As the night falls in, the rainforest bursts into life. Close your eyes for a second and listen to how hundreds of frogs, crickets and other creatures play their tunes in a wonderful orchestra which needs no director. You have seen this on documentaries before of course, but now it is a different story. Now you are right in the middle of one.
Foreword and two suggestions
Photographing wildlife can be a little bit trickier than taking pictures of buildings and ambulances. You see, animals don’t stay still. I do ask them, politely, to hang onto that branch for a little while, but it is all in vain.
This means means that, unfortunately, one of my favourite months of the trip comes with less pictures. To make it up to you, I urge you to watch a couple of episodes from BBC’s Planet Earth that were partly shot in Borneo. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, they are the perfect introduction to this post.
Planet Earth – Jungles
Planet Earth – Caves
What the hell, watch the whole series, it is stunning.
A tropical rainforest
Malaysia, despite being a relatively young country, boasts a fascinating history full of buccaneers, conspiracy and culture exchanges. European and Asian empires have fought hard and long over this area, with and without the support of the local people. The result is an unexpected mixture of different people: Malay, Indian, Chinese all coexist, mostly peacefully, in a country that is also home to Filipino sailors and indigenous tribes.
Take Kuching for instance. In just a few streets one can get lost in the smell of Indian spices, wander through a couple of Chinese temples and admire some quirky street art before enjoying Malaysia’s traditional dish, Laksa.
The city serves as the gateway to a handful of National Parks, the most popular being Bako, our next destination. Our arrival was something special, landing on a beautiful beach before being welcomed by some special residents. A sign perhaps of exciting things to come.
Here, macaques circle around the park’s headquarters, waiting for visitors to lower their guard so that they can snatch an early snack. Cheeky little buggers!
But it is not just macaques that you need to watch out for. Ants and mosquitoes frequent the jungle trails and their bite is not pleasant, true story. At least this little viper was having a nap when we walked by.
As our first day was coming to an end, the star of the show made an appearance, in style. A group of ten or fifteen Proboscis Monkeys, including some little ones, came out of nowhere with their funny noses and noises not caring much about the two Spaniards that were staring at them in awe.
Despite all that, the day was quiet in comparison to the night walk. Both literally and figuratively speaking. In the darkness of the night, a different type of residents thrive: frogs of all sorts including the poisonous rock frog, tarantulas, spiders, crickets and grasshoppers, geckos, flying lemurs and sleeping kingfishers. Yay!
Finding the entrance to the batcave
Getting to Gunung Mulu National Park, in the middle of Malaysian Borneo, involves a 60-seater plane and… a walk from the airport. Yes, the entrance to the park is that close to the arrivals lounge. And with an entrance this cool, you know there is going to be something good on the other side of that bridge.
One of the main attractions must be the Deer Cave, which takes its name from the deer that used to gather here to find shelter and to lick salt-bearing rocks. It is the second largest cave passage in the world and it is smelly, very smelly.
Smelly? Yes, millions of bats call this huge cave home and they produce humongous amounts of guano (aka bat poo). They go hunting in the evenings, storming out of the cave in an impressive display that sends them out into the night, in search for insects of all sorts.
Whilst walking around the park certainly feels less adventurous than Bako, there are still nice surprises along the way. But you do need to pay attention:
That’s right. A stick insect. And a big one. What? You can’t see it?? Let’s have a closer look.
Once again though, it was the night walk that really got us excited. In the middle of heavy rain, armed with a rather weak torch, we followed our guide into the jungle. The variety of wildlife was overwhelming: white geckos, a tiny snake, spiders, colourful caterpillars, centipedes, millipedes, huge grasshoppers, lizards and even a scorpion.
Perhaps our mistake in Mulu was not to tackle some of the adventure caves or the famous trek to the Pinnacles. Next time. Now, let’s get some local food and get ready for something different.
An unlikely neighbour: Brunei
Borneo is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and a small country called Brunei. Here, the landscape is familiar to that of its neighbours, but the tropical rainforests have not been touched in favour of palm oil plantations. There is no need for that, as there is plenty of the other oil.
No one knows what will happen when the black gold runs out, but for now, money is not a problem. And what do you do with all that money? Spend it of course. In 1958, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque was completed. At a cost of around 8 million USD, the Bruneian Sultan spared no expense: imported Italian marble pillars and floor, granite from Shanghai, crystal chandeliers from England, ornate carpets from Saudi Arabia and a main dome covered in pure gold.
Pretty but lacking in soul. Nothing like Iran.
Turtles and sharks, schools of barracudas, octopus, lion fish, box fish, puffer fish, crocodile fish… ah yes, we finally arrive to that tiny little island off the east coast of Malaysia.