After a late night with the bats, we needed an early start and take advantage of the relatively cool morning air. At 8:45 we got into a longboat for a trip upriver.
A longboat ride
A long boat is a hardwood boat, just narrow enough for one person to sit on their butt. It fits a total of nine people, two of which are a captain who works the motor, and spotter who sits at the front with a stick and paddle. The slightest of movements (like turning your head to see what is behind) causes shifts in the boat’s balance.
Because it was dry season, and there had been no rain recently, the water levels were really low. I could not believe they were operating boats. Up we went with the 15 horsepower motor just inches into the water. The river would narrow and become more shallow and we’d hear rocks scrapping the bottom. The spotter would take out his stick, stand, and pole the boat forward. Sometimes the boat would just rest on rocks and the spotter would look at the captain shake his head and smile as if to say: “This guys are just too heavy”. He then jumped out and pulled, or the spotter and the captain would jump out and manually pull and push the boat up. As the river was one to two feet deep in certain sections, that had to be done. After the second time I started to feel uncomfortable that the spotter and captain had to work so hard for our convenience. In all about six or seven times they had to really work to get the boat upstream, and in one case another boat operator came over help.
It wasn’t just the depth that was problematic. There were rocks, trees, narrow passage ways — it was technical work. The captain was skillful and patient.
Along the short ride upstream we saw slices of river life. People getting ready for the day. Women, ankle deep in the river, bathed in sarongs. A little boy stood naked while brushing his teeth in the river. Some people walked down to collect water, while other tended to their boats. Some tended to fishing lines. One man fished with a mask and spear gun. Small children waved from the banks of the river.
We stopped at a small village for a “cultural experience”. The boat stopped and we walked under the “Salamat Bantu Bungan” banner. Locals setup tables along the walkway with rattan weaved baskets and handicrafts for sale. We continued past the stilted houses, into an open field flanked by larger, more modern stilted longhouses and turned to the “Tamu” or market place. There were nearly 20 vendors selling their wares. All looked to be hand made. Some of the vendors were old women, a few old men, and some young girls. Upon entering there were 10 informational placards to read about the Penan people. I took pictures and transcribed them here if you want to read more and get your own interpretation (Click Here).
The gist of the placards showed how the benevolent colonizers, religious missionaries, and current government helped the Penan out of their nomadic way of life. Of course there are other sides to this story. Alex Shoumatoff wrote a piece in the Smithsonian attempting the capture the plight of the Penan (Click Here). News reports (Click Here) show a much less rosier view of what is happening to the Penan. One view of history is that colonizers, missionaries, and government practices helped the Penan by improving their healthcare, education, and giving them a means to fit into a colonizer’s view of civilization. An alternate view of events was assimilation and segregation to a service class. Once outsiders can box a nomadic people in, they can lay claim to all the other land for different purposes. Not-so-surprisingly, that is what has and continues to happen as timber and palm oil companies slice up and acquire land the Penan previously used for centuries (A recent news report about Penan protesting the Timber and Palm Oil Industry land grabs (Click Here)). I tried to ask Wandi about this and he said: “There are a lot of different people here in Mulu, I speak parts of 15 native languages.” The content was lost in translation I guess.
Filled with these emotions, I knew there was little we could do to fix any of the current situation in the 15 minute time allotment in that village, except leave as much money behind as possible. As we were travelling for a year, we knew we couldn’t acquire things, fortunately there was an opportunity to pay to practice our blow-pipe skills. The whole family had a go. Luckily we didn’t kill anyone….yet. It looks like with my family of trained assassins, I’m the one who needs to look out.
The Wind Cave
Now known to be an offshoot of the larger Clearwater Cave system, the is a short climb up steps from the river. The clicking from swiftlets finding their nest is one of the first experiences. Our guide Wandi explained that when they found this cave there was evidence it had been used for burials. We entered the passageway which was similar in size to the Lang cave, but devoid of any stalactites. When the chambers narrowed and we went through a sinkhole area we felt the wind. There was some ‘Mulu Perfume’ in the air, but the cool breeze overshadowed any aromatic discomfort. We descended into the “kings chamber” where Wandi challenged us to find the king. “I think there is a lot of things here to see, if you do not see anythings but rocks, maybe your imagination is not that good.”
A gauge in the chamber told us the humidity was 41% and the temperature was 25C. The lower humidity along with the wind made this cave quite pleasant. Upon exiting the cave, even though it was warm, we all opted to walk to the next cave entrance rather than make our captain and spotter suffer further.
The Clear Water Cave system is the largest interconnected cave system in the world and at 227 kilometers is the eighth longest. After our walk to the entrance, we were temped to go swimming in the cool river; however we knew the river would be even more rewarding after a cave exploration. We climbed the many steep steps to the cave entrance. (Who needs a stair-master and a steam room, when you can just hike up stairs in the steamy jungle?) Kylie was NOT a fan of all the stairs. She complained on the way up, and even more on the way down.
Moreover, it further annoyed Kylie that after walking up a bunch of steps, we had to walk back down to go through the caverns.
It was much larger than the Wind and Lang caves, but not as big as the Deer cave. Wandi pointed out some endemic fauna around us and gave us some facts about the cave. He show us some cynobacteria that make needle-like formations pointing to the light. We also learned that the rainwater picks up CO2 creating a weak carbonic acid that dissolves the limestone. This process is ongoing. The river moving through the caverns removes about 20 tons of limestone a year. Wandi further explained that one of his favorite tours is to lead an eight kilometer adventure tours through he passages that link the Wind and Clearwater caves.
The boardwalk took us over and along the river, then up to a skylight where the sun streamed into the cave. (More stairs, sorry Kylie). At one point we saw fossilized remains of a wild boar that were hundreds of years old.
A awesome river swim
We made through an amazing exploration of the cave biomes and were sufficiently exhausted. Dripping with sweat we couldn’t get into the river lagoon fast enough. The water was too cold for Kylie and Alyssa and Sharleen were a little slow to get in, but floating on the limestone enriched river water looking up the jungle canopy was a special experience that will never be taken away.