A Bat Attitude in Borneo

By Kattina Rabdau-Fox
Mulu National Park, Borneo, Malaysia

We’ve been hiking for an hour through the jungle-heart of Borneo with a local guide. It’s a steamy 32 degrees Celsius (90 Fahrenheit), but the rainforest canopy shades us from the fiercest of solar rays.  Birds, primates, and insects are singing and bounding all over the place – yet we can scarcely hear them over the cacophony of tourists.

SONY DSCCameras poised, the humans are ready to photograph an exceptional stick bug or waterfall, but only when our guide points them out. The rest of the time, most of the group is engaged in an ongoing narrative of how Borneo is different than X, worse than Y, or better than Z. They seem to be here only to check off a checklist.

I hate “the bucket list” phenomenon. Checklists stifle experiences. And the book, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die? It’s too prescriptive. Your 1,000 places may be different from the author’s. Your dreams, the places you want to see, are personal affairs.

Borneo sits near the top of my list – not as a “been there, done that” box to check, but as something I feel passionate about. I’ve dreamed of coming here since I was 10.

I felt dumb as a kid because I struggled with reading. Then I discovered science and everything changed. Science was predictable if you knew what to look for. The laws of nature made sense to me in ways the “I before E” rule did not. I still remember seeing a  TV program on Borneo’s Orangutans and their behaviors. I fantasized about how cool it would be to see them in real life. My love for science trumped my insecurities about reading, and nudged me to overcome my struggles.

Years later, the BBC’s groundbreaking “Planet Earth” series renewed my interest. One episode featured Mulu National Park, home to the world’s second largest cave.

SONY DSCSeveral million bats sleep and poop in Deer Cave. The sheer volume of bat poop is amazing. Listening to the soothing voice of Sir David Attenborough explain with great enthusiasm about bat guano is enough to excite any budding scientist’s attention. My dream of visiting Borneo was rekindled.

But even in my 20’s I’d never met anyone who had been to Borneo. It seemed so far away, so hard to get to. Then, two years ago, my husband, Dave, and I moved to Singapore. Borneo was a quick flight away. We started saving our pennies so I could fulfill my dream.

We  planned our summer and flew off to explore the place I had only known from books and television. And now, after fantasizing for more than 20 years, I’m here now – trekking through Mulu National Park, hiking into one of the largest caves in the world, and loving life.

Except that life at the moment is very noisy – not only with the jungle’s natural sounds, but with the sounds of bucket-list tourists who won’t shut up.

I expected other visitors in Borneo would have the same dream as me of really experiencing the place. That’s why they dragged themselves into this hard-to-reach corner of the world, right?

Not right.

They seem more interested in one-upping each other with snarky comments about places they’ve been or other people in our group. They’re drowning out the jungle’s natural sounds. They’re disturbing my dream.

SONY DSCAfter an hour, we reach Deer Cave. The group goes silent as we step inside. I hear the chatty clicks of swiflets and the sound of water dripping through limestone. The cave’s size and darkness seem to swallow other sounds. Relief sweeps over me.

Deer Cave stands 175 meters tall, higher than many cities’ tallest buildings. It is so vast, a 747 could fly through it. Its limestone walls were formed in a shallow sea millions of years ago. Continental uplift and a drop in sea level pushed the formation skyward, where it was downcut by rivers and flooded.  It’s one of dozens of caves in Mulu.

For two to three-million bats, it’s an ideal home. Tall ceilings, natural air-con, and thousands of stalagmites and stalactites make it prime real estate. For humans, the only way you’re allowed inside is with a local guide.

Entering the cave is the prelude. The bats’ exodus is the crescendo. Most evenings, millions of bats flood out of the openings, swarming and rolling in unison.  The phenomenon happens in only a few places on Earth.

We move to a viewing area outside the cave. I’m standing here in the moment, ecstatic about witnessing it first-hand. Eat your heart out, David Attenborough!

“It’s too hot!”

“There are too many bugs!”

“Why don’t they just come out already?”

“That guy wouldn’t talk with me about the fact that we’re reading the same Stephen King book…”

Around 50 people have gathered. All I can hear is whining kids, whining adults, plastic snack wrappers, and inane chit chat.  The people around us act like they’ve won this trip as a consolation prize, when they really wanted a trip to Tokyo Disney.

SONY DSCThe exodus begins. Streams of bats flow from the cave. I’ve expected the sight but not the sound. It’s like a bullroar; the deep drone of wings beating the wind. It hits me deep inside.  It is visceral.

Each time a new group of bats pours from the cave, cameras come up, snapshots are taken, and the talking continues.

My rage is rising. Dave can see it.

Finally, people start leaving. They’ve checked off the “bat thing at Mulu” from their list. I’m hopeful to hear the sound of the bats as each group of chatty people peels off down the trail. But three young Canadians behind us aren’t leaving. They take every moment to bring the sarcasm.

I’m pro-sarcasm. At times, I live for sarcasm. So I’m having an internal battle: my appreciation of funny banter versus my desire to fully experience this thing I’ve anticipated for my entire adult life. But the light is dimming. Soon all of the bats will have left for the night.

So what do you do when your dream is not the dream of the people around you? Do you let them alter your experience or do you alter theirs? Do you brood and lose focus?  What do you do when your Borneo isn’t other people’s Borneo?

This is my moment. The moment I’ve dreamed of for decades is here. I must decide: Do I settle for less of an experience, or stand up for my 10 year-old self, full of insecurity, who overcame her self-doubts through the simplicity of wonder?

I turn to the Canadians. “At the risk of seeming like an asshole,” I say, “I am sure you spent a great deal of time and money planning this trip, as did I. It’s been my dream since I was 10 to experience this event, and I can’t hear the sounds of nature with you talking the entire time. Would you be so kind as to stop talking?”

Sheepishly, they leave.

Others in the park peel off, too.  Finally, it’s just me, Dave, and a few other people. The sounds of cuckoos, cicadas, and bat wings fill the skies. I’m ecstatic.

Walking back, it is quiet. Fireflies dot the jungle and bats swoosh past our heads. I’m thankful for being a dunce. Reading is awesome and opens doors, but understanding the rhythms of the natural world has become something as essential as blood to me. I can’t imagine a world without wonder, a world without places we want to see, a world without experiences we strive to make our own.

Kattina Rabdau-Fox
teaches seventh-grade science at the Singapore American School. She is married to founder Dave Fox, but please don’t hold that against her.

Published on Friday, June 21, 2013

One Response to “A Bat Attitude in Borneo”

  1. Darbi
    July 12, 2013 at 1:28 PM

    I’m so glad you said something. People are allergic to silence and love to hear themselves yap, but more importantly, many people see no value in silence/listening. I spent days on the river in the Grand Canyon with people who could not shut up (my father said “they will just talk until a subject comes up”). It is especially depressing in Yellowstone, where the sounds are half the experience, and you are surrounded by people who feel the need to narrate, complain, or snark around.

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