Racing up the coast

Trip Start Feb 06, 2005
Trip End Jul 2005

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Sunday, July 10, 2005

We finally managed to escape Kapit and headed further east by fast boat, to Belaga, then north by 4WD to Bintulu. Each stop was one more in a succession of smaller and crappier places, perfumed by durian.
Durian is the smelliest fruit on the planet. It smells like rotting meat and you can smell one for miles. All the guesthouses have signs firmly fixed to their entrances banning the fruit- the smell will not leave the building for days. Anyway, the locals love it, and we had been seeing boxloads of the stuff being shunted to and fro wherever we went. While riding on the roof of the boat to Belaga we got into a 'conversation' (in Bahasa... it was a short conversation) with some old fellas who offered us some of their durian, which they were digging in to like there was a shortage (definitely not the case). It was horrible. We couldn't even get the first mouthful down. As I sat there with it in my mouth, I thought about how it would offend them not to swallow it. Screw it... lucky we were close to the water, cause there was no way I could have held it in my mouth for any longer. They laughed and kept munching as we moved upwind of the horrible thing. Turns out it tastes just like it smells. Must be a 'cultural' thing.
Anyway the trip up Sarawak proved the old maxim of the journey being better than the destination. The towns were service points for locals, who were either shotgun-riding hunters and farmers, or workers from lumber yards and the off-shore natural-gas platforms. That is to say, the towns were centres for lady-boy prostitutes and karaoke. On the other hand, the jungle between the towns is stunning, whether viewed from the roof of fast boats going up the river rapids, or from 4WDs on the muddy logging roads.
The exception which proved the rule was Batu Niah, the town nearest the Niah caves, the biggest of which is one of the largest caves in the world. Batu Niah was shut up by 8pm. At least I caught up on sleep.
The Niah caves were amazing. Boardwalks lead through, and a metre above, the jungle to a masive limestone outcrop which houses a cave which is, well, big. An hour walk through it leads out towards another cave with 40,000 year-old cave paintings. The biggest drawcard is that, despite it being a national park, and one of the last refuges for the birds which make the nests, which are the main ingredient of the delicacy of birds-nest soup, it is still legal to come hunting the nests. If you're brave enough, you can spend all night in a huge, very dark cave full of bats climbing hundred-metre long poles to the ceiling to find birds nests. If you are, good luck to you.
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