Day 232: Without A Paddle

Tue. 2nd April 2013

Our longboats for the easy part of our trekIt was a very pleasant surprise to wake feeling like I’d had a good night’s sleep. Still an early start at 6am, but even that was later than some we have had, and with a comfy bed, a pleasant temperature and surprisingly few bugs we woke feeling refreshed. The consensus among the group was that shared rooms or not, this was our best accommodation yet in Borneo.

Our lodge, better than you might suspectWe are ready to get going and head out into the jungle. The first stretch is in boats heading up the Sungai Melinau before we need to disembark and start trekking. Before we get going, though, we are warned that the boats are small and that the river is shallow in places and we may need to get out to paddle and help push the boat up and over the shallows. So, it’s on with walking sandals rather than boots and we load up, sitting one behind the other in our little convoy of three longboats.

Heading off up riverPretty soon, it feels like we are real jungle travellers. The water is a soupy brown, and the jungle comes right down to the water’s edge with creepers and vines trailing into the water. Even though sitting cross-legged on low seats close to the wooden floor of the little boats is not the most comfortable way to travel, we are grateful that we don’t need to start walking just yet.

Man with blowpipeThere are two stops to be made close to the Park HQ not long after setting off. The first of which is at the village of the Penan tribe (or Orang Ulu – Ulu people) one of the indigenous tribes still living here, and the only people allowed to hunt and to fell trees in the park. It is a little too set up for tourists with a small craft market but nevertheless it was interesting to see the huts on stilts. We also had a chance to try our skills with a blowpipe – another reminder of their headhunting past and those, long ago, geography lessons.

The entrance to Clearwater CaveThe second stop is to explore two of the other nearby caves – firstly Wind Cave (though we only detected a faint breeze in a couple of places) and then Clearwater Cave. As yesterday, there are walkways and stairs that lead us around the caves and we get to see more stalactites and stalagmites and other contorted rock shapes. Again, we think about the power of the water that carved out these caves and the time it took to create the rock formations.

Stairs going all the way down the Mines of MoriaClearwater Cave extends for some 130km back into the mountains (how do you go about surveying a cave system?). There are 200 steps leading up to the entrance which we are told is good practice for tomorrow – if we do it another 10 times. We only explore a little way, walking through some of the huge caverns, working our way into the mountain until we come to an underground river. At one point we are looking across a cavern and down on flights of zigzag stairs that for all the world looked like the set for one of the subterranean scenes from the Lord of the Rings. More prosaically, in the entrance we saw the indigenous single-leaved plants that always face west toward the setting sun.

Punting at the frontAfter lunch, it is back on to the boats. The river is very changeable. In places the water is smooth and flat, elsewhere it is much shallower and the surface is lumpy and bumpy mirroring the stones on the river bed. You can see the gradient in places. The technique seems to be to pick up speed and charge up the shallow bits. The man at the front uses a pole to punt the boat over the stones and the driver lifts the propeller out of the water. Although the bottom scrunches on stones a few times our driver and pole man only need to get out twice to manhandle the boat up. Fortunately, we’re able to stay in the boat.

There's a path somewhereVery soon it is time to start walking and so we leave the boats, don our walking boots and load up our packs. It is 8.5km to Camp 5 and the expectation is that it will take us 3 hours to get there – a slow pace by UK standards, but this is the jungle and it is hot and humid. There is a path that is marked with stones but it is wet and muddy. Off the path, it looks to be impossible to get through – how on earth did the early explorers manage it? One of the very few disappointments of our time in South America was not being able to visit the Amazon. Here in the Borneo jungle, the other of the world’s two oldest rainforests, we are making up for that.

Pit viper - I wasn't as close as it looks!This is real Indiana Jones stuff, complete with bouncy rope and ladder suspension bridges. The wildlife plays its part too as we spot both male and female pit vipers within 20 yards of each other. Both were balanced on branches a metre off the ground just waiting patiently – close enough to photo, but not too close. Everywhere, there were butterflies fluttering around though they proved to be even more of a challenge to photograph.

Following in Indiana Jones footstepsTo nobody’s surprise it starts raining at 3 o’clock and we still have 4km (another hour and a half) to go, so its on with the ponchos. In this climate putting a plastic poncho on is like wearing a portable sauna. We were going to get wet regardless of whether poncho was on or off and at least with it off, there is a bit of a breeze. However, the priority was keeping our daypacks (and hence our spare clothes) dry and so, it was poncho on, head down, grit your teeth and keep walking.

Our bed for the night - first use of our mossie netsSo, we were very happy to see the buildings of Camp 5 even when we saw how much more basic, than last night, the accommodation was going to be. There is no door to the dormitory rooms and there is a gap between the walls and ceiling to let whatever breeze there is flow through. “Hang sweaty clothes outside” is the instruction – apparently, the sweat attracts the bees. Down either side of a central walkway is a wooden platform with thin mattresses (think gym mattress) for sleeping on. The camp wasn’t full so at least we were able to grab a second mattress for a bit more padding.

Javan rat snakeBy the time I arrived, I was so soaked with sweat that there was little point in changing before going for a swim in the river. Instead it was shoes off and plunge in. So good to be in the cool water after the hot jungle. We even timed our swim right, as shortly after getting out the water level rose rapidly flooding the place we’d left our towels.

Frog of unknown variety - no flash!Once we were clean and dry, it was time for supper and then the briefing for tomorrow’s climb to The Pinnacles, one of the unique sights of Borneo. We start walking at 6:30 tomorrow morning to give ourselves a chance of getting back by 3 and beating the rain. It is only 2.4km (each way) but it is a climb of 1100m. Everyone is nervous about the difficulty, and this only increases when we are told that we need to be at the 900m (distance) marker within 1hr 15min of setting out or we will be sent back as we won’t be able to make it to the top and back before darkness.

We managed today’s river journey without having to get out and paddle. What we are not sure about now is whether tomorrow we will be out of our depth.

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