Kuching means ‘cat’ in Malay, and you don’t have to look very far to find evidence of it’s association. Stone statues of cat families and sculptures of proud bronze felines overlook many of the city’s roundabouts, and adorn it’s manhole covers. Kuching has a cool charm, an easy magnetism centered around it’s riverside boardwalk and surrounding markets and restaurants. At night the boardwalk melts into two halves, an elongated, shimmering twin of coloured night lights floating carelessly in the reflection of the river. Kuching reminds me of Sydney’s Darling Harbour on a quiet weeknight. I had ten days to spend there but thought it a bit long. So I changed my plans.
The plane’s propellors whirled to a stop one by one as the pilot parked at Mulu National Park terminal. The landing had been bumpy, swerving nervously in response to imperfections on the tarmac of the jungle airstrip. ‘Jungle airstrip’, I smiled to myself. It was my childhood of Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Talespin and Tintin. Mulu National Park, in Sarawak’s far north, was an entirely different beast to Bako N.P. I liked Bako for it’s wildlife and ‘do it yourself’ trekking. Amazing natural formations were Mulu’s claim to fame, boasting some of the world’s biggest caves, tour guides a nessecity.
I began to see why guides were required to see Mulu. Boardwalks served as wooden chaperones to trek starting points. Halfway into the Deer Cave, the largest cave passage on earth, the trail disappeared. The air above us chattered and squeaked as millions of bats formed a black ceiling, skyscrapers above our heads. Traversing stone fields and landslides soon made way for rope climbing and scaling guano-covered boulders; crossing cavern rivers at the expense of dry shoes. A cold river yawned from the mouth of the great cave, and we followed it, step by sopping wet step, over rocks and past schools of fish, as our guide warned us to be careful of the slip.
There were 7 of us; myself, our guide, a French woman of about 40, and Irish couple, and Cindy and Adeline, the French girls. 3 days prior I had met them in Bako. The next night, for a drink in Kuching, the girls offering an invitation to join them in Mulu. I didn’t have to think twice. I turned up at the airport 2 hours before the flight, ticketless and without accommodation booked, and yet somehow I was now in Mulu, lady luck mercifully providing a vacancy in the dorm.
Cindy called out. “Adeline! Hurry up!”. Adeline was falling behind as we veered out of the river and up the steep bank. Just 10 metres away, you could lose sight of someone. Mosses and creeping vines dictated the bright green of the undergrowth, as dry dinner plate-sized leaves crunched underfoot. The party rallied at a rocky waterfall for lunch. “Slippery”, our guide warned, as we inspected our legs for leeches, burning and pulling away the hungriest parasites. The warning wasn’t enough, however, the French woman had slipped, the group bandaging a deep cut to her left eye. The guide was on the radio and we began back.
The rescue team had picked her up by motorbike, even bringing a wheelchair just in case. The rest of us sat by the mouth of the Deer Cave, waiting for dusk, drying our shoes. Adeline pointed at my foot; it was drenched in blood. A leech had ripped off in my shoe, the bite refusing to clot. As dusk fell, our reward for the long day’s hike was a rippling streamer of bats, as they left the cave in mass exodus, long black trails flying into the darkening blue sky.