Friday, 10 April 2015

Caves, clear water and canopy walks

This morning we meet Jerry at the hotel reception and he takes us to the hotel’s jetty to board the longboat that will take us to the Clearwater and Wind caves. It’s very narrow, more like a stretched canoe with an outboard and alarmingly unstable. Stopping briefly to pick up the two guys who shared our tour yesterday, we’re taken first to a longhouse on the riverbank where we have the chance to see local handicrafts, try our hand with a blowpipe and get a small insight into how the native people live.
The village encircles an overgrown football pitch and has a church at one end. Along the long side furthest from the river are three longhouses, each looking like a block of Butlins chalets, apparently divided into separate living areas each with its own door. All the buildings are on stilts and chickens scratch around beneath them. The handicraft market is at one end of the village, together with some information boards telling something about the village, its history and culture. Alex accepts the challenge to try the blowpipe and proves to be a natural, hitting the bullseye with his first dart. It seems appropriate to buy him a miniature blowpipe from the handicrafts market as a souvenir.

Leaving the village we continue on up the river which becomes increasingly shallow and littered with obstacles; Jerry has to assist the boatman by punting us away from the bigger ones with a stick. Finally we reach a small landing stage from which we walk up to the Wind Cave. It’s medium sized compared to the ones we saw yesterday and has some impressive features including something called Moon Milk which occurs only in caves. It’s part of a complex system containing underground rivers, deep voids and narrow tunnels that are enjoyed by adventure cavers. Towards the back is a tall chamber through which a patch of jungle can be seen where the roof has fallen in; persistent plants struggle for light below.
Back in the boat, we continue upriver to the source, a spring that bubbles up from the cave system to form a pool that is shallow and inviting. After a brief break for tea or coffee from a thermos left there for our group we attack the 199 steps up to Clearwater Cave. The entrance is home to one-leaf plants – exactly as the name says – all pointing their faces to the light. Jerry leads us through the dark, showing us the shadow of a stalagmite that gives Ladies Cave its name and the profile that’s said to resemble Abraham Lincoln.

At the very back we descend some steps down to the underground river that gives this cave its name – the water is cold and perfectly clear. We follow it long back to the entrance where we descend the steps back to the picnic area where we are to have lunch. The cooler contains curried chicken wings, rice, cabbage and a spicy aubergine dish. After we’ve eaten Alex decides to go in the pool. I follow, but only up to my ankles – it’s very cold! I get chatting to a woman called Louise who is travelling with her husband, who works for Exxon in Singapore, and their children. She thoroughly enjoys the expat life and is shortly to take her children back to see the friends they met on their father’s last posting.

Finally it’s time to leave and we return the way we arrived, speeding in the long boat along the winding river, dodging the fallen tree trunks, rocks and other obstacles that would make it impossible to navigate for somebody without detailed local knowledge. Back at the park office we have a short wait before our canopy walk so the boys enjoy a second lunch. Simon has opted out of the canopy walk and I’m not entirely sure about it but determined to accompany Alex. It’s a 30 minute walk away and I’m relieved to see that it’s reached by stairs up a wooden tower – had it been a ladder I suspect I would have bailed!

The canopy walk is basically a series of narrow rope bridges strung between trees and it sways quite alarmingly as we walk along. Alex seems quite blasé about it but I have to keep my eyes on the bridge and can only look at the view when I reach the platform at each tree. I give him my camera as he’s more able to use it and he’s thrilled to get some amazing shots of a big black spider and a lizard having a stand-off. The lizard won. I’m glad when it’s over but equally glad that I did it. We walk back to the park office to meet Simon and have a quick ice cream before setting off along the same path we’d just returned on, this time to the observatory outside Deer Cave to see if we can see the bat migration. A new reclining bench has appeared overnight which seems to provide the perfect vantage point but it begins to rain heavily and we give up and walk back to the park office. Simon wonders if anybody ever sees the bats since they only emerge when it’s dry and at dusk which is precisely when it rains.

It’s still raining hard as we wait for the minibus back to the Marriott, and when we walk the long boardwalk to the dining room after freshening up for dinner. Tonight we are greeted with a personalised menu welcoming Essery Family to the Marriott. There is one other couple in the restaurant. Our dinner is good – mushroom soup for the boys and the local ceviche-style fish dish for me, chicken curry for all (we rejected the alternative of pasta with tomato sauce) and fresh fruit to follow. All was beautifully presented and served by staff who knew to take away the cutlery with the plates. We finished our drinks in the bar and returned to our rooms – in my case rather gingerly as my entire left little toe is one big blister, probably caused by sand in my shoes at Bako but exacerbated by the many kilometres walked and steps climbed today.

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