traders took shelter beneath a large overhang carved into the rock by a long departed river.

Walking on we round a rocky outcrop and come to grinding halt. Before us the rainforest slopes down and away to our right. To the left a limestone cliff arches overhead, above and around a huge cave opening. The cave mouth is roughly the shape of a human eye and measures 60m high by 250m wide. In the far distance, within the cave mouth, stands what looks like a small garden shed but proves to be old archaeologist's quarters, the size of a large bungalow. Our eyes flick from point to point measuring and reassessing continually, as baffled by the scale of the cave as we had been at the Taj Mahal.

The path leads us into the middle of the cave mouth where we start to climb up the first of many mountains of guano. The caves have a day shift and a night shift and at the dusk and dawn changeovers approximately half a million swiftlets and a similar number of bats pass each other on their way in and out. I had always presumed that guano would stink. What else would a pile of bat and bird poo do? But we walk over a firm, compacted substance which crumbles if you pick it up and breaks down to the consistency of fine sand and has only a slightly sweet, peppery smell. Like the bird's nests the guano is also extracted, by big guys working in the half light, who fill long slender bags with the fine powder which they carry out along the boardwalk, a full bag weighing a huge 90kg.

As we walk deeper into the cave we hear the tinny, echoing remnants of sounds which have originated further in and further up. At ceiling level networks of bamboo poles are roped together leading away from bamboo 'ladders' which hang down toward the cave floor. But a 'ladder' just means another bamboo pole which a man will shin up as high as 50m to reach and retrieve the swiftlet nests during the twice yearly harvests. Although outside the harvest period some men are at work and we see their yellow headlamps perched in the most bizarrely inaccessible places.

We walk on through the cave, and on and on. Up and down, through narrow gaps between immense caverns before a gently sloping walkway leads us out to another opening on the other side of the limestone escarpment. Retracing our steps it feels odd to be inside something so big which is not man made. I am used to standing on 'big nature', or looking across 'big nature'. But to stand inside 'big' nature, to hear sound distantly reverberating as though we are in a cathedral and to have the beam of my torch peter out in mid air unable to illuminate the distant ceiling is a new and awe inspiring feeling.

We retrace our steps back through the cave and at one point I shine my torch on a handrail. Sausage screams, loudly. On the handrail is a cave cricket. Big, fat, brown bodied with a slight hint of translucent jelly about it from the lack of natural light. It is a scary sight. And there are lots of them, all around us. On our way through the cave our eyes were looking up and around and our hands were on the handrails. For the remainder of the return journey we have time to look down, and Sausage determinedly avoids touching the handrails.

As we emerge blinking into the daylight the grey sky starts to drop its' load and the return journey along the boardwalk descends into an algae covered skating challenge. We wobble and slide like toddlers on wet lino and it is Sausage who hits the deck but fortunately only her dignity is dented.

At the end of the boardwalk Dad from the cafe sits smoking, fishing and waiting to take us back across the river, so we pass through his orbit for the last time on our way back to our lavishly cheap accommodation.

Sarawak is a long thin state and our journey from Miri in the North East to the state capital of Kuching in the South West is best spread across two days. So the next morning we catch a couple of buses, the second of which drops us in Sibu.

Sibu is home to the timber and palm oil cartels responsible for the monoculture we have passed through on the bus journey. The roads leading into the town are pristine avenues of manicured landscaping, all sponsored by the timber cartels. But their Stepford Wives meets Milton Keynes rendition of a better new world succeeds only in being as unnatural and unpleasant as the thick green blanket of palm oil palms with which they are suffocating most of the rest of Sarawak.

We wander through the 'best night market in Sarawak' which has all the prerequisites, the smoke and steam curling upwards from the food stalls, the dodgy tapes, videos and even dodgier homewares, but all in such limited numbers that if you blink you might miss them. So we retreat to our room in Hotel Washington, a room so long and so thin, with such a small TV at the far end of it that it is like watching a movie through the wrong end of a telescope.

Despite our previous experiences with boats the maths make a very strong case for making the four hour boat journey from Sibu to Kuching rather than the 8 hour road trip. So the next morning we walk down to the quayside, pass by a typically motley collection of high speed boats before sighing with relief at the shiny modernity of our boat, the big one at the end of the line. Inside all is as it should be, the aircon too cold, the other passengers vomiting, the kung-fu movies spooling ceaselessly and we bump to a halt only a hour late.

For the last half hour of the journey the skies have been darkening by the minute and as the thick mooring rope flies slowly through the air and thuds heavily down on the quayside so the heavens open and the rain pours down like stair rods. People scatter as though a game of tick has just started in the playground rushing here and there searching out their vehicle, a taxi, a bus, a friend, some shelter from the rain and we are lucky to grab a taxi driver who only mildly overcharges on account of the downpour.

And the downpour insinuates itself into my judgement and blinds me to the smell and the grime of the room to which I say 'Yes' in the Ru-Pan Hotel, leaving us with the task of finding another hotel the next morning and me with yet more ground to cover to reach parity in the room selection stakes.

As we have traveled we have tried to keep our eyes on the local press for sporting events that we can get to. Today is Saturday and Sarawak Crocs are playing Sabah Rhinos in a Malaysian Premier League football match. The local papers have been full of it for days, in Sabah the previous week the club president had criticized the goalkeeper who had subsequently bunked off training in a huff and in Sarawak the talk is of the need to improve on last seasons poor performances.

The night air is warm and cloying as we get out of the taxi after a 20 minute ride out into the suburbs and set off on foot toward the stadium with the taxi driver's imprecations that we should 'ring for pickup after the game' going into our ears but not lodging anywhere near frontal lobes now preoccupied with the hubbub around us and with getting into the ground.

The ground! 30,000 plus, all seated, no more than 5 years old. Enough to put most English Premiership stadia to shame. But I guess that federalism is always likely to cause interstate rivalry which will find an outlet in stadia machismo. What is certain is that tonight's gate receipts will scarcely dent the interest on the loan to pay for the stadium, not with 11,000 people paying 7 MR (1.27) each.

The Croc's and the Rhino's demonstrate from the kick off, and throughout 90 long minutes that they were so named not due to the demands of upstart nouveau riche chairmen, but by a committee charged with finding names appropriate to the skill levels of the players. The Malaysian players are very poor, the foreign imports no better. In a game of few notable moments we get to laugh on only a few occasions at the crowd noises. At a goal, a foul, a free kick in the UK the crowd will issue a scream that rapidly descends into a roar. Here in Sarawak the initial scream is the launch pad for a journey towards a collective falsetto experience that is as painful as it is funny to the uninitiated. The loudest Jimmy Sommerville impression is reserved for the last minute when several Crocs outwit some tired Rhinos to undeservedly equalise. Thus as we make our way out of the stadium the throng is bathed in the false optimism that is blind to the appalling 89 minutes that preceded the lucky 90th. But I doubt the optimism survives the biblical downpour that ensues.

For some reason I believe that a bus stop/taxi rank/phone box is always around the next corner. But after 30 minutes of walking in the heaviest rain I have ever seen the post match traffic is thinning out, we are soaked from the waist down and grateful that out rain jackets have passed their toughest test from the waist up, and we have to ask a traffic cop at a roundabout to get us a taxi.

It is 11.45pm when we finally make it back to the hotel where the smell in the room has warmed up nicely during our absence and tempted a very large cockroach out into the open. We resolve to move in the morning. Sausage resolves, again, that it will be she who inspects the rooms... Hotel Supreme is a little more expensive that we had budgeted for, but has a certain absence of stench, presence of cleanliness, largeness of television about it that we both like.

Kuching comes highly recommended, phrases such as 'the most pleasant city in Asia' have been sprinkled liberally through the guidebook descriptions we have read. All in all we find it a bit disappointing, quite possibly for all the same reasons that earnt it its' accolades. It's quiet, it lacks bustle, it is laid back. But without the bustle it is rather like a blank canvas waiting for something Asian to be painted onto it. So we poodle around the shopping malls and walk along the redeveloped riverfront but between our growing preference for things rural and Kuching's quiet way of being urban a dull time is had by all.

An honourable exception in the dullness stakes is the Sarawak Museum where a ground floor of stuffed animals and large sea shells leads on upstairs to a fascinating exhibit on the local indigenous peoples. As we have moved through Sarawak we have seen the longhouses of the Iban and other Dayak tribes looking like long plain Victorian terraces but built out of wood. The longhouses are the most recognisable symbol of a collective lifestyle that survives today despite the pressures of urbanisation and agro-industrialisation.

We climb onto the plane at Kuching to fly to Johar Bahru feeling like we have scarcely scratched the surface of Sarawak, with a long list of things to do and places to see should we ever head back here again and with the countdown to Mardi Gras in Sydney starting to tick, quietly but insistently, in the back of our heads.

Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages