January 23rd 1984

posted in: The way back | 0
Joe and Sue

Did not make a desperately early start to the day, but after looking around the HQ display, which took all of 15 mins, set off with the other 2 for the caves. First had to negotiate crossing the river, which we did using an old dug-out canoe belonging to the hostel, + a couple of improvised paddles.  A bit wobbly, but we made it.  Then along the 3 km plankwalk.  It was very slippery, so required some concentration, but we were still able to chat about travel experiences, + also made occasional pauses to observe the scenery etc.  Klaus + Norbert had both done some interesting things – they weren’t travelling together.  Klaus had spent 4 months in China before going to the Philippines, before hopping from there to Sabah in a smugglers’ boat.  Norbert had travelled from Kuching to Sibu to Kapit, then walked back down to Bintulu.  He had arrived at Niah yesterday morning, so had already seen the caves once, + to some extent acted as our guide.  We had to make way a couple of times for guys coming the other way lugging huge bags of guano from the caves.  Birds nest collecting for making soup is the other cave industry, tho’ according to the Park museum, it isn’t done on a large scale any more.

The plankwalk

The first cave we came to was Traders’ Cave, more the result of a large cliff overhang.  It was full of raised wooden platforms, where at one time a large community would live for several months at a time.  Like much of the rest of the cave network, there was a lot of rubbish lying around.  Not so important here, where much of the charm + interest derived from the evidence of recent human occupation, but a great shame in the main cave.  This came next, just behind a fenced-off archaeological dig which looked as tho’ it were fast becoming the object of historical research itself.

The Great Cave was, however, totally magnificent + awe-inspiring – one could really imagine a tribe of cavemen using it as their home.  There were immense stalactites hanging from the roof, + the scale of the whole place was massive.  Swifts flew in, out + around, to lend a picturesque touch.  There were wooden poles somehow attached to the cave ceiling, + descending in sections very nearly to the floor – all part of the nest-collectors’ business.  Norbert took us on a tour of the main parts of the cave, those parts it was reasonably safe to explore, tho’ still slippery underfoot.  The cave went right thro’ the mountain, emerging with a view over the forest on the other side.

Another side-trip took us down into a deeper cave.  The light filtering in thro’ various holes in the roof was magnificent, different strengths, different colours: purple, blue, green, yellow, white.  So much more effective than the effects striven after in the various commercial cave systems around the world, using floodlighting.  Niah Caves definitely go into my own version of the Seven Wonders of the World, the only other inclusion I can think of right now being Tikal.  Sorry, maybe Mt Bromo too – I’m not sure.  Eventually started to return + met, at the cave mouth, another couple who had just arrived, English by their accent.

We ran into this pair again after we’d returned – hardly surprising, since they’re staying at the same hostel.  They needed a ride back across the river, + with me grumbling about having to do it – it had just begun to rain.  Val volunteered, + skipped down to the jetty to get the canoe.  I immediately felt childishly annoyed + angry that she had upset my male role, + in front of new acquaintances, + upset that she should be having some fun, as it seemed.  The only thing I could do to prevent my sulking was to realise how unreasonable I was being, + to welcome our guests.  Their names are Joe + Sue – he was a London cabbie, she an NHS administrator, + this was their 2nd trip away together, having met via a newspaper advertisement for the first.  This trip was relatively young – they’d left on Jan 1st.  They were excellent company, Joe in particular having a real gift of the gab (don’t most Londoners?) + after dinner he had us in stitches with his tales of former travelling companions, most particularly Gary the Skinhead with his Aussie girlfriend Cheryl, threatening bemused Asians all the way across the continent.

Val ferrying Joe and Sue

This has to be about Joe and Sue, and our relatively brief encounter here in Borneo. We exchanged addresses, and met up again when we got back to London… after which we saw each other lots, as they became our best friends – Joe was best man at our wedding, we spent holidays, Christmases together, they have three children roughly the same age as ours, and Sue is still our closest friend. To our huge regret, Joe died fourteen years ago or so, and we still miss him.

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