April 15, 2015
Some places are like certain people. You have to pass through them in order to arrive at where you are supposed to be. They may be potentially interesting or monotonous, they are even necessary, but they are mere transitory posts. Downtown Miri is like that. As soon as time and memory turns its wheels, these sorts of places and faces fade into a farrago of blurry speed lines.
Mulu was the destination; the substance of which adventurous childhood imaginations are made. These are the sorts of places that, akin to those rare people one encounters, cause consequences on your art and on your life.
Before 1991, remote Mulu was only accessible through a 12-hour journey by riverboat and longboat from Miri. As our small airplane approached Mulu, the serpentine curves of the Kinabatangan River below appeared as a hieroglyph; Nature’s sacred symbol signifying that we were way past the oil-driven city of Miri and that we were entering an entirely different and mystical realm.
The dramatic mountains surrounding the landing strip were reminiscent of prehistory. Perhaps I would not have been too surprised if pterodactyls flew alongside the plane or if a stampeding herd of brontosauruses crossed the runway. The John Williams theme was already playing on my mind anyway.
At last, the fantasies fueled by erstwhile National Geographic magazine centerfolds were before our eyes.
It felt wonderfully right to be there. The travel partner has had Borneo on his mind, and I have had Borneo in my blood, for the longest time.
There was once a Bornean Datu who found his way to my Mindanao and was thought to have magical powers for being able to capture the heart of beautiful Princess Daulanay despite the obstacles that her strict father set before her suitors.
There are sensationalized versions of my ancestral roots, and their noble titles have been diluted through generations. I am no princess and I do not wish to sensationalize. I am also uncertain about magic powers in my genealogy.
Our arduous ascent and descent to and from the alien Pinnacles made me realize why someone from that part of the world found it easy to surmount whatever hindrances there may have been between their love for each other. Conquering obstacles for love, perhaps that was the real magic in the story, but I digress…
The Pinnacles of Mount Api are peculiar limestone formations that each rise up to 150 feet. A view of these wonders requires a physically challenging three-day journey that entails snaking through the river on a longboat and having to get out in shallow water and push the boat several times, trekking for hours in the rainforest with two kinds of leeches attacking from the ground and from the trees, trying to avoid gigantic ants and the many insects one could no longer identify, climbing vertical ladders, hanging on to nothing but iron rungs and ropes – holding on being the only option, aside from falling on the sharp rocks at the bottom.
But the rainforest was a botanist’s haven with all the pitcher plants, gigantic trees and ferns, and exotic flowers. The insects contributed to the jungle rhythm while the birds provided the melodies. Butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies in bold choreography flashed wings of turquoises, reds, and purples we’d never seen before! Camping at the most idyllic camping spot by the river surrounded by karst cliffs that turned to gold through the alchemy of a sunset, and where rain lulled you to sleep was almost unreal.
And yet, it was especially the caves that left me in awe. Before we set off to the Pinnacles, we had been to four of Mulu’s numerous caves, those architectural marvels carved and designed by nature and time.
Deer Cave is so huge that it can fit five cathedrals the size of St. Paul’s in London, and it was considered the largest cave passage in the world before the discovery of Son Doong Cave in Vietnam. At dusk, a cloud of millions of bats spiral from Deer Cave’s openings to feast on insects. “Millions” is not an exaggeration. We witnessed this spectacle as the colonies put on a seemingly never-ending air show against a clear but fading sky and a solitary half moon.
There are many cave systems in Borneo, but the Clearwater Cave System is one of the biggest cave systems in the world and is believed to be the largest cave in the world by volume. Explorers in the 80’s mapped and discovered most of the entire cave system by dyeing the clear water that ran through it. Its chambers and passages span 207 kilometers and still counting. Some of its chambers are still unexplored.
On a private spot in Clearwater Cave listening to the lucent music of the water and the silence, I thought, isn’t this how you fall in love with a person? When you realize that their subterranean regions hold more wonders than the splendor of their exterior?