It was a day like any other day. For a few minutes, at least.
I woke up earlier than could reasonably be found amusing, thanks to the loud snores of my youngest brother, who was wrapped up in a cocoon of blankets beside me. I lay there for a moment, squinting in the bright light that glared off of the lime green walls of my bedroom. Ezra woke up with a snort, and within a minute was bouncing cheerfully around the house. Morning people. I’ve never understood them. There are a few lucky members of society that wake up joyful, enthusiastic, and ready for a great day. Then there are others who bear a remarkable resemblance to Tolkien’s cave trolls when woken much before ten in the morning. If you’ve known me for much more than a day, you’ll know I’m one of those unfortunate individuals. So, I rolled out of bed, feeling more and more like Gollum at every moment. Little did I know that I’d have good reason for feeling even more like a cave dwelling monster by the end of the day.
It’s not every day you visit a gigantic deserted cave in the wilds of Borneo that also happens to be the location of the discovery of Asia’s oldest recorded human remains.
So I take it back. I suppose it wasn’t a day like any other day. I had simply forgotten entirely that we were going anywhere. As a result, I spent a rushed fifteen minutes throwing clothes on, slamming a plastic hairbrush and camera into a bag, and grabbing an apple before folding myself into the back of our tiny van like an origami stork. Dad turned the music on, and my spirits automatically lifted.
It was a long ride, longer than we’d expected. Dad used the time to recount the history of the Japanese warfare during WW|| in and around islands like Borneo. It rained the entire way, jeweled droplets falling from the sky to splatter against leaves so green they put the little green tree frogs to shame. I was just as glad not to be a soldier, hiking through the murky depths of that snake infested jungle. And how lucky are we, to live in an age where most of the countries around the world are on friendly terms, and travel is not liable to end up with a sudden trip to a prison camp?
We finally pulled to a stop just outside of a wooden lodge.
Mom dashed through the sheets of pouring rain to see if the park was open despite the rain. It was, and we decided that the rain could only add to our adventurous hike. We paid a small, grinning man to take us across the gator infested water. Unfortunately, no gators were in evidence. Once across, it was a three mile hike through the jungle to the cave. If you’ve never seen a true jungle before, it is nearly impossible to imagine how enchanting they are. Twisting vines, winding through the trees in spiraling swirls, butterflies with wings the size of my hands floating across the path and out of sight, brilliant crimson millipedes marching along the vines. Ezra was especially fascinated by these. Emerald leaves, shining in the streams of dappled light that manage to filter through the canopy. Raindrops slide off them, disrupting the tidy legions of ants in their steady march across the jungle floor.
The trees are the most incredible, in my opinion.
They’ve grown so closely together, that their roots weave around eachother, forming a thick carpet over the mud beneath. With a strong foothold, they raise long arms towards the sun. Their trunks are too thick for me to wrap my arms around. To many, the scene might seem peaceful. Butterflies, emerald leaves, tall trees. But call me weird if you want to, I see an ongoing struggle. The trees push upward, racing past eachother to reach the sun, spreading arms wide to collect as much life-giving warmth as possible; leaving the less fortunate below pale and weak, straining to retrieve even the slightest suggestion of light left over by their stronger counterparts. Not so different from human existence, I suppose.
At last, we reached Niah Cave.
It was massive; far bigger than I had thought it would be. Bats flitted near the entrance, and as we walked tentatively through the main opening, there was the unmistakable smell of bat guano in the air. But what did that matter, it was a cave, of course there would be bat crap in it! Amazingly, we were the only tourists in the entire cave.
Now, I’ve been to a few caves before. Carlsbad Caverns, for example. And while that cave was impressive, and had far more speleothems, it didn’t hold a candle to the effect Niah Cave had on the senses. It was immense; so big that looking towards the ceiling made me dizzy. My brothers and I explored it eagerly, unable to resist the urge to pretend to be goblins, cave trolls, and “tommy knockers,” those mischievous little guys who pick on miners. The rain returned with a vengeance again outside, and silvery droplets slipped down through holes in the roof, forming temporary waterfalls that soaked us with mist. Bats stared at us, their eyes gleaming gold in the beam of my headlamp. Birds chattered away in their nests on the roof.
Did I mention that this cave is Malaysia’s main provider of the birds nests used in birds nest soup, a delicacy served in many Asian countries?
While we were there, we saw a few birds nest collectors at work. They climbed rickety bamboo poles and ladders, and balanced hundreds of feet above the ground, scraping away at the ceiling with long poles. Far beneath them, other men worked to collect the fallen nests in plastic bags. It was quite interesting to watch, but I don’t think I’d have the guts to balance on a pole that high off the ground!
At last, thoroughly worn out from our climb around the cave, we decided it was time to head back towards home.
But, to our great dismay, the trail ended at the top of a big hill. At the bottom, far below us, was the trail leading back towards the car park. “So what?” you might say. “It’s just a hill! Walk down it and get back on the trail for pete’s sake!” But before you sit back in your armchair, sigh loudly, and roll your eyes, read just a little further.
This was no ordinary hill.
This was a steep, slippery, vile hill, the result of being used as a bat outhouse for centuries. Whether it was originally a hill of good, fresh dirt, or if it was even a hill in the first place, we’ll never know. But one thing is for certain, this was no hill of pure, gritty dirt. There would be no walking quickly down it. There were no handholds, no jutting stones to grasp at desperately, no plants to cling to. The stuff was much too toxic for a respectable weed to grow in. We began to carefully inch down the side of the hill.
I’m sure you all know what happened next. We should have predicted it. But as is often the case, those in the story have no idea what’s going to happen to them, whereas it’s obvious to the readers. There are no words that can fully describe the next few moments.
Mom looked back at us for a second, eyes sparkling with adventure, grinning back into the darkness to where we carefully crawled spiderlike after her. Disaster struck. With a shriek of surprise and annoyance, Mom’s legs flew out from under her. She sat down hard in the thick brown mess that covered the hill, and for a moment, I thought she would stop there. But I was wrong. Down she slid, looking for all the world like a kid on a sledding hill, minus the sled. She bounced over a bump, came down again with a sickening squelch onto the hill, and finally slid to a stop at the bottom of the slope, right next to the trail. She sat for a moment, and then slowly stood up. From her waist down, she was one big chocolate colored mess. Only it wasn’t chocolate. She turned, and stared up at us. The cave was incredibly silent. I think even the bats stopped their chirping to see what this woman would make of her slippery trip down their dung heap.
“Well,” Mom said. “Crap.”
“Yes it is.” Ezra murmured from somewhere behind me. I couldn’t help it. I laughed. Hard. It was irresistibly funny! Mom, standing there, covered from elbow down in “bat spoor,” as Gabe is politely calling it (when she’s looking, that is), her face battling between annoyance, frustration, and a reluctant humor. Once I started to laugh, I simply couldn’t stop, and before long everyone was laughing, even Mom. As for the rest of us, we made our way down nearly without incident. I fell once, but caught myself in the crabwalk position and managed to get up again without anything but my hands getting covered in bat poop. We washed off in the monsoon rain, and hiked home smelling awful, but what did it matter? In even the worst misadventures can be found a bit of humor, don’t you think?
Moral of the story: Never start the day assuming it’s going to be normal, you never know what’ll happen.
Also: Avoid giant slippery heaps of bat dung. Sledding is fun. In snow.
Merry Christmas to all of you!