Jason’s Essay: Adventures in Review
The past year has been a very interesting year for travel, personally. Scaled up challenging peaks for one of the most spectacular views, sought shelter in an old lava tube amidst near freezing temperatures and played the explorer while on an island safari. While travel teaches us much, it is also a very good mirror held up to ourselves.
Target missed, experienced gained
If I were to pick one lesson as a highlight, then the climb up Mt Merapi in February 2017 would be a master class. I did not really plan for the climb until about 4 weeks before my trip. When I did finally book it, I had 3 weeks to prepare. Preparation is not the lesson here, but making the best of unforeseen circumstances.
Whenever I post on Instagram or here, or even on Facebook, I seem to project the image that everything goes according to plan. No hiccups, all targets achieved. This ascent up Mt Merapi would be a class to remind myself that not everything is within our control.
For 3 weeks I ran hill-sprints and focused my training regime on building my legs. At the eve of my trip, I felt as ready as I could ever be with such short training. The competitor within channelled my inner mountain athlete as on the day itself, I held my own with the front of the pack, keeping good pace and navigating the rocky terrain.
I had my own mission: to reach the top in a very respectable, preferably top percentile range. The mountain, on the other hand, had a lesson in store for me. Winds howled, sleet rain splattered on my face, cloud covered the last 1km of the summit. The benign weather in the day time turned in to a tempest by nightfall.
We never reached the summit, only the last checkpoint before we were told we could not proceed any further. The pain of being stuck in an old lava tube, cold, wet and shivering, trying to find a way to stay warm, as fellow hikers who were used to sub-arctic temperatures complained about the cold, suddenly felt like a further blow.
Yet, it was the experience, the possibility for me to relay this story of defeat instead of the usual tales of conquest, which brought a smile to my face as we descended. While 2 other hikers realized this lesson too, a few others did not take heart, and trodded down with disappointment.
Yes, we travelled far, we brought fancy kit, we trained as much as we can, but it is from the unexpected, the defeats, the targets missed, which remind us of why we travel: we make the best of it.
From uncertainty, jubilation
It was the lesson from the mountain that kept me going, hoping against hope, but to revel in what is to come, regardless of the outcome, as the weather turned for the worse as I was on an expedition to the Mulu Pinnacles in June 2017.
Heavy downpour the night before my hike to Camp 5 made me question if it was possible. The clear weather on the hike brought hope, but the weather the evening before the morning climb, brought a literal dampener.
We were informed that even the slightest hint of rain in the morning would mean that our climb would have to be cancelled. All our expectations, our hopes, our desire to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site hinged on the weather. Come what may, I had a fun hike and boat ride, enjoying drinks by the crystal-clear stream.
Come morning, the weather was absolutely perfect. Clear skies, hardly a cloud in sight, with Venus lighting the way. The realization that I could ascend up the peaks to view the Pinnacles, brought a cautious optimism.
My annoying competitive side within saw me once again be right behind my guide, who happened to be lead guide. A few slippery stones made me cautious, the slightly wet ladders and ropes heightened my awareness. Then, once at the top, passing a crevice, with cuts and bruises on my shins and knees, I heard my guide call out: last ladder and you’re done.
And indeed, at the top, I had the whole view to myself. I was mentally prepared to be disappointed, but having achieved this, the climb and view of the Pinnacles, I was in jubilation. The mini bottle of champagne waiting at Camp 5 was worth it. The realization of uncertainty of a trip, once achieved, makes the experience even more jubilant.
Experiences to talk about
The fine balance of uncertain possibilities to see the sights against the anticipation of expectation is something you will experience as you travel, and is something that shapes your outlook on your journey. Cautiously optimistic is personally better than the expectation of perfect sights.
It was this lesson that closed my 2017 adventures. I went to Komodo National Park, hoping to see dragons in December 2017. First, the eruption of Mt Agung on Bali island brought a standstill to my flight plans. Then, a tropical cyclone in the Indian Ocean brought about uncertain weather, yet I still wanted to go. The islands called me.
I made my booking, I liaised with my expedition team, and they advised that yes, my private boat can be arranged, and yes, my desired stops can be placed in the itinerary, but no, I cannot be guaranteed all the stops I wanted. Ocean currents and weather were both to play a role in affecting my trip.
Yet on the day itself, the weather was perfect, the ocean currents agreeable, clouds made the heat somewhat bearable and the dragons came out to play. I cruised the islands on my little island safari, seeing stunning islands, rugged hills and wildlife in their natural habitat, all while playing an explorer who finally visited Jurassic Park.
This expedition to end the 2017 season was apt: I prepared as much as I could, being cautiously optimistic and reminded myself that not everything will go according to plan. I left my travel fate to the gods, but I did as much as I could to improve the likelihood of the situation.
When the sights was seen, and the experienced surpassed expectations, the feeling was surreal. Do not set your expectations on too low a bar: just remember that life always finds a way…finds a way to both amuse you and annoy you, to impress on you. And of course, make the best of any experience!
Happy travels in 2018! Here’s to more adventures!
I have bad habits. One of them includes combining creature comforts and five star luxury stays with rugged expeditions and extreme activities. Somehow, this Mulu trip would create a perfect marriage of the two.
The evening before my expedition, I had a chat with the General Manager and bartender at the Mulu Marriott. Having known of my mad expeditions before, and my previous drenched Mulu trip, they thought this entire expedition should be fairly easy for me. This went contrary to the tales of jagged rocks and steep chasms I was told prior, which led me to back-to-back leg days and hill runs. When I informed them of what I was told, they rubbished it and got me another carafe of merlot.
The next morning started easily enough. As this was a bespoke, personalized trip, my guide and boat came over to the Mulu Marriott to pick me up. Ben, the GM, true to his word, personally saw me off, wishing me a good trip and was looking forward to getting me another carafe of wine in 36 hours. As I waved at the staff of the Mulu Marriott in my boat, I started to wonder if my self-imposed one-night-challenge was a good idea.
This being a private trip, I had the liberty of deciding my time of departure, my stops and my pace. The day was absolutely perfect for a ride down the river bend. The storm the night before gave way to blue skies and water levels ideal for rafting. Having passed the National Park HQ and Clearwater Cave turn, we reached what was supposed to be the ‘rapids.’
At a certain bend at the Melinau River, the water levels became shallow to the point where passengers had to get off and push the boat to go further upstream. Thankfully, the gods were kind, and all my boat crew had to do was manouver the boat slightly with the help of a pole. For a brief moment, we were punting on a flat-bottomed boat, in Sarawak.
Within 30 minutes, we were at Kuala Litut, the furthest the boat could go. From here, it was, apparently, an 8km hike to Base Camp, also known as Camp 5. My guide Ipoi told me it was 9km. I was somewhat curious at this 1km difference, so I decided to track it on my Garmin.
We estimated 2 hours to 2 hours 15 minutes to reach Camp 5. After trekking through dense jungle, along a clear path, and meeting the Penans, a semi-nomadic tribe that call this place home, we reached the first of 2 bridges. I asked Ipoi about the Penans, and what they did.
“They go to the jungle, stay there for 1 night, maybe 2, to hunt and gather. They still have their homes at Bung Bunan, but they still call the deep jungle home.”
That they did. The 3 Penans I saw had nice t-shirts and shorts, but walked barefoot. They, apparently, find footwear obstructive to their trekking.
At the second bridge, at the 2/3 mark, Ipoi informed me that on clear days, you can see the Pinnacles along Mount Api. Sadly, the summit was shrouded in cloud, and I was still left with my childhood image.
True to form, and at our good pace, we arrived at Camp 5 in 2 hours and 15 minutes, including 2 breaks. I was not sure what to expect on arrival in terms of sleeping arrangements. I found myself in barracks, the only form of accommodation at Camp 5, in a wide, open room, with a few sleeping mats. I had, in a matter of hours, moved from a suite in a 5 star resort to, well, something not as fancy.
As Ipoi got lunch ready, he told me of 2 spots to chill by Camp 5: one was the jetty immediately outside the barracks, another was a small rockpool a short walk along the Melinau Gorge Trail. As this was a perfect day, and I had to clean some clothes, I went to the jetty, placed a bottle of Scotch in the river to chill and cleaned up.
Lunch was a simple affair, as I requested for simple noodles. After lunch, the park ranger, Ipoi and the Camp 5 staff retired for naps in their quarters, as I read a book in the dining area. As it was flowering season, flowers were blooming everywhere, and I was treated to a fantastic display of Rajah Brooke Birdwing Butterfly everywhere. I also had a lot of bees attracted to me for some unknown reason. I moved to the rock pool, where none thankfully followed.
Within a few hours, a group of hikers came in. They were a diverse group: some were hashers from Penang, another trail runners from Penang and Taiwan, 1 elderly French couple from Normandy and 2 Americans from Southern California who were on my flight the day before.
For reasons unknown, the bees were only attracted to me and the 2 American boys. The bees got on my nerves, so I left for the rock pool, telling the 2 Americans that the bees did not bother me there. Soon enough, they were by the rock pool along the river, as another guide came by, chatted with us, and freshened up by the pool.
All of a sudden, the guide told us to look up, in the general direction of the limestone mountains.
“Hornbills,” he said, with that look of pride only a naturalist could give out when he see his favourite creature.
There, 2 large hornbills flew, wings spread out, high above us. Within a few minutes, 3 more appeared, soaring like the elegant avian creations there are. Naturally, I left my camera in my bag, but the image in my head is what matters…says me in this world of ‘pictures, or it didn’t happen.’
Now, I am not superstitious, but apparently the sighting of hornbills before a grand engagement is a good omen. I prayed that was the case. And then it started to drizzle. I started to wonder if the local deity Singalang Burong might change his mind about the trip, or if he was clearing the path free of debris and obstruction.
Dinner was, interesting enough, almost like class warfare here. The French couple and I went on private tours, while the others were on a generic tour. The French couple had a 3 dish display of fresh greens, chicken and steamed fish while I had the largest serving of spaghetti Bolognese, enough to feed at least 5 people. As our guides were related, the French couple and I were sat together and we shared our selections, as the larger group looked on with envy as they had their generic fried noodles. I shared some of my Bolognese with the Americans, as there was no way that I could finish it, and I could not let it go to waste.
As we retired for the evening, the weather started to turn. It rained. It poured. The heavens gushed open, as the Melinau River changed from a gentle stream to a raging torrent within moments. Our guides solemnly informed us that if it continued to rain, the trek would be cancelled. Safety first and all that.
I started to pray that the 5 hornbill omen would come true. I did not bring my bottle of Laurent-Perrier champagne for nothing.
* * *
I was up at 0500, with the clear intention to get my morning toilet done before everyone else is up and the rush begins. The rain stopped, and the weather looked clear. I was starting to wonder if Singalang Burong and his 5 hornbill omens came through.
As everyone was out and getting ready, I had breakfast. While everyone else had the standard generic fried rice, I had bacon and eggs, paired with wholegrain bread and 2 options for peanut butter. Now, when Dorothy the proprietor of Borneo Trekking asked what I wanted for meals, I came out with ridiculous requests. Never ask a man what he wants to eat during an expedition when he just sat in an airline lounge and is waiting for his champagne to be poured. She already passed the spaghetti Bolognese test. Now she aced breakfast, as everyone else stared at my food while looking at their breakfast. I did pay a premium, and now I was flaunting it.
With my hydration pack filled, I walked out to the jetty to look at the sky. The weather was absolutely clear, with the morning star Venus and the moon framed by the Melinau Gorge. The air was as crisp as a Scottish morning, with the soft sounds of flowing water from the Melinau River providing the perfect soundtrack.
By 0645, we were on our trek up. My guide Ipoi was the lead guide, thanks to his seniority and the arrangements by the Park Ranger the evening before due to the composition of our combined groups. As such, I had to be first trekker. It sounds really nice to have that honour, but it also came with the responsibility to keep up with the lead guide and not hold everyone back.
The Park Ranger was very specific with his instructions and his placement of guides. No rushing, no peer pressure, no overexerting yourself, no ‘compassionate pass’ if you do not make the designated stops.
Yes, there were designated stops. While the entire trek would take up 2.5km, distance can be deceiving. The first stop was the ‘mini Pinnacles’ around the 700m mark. To get there, you had a steep hike up. There was no gradual warm-up: it was for all intents and purposes, a climb.
We reached the first stop within 30 minutes. After a 10 minute rest, we continued on. Now, I did do some training before hand, mostly squats and other leg-based weight exercises. What I should have done were hill sprints or trail runs, which I have not done as often as I used to. I after all, was First Violin to our Conductor Ipoi, my personal guide.
It was only later that I truly knew who my guide Ipoi was in the grand scheme of things. He has been in the business since at least the 90s, and has led or been part of many a Royal Geographic Expedition in to the Mulu Cave Systems. His experience aside, and his record of 2 hours to the summit of the Pinnacles when most average 3 hours, and sense of adventure and love for his home has resulted in, among other things, a cave named after him. Yes, there is an actual ‘Ipoi’s Cave’ in Mulu: one he discovered during his numerous expeditions.
Yet looking at Ipoi, you would least suspect it. A small guy, who occasionally smokes but never drinks on the job, he does not look like your standard issue explorer, yet he could easily best them. The least I could do was keep up.
At the second check-point, Ipoi asked me to lead the group. A great honour, and I was slightly perplexed. He explained that he wanted to wait for the rest of the lead group, and that I just had to lead the front end a few hundred meters to the front, at the plateau which was a lot more comfortable, before continuing on to the third check-point.
If the first 3/4 of the hike was not tough or vertical enough, the last 500m would truly challenge us. At the stage, it was essentially vertical. We had ropes and ladders, with steep falls either side, yet coupled with fantastic views of the jungle beyond.
The Park Ranger’ guides instruction were repeating in my head: one person per rope, no crowding on ladders. The slightly wet conditions of the aluminium ladders made me extra cautious.
As we climbed up, I looked on towards Ipoi and the trail runner behind me. I had a good 50ms lead from the trail runner from Penang, yet Ipoi was essentially a mountain goat, ascending without any effort whatsoever. I tried to rein in my competitive side: I was essentially the lead trekker and I should not push my luck. Instead, I enjoyed the view, the sheer drop, the adrenaline running through my veins as I balanced against wet aluminium while high above razor sharp edges.
After counting 10 of the 14 ladders to get to the Pinnacles, I suddenly lost Ipoi, as I was adjusting my Garmin. Since I was all alone, at least for 100m either side, I enjoyed the view, the solitude and the sudden introspection that comes with being in such an isolated spot. Why was I here? What was I trying to achieve? Is a Facebook and Instagram picture worth all this? Why do I feel a cut on my right knee?
Truth be told, I lost count by the stage. All I could do was concentrate on going up. Soon enough, I spotted Ipoi, who was on the ladder ahead of me.
“Do you see anything?” I called out.
“Yes,” he replied, in the most non-expressive voice ever heard.
I climbed up the ladder and through a passageway of 2 boulders.
“There it is” I heard Ipoi say.
I was not too sure what it was until I saw it for myself.
Suddenly, framed against a boulder and some shrubbery, were blades of limestone, poking up behind foliage. I walked up ahead, balancing against stone and ledge, completely ignoring the steep fall or sudden gap next to me. I have finally reached what I saw from a plane, that image of my childhood that has only fuelled my genetic urge to explore.
I heard Ipoi’s voice calling, drawing me ever closer, as the sneak peek of the white shards drew me in like a siren. I looked at my Garmin. 2 hours 05 minutes. If I removed rest time, we made it to the summit, to the Pinnacles view point in just under 2 hours.
“You’re here. We’re at the top” I heard him say. It felt like a distant whisper as I stood, hopping over bounders, to the viewing boulder.
For some obscene reason, the first I thought of was ‘picture.’ Very unbecoming of an explorer, but Ipoi, surely used to this, obliged as he took a few photos of me, as the rest of the group reached the top.
Now, a few of them were hungry, while a few of us could not be bothered with food. Having thought of a lunch at the top, I requested for a tuna sandwich, which was prepared and in my pack. A light meal, easily portable in my hydration pack as opposed to the containers of rice and sambal of nasi lemak which the rest got.
As some of the group enjoyed their breakfast with nasi lemak, I opted against lunch and took a swig from my champagne glass. Yes the same champagne flute that followed me up to Mt Merapi just months before.
I looked at my watch. The climb was steep, but our timing was good. If the descent was similar to the ascent, I could reach base camp in time for lunch, a proper time to have my sandwich. At 0900, we made our way down.
If the ascent was tough, the descent was tougher. With your thighs already on fire, you had to work them even more, doing the entire trek in reverse. At times, I stopped to take pictures or soak in the chasm that awaited me if I took a wrong step.
The trail runners went down ahead of me, and I followed after them, the image of my Laurent-Perrier chilled by fresh chilled mountain water firmly in my mind. For large sections, I was alone, hiking down the well-worn, well-marked track. It was the perfect spot to reflect on what I have done, and the pain I could suffer post muscle fatigue 24 hours later.
At the mini Pinnacles, I spotted the Park Ranger, leading a group that could not make the second check point. We chatted, and he asked me how long it took to reach the view point. I told him my stats, and he without pausing, told me I would reach Base Camp by 1230.
His estimation came true. I tried, truly tried, to beat it, but by the time I reached the base of the ascent, it was 1225, and by the time I reached Base Camp, it was 1230. Experience, years of them, as well as hikers of all shapes and sizes, must have given him a nose for speed, ability and skill.
By the time I reached Base Camp, I chucked my gear aside, got my champagne and chilled it in the river. Trusting the Park Ranger, I did some stretching and cooled down, walking around and relaxing around the facilities, as I had my lunch.
An hour later, I sat down in the rock pool, with my champagne flute and baby bottle of Laurent-Perrier. While my bottle of champagne did not reach the top due to the 2 litre requirement of water, the lack of space in my 1.5l hydration pack + 500ml bottle of water, my champagne flute did make it.
I relaxed in the river, scars on my knee but with a perfectly fine yet sweaty pair of Orlebar Browns, with my glass of champagne, chilling, cooling down and slowly wondering to myself:
“What would I not do for a bottle of champagne if dangled in front of me?”
I could actually make it for another carafe of Merlot at the Mulu Marriott by evening at this rate.
Agency: I used Borneo Rainforest Trekking. If they can manage my Victorian ‘explorer’ requests of pasta, fresh salads, decent sandwiches and breakfast with 2 options for peanut butter, I am pretty sure they could do something for you in the middle of the jungle.
Bring: This is the middle of the jungle. Camp 5 has limited stocks of goods. If you are on a super basic tour, I would suggest some instant noodles. If you are on a full-board with food, bring at the very least a blanket. I used my rolled-up shirts as a pillow. Bring mosquito nets if you don’t like bugs. Drinking water is provided.
Preparation: You Need To Train. I cannot stress this enough. This is not a walk in the park and you need to be of a certain fitness level to get to the check-points and return before it gets dark. The hills are super steep. BRING DRY-FIT CLOTHES. It will get humid and hot as the day proceeds.
Get in: Standard Mulu trip in. Fly in with MASWings via Miri, Kuching or Kota Kinabalu. I flew in via Kuching, taking the 0720 Kuala Lumpur – Kuching flight and the 1140 Kuching – Mulu flight. Just nice.
Minimum time: 2 days 1 night, but only if you get to Base Camp by 1300 from the Pinnacles after your hike. 1st day hike to Camp 5, Overnight, 2nd day hike to Pinnacles, return by 1300 and hike back to Kuala Litut for boat back to National Park HQ. Follow your guide’s advice.
When someone thinks of Mulu, they may think of a small rainforest hamlet, but with ready facilities. Think again. This is a remote place, where mobile reception is limited, WiFi even more limited and 4G a mere whisper in the clouds, literally. It is the ideal spot to get away from it all and to concentrate on your adventures. With that in mind, I went on a 2-day expedition to visit the 4 Show Caves of Deer, Lang, Wind and Clearwater.
My trip started as soon as I landed in Mulu on the 1045 flight from Miri. I checked in to the Mulu Marriott (a stunning retreat) and after a dip in the pool, I got the complementary Mulu Marriott shuttle bus to the Mulu World Heritage Area Park Office: a short 3-minute drive.
There I was met by my two guides who were super helpful and super knowledgeable: two local boys named Ipoi and Harvey. Our trek started at 1300. Our first stop: the Canopy Walk. Truth be told, I initially was not too keen on it, but since it came inclusive in my expedition package, I went along. On hindsight, I would have regretted had I not.
The Canopy Walk is a 450m detour up in the high trees, 30m above the jungle floor and river below. Apparently, it is the world’s longest canopy walk when measured between trees. I have a head for heights, so I was game for it.
Walking from tree to tree, up in the upper canopy, you notice the ingenious construction of the structure. Not a single nail was used, with the entire canopy walk supported by one very long, continuous durable cable.
If looking down at the jungle floor makes you jaded, then perhaps a view of the river below may change your mind. If that is not enough, then the view of the limestone cliffs that hint at the caves beyond should stir on your inner adventurer. Add in a little drizzle on a narrow walkway that is wet, and your guide walking 20 steps behind you as the walkway sways just that bit and you get a feel how Indiana Jones felt running along his makeshift rope bridge in the Temple of Doom.
3.5km from the canopy walk (and being tempted by the Mt Mulu sign), we reached the first of the show caves: the Deer Cave. The cave got its name from deer tracks spotted by the local trackers. Why do the deers go in you ask? They want salt, and in a giant cave filled with millions upon millions of bats, you are guaranteed salt from the literal mountains of guano (a.k.a. poop).
Mother Nature has a way of making a grand spectacle: Petra has the Wadi Path that leads through a chasm in the desert rock to the Treasury. Mulu has an equally stunning approach towards the Deer Cave grand entrance. As you walk along left rock face, you pass a somewhat narrow pass, cut through the limestone from erosion over a period of a million years. You get hints of what lies beyond through ‘breaks’ in between the massive boulders. Glimpses of brightly lit interiors against the darkness of this pass make you ponder, wonder at what lies beyond. A prelude, a hint, a tease.
And then it hits you as the path opens up: the sheer scale of the chamber. Pictures do no justice to the majesty of the space. You definitely need humans for scale. Standing at the edge, the cavern dwarfs you, with the high ceiling soaring above, greater than any grand cathedrals of Europe. The light dancing between the cracks and caverns, the nooks and crannies of the cavern walls playing, teasing your senses. You take a picture, you try every angle, yet it fails to capture the sheer sight of something that must be seen in person
You ignore the smell, the hint of stench, of manure. You ignore the damp, the humidity, the stickiness you feel. All you sense around you is the primeval beauty, the sound of water dripping from the cavern ceiling and the clicks of swiftlets flying above. For a brief moment, you are one with the nature, awestruck by the sheer scale, and now miniscule and insignificant we truly are.
Yet this is just the start. You proceed further, deeper in to the chamber. You suddenly see a traveller, gingerly balancing himself on the edge of a rock high above, taking a picture before going back behind the railings. You wonder what he was up to, before your guide tells you to look behind, as you stand in one very specific spot. You look back, and then spot an old friend.
Now, this image has been used as a tourism poster for Sarawak for as long as I could remember and I could see why. There at the entrance is the famous profile of Abraham Lincoln against the rock face, his silhouette against the light. You try, you struggle, you adjust the light settings on your camera, you take a picture. You try to recreate that iconic image, yet that mental and actual image can never truly translate in to a digital copy. Some things must be seen in person.
You proceed further down in to the cave and finally catch the sheer size of the space. The water dripping down, echoing through the chamber as your party looks around in amazement at this sight, as you stand in the middle of the entrance, the soaring heights daring you not to be amazed. You see hints, reflections of light further beyond, and you wonder what took you so long to visit this place.
Water trickles all around: above from the ceiling, against the walls, down below and in the distance. You walk up along a path, concrete in some parts, steel in others. You notice patches of brown piled high in certain corners and are reminded of what that brown this is on the railing. You try to stop yourself from touching it, despite the occasional want for a handrail. The thought of having guano on your hands must stay firm to prevent you from touching anything.
Walking up along rocks and ledges, raised sections and platforms, you finally see what was causing that rushing sound: a stream flows through the cave, that artist’s brush which carved this massive cavern from the limestone. Artificial lights illuminate the flow, the rock and the cave face, focussing on the sight.
And then your guide tells you to look up, yet your eyes are transfixed ahead, towards that bright ray of light ahead. You listen to your guide, occasionally looking up at a ‘shower head’ with a steady shower streaming from it: the famous ‘Eve’s Shower.’ You hear something about ‘Adam’s Shower’ yet you look ahead, transfixed.
“The Garden of Eden” your guide says, finally breaking the spell which caught you in this daze.
‘Ah’, you think to yourself. ‘No wonder Adam and Eve have shower heads here.’
That source of bright light is truly a garden, with lush greenery, beautiful majestic trees and foliage being framed against the cave chamber’s wall. It makes you think of a terrarium, and in scale, it does look small, before you recall how massive rainforest trees can truly get. The light and the dark, the green and the brown, life and death, of an everlasting renewal of nature’s cycle, all in one diorama.
Your guide notices your fascination. He may not have known you for long, but he knows that look on your face, that look of wonder, that look of amazement, that look of need: that explorer’s look of wanderlust. “There are guided hikes to explore the Garden of Eden,” he says with a smile, before leading you out.
Walking back through the path we were just on, the cavernous chamber still mesmerizes you. The second time around and you still get awestruck. You try and sneak another picture, just to capture the moment. ‘There, people for scale! I can finally get that #humanforscale shot!’ Naturally, that shot failed to capture what you want to portray, and you mentally tell yourself to delete that picture.
We exit one cave and enter another, just a short 5-minute walk from the entrance of the Deer Cave. Before entering, our guide tells us that the cave is narrow, the cave is low, the cave is not as fantastic as our first show. Yet it was still something we had to see, so onwards we went, some with glee.
Lang’s Cave, or Lang Cave, was discovered by a local named ‘Lang.’ The sights inside it may have either mesmerized him or terrorized him. The sights of the stalactites and stalagmites at the entrance was a mere tease, with both the white of the limestone and the brightness of the sunlight hiding what the shadows could throw in for effect.
We walked in, with the ceiling at times almost reaching our heads. If you were 6’, you may get a sore neck, as you bow your heads continuously in between sections of the passageway. Away from the light, the small water-and-light show of a stalactite-in-progress, and nature’s science lesson of a limestone column in various stages of formation, you enter in to what could be a page from the Necronomicon.
There you see images in the rock face. Depending on who you ask, you may see different things. My party saw jellyfish. My guides saw jellyfish. Against the light and shadows, I on the other had saw something else. I saw an Ancient One, an image, a companion of Cthulhu set in stone. There, frozen, nay, encased in limestone, grimacing with an intimidating show of teeth, with a face like an angler fish, or some creature from the deep. Had I come here with a torchlight in the darkness, I would have thought I found an entrance to R’lyeh and encountered that image which brought Alhazred to madness.
Before long, we exited and headed out towards the bat observation area. Our timing was good, so we found a good corner to view the evening exodus of bats off for their dinner. It was 1700, and it was a good time for a drink, so I lay back against the seating and sipped from my whiskey flask.
The bat exodus, the flight of the bat, the bat flight, or whatever you want to call it, is one of the highlights for a Mulu expedition. If you can catch one, you are in for a treat, as these microbats, the same ones pooping in the Deer Cave, can be quite temperamental when the weather is not ideal.
We all sat, watching the entrance of the Deer Cave for a sight of bats, as we were told they fly out from 1700 onwards. We waited, and waited, and waited. If the people around you talk too much while waiting, tell them ‘oh, look! I see something!’ and there will be sudden silence.
And then at 1745, we saw the first round. It was still bright, but a flock flew out from behind the cave. This group must have come out from the Garden of Eden. We waited ever patiently, and more groups came out, first from the back, then from cracks in the middle against the trees. The sun was setting fast, and as the last rays of sun left the face of the Deer Cave entrance, they came.
They came in droves, in a continuous large group. You could hear the clicking, the flapping of their bat wings, the sounds being made in this large movement. They do not fly in one continuous line, but dance and twirl, somersault and vault, twist and curl like a great wave. Some saw an image of dragons dancing, others a snake slivering. I just saw something that will without a doubt continue to feed my wanderlust and fascination for adventure and exploration.
For part 2, click here.
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The Royal Court of Yogyakarta, of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, is one of those interesting quirks of Southeast Asian History. Officially the Special Administrative Region of Yogyakarta, with the governorship of the Region held hereditary by and connected to the rulers of Yogyakarta, this is among the very few instances where royal houses still retain power amidst a declared republic.
A Becak Ride Away
In a city as storied as Yogyakarta, it only makes sense to ride in a rickshaw from the oldest and arguably grandest hotel in central Jogja (the nickname of Yogyakarta), the Hotel Phoenix, to the Royal Palace, the Keraton Yogyakarta. Having paid a decent price of IDR 100,000, for the return trip, including waiting time, I made my way along the main axis of Malioboro towards the monumental Royal Quarter.
Now, Malioboro Street is part of the spiritual and geographic axis of Yogyakarta, linking the Sultans of Yogyakarta, to Mt Merapi to the north to the Southern Ocean to the south. Having just ascended Mt Merapi, a trip to the seat of spiritual power, to the Keraton, the seat of temporal (and arguably some more spiritual power), made sense.
The Inner City
Passing the gates of the Keraton, it gives you a glimpse of what it once was in the 18th century. While other grand palace complexes in Bangkok and Beijing have effectively become tourist spots, with the ‘living palace’ relegated to a footnote, the Keraton Yogyakarta still maintains the ‘living palace’ feel.
As you enter the inner entrances, people still mill about: some tourists, some actual palace staff, some actual palace courtiers. At the outer gate, you are greeted by a post office and ticket office, and for a small fee, including camera fee, you are free to roam most of the palace.
Now, I brought my Royal Javanese fan with me, as it was hot. Little did I realize this was the perfect accessory for this crowd. I followed a few palace courtiers in the main entrance: a simple, elegant construction that followed traditional Javanese-Bali constructs, filled with right angles.
Inside the main courtyard, you will see small pavilions all about, with large, well maintained, mature trees providing shade from the midday sun. In one pavilion was set a stage: the audience pavilion, where the Sultans used to hold court. Nowadays, there are daily cultural performances from 10am until 12pm, with a focus on gamelan, dance or drama, depending on the day.
Conveniently, when I was there, they were doing Javanese Court Gamelan. The sheer dedication, skill and acoustic beauty of this performance mesmerized all who were about, and made me appreciate the refined court culture Southeast Asia has. It also gave me an opportune moment to fan myself, sitting down, appreciating the multiple sopranos, accompanied by the fine brass percussions.
A Living Palace
One thing you will notice as you walk around the palace complex is that is it very much a living palace. Courtiers still live in the inner palace, artisans still produce fine works, musicians still practice their artforms. Courtiers and palace staff, the abdi dalem or inner staff, shuffle about. Some practice their music, others restore the palace fittings. All easily spotted with their distinctive batik and black uniform, a combination of browns and gold, accented in black.
Some sections of the palace are closed to visitors, but on occasion, you can get a glimpse of what lies behind the forbidden gates: courtiers and staff laughing, doing housekeeping, or just generally being themselves.
One thing I like about the palace is the scale. It may be wide, may be open, but it is not overly opulent, neither is it too overbearing. The scale is very human: not set to overwhelm but rather to calm.
As you walk around, you will hear the occasional warm-up of gongs, as the gamelan orchestra practice their singing and dinging. It is at this moment, you realize you are invited in to this sacred, royal, deeply intimate world of Javanese court culture. The pomp, the circumstance, becomes a play, a theatre of state, but rather than imposing will, this incorporates will, and incorporates all.
Respite of Peace
Unlike other palaces, where once you leave, you feel awestruck, even overwhelmed by the sheer grandeur of the place, the Keraton Yogyakarta leaves you feeling at peace. The green spaces calm you, the space gives you peace yet enough human contact to remind you that you are not alone.
The palace courtiers greet you with a smile and a small bow as they shuffle from hall to hall. Paintings by Dutch masters remind you that this Royal House is still Europeanized, yet the little details emphasize their distinct Javanese heritage. You feel like a guest, and you do not feel so much as an intruder, a voyeur, but more like a welcomed spectator to see, to learn, to appreciate their refined culture.
This is when I realize the significance of the axis: where the spiritual and temporal merge, where the strength of the volcano and sea combine with the elegance of culture and human touch.
Agency: Self-tour. There are guides available at the ticket counter.
Preparation: Lots of walking involved, but nothing too strenuous.
Bring: Camera and water. The sights alone will make you snap away.
Wear: Something light. This is the tropics. This is still a working palace, so do not dress as if you were going to the beach.
Time: I spent 1.5 hours in the palace. I was in a bit of a rush, so if you have time, 2 hours is just nice to walk around the palace compounds and catch the performances at 10am.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.