Thursday, June 30, 2011

Release the bats Part 3: Mulu

The next day we hightailed it to the Mulu National Park where we spent a few days surrounded by all manner of crazy animals, insects and tourists. If you don't believe me, put long legged centipede into google and see what you get. That thing should be 2 kilometres underwater it looks so alien. Sadly, I saw that on a night hike so no pictures of that particular creature as my camera sucks. There are also cicadas that make a sound like a drunk trying to play an out of tune violin so as you walked through the forest you were accompanied by this strange insect symphony.

The next day we headed up river to check out more caves so here's the obligatory shot of one of us in a life jacket.

On the way up, we stopped at a local village which has probably the most scenic football fields I've ever seen even though it needed a good whipper snip.

That being said, the locals have shit taste in football teams.

The underwater theme exhibited by the insects previously was pretty prevalent amongst the caves as well as a lot of them looked strangely jellyfish like.

However, regardless of what country it is, (Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand), there always has to be at least one penis rock.

We also signed up for a canopy walk, one of the longest in the world. After three steps on the swinging, unsteady walk, I chickened out and was then the ridicule of some Swiss tourists for the rest of the trip. Brilliant, even the Swiss think I'm a joke.

The highlight of the Mulu Park visit was the MFBC. Technically, it is called the Deer Cave but I called it the Muthafucking Bat Cave because it contained several million bats and was frickin' huge.

Again, to give you an idea of the scale, check out the people in this picture. The roof of the cave shimmered with bats and their screeching sounds (oddly, sounding like sizzling bacon) echoed through the cave. There were also mountains of guano everywhere and our guide astutely told us not to look up with our mouths open. This was particularly exciting for Ruth who not-so-secretly wants to be adopted by David Attenborough and he had filmed some wildlife in these caves. As such she was following the footsteps of her beloved adopted father.

As the sun set, the mass of tourists (mainly Russians who had trekked for hours through the jungle but still seemed to have vodka on them) assembled for one of nature's most dazzling displays. Millions of bats fly out of the MFBC at the same time every night in a strange twisty plume of bat smoke.

It goes for about an hour but as wave after wave of bats flies out you can't help but be in awe of nature - even if you have to keep your mouth shut in the process.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Release the bats part 2: Miri, Niah Caves

The next day we headed to Miri, a slightly sketchy and seedy town. It does have nice sunsets and no pork but its main attraction was being the gateway to Niah caves. Well, it was a choice of visiting the Niah caves where they've found remains dating back some 40,000 years or visit Miri's Petroleum Museum. I was all for the museum but Ruth insisted on the cave - bummer. Next time, Jon, next time.

The walk to the caves was two hours through jungle and we tried to enjoy that as much as possible walking slowly trying to find crocodiles (no luck). We saw some movement in the distance but couldn't be sure that it wasn't more tribal tattooed bogans. However, as the sign says, there is no love allowed in the national park.

The first set of caves you hit is the Trader's Cave where a number of itinerant workers traded and lived for a number of years. Strangely, there was no one there to sell me the bottle of cold water or deodorant I desperately needed.

Next up is the Great Cave, which, you know, is pretty great in terms of both its size and grandeur. It's hard to give you a photo of the scale of this place but this is the view from inside the cave. That little house is under the second column of rock to the left of the picture. It was pretty big and smelled terribly of guano. To be honest, it was pretty exciting as I felt quite adventurous and manly walking through a scary bat filled cave - idiot. At one point you walk for quite a while with no light except your little torch.

We had nothing but our wits to depend upon to survive this - ha! That being said, occasionally our torches illuminated these crazy looking bugs that would give HR Giger nightmares.

If Indiana Jones is still looking for the Ark of the Covenant, it can be found here.

At the end of the Great cave, you made your way to the Painted cave where you could see remnants of ancient cave paintings and graves. Sadly, it was all a bit faded (well, duh) and I couldn't really see the graves because all the historical sites were behind 10 metre high barbed wire. So here's a picture of Ruth to prove that we made it.

(continues - sorry for the delays but consistent internet is hard to find in the jungle. We're currently in Kinabatangan River for a couple of days - lot's of monkeys and flies).


Monday, June 27, 2011

Release the bats Part 1: Kuching

The first thing you notice when you get to Borneo is the smell and that smell is me. If you've ever read the book Perfume by Patrick Süskind, it tells the tale of a perfuming savant who kills young women to bottle their scent. In Borneo, it's a similar story except the perfumer has bottled the sweat of 1000 teenage Slayer fans after three hours in the moshpit. I have never, ever smelt this bad. The reason for this is the heat and humidity. I've lived in the tropics before but never anywhere with such heavy humidity. Every breath is like taking a gulp of water and it's almost hard to breathe at times. I do mention my smell for a reason which I'll get to later, not because I want to gross you out.

Anyhow, we landed in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. Kuching is a town with a thing for cats. Their emblem is a cat, they have statues of cats, a cat museum and cats rather than dogs lie at the feet of men in cafes. Cats were everywhere and Ruth loved them all (except for the ugly ones). I declined to take a photo of this phenomenon but trust me cat fans, your spiritual home is Kuching. As I mentioned in a previous entry, we had a hard time getting anything organised in Kuching so we decided to leave pretty quickly. The one thing we did do was go to the Bako National Park.

Getting there is an adventure in itself as you have to drive thirty minutes out of town and then catch a boat to the entrance of the park. The boat is just a little skip and you seemingly head out into the deepest ocean before you turn into a little island and get off on this tiny jetty. As the only swimming stroke I know is the drown, this was a nervous trip for me.

Here's me enjoying the ride.

Believe it or not, as soon as we got there, these proboscis monkeys turned up. Banging and clattering over the Park HQ roofs, they stationed themselves in trees not far from where we stood. Here's all my camera could muster, a brown blur in a tree but I can assure you, what they say about proboscis monkeys with big noses is true - big nose, big primate.

We signed in for our hike and as we made our way to the beginning we saw a whole family of proboscis walking across the mudflats. Strangely it reminded me of all the tourists with kids, a lot of yelling, goofing off and lagging behind. Monkeys not only share our DNA but the ability to be annoying in groups. It was like a family outing to Skegness.

We started the hike and it was quite hard going at first as we hadn't fully acclimatised to the humidity and it was hard going in the sun.

As we walked, we kept our ears open for any major rustling in the jungle to indicate any primates in the area. At one point, we crouched as we heard a large animal approaching us. It came round the corner, standing tall on it's back legs, shirtless and tribal tattoos on display - the boganus monkey was upon us. We exchanged pleasantries and I asked if the track got harder. "Mate, it's not hard. Matter of fact, it's a bit like Australia." Thanks dude, way to ruin Borneo for me.

To be fair, he was right. The terrain was a lot like some of the hiking I'd done in North Queensland but with freakier bugs and these shimmering pools of urine...

...and Predator blood. Actually, this whole trip has been a flashback to my 80's film loving inner child where being in the jungle and caves of Borneo is a mixture of Predator, Alien, Indiana Jones and the Goonies. I am clearly Chunk in this equation.

We completed the hike in a fair amount of time (about 4 hours) and felt justifiably proud that we'd done it without dying and so soon into the trip. Good work Ruth and Jon. The only downside was that I had that familiar odour that had plagued me since arrival when I ran into a woman I'd worked with some years ago who I really like and respect. As I think this random run in will be the last time I saw her, I told her how much I appreciated working with her. Mid way through the conversation I thought "I'm not she knows who I am and is she holding her nose - OH MY GOD I STINK!" I said farewell and slunk back into the obscurity and I'm sure her memory of visiting Borneo is slightly tainted by being accosted by a sweaty lunatic. Good times...

Continues soon...


Monday, June 20, 2011

Precious and grace: Ubud to Yogyakarta

For a relaxing time... make it Bin Tang time.

So, where were we? Ah yes, we were just finishing up in Ubud which I loved dearly. Sadly, it came to a terrible end. I was talking to some guy about the average wage of an Indonesian worker and it is less than a cup of coffee a day. Knowing that the meals I was eating were considerably more expensive than that and how disgusting it must be for local wait staff to see uneaten food left on the plate, I vowed that I would finish every meal I ate for the rest of the trip.

That night, we celebrated the end of our time in Ubud with a nice dinner. I chose to have dessert but unfortunately I chose a thing called the chocolate divinity. It was a small dessert but had a ratio of a trillion parts sugar per gram with the consistency of cake mix. One mouthful was like taking a hit of LSD with a cocaine chaser - colours started to blur and I saw ghosts in my peripheral vision while talking like a lunatic with delusions of grandeur. This was after one mouthful but with my mind on the Indonesian worker, I ate it all, bite after disgusting bite. Here's some photos of me enjoying dessert:

Sad to say I didn't stray too far from the toilet that night and only made the flight to Yogyakarta the next day by sheer will power and more Immodium than is medically recommended. I did it for the Indonesian worker but I have since learnt my lesson - capitalism is a brutal mistress.

We landed in Yogyakarta and from the chilled out happiness of Ubud, it was quite a shock. The rolling greens had been replaced by a harsh industrial brown both in the sky and street. Our taxi was checked for bombs as we pulled up to the hotel and there was a general unease around the city. I'm not sure if this was terror trial related but the heavy atmosphere wasn't lessened by the roaming police trucks with water cannons nor the ridiculousness of our hotel. Sometimes you book stuff online and don't know what you're getting but this place was fucking well out of order. It was like the days of the Raj, a colonialist nightmare with staff demeaned in safari suits and the door people wore a uniform that looked like it was from Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - only in beige. I don't know what was worse - the preppy white people drinking gin in a palace while the most abject poverty was on display some 10 metres away or that I was one of them. An uncomfortable time was had by all.

Anyhow, the main reason to go to Yogyakarta was to visit two temples. The first was Prambanan, a Hindu temple built in around 850AD. I have to say that it was pretty impressive, covered with a thin sheen of volcanic dust, the ratnas punched into the sky in a manner which was both profound and intimidating. The main obstacle to the enjoyment of the site was the hundreds of school kids in attendance. Usually, this is not a problem but as it turns out this is the curriculum for learning English in Indonesia:

1. Dump students at historical site.
2. Get them to ask every tourist passing by whether they can practise their English.
3. Request awkward picture with tourist as proof that they've completed the assignment.

Not to dump on the worth of the idea as an educational tool, but I thought it was bullshit - kind of like when my teachers used to show videos for the final weeks of class rather than teach. Anyhow, you want to be supportive so you chat politely and then have your photo taken, we must be in about 50 different photos.

Here's Ruth being mobbed by her adoring public.

As always, the details on the carvings is fantastic and considering all of the temples are made without any bonding materials (they piece together like a giant jigsaw puzzle), it is quite astounding. What I found interesting was that the temple was abandoned in 950AD and no one has any idea why (seems a common story amongst temples of this nature). Maybe they were the ancient equivalent of record stores and all the religious types just moved on to downloading and piracy.

All in all, it was had a similar vibe to Angkor Wat but on a much smaller scale - like mini golf is to real golf or Coldplay to Radiohead (too harsh?). Anyhow, I was much more excited about the next leg of the trip which was Borobudur - the great Buddhist complex about an hour's drive from the city which is said to genuinely rival Angkor Wat...

It didn't quite reach those heights and to be honest, initially it was a bit of a let down. Firstly, it was infested with more school groups wanting photos and chats in English so you couldn't really wander around in silent awe of the temple. Worse, as every visitor was made to wear a sarong, I looked particularly stupid making the photos with the locals now extend from schoolkids to entire families laughing heartily at the idiot tourist...

Nice skirt buddy.

Even more disappointing was that the top tiers of the temple were closed for cleaning. The top levels contain a number of bell like stupas which house Buddha statues. If you can reach through the stupa and touch the Buddha, your wish will come true. Not today.

I suspect that the cleaning was a result of Richard Gere coming to visit next week. Damn you Richard Gere, damn you and all your crappy movies.

And then there was piss hat. All in all, a little disappointing and what I thought was going to be the highlight of my trip was a bit of a fizzer. Then something magical happened.

We had booked a sunrise tour of the temple and as I lay down to sleep that night, I was wondering if getting up at 3:55am was a bad idea. As we poked our heads out at 4:30 to start the tour, the world of darkness was very much alive. In the distance, you could hear the cry of the morning prayers, a sound jarring and unrelenting the previous day as it came from multiple directions, clashing and distorting but through the still of the darkened morning, they were a call of pure beauty. Above us, the full moon was half way through an eclipse and the moonlight shrouded the country in pale deathly blue. A heavy mist hung in the air and there amongst it all stood the towering, silent form of Borobudur - ancient and far more beautiful illuminated by both moon and eerie floodlights. This is how this site should be experienced.

We were given flashlights and free reign to explore the temple. Behind the temple, the mist seemed heavier over the forested valley (sorry for the crap photo but you get the idea). Everything in the temple was still, silent and timeless but breathing with calmness and serenity. The eclipse was slowly waning but as it faded, you could see the sky slowly changing as the sunrise approached over the volcano in the distance.

Sometimes it's hard to explain when something changes you but the sheer beauty of those few hours, second to second, breath to breath were so exquisite that I felt altered, better, calmer.

In the end, it didn't even matter that Richard Gere stopped me getting to the top level of Borobudur because I climbed up anyway when the guards weren't looking - suck on that Gere. I guess that calmness didn't last very long.