The lone vigilante stands tall over the city. It is dark and the rain falls hard from the heaven above. It is hell below – the city, now engulfed in a fog, has claimed her nights. It sleeps peacefully knowing it has someone to watch over it - the silent guardian, the watchful protector. She is a creature of the night and her day starts when the sun goes down. Her devoted cohorts – the colonies of bats - hang around her, ready to follow her whenever she takes flight. But she waits. And she broods. She has been afraid for the very first time in her life – she has walked away from darkness when she should have plunged right into it. She contemplates her actions and makes up her mind. It is time to charge into the underworld, pitch into the shadows and set things right. But she waits….
…and she waits. She, as in, me. And no, I don’t feel like Bat Woman right now, though I try to spin a story in my head to make me feel all right. To be honest, I feel rather stupid. I should have not been a coward and gone right ahead. What could have happened? And anyway, anything is better than waiting here in the sun, and waiting for A to enjoy an adventure all by himself and then having to hear about it for the rest of my life.
I am getting ahead of my story. We are in Taman Negara - one of the world's oldest tropical rainforests. It is estimated to be about 130 million years old. We are here for an extended weekend. Having done the usual touristic trail – like hiking the jungles and walking across the longest canopy walkway and swimming in the waterfalls and visiting the orang asli villages – we have been promised something off the beaten track for the afternoon. We are visiting Gua Telinga, one of the many caves in Taman Negara that houses colonies of bat. Not the vampire kind but the kind that survives on fruits and hence aptly called the Fruit Bats. Personally, I would have liked a close encounter with the vampire kind, but - ah well, you can’t have it all! A 20 minutes boat ride from where we are staying and a further walk into the forest, this cave promises to be an adventure of lifetime.
I am all charged up as I approach the cave. I get in also. But then I start to lose my footing on the lime deposit on the floor and panic. What if I fall down? Once inside, there is only one way out – to go forward. It is dark inside, it is constricted and what if I can’t make it out. You must realize that this is pre aspiring-to-be-a-marathon-runner days – so my confidence level on my own physical capability is not really high up on the radar. Of course, I make up with enthusiasm what I lack in energy – but this is a very different proposition. It requires going underground through treacherous passageways in complete darkness. I step back and walk away. A goes ahead with our guide. And I am left pondering whether I just let go of a unique opportunity to experience an once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
30 excruciating minutes later, A comes out. Looks at me and says “You have to do it!” That does it. What possibly can go wrong? People are doing it, aren’t they? A did it. If he can do something, I can do it better. I look at our guide. We have been supplying him with cigarettes since yesterday – now it’s time for him to pay back. A offers him another cigarette and asks him if he can take us back to the cave again. I conjure up all my charm and give him a pathetic smile. The guide looks at my face, thinks for a minute and says “datang” – I hop, skip and jump behind him.
He advises me to sit on my back and drag myself if I find my feet slipping. But this time, my determination sees me through the first phase – I make it through the entrance without sliding down. The sunlight gradually fades away and the walls cave in and suddenly we are inside the cave and below the ground. It is pitch dark, it is cold and our guide shines his flashlight. By now, we are on our knees and we crawl through the cavity. The guide switches off his flashlight after a while, since the only way forward is the way forward through this tunnel as we proceed to go deeper into the cave. We are, as the cliché goes, blind as bats – but we know we will not fall off anywhere and hence safe. Now, if a snake also decides to join us in our expedition or cross our path – then that will become a different story. I can hear my heart pounding but A, the veteran, who’s already been there and done that, keeps on reassuring me. After what seemed like eternity, the guide flashes his light again and we get ourselves into sitting position and then jump down.
We are inside a bigger cavity now but we can at least stand on our feet. As my eyes try to adjust themselves to the faint light that emits from our guide, I find myself in a magical world. Stalactites – of bizarre shapes and sizes adorn the ceiling of the cave. A stream runs down through the middle. It is a sight I have imagined every time I have read ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’. Or nothing remotely close to what I have ever imagined it to be. The flashlight casts weird shadows on the rocky walls, the crystals hanging from the ceiling glow in its beam. Alice has finally arrived in the wonderland.
A further walk down the cave and we duck our heads to enter another chamber. The guide warns me not to touch the walls to feel my way through. Before I can ask why – he shines his torch on the walls. The wall seems to be moving. It takes a moment for me to realize that what I thought to be moving is actually colonies of bat – hundreds and thousands of them - clustered together – hanging from the walls. An eerie sight indeed, but a thoroughly thrilling one, none the less. If you have an active imagination like me, which has been fuelled with adventure stories since childhood, you would know what I mean. It is pitch dark otherwise and our vision is only limited to the beam of light that shines on the wall. We take in a few minutes here – marveled at the sight we just saw. A few bats, disturbed by the light, start flying around. A few of them swoop down upon us. Time to move on.
We make our way through some more treacherous and tricky paths, sometimes crawling on our fours. Then we suddenly see a ray of sunlight. We follow the guide and the sunlight and find ourselves in a chamber – with a hole on the ceiling. That is our way out. I panic again. How am I supposed to climb up that hole? Sure there’s a rope hanging and a few stones arranged in a very precarious manner to give you support. But no way am I going to manage to climb that up.
A goes up first. I watch him carefully as he steadily, if not too comfortably, maneuvers his way up. The guide asks me to follow. I am still dilly-dallying - should I put my right foot first and then haul myself up or the left will make the climb easy. And then a bat lunges down upon me from nowhere and I scream as I feel its wet wings touch my skin. I have to get out of this place. I take a deep breath and with a prayer on my lips, just aim for the rope. A foot here, a step there – I haul myself up rather awkwardly and if I may say so, desperately – out of the situation. My mind is blank as I am doing this and all I can think of is trying to touch A’s hand. I reach it finally and A pulls me up. I breathe again.
Would I go for such cave explorations again? I surely will. Was it worth all the physical and emotional strain? Hell, yes! I have gone exploring caves twice after that in Thailand. Plan to do a few more in Borneo in the near future. Not for the faint hearted but definitely an experience of a lifetime. None of my other cave expeditions seemed as hard as this one, though. On the hindsight, it was fun. It was more an “Indiana Jones” adventure than a “Caped Crusader” escapade. A hidden trunk of treasure unearthed during the jaunt would have made it just perfect.
Let me tell you how this adventure ends. I take a deep breath as I straighten myself up on the surface of the earth. I take in the sunlight and the fresh air. I am all sweaty and dirty - my palms and knees are covered in bat poop and all kinds of slime. But I just can’t stop smiling. A gives his "I-told-you-so" smile and asks me how I feel. Ecstatic is an understatement to describe how I feel. The guide comes out and I look at him, bat my eyelids and say “Can we go again?”