With plenty of pictures because I made you wait so long.
I had heard that the crowds can be brutal on Mt. Kinabalu, so I asked our guide if we could leave the half-way point earlier than the crowds. "3:15," he said, referring to the AM.
"I know, I know, but everybody else will head to the summit at 3. Do you think we could leave at 2:30?" I asked.
"No, no. 3:15."
Twelve hours later, our group of four being the last to leave the lodge, I was standing behind a line of tourists on the side of a mountain. I hate tourists and I love mountains which converge to make one helluva situation. "There are more places on the mountain than the summit," I reluctantly reminded my self under my breath. The line inched forward toward the small checkpoint where everyone was bottlenecked. Small lights dotted the black sky where the summit lay, a good two kilometers climb ahead. I knew that some climbers had had at least an hour head start at this point and that some quiet time alone at the summit was all but lost. "Just enjoy the mountain," I reminded myself again.
I wanted to make it to the top not just to be first, or to have the summit to myself for a while, or to fly by everyone to the top, or to pretend that I was one of those mountain racers who race up the thing every year, or to be the best, or to feel really good about myself,or - well, it wasn't going to happen anyway, ok?! We left too late! But by the time we had gotten to the check point I had, in all seriousness, let go of being first and just walked.
The crowd began to thin out as the air did the same and I had stretches of dark, crisp, clean mountain air to myself. I couldn't as much see the bare rock faces stretching out on each side of me as feel them. "Hey!" As I approached the a light in front of me I could see it was Andre, one of the German guys in our group. "How you doing?"
"Fine. Hey turn your light off for a second."
Andre did and we hiked for a minute or so. I guess he didn't like my explanation of "to feel close to the mountain" very much, so he dropped back after a few minutes to hike avec le torche. With my light on, I continued forward largely by myself, but with a few lights off in the distance ahead of me. The patch of dark sky I was assuming to be the summit still had no indication of people on it, but it was probably a false summit. There had to be people up there by now.
But there wasn't! I had heard from a friend that a group of French guys where the first ones out, and as I passed the last group of lights, they were French! At the top, I had a beautiful, brisk, dark 10 minutes alone with the mountain before the crowds came up for sunrise.
While the sunrise was beautiful, it was actually the sunset the night before (from halfway up the mountain) that was the most magnificent. Sunsets have been described by much more prolific writers than myself, but this one deserves the effort anyway. I have included the picture, but neither words nor high count megapixels can do it justice. Michaelangelo would have cried because the colors would have been impossible to create on his pallet. The spectrum from reds, oranges and gold to deep dark celestial blues could not have been wider. God himself would have said,"Damn, I'm good!" As if the sunset wasn't enough, a distant thunderstorm to the south treated us to lightning which itself was accompanied by a rainbow high up on the mountain. It was like living in painting, only no no one could ever capture its magnificence on canvas or on film. It was beautiful.
CO2 Concentration Gradient
I must also warn you that any tone of complaint or whining in this entry should be taken with an Einsteinian chunk of relativity. I realize that as all (most) of you wake up everyday to go to work, earn money, or sit through lectures, I get to prance around Southeast Asia. How can he complain when he is on vacation? I respect that and I'm sure that soon enough a parasite or cryptosporidia will seek your revenge for you in my stomach when I drink from the wrong stream. Until then, just enjoy the story.
The darkness was gone, out of touch, once in reach but now gone. It will remain unfinished business. My disappointment is abated only by the fact that the emptiness will remain for the next billion years.
The Sarawak Chamber is the largest known underground chamber in the world. It can hold 16 Boeing 747s. The Sistine Chapel would fit inside. I was only 3 hours from it. There were no guides. Damn.
Mulu National Park is perhaps Borneo's most popular one because it is the location of some of the most impressive caves in the world. The combination of limestone, warm temperatures and heavy rainfall have formed some of the biggest caves in the world amongst pristine rain forest. It is truly a sight to see.
In contrast, the scheduling at the park is one of the worst in the world.
"When can I visit the Racer Cave?"
"Tomorrow at 9am"
"Excellent, I'll sign up for that."
"Sorry, it's full."
"When is the next one?"
"No guides. Christmas."
"Well when can I go?"
And so on...
The guided trips to the Sarawak Chamber (my ultimate reason for visiting Mulu) were rare to leave from the park, which did not allow non-park, local guides to lead their own trips. And so to the local bar I went... After watching a game of gin rummy, the uncle of the guy who was playing cards who led trips to the Sarwak Chamber finally arrived.
He introduced himself in excellent english and explained how expensive the trip would be all to look at a huge black void (yeah, I thought, but it is the huge black void). Interestingly, the park didn't seem to care that he led trips on his own and that they even provided him with helmets. This guy knew his stuff, too. When Plant Earth was being filmed, he was the local guide who took the guides into the chamber and other various caves in the area to do the filming. With that resume, I took his advice to forget the Chamber and do the Clearwater Connection, a wet, technical 8 kilometer narrow passage that was much more fun. So, as some fortune cookie must say, when in doubt about big caves, listen to old guy at bar.
As it turned out, the park had a guide available to the Clearwater Connection in two days. Seeing as that I had no time line, I signed up and waited. And I would've been rather bored (I had already seen the other big ticket caves at this point) had I not met Microwave.
Microwave was a plumber from Germany traveling the world looking for places where there were no microwaves so he could "see what it feels like." As we shared a table for dinner one night at the local canteen he explained to me how microwaves on the Canary Islands (where he had lived for 7 years) started effecting his meditation and the local people. Even here in Mulu, he said, he can see how people are a bit off; just look at how they use calculators to do simple math at the register. Withholding my diatribe on Occam's Razor (think "education", not microwaves), I continued to listen about cell phones, mysterious frequencies, reality-mind devices, and most importantly the caves he had found that were not open yet. I sat up a bit in my seat. "Yeah," he said,"there are two caves that have the wooden walkways, but no lights. I think they will open up in a few months." Needless to say, my next two days were occupied exploring these "closed" caves, of which the unfinished pathways are shown below (300m in complete darkness alone...yes, spooky).
Finally! Tomorrow we go to Clearwater Connection! It's not Sarawak Chamber, but it's a long, technical cave! What I came for!
"How's the water level for Clearwater?"
"Looks good. It would have to rain all night for it to get too high."
3:37pm - 8:44am
The wheels of the Twin Otter aircraft heading out of Mulu, including angry caver(I'm sorry, non-caver), lift off.
I ate the wild boar.
I promised myself (and my dad) before I left on this trip that I would break my vegetarianism if it meant respecting or experiencing a new culture. I mean, Mili cooked me this wild boar. And someone had [i]hunted[i] it, probably within the past day. It was time to eat up. And I did. As a matter of fact I ate a bunch of meat that week as I visited the homes of other people in the village with Lian, as is the Kelabit custom on Christmas Day. There was satay, wild boar, venison, cakes, Bario rice (of course), sweets, dried anchovies with peanuts (you'd be surprised, actually...), and tons of other food that was generously shoved in my face. As was the alcohol. There was the beer, which was served traditionally luke warm, and then the local rice wine (which is 50% alcohol by volume, mass, any any other way you measure it). As each place offered us some of their own, "beer before liquor...." went out the window. Between the meat and the alcohol, my stomach was like Michael Vick's basement on betting night.
Lian was my local guide for my stay in Bario, the small town in the Kelabit Highlands of central Borneo. The people here originally lived in longhouses with the entire community under one roof. For sustenance they grew rice and used the cast amount of resources of the jungle. Both the longhouses and use of the jungle, or "supermarket" as Lian called it, still remain, but are now alongside many more private dwellings, a tele-center, and about 8 trucks. The land is beautiful with the rice fields laying beneath rugged jungle mountains. It was here that I was going to spend the next four days which happen to constitute the busiest days in Bario - Christmas time.
Douglas waited impatiently in the driver seat of his pickup. He was chairmen of the committee organizing the Christmas Eve events and it was taking a bit long for Lian to come out of his house. We had driven from his house (where I was staying). After picking up Lian (and actually anyone else who wanted a ride) we would head to midnight mass. I was a bit nervous about going to mass. I had been to masses before, but this was a little different. First of all, I would be the only American there. Now in America it is not necessarily a huge surprise nowadays if you are not Christian. But here...well I'm white and from America so I [i]must[i] be Christian, right? I mean we are after all the un-official, official Chrisitian nation. This, along with the language barrier, made me a bit more nervous than usual of any misunderstandings about participation, involvement, etc.. I mean what if they take communion? As a Jew I have my limits: I might eat pork, but not Jesus.
But I had Lian! Ah yes, Lian my faithful guide, a 60 year old 55 year old man who had spent twenty years working for Shell as a designer and the past ten years back in his hometown farming and guiding. While he was religious, he didn't seem to keen on churchgoing. "It's all a bit...pretentious," he had said earlier that day on a hike, and indicated that he preferred to just read his bible at home. "We'll just sit in the back," he said, and I knew that later that night at mass I would be ok, as long as I had Lian. And then we left without him.
We drove past the beautiful school, the rice fields, and all the people walking, riding, or scootering to the church. The large multipurpose-type building was located towards the center of town and all the surrounding village churches attended mass here for this night. There were lots of people. As we pulled up and I got out of the truck, as if through divine intervention Lian hopped off the back - I don't know how he got there, for we hadn't stopped since his home. "Hey!," he said. Good luck and friendly people always there for a smile. I shouldn't have been surprised; I was in Bario.
And now off to the new land in the sea, New Zealand.