I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I never thought I’d do, but stripping my clothes off and showering in a jungle waterfall in a monsoon rain was an unexpected twist to my day.
The National Park surrounding the Niah Caves is a solid hour and a half drive from the town of Miri. Tony spent the time giving a long lecture on Japanese campaign in the islands during WW2, while the children peppered him with questions. I knit on Elisha’s second sock, hoping to finish it before Christmas.
It was raining when we parked the car, naturally.
My Dad says that a person would think, from our itinerary, that we planned this trip specifically with a mind to visiting everywhere at the worst possible time of year. I can see his point. We weathered the monsoon in Thailand and we’re getting round two on Borneo, a fact I would be extra glad for before the day was out.
Once across the (crocodile infested, although we didn’t see one) river the two mile hike through deep jungle is spectacular. Although far from handicap accessible and definitely not a hike I’d want to make with questionable knees, it was a pleasant 3 km wander back to the cave beneath a living canopy of green. We stopped to examine bright red millipedes, flat shelled snails, acorns that had flower-like hats and giant ferns sporting spikes you wouldn’t want to have to hack your way through with a machete. Elisha mentioned that the big trees reminded him of Ents, we pretended we were in Jurassic Park. Ez asked if he could have a snack yet.
The Niah Caves are pretty fantastic.
They’re big limestone caves in a karst formations formed by water, following the last ice age, by the best guess. The huge chambers are filled with swifts, the birds that are famous for their nests that are harvested for bird’s nest soup, and bats; lots and lots of bats.
We had the cave to ourselves (apparently no one else hikes two miles on an intermittently rainy day) and the children capered around on the rocks exploring as if they were the first to find it, playing with the echoes and disturbing the eerie silence with, “Hey Mom, come see THIS!”
The rain started to fall in earnest when we were in the cave. We stood on the platform over a hundred feet up, watching, in awe, as a grey curtain was pulled across the mouth and wave after wave of fine mist blanketed the cavern. “This is going to make it slippery, children! Watch your step!” Tony admonished, but they had already disappeared into the next chamber with their flashlights.
The water tumbling in long veils through the holes in the roof of the cavern was breathtaking and we stood for a long while watching the liquid light shine in the darkness before turning and heading back toward the lights we saw hovering near the ceiling.
A couple of men with great big headlamps were swinging from ropes and rickety bamboo ladders, stories above our heads, collecting bird’s nests in plastic grocery sacks. This cave produced 70% of the Malaysian harvest of swift nests last year, at 18,500 kg. That’s a lot of nests.
Hannah made shadow puppets on the wall and used her Gollum voice to sing to the boys, who laughed in appreciation.
We made up songs in the dark:
(sing to the tune of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head)
“Birds nests taste yummy in my soup!
But it’s a drag to wash off all the gross bat poop!
Caving’s dark and cold, but,
raindrops are falling on the roof,
Ez squealed like a girl as the floor started to move and hundreds of cockroaches scurried out of his way.
We found a fallen nest, with two, tiny baby birds who had dashed themselves to oblivion on the stone floor.
The rain had let up some as we picked our way over the glossy brown surface, past the archeological dig, where the oldest human remains in Southeast Asia, thus far, were found: skulls dating back 40,000 years and establishing the early arrival of homo sapiens to the islands. “Careful kids, it’s slick,” Tony reminded them.
It’s always in the moment when you’re sure that you’re in the clear, when the finish line is just beyond reach, that disaster strikes.
I couldn’t tell you how it happened. It was just after I’d passed out the swiss cake rolls and we’d gobbled them down in the half-dark before working our way down off of the rocks and back onto the wooden planked trail. Somehow, I slipped. First one foot, then the other, and then I fell, right on my rear end, in the guano. I had that half second to collect myself and think, “Well this is a fine mess,” or some paraphrase thereof, before my footing gave way under me and I began sliding, out of control, right on my… posterior… down the long hill of ankle deep bat… spore, as Gabe is politely calling it.
I was shouting. The kids were shouting. Ezra dove after me to save me, Hannah, wisely, grabbed him by the back of the neck and prevented his well intentioned, if ill-conceived chivalry. There was no helping me, I was up that proverbial creek and with no paddle in sight.
There is no quiet like the echoing cave quiet of five people waiting to see if their precious mother is harmed, and once deciding she is not, trying to decide if this is a laugh or cry moment.
Clearly, it was a laugh moment.
And so it was that I came to be stripping off clothes in a jungle waterfall and scrubbing bat… dung… out places that bat dung should never be. The boys staked out the trail to keep other hikers at bay while I washed my birthday suit and Hannah narrated for her videologue. I shudder to think of where that will end up.
Two miles is rather a long hike in a monsoon rain when one is dripping bat-poo tea from the fringe of every garment and while one’s dear family is heckling for all they’re worth. What, exactly, is it that makes it SO FUNNY when Mom crashes and burns?
“Well mom, look at it this way, just think how many cave people must have slid down that same hill covered in guano over the centuries,” Ez sagely contributed.
“What? Is that supposed to make me feel better? Because it doesn’t!” I grumbled.
“Hmph,” he replied, mystified. “Well, then you’re just not thinking about it right!” he declared as he stomped off down the path.
“Hey, maybe you’ll turn into bat-girl now!” Tony snidely winked.
I just rolled my eyes and kept walking.
Should you ever come to Miri, definitely head out to see the caves. I would, however, like to make a few recommendations:
- Do not wear your white skirt, you’ll just have to throw it away.
- Mind your step, it’s slippery.
- Bring your thesaurus, you’ll need it to look up every synonym for sh*t to keep your story clean.
Stay tuned next week for a new episode: Same bat time. Same bat channel.