South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: Bat City . . . and beyond (Part II)
Date: March 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 it either).

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 wild life.

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 are collected.

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 hardware.

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.

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