Marrakesh

Marrakech 

 One of the strengths of G tours is the in depth treatment of religion and different tenets of Faith characteristic of the country you are travelling in. Our CEO, a Berber from the Atlas Mountains, began a discussion on Islam that lasted through a good part of our journey south through a rapidly drying landscape to Marrakech.

Unlike conversion to other faiths, conversion to Islam is accomplished with the following statement. “There is no true deity but Allah and Mohammad is the prophet of God”. The 6 beliefs of Islam are 1) Belief in Allah (God) 2) Belief in Angels 3) Belief in Gods revealed books 4), Belief in the prophets and Messengers of God 5) Belief in the Day of Judgement 6) Belief in Al-Qadar.  The Five Pillars of Islam are religious duties to God, personal spiritual growth, caring for the less fortunate, self discipline and sacrifice. 

To my best understanding after winnowing through a lot of information, souls are thought to leave the body immediately following death. Coffins are not used – just shrouds – for burial and after 40 years, another burial may occur on top of the first one. Gravesites are not marked and have no pilgrimage importance. Bodies are arranged facing east towards Mecca. The concepts of heaven and hell are similar to Christianity – your Final Destination based on your activities in your lifetime.

Sunni (85% of Muslims) and Shia Muslims are divided based on their beliefs on who should  have succeeded the prophet Mohammed upon his death in 632. The Sunni felt that a new prophet should have been elected at that time, while the Shia felt that the position should have been awarded to a member of the prophets family. As a result Shia Muslims have not recognized the authority of elected leaders, instead following the leadership of a line of Imans they recognize as being appointed by God or the prophets family. Significant problems have occurred throughout history as a result of the divide. Something other religions share…….

Our arrival in Marrakech was greeted by brilliant sunshine. Sandals and t-shirts replaced socks and fleece before we headed into the main square in Morocco for dinner and to breath in the atmosphere at the UNESCO heritage site Jemaa el-Fnna. I first came to know of the square through James Mitcheners novel the Drifters.

Jamaa el Fna market square, Marrakesh, Morocco, north Africa. Jemaa el-Fnaa, Djema el-Fna or Djemaa el-Fnaa is a famous square and market place in Marrakesh’s medina quarter.

We had a really good time – BUT here is a survival guide. 1) get a map and orient yourself to the geography. If you arrive from Mohammed V avenue –  to your left are the food stalls, further to the left are grocery (fruit and veg) stalls, straight ahead and to the right are dancers, musicians,buskers of all kinds, games etc etc. The souks are beyond the square. The food stalls are only up at night. 2) People are going to try and sell you things – that is how they put food on their table. If you aren’t interested in something do not even look at it. The restaurant punters are aggressive but if you wait until a little later to eat when the tables have filled somewhat you won’t feel so much like bait fish in a lagoon surrounded by sharks. If someone does approach you we said we just ate with a smile – we were then told how slim we were and that we needed more food – lots of laughs finished off the exchange and away we went. We did eat at one place and it was excellent! 3) Leave big cameras, passports etc in the hotel safe. Take just enough cash for the evening and carry it in an inside pocket. The smoothies and dried fruit are excellent and well worth spending a few dollars on even if you decide to have dinner. Vendors were friendly. After our dinner we wandered around, bought smoothies and dried fruit, watched the full moon rise though smoke from cooking fires, checked out the dancers, drummers  and other entertainment. 4) If you video or watch a performance long enough you will be expected to pay for the privilege – 2-10 MAD will do the trick. 5) Same with photos – if you take photos of anyone or any animals expect to pay. 6) watch your back, stay sober and enjoy the chaos 🙂   One final suggestion – hire a reputable guide – trust me it will be worth every penny!

Marrakesh day 2

Today started with a historical walking tour beginning with the Jewish quarter,

continuing on to the Bahia Palace and Saadian Tombs, before finishing with a walk through the Marrakesh Old Medina.

and wonderful cooking class/ lunch in a local Riad. 

Arab homes (Riads in Morocco) are built facing inwards contrary to western homes. While westerners tend to display their wealth, Arabs consider their wealth a very personal thing. their homes are focused inward on central courtyards with very little indication outside that anyone actually lives there. Many are accessed through narrow dark alleyways. The Riad were we cooked and lunched was a beautiful example of this.  Wonderful day!

Having said that – I definitely preferred Fez over Marrakesh. Fez is a very underrated destination and I highly recommend visiting it. 

We leave Marrakesh tomorrow for Ait Ben Haddou (an ancient Kasbah (Fortress village ) a UNESCO world heritage site in the Atlas Mountains. Apparently we are going to “Rock the Kasbah” – how that unfolds in a group of 55 Plus folks (with two exceptions – my apologies ladies) remains to be seen 😂.

Until then “Allah yahmik”

Fes

Famous for the best preserved Medina in the world, Fez-el-Bali, as well as the first University in the world. 9500 alleyways weave through 2.8 sq km of Medina. An area which many residents never leave and which is a world unto itself. 

Our day long exploration of Fes began with a walk though the Mellah or Jewish Quarter.  Established in the 16th C in the newer part of the Medina – the Jewish quarter once held a population of 250,000 – a fraction of whom remain. Residences are located over shops with balconies overhanging the street – contrary to Arab style but similar to new Orleans. Shops were just opening for the day as we wandered through the narrow alleys past cafes, hair salons, hotels  and markets.

A spectacular view of the Jewish cemetery with its white headstones

was visible from our vantage point overlooking Fes and the surrounding valley, the road climbed effortlessly by our transport van. 

Following the photo op, we descended into the city and plunged on foot into the ancient Medina. It is difficult to describe the narrow streets – some barely accommodating a person and with no daylight from above. Narrow rabbit warrens of alleys open up suddenly into restaurants or shops. Windows are non-existent – all light comes from above (if there is any) My sense is that you could walk for days in the maze and never follow the same route twice. Organization of the superficial chaos became slowly apparent – butchers in one area, fruit and vegetables in another, leather, weaving, metal work – all with their own areas.

Our local guide navigated it seamlessly and kept the vendors at bay. If you venture in,  hire a reputable guide for your first visit – do not grab a guide outside the Medina as they will take you to the nearest shop owned by a relative and things can get ugly if you are not interested in buying anything. A highlight of the tour was the tannery area which allowed some spectacular photo ops. If you are interested in leather there are some gorgeous items there. Be prepared to bargain – one of our group members bargained the price down a couple of hundred dollars for a spectacular jacket. What seems to work is starting at about 60% of the asking price and you meet in the middle – having said that, it is not an amount set in stone. Bargaining is expected here and part of the enjoyment of the purchase  – saying give me your best price is vaguely insulting to merchants – it is fun to haggle and the purchase generally ends with good spirits all around. 

The tanning process starts with lime and ends with cow poop and pigeon guano – i knew all those pigeons are around for a reason….   Men work in the vats daily – some getting right in there with the hides. The smell was interesting 😑 – sprigs of peppermint supplied by the facility’s owner were given to us to use to ward off the worst.

Following a few hours of a bewildering walk though just about everything you can imagine (and some stuff you probably cannot – the camel head story will have to wait until I get home) and following a quick lunch we exited the Medina and headed for our calligraphy class. 

Islamic calligraphy is not what I expected but a rigorous academic pursuit that requires years of training and includes many different styles. My experiments with a calligraphy pen were unremarkable 🙃 but at the end of the session our instructor did something very unexpected. We each gave him our name or something we wanted him to write on a piece of decorative paper to take home. Here is mine.

The translation “Travel widely and the crescent will become a full moon” 

Tomorrow we travel to Marrakech. 

Volubilis and Meknes

Mist and a light drizzle interspersed with breaks of sun followed us we exited Casablanca bound for Fez via the UNESCO heritage sites – the Roman ruins of Volubilis and the old Médina of Meknes.

North western Casablanca is an agricultural bread basket – orderly fields ready for planting surrounded the winding highway that followed the coast north.

Olive trees, lentil and chick pea fields, plus mosaics of market garden type enterprises were common, interrupted with occasional herds of sheep, goats and cattle. Chickens followed the animals in many cases. Working dogs are interestingly enough absent.

A steady ascent from the fields led us to Volubilis a Roman town which flourished from the 1st to the 3rd centuries. Garrisons left the town in the 3rd century – recalled to Rome to battle the ever increasing pressure of the so called pagan tribes who eventually over ran Rome. Despite the resulting societal upheavals and looting of the site by leaders from Meknes for building material, some residents stayed and other locals moved in. People were still  present in the town in the 1700’s when the great earthquake that devastated the area completed its destruction. 

Excavation began in the 1950’s, with much work to be done. Infrared photography has shown the extent of the town and as Roman towns were all built on the same plan archaeologists know where to look for public buildings as well as homes. G Travel continues to impress me with the quality of their local guides and this gentleman did not disappoint. Beautiful mosaic tile floors have been excavated

and we explored the ruins of several homes, as well as a dining area complete with ornamental fish pond and vomitorium (area where wealthy Romans went to vomit so they could eat more at their feasts.) In my mind, one of the earliest documented cases of bulimia.  For you “Gladiator” movie fans can you recognize the set of one of the pivotal scenes in the movie???

The patrician Roman class had terrible teeth, one reason being the continuous assault by stomach acid on enamel caused by their activity at the vomitorium. Water pipes lined with lead, together with a lack of antibiotics to counteract sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis resulted often in lifespans that typify the phrase “short and happy”. I suspect that the Plebeians (working class) and slaves had lives that were also short but not so happy. Another example of a situation discussed in length by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse – the wide gap between haves and have nots contributing to the downfall of a society. Echoes surround us today.

G travel does one of the best jobs I know of supporting the communities that they travel through through their Planterra foundation. Today’s lunch was a Mhaya Village community lunch prepared by the women who staff a foundation that benefits rural women and children.

Literacy is still at around 32% in their country, affecting mainly older women. The foundation fund provides vocational training for rural women allowing them to find employment that supports them and their families. We met some amazing women and enjoyed an incredible meal of local chicken cooked in an amazing sauce of apricots, spices and olives. The olive oil here is amazing 🙂

The fortress city of Meknes a UNESCO heritage site is considered to be at the agricultural centre of Morocco, reaching its zenith under ruler Moulay Ismail in  the late 17th century. Stories and legends swirl around this man including a harem with hundreds of wives, hundreds of children etc. Busy man. The old Médina is easily accessed through a number of gates and did not disappoint.

Ismail had succeeded in creating a goodly number of enemies and set out to build a fortress that would withstand years of warfare and siege. The remains of the huge granaries and stables provided some outstanding photo ops as our excellent local guide – another Berber – opened doors for us into a distant past.

We entered the city of Fez following a long, wonderful day. 

Casablanca

30 hours of travelling without sleep brought me to Casablanca.  My transfer was there (yes!!!!!) and on the way into the city I chatted with two lovely women from Ontario who also turned out to be on my trip. After a room change ( ladies if you are on your own do not let the hotel put you in the dungeon – go to the front desk and stay there until they change your room), arrival in Casablanca was celebrated with a dinner of Moroccan mixed salads and Pastilla (fish wrapped in spices and pastry) – what a treat after airline food!!!!!

I had booked a tourbylocals day tour  in Casablanca and want to move laterally a little to compliment our guide Issam Jabber. My two new friends were interested in joining me on the tour and Issam accommodated us plus some changes in itinerary seamlessly. I also would like to recommend Casablanca to everyone. It has been avoided by some travellers because all of the construction here – but it is well worth your time now and will be even better in the near future. If you come here I highly recommend Issam Jabber as your guide. He can be reached through toursbylocals.com or on his facebook page. He is the real deal and will create a memorable day for you in Casablanca as well as other areas in Morocco.

A 9 am pickup in a well appointed mini-van took us to the Hassan II Mosque – the largest mosque in Africa and the third largest mosque in the world. The minaret is amazing – 60 stories high.

The entire structure is built right on the beach with parts of it extending out over the ocean supported by a platform between two rocky promontories. 100,000 + worshippers can be accommodated here. The fusion of Islamic, Moorish and Moroccan architecture has created an architectural wonder. Doors of wood covered with stamped metal weighing up to 1.5 tons guard the entrances to the mosque. A outstanding tour of the interior by a local guide rounded off our visit. 

Religious tolerance is evident here. Islam practised in Morocco is of what i think of as the relaxed variety very dissimilar to what is found in the Middle East. Tolerance best expressed by the myriad of influences evident in the architectural style in the city as well as in the range of faces in the street. Delicate features of Berbers mingle with faces that could be found on Egyptian tomb paintings and Roman sculptures.

Our SUV appeared quickly and transported us to a central Square – Place Mohammed V – aka Pigeon Square (watch where you step) Which was next on our tour and suffice it to say was a retriever trainers dream 🙂 Some architectural gems surrounded the square – must say I caved and took a photo of one pigeon 🙂

The Art Deco building style caught my imagination decades ago on a trip to Europe and I was looking forward to seeing its form here. The steady destruction of the Art Deco buildings in Casablanca – a unique fusion of French style with Moroccan indigenous geometry inspired by the Islamic prohibition against showing of the human form in art – has resulted in a movement to preserve the reminding facades of buildings exhibiting this amazing style. A stroll to and down Place Mohammed V ( a carless boulevard) rewarded us with a number of examples of echoes of the past. We had a little fun along the way 🙂

Transportation by our faithful SUV took us quickly to the Old Medina, a magical place consisting of a myriad of narrow winding roads, illustrating what Casablanca looked like before the French invaded in the 30’s. For some reason they left this area alone – a fascinating stroll through the past….

Our rambles in the morning left open the way to an amazing lunch at La Sqala – a restaurant built in an 18th century fortress in Casablanca – complete with cannons and guard dogs – which rounded off a wonderful morning. The kitchen staff very kindly consented to my invasion with camera – many thanks to Issam! Lunch was wonderful – a seafood salad (squid, octopus, prawns and something I can’t remember how to spell 🙃) with sliced mango and carrots tossed with a tangy vinaigrette 🙂 One of my lunch companions had a fabulous goat tajine – on my list for the next dinner.

Energy replenished from lunch we embarked on a walking visit to the Habous quarter – built in the 1930’s by the French to relocate inner city residents in what is referred to as the housing crisis of the 30’s. A similar housing crisis is ongoing today with Inner city tenement slums being demolished and people being moved to areas outside the city.

…. and then…… Wait for it……

Rick’s Cafe!!!! – a wonderful fake designed and built in 2004 to recreate the memorable movie and famous line “of all the gin joints in the world she has to walk into mine” — apologies to Humphrey Bogart 😀

We head to Fez tomorrow.

This is a wonderful country. Please put it on your bucket list 🙂

Morocco

Waves of invasions and subsequent colonization of Morocco by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Portuguese, French and Spanish all left behind cultural remnants which have been woven into the tapestry of a country I have wanted to visit for a long time. These layers, together with the diversity of Moroccan ecosystems and climate zones (Mediterranean marine, high mountains to Sahara desert) have resulted in a fusion found nowhere else – one I am looking forward to exploring.

I leave tomorrow for my first destination Casablanca. The first day will be spent exploring the city’s markets, mosques and food with a private guide before I meet up with the rest of my group and we depart for Fes. As always, I will be blogging throughout the trip (Internet dependent). Post links will appear on my FB page. Or if you wish you can access the blog directly at http://www.travelswithanne.ca

For those of you interested in following my route I have included a map. I look forward to sharing my journey with you.

Tabin Nature Reserve and Jungle Lodge Days 1-2

Day 1

An early morning departure from Bilit followed by a four hour drive by large bus and mini bus took us to the Tabin Nature Reserve and our accommodations for  the next two nights. Our drive took us through 1000’s of acres of palm oil trees, as well as acres of newly cleared and planted plantations.

The primary undergrowth appears to be rampant morning glory or something similar. Apparently in Sabah 60% of the jungle has been saved so i guess we were driving through the other 40%. Palm oil production is a land wasting and depleting enterprise. Cleared land looks like a nuclear war zone.

Chemical fertilizer applications occur 6-8 times a year to keep the palms growing due to nutrient depletion of the soil. Herbicides keep the area under the palms weed free, although we saw some evidence of mulching. I only know that after viewing what has happened here first hand I will no longer support the palm oil industry and plan to read food labels very carefully. 

The Tabin Nature reserve was established in 1984 to protect 300,000 acres of rainforest and provide a home for critically endangered species including the orangutan, sun bear, hornbills, water buffalo, rhinos and elephants among many others. It has morphed into one of the main release sights for animals rehabilitated at locations such as Sepilok. An interesting point about rehab centres in Borneo is that they are primarily NGO’s started by people from elsewhere. Today they work in conjunction with the Borneo govt in preserving the endangered species of Borneo.

There is only a single lodge in the nature reserve with 20 cabins. I am in a lovely cabin overhanging the river.

In the first 30 mins 5 species of birds have flown by, plus some monkeys. We are headed out through leech infested trails to visit a volcanic salt mud lick this afternoon. Water bottles filled and boots on.  Our hike about to the Volcanic mud cone took about 1 1/2 hours through the filtered light of  dense jungle in 35 C heat and 100% humidity – like hiking in a plastic bag.

Our guide made us much appreciated walking sticks that helped us negotiate the slippery root choked paths. Bands of sound accompanied us up the trail. In one section the car alarm cicadas, in the next the nuclear lab meltdown alarm cicadas, in another area the ray gun cicadas.  The mud cone was formed by volcanic activity associated with crustal movement. Little active pools still burb gas at the top of the mound. Foot prints of mammals ring the area as they come for salt and paper wasps were busy carving out mud to build their nests.

 

Our guide lit one of the bubbles on fire for us – although the smell was enough to prove that that is what was being expelled from the mud – made for an interesting photo in any case.

Our night game drive was a wonderful way to see a different side of the jungle. Civets, a leopard cat and owls plus a red giant flying squirrel gorging on flowers and two western Tarsiers crossed our path. The evening ended far too soon.  

Day 2

A pre-breakfast departure took us through a wakening forest wreathed in mist in the tree tops,

Along a jungle trail searching for the elusive Grey Gibbon a primate species endemic to Borneo. Our guide put his calling expertise to work and within a few minutes a return call ! A quick scramble brought us to the base of a huge grove of trees where a small Gibbon family was whiling away the early morning hours. Magic!

Tabin – Day 2

One of my hopes during this visit was to see one of the last Sumatran Rhinos on Borneo still alive. This Rhino is the smallest of all rhinos and is felt to be the closest modern relative to the Wooly Rhino which roamed the earth during the Ice Age. At the moment there are two surviving Pygmy Rhinos at the grounds of the Borneo Rhino Alliance a non-profit NGO dedicated to saving this remarkable animal. 100 total are thought to survive in Indonesia. They are solitary creatures and the loss of habitat has resulted in their numbers plummeting to the point where the survivors cannot find another rhino to mate with. Using modern day fertilization and embryo implantation techniques the hope is to use DNA from all available SE Asia Rhino populations and rebuild the population over time. The Alliance depends on donations to maintain the program, as well as staffing and grounds maintenance. We spent a wonderful hour with the male Rhino at the centre watching him enjoy a wallow in a mud hole and generally be a rhinoceros.

Following our time with him, we embarked on a dusk game drive.

Again I felt blessed by the appearance of another would love to see on my list – the Rhinoceros hornbill. What a beautiful bird! A mated pair of them plus two young entertained us for 30 minutes or so before we regretfully had to move on.

The final photo op was provided by a troop of macaque monkeys on the roadside.

Our game drive fittingly finished with a return to the lodge into a glorious sunset.

We leave tomorrow for Kota Kinabalu and the final night of the trip before the 48 hr trip home. It has been a thought provoking, exhausting, exhilarating journey, full of beauty and some sadness. This is an amazing part of the world, boasting large scale conservation efforts and I urge everyone who can to visit. The people are warm and welcoming, the food is outstanding and the warm temperatures have been very welcome indeed after a long Canadian winter. Another A+ for G Adventures National Geographic Journeys!

Thank you all for following along with me! Sehingga masa depan!

Bilit – Day 2

A beautiful dawn sky greeted  us as our boat moved slowly out into the river sliding through misty early morning.

Swallows feeding on a morning insect hatch escorted us as we embarked on our first wildlife cruise of the day. Hornbills and kingfisher went about their business along the river, as did some troops of monkeys out and about early. I will let the photos tell the story.

Our second cruise of the day took us up river in search for the elusive Borneo elephant – approximately 100 live in this area. Although we spotted tracks and fresh elephant paths down to the river, the elephants didn’t appear today. We move to Tabin Reserve and Jungle Lodge tomorrow which has another elephant population which hopefully will cross our path. 

Proboscis monkeys provided the in cruise entertainment as they engaged in incredible acrobatic displays in the canopy along the rivers edge. How they don’t break their necks is anyone’s guess.

A glorious sunset guided us back to the lodge and an excellent dinner. We head to Tabin Nature Reserve and Jungle lodge tomorrow morning. Stay tuned!

Sepilok and Sandakan

Due to flight schedules it took us two flights and an overnight stay in Kota Kintabula to travel from Sarawak to Sabah and reach Sandakan our final destination. Our 0 dark thirty wake up call got us to our flight at 7 am and a short 30 minute flight deposited us in Sandakan near  Sepilok – home of the Sepilok Orang Utahn Rehabilitation centre and the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation centre.  Both were amazing centres devoted to the rehabilitation and preservation of two incredible mammals. Our first stop was the orangutan nursery for orphaned babies, then open to the feeding platforms in the jungle areas and then over to the Borneo Sun Bear property run by an amazing man who has devoted his life to the preservation of these lovely little Asian bears.

A 2 hour drive through uninterrupted miles of oil palm plantations gave way suddenly to Rain Forest conservation habitat as we entered the area around our next lodgings – the Borneo Sukau Bilit Resort on the Kinabatangan River. The lodge is extraordinary with all rooms being individual cabins. My handcrafted abode sits perched above a small natural pond adjacent to the river and is charming. One unusual feature is the floor in the shower. Rather than a solid floor the boards are spaced apart so water just flows through onto the ground – interesting design 🙂 No internet or cell service for the next two days 😀

Our late afternoon was completed with a cruise along the Kinabatangan River – and what a cruise it became! Here at last is a balanced jungle – insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians and large mammals. Family groups of monkeys dotted the shoreline, squabbling, engaging in a acrobatic play, feeding and just hanging around being monkeys getting ready for the night. 

 I knew I would see Orangutans in the Rehabiliation centre this trip but never dreamed I would see one in the wild – and there he was right along the river, a wise old male gorging on ripening figs. One of 825 Orangutans  in this forest – what a privilege!  Macaque and probocsis monkey sightings completed a wonderful, wonderful day!  Tomorrow our day starts with a dawn boat ride along the river in search of birds and more monkeys. Stay tuned! 

Mulu NP – Day 2

Traditional Borneo dugouts took us swiftly down river from the lodge this morning towards another major set of caves – the Cave of the Wind and the Clearwater cave. The breeze on the river as we travelled was exhilarating and cloud cover added to the relative coolness of the day.

 

A Penan village was our first stop before reaching the cave sites. The Penan are one of the last remaining indigenous tribes in Sarawak that practise a hunting and gathering lifestyle. Approximately 16,000 remain.

Trying to be helpful the Govt built them longhouses of concrete which the tribe quickly used for storage – they live elsewhere 🙂 The women create beautiful plant fibre weavings using traditional methods and dyes. Following a brief tour of the village we visited a small handicraft market in the village where some baskets spoke to me and joined my camera in the dry sac. Hopefully they won’t set off alarms going through Canadian customs…..

An elderly gentleman dressed in traditional Penan clothing joined us outside the market – according to village lore he is in his late 90’s and doing amazingly well.

The Penan are blow dart hunters and demonstrated the skill for us, after which some members of the group tried their hand at this ancient form of hunting. Darts went everywhere in the beginning- but some folks got the hang of it pretty quickly.

The caves were amazing. I hope the photo gives some idea of their grandeur.

The Cave of the Winds was used for a dwelling by ancient peoples of Borneo, artifacts and bones have been found at the site. We saw no mammals but some impressive insects and beetles. One caterpillar fell on the exposed arm of a group member and delivered a toxic jolt (always wear long sleeves if you journey into the jungle here), another group were in a feeding mass on a nearby tree and an extremely impressive horned beetle made an appearance later in the day.

A traditional Sarawak lunch of coconut curried chicken, vegetables and rice served on a tin roofed platform looking out over the river rounded out the morning. The lovely food, washed down with hot tea to the accompaniment of the rain on the roof was magic. The dugouts then took us back up stream to the lodge, dodging raindrops.

Tonight we go for a jungle walk. There are bioluminescent fungi here, as well as a million frogs (based on the noise last night) and hopefully some nocturnal mammals. In the meantime some of us had a dip in the pool and watched the rain come down accompanied by growling thunder in the distance.

One thing became apparent today and tonight – it rains in the rain forest 🙂. Our ramble along the jungle paths after dark turned up bats, geckos, huntsmen spiders the size of salad plates, crickets, stick insects, some bizarre worms and the ever present caterpillars. What is conspicuously missing and has been missing so far in this trip are any mammals or birds. The combination of heavy logging for slash and burn agriculture, plus palm oil plantation clearing together with hunting pressure has driven most mammals and bird species deep into remaining forests or eradicated them all together. The result is one of the oddest jungles I have ever been in. Full of insects and their predators – bats, frogs, toads and snakes – and little else. One aha moment tonight was the spotting and recording of the Appy Dwarf Toad – a species endemic to Borneo and not often seen. It was also stick insect central tonight with sightings of very young ones to gravid adult females resembling something out of the Aliens film franchise.

 

This is our last night here. We fly to Kota Kinabalu tomorrow for a night before heading out to the wildlife rehabilitation centres and the national parks in the northern part of the island. As some of our clothes are walking around on their own at this point we hope to find a laundry at our next stop 🙂  Until then memburu yang baik! 

Mulu National Park

We said farewell to Kuching this morning and boarded our flight to the UNESCO Heritage site –  Mulu National park deep in  the Sarawak rain forest. The approach to the airport was stunning as our pilot threaded the needle through high limestone peaks and jungle to land in the isolated strip. 

The Mulu caves of bat fame are located here an easy walk from our jungle lodge located within the park. The largest of these caves called Deer cave is estimated to house upwards of 3 million bats – many of whom we hoped to see this evening as they exit the cave on their nightly foraging expeditions. 

It was Centipede and caterpillar day in the jungle, with many crossing our paths on their multitude of legs as we slowly made our way up through the jungle to the cave system. Limestone formations surrounded us in the forest as we followed the trail alongside the stream bed in the jungle. 

 

The first cave we visited was absolutely stunning. Lang cave is a limestone gem without bats – so no guano piles to avoid 🙂 Stalactites and stalagmites are still actively being formed into some bizarre shapes, creating a moonscape of sorts.

 

A short walk away is Deer cave home to the bats. The name comes from the deer that enter the cave to lick the salt in the guano that the bats deposit daily. Hunters would hide in wait for the deer who came to access the salt and dinner was secured.  We were greeted at the entrance to the cave by the first ever mail drop located at a UNESCO Heritage cave – made for a nice touch 😀

Following the sortie into Deer Cave our group walked down hill to the Bat viewing area to watch the bats exit the caves. After a wait of about an hour, occupied with fending off an attack by the biggest earwig I have ever seen we had just about given up and then out they came. 100,000’s of them in an undulating, perfectly synchronized stream their wings making a whooshing sound as they flew overhead through  the evening sky. An amazing experience.

We headed home through a rapidly darkening jungle in full night song – frogs, cicadas, birds and something that (based on the noise it was making)  I had no desire to get anywhere near.  All singing, crowing, chattering at once. A cacophony of sound against the growling of thunder and periodic forked lightning to our east. My favorite was a frog who sounds like a car horn – interestingly enough it is called the horn frog 🙂

Our lodge is lovely – surrounded by thick jungle and it music. A new frog made its presence known last night outside my door – its call sounding like a coughing dog. It is now officially called the KC frog…. Tomorrow we will enjoy a river cruise, visit two more caves – Clearwater and Wind Cave (pretty obvious how they got their names 😀) and visit a Penang village. Stay tuned……