Bat City . . . and beyond
31, 1995 16:28Continued
from Part I
20:56 Hotel Mutiara; Kota Kinabalu, Sabah-Malaysia ::
28 MAR 95
After a night at the Ritz we are demoted to Fleabag Inn. At least
the common bathroom has western toilet even if the shower has neither
window glass nor a shower head: the water streams out the pipe. Ah well,
such is travel on a budget, at least the ants that earlier plagued the
room (and bed) called it a night.
We went to a film tonight. Street Fighter starring Jean Claude
Van Dumb and Raul Julia (whose latest acting assignments make Omar Sharriff
seem the consummate professional). Also featured is Kylie Minogue, the
diminutive Australian expat living in London who briefly made a splash
stateside in the '70s with a rehash of "The Locomotion". For
some reason she remains big news in Australia, and is the highest paid
female entertainer in Oz (even though she lives in the UK-I don't get
I was in Queensland while Street Fighter was being made there
on the Gold Coast and the tropical far north. Kylie even made an appearance
at the Brisbane International Film Festival opening night gala though
I always seemed to be looking the other way when she was around. The organizers
said it was a big deal to get her. Who can figure the star system?
Anyway, Street Fighter gets my vote for 1995's worst film of
the year. It's nearly as good in its awfulness as Attack of the Killer
Tomatoes, or Plan 9 From Outerspace. Yes, it's that bad. Why anyone would
hire Hamme Damme to do anything but kick people's teeth in I don't know,
but the tiny tinhead doesn't even throw so much as a punch until the 'climactic'
moments of the film. And after seeing her acting talent Kylie's starting
to sound like a mighty good singer. (NOT!) As for the film on a whole,
I think the producers couldn't decide between making a straight-up action
film or a parody of one.
I'm sure glad films here cost less than renting a video at home.
Now, back to the bat cave.
An elevated plank walk traverses the jungle for 3 kilometers
between the hostel at park headquarters and the caves. I sapped the energy
of one camcorder battery, representing about 20 minutes of tape, collecting
images of the unusual insects and other creatures inhabiting the hand-rail.
There were millipedes, walking sticks, spiders, a couple dozen varieties
of ants, caterpillars, praying mantis and the most unusual hammer-headed
worms in brilliant colours. And there were the fantastic sounds of rain-forest
Malaysia is not a country where the lawyers make alot of money
through litigation. As a corollary, Malaysia is not a country where other
people and organisations are obliged to protect you from your own stupidity,
or what American lawyers like to call 'negligence.' While you'll see the
occasional sign warning that using things like park facilities is 'at
your own risk,' there are no attempts at minimizing potential liability.
For example, the elevated plank walk. It's constructed of stained hardwood
that, in the typically wet conditions of the rainforest, supports an abundance
of algae that might as well be Vaseline. That is, it's slippery. Further,
railings, when there are any, will be found only on one side of the walkway.
It's that proverbial case of an accident waiting to happen. Both Katrin
and I fell once on the way back and have the bruises to show for it.
And then there were the caves themselves. The warning to bring
a flashlight is not an idle one. The only light penetrating the inner
darkness of the Great Cave filters in through natural openings or flickers
from the faint glimmer of the paraffin lamps used by the guano harvesters-or
comes from the flashlights of tourists. In the darkest chamber, there
are no handrails on the plankwalk. Were Malaysian civil law more favourable,
the lawyers might set up shop next to the longhouse dwellers hawking soft
drinks and fruit on the plank walk.
The Great Cave is huge, cavernous but is notable for a few other
things as well. Borneo supplies the cave swift's nests for that unusual
Chinese delicacy, bird's nest soup though it more appropriately would
be called bird spit soup since it is the resin like saliva of the bird
used to hold the nest together that is used in the soup (the other nest
materials are removed before soup making). The story goes that the native
Borneans showed a few nests to visiting Chinese a hundred years or so
ago. The Chinese were largely unimpressed with what they thought to be
some variety of fungus until somebody tried cooking some. By western standards,
the Chinese eat some unusual things, but this one must take the cake.
This penchant for the unusual must be the reason why they continued making
soup with the stuff even after they found out what they were cooking.
I don't think the native Borneans eat bird's nest soup.
Nests are collected twice a year. In October the swifts build
a nest in preparation for breeding. This nest is collected whereupon the
swifts set about building another in which they lay some eggs and raise
young. Sometime after the young have left home, these replacement nests
Thinking about it leads to two questions. How do the collectors
get to the nests attached to the roof 50 meters or so above the cave floor?
And how do the swifts find their way about in the darkness. The second
question is easy: echo location. That is, just like bats, the swifts hear
their way about the cave rather than seeing it. They do this by emitting
a clicking that, with enough birds present, sounds like a handful of rocks
being jumbled together.
The first question seems pretty easy too, on a first glance.
Wedged in the cave roof are small scaffoldings from which dangle long
poles. The collectors just climb these poles to the scaffolding and scrape
the nests off so they drop to the (guano coated) cave floor below. (Still
want to try that soup?) But this begs a second question, How the hell
did the scaffoldings and dangling poles get there in the first place,
without cranes? This I don't know the answer to. They probably built a
scaffolding all the way up to the cave roof and attached the permanent
There are more bats than swifts inhabiting the caves and several
different varieties of bat have been observed there. Most eat insects
(though the swifts consume twice the amount of insects as the larger bat
population) and a few eat fruit or nectar. All told there are a couple
million or so winged creatures in the cave.
Since there are no toilet facilities the cave floor is covered
in shit, er, guano. Even more gruesome is the fact that all kinds of creatures
make their living either eating the guano, or eating the other creatures
that eat guano. When you kick up a loose patch of fresh guano, all kinds
of little beasties go scurrying for cover. Shivers.
Some time ago people discovered that, though it's significantly
low in nitrates and a few other important minerals, guano makes an OK
fertilizer. For about as long as some people have been collecting swift's
nests, others have been digging up bat and swift shit and carrying it
by the bagful the 3 kilometers to the river for transport. One overzealous
local made two trips a day carrying 250 pounds on each trip. Remember,
these are not big people we're talking about. Most weigh in at perhaps
a little over 100 pounds. And it's not like they made a fortune doing
this, either. The blighter who moved 500 pounds a day probably earned
RM30 a day, about $18 CDN.
As for the Great Cave itself, well it's big, and has a couple
of neat holes in the roof that leak sunlight and rainwater into the cave.
There's shit everywhere, and the guano collectors' rough day quarters,
demarked by their paraffin lamps, are scattered about, more thickly in
areas where the guano accumulates most quickly. These structures are little
more than tarps spread around a rectangular frame. Several large caverns
interconnect to form the Great Cave and the plank walk meanders through
them in varying degrees of murky darkness. It was a great comfort knowing
I had a spare set of batteries in the pack.
A second cave in the park, the Painted Cave, is officially closed
though the walkway to it is not blocked off. So we went anyway. The cave
paintings there go back more than 10,000 years, I think, but a fence kept
us too far from them to really see much. The Painted Cave doesn't seem
to support much in the way of bats or birds. It's open at both ends. Each
entrance is wide and admits much light into the cave. I suspect the bats
and birds prefer darkness since there's not as much evidence of them here
as in the Great Cave.
Patrick. -- Responses Sought --
Trend journalism attains authority not through actual reporting but
through the power of repetition. Said enough times, anything can be
made to seem true.
Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women