When I rented my motorcycle on my first day in Kota Kinabalu, I asked the owner of the shop where I could find bornean pygmy elephants, an endangered species found only on Borneo.
“Here.” He told me, circling an area on the east side of the island that comprised 1/10th of the province. The province of Sabah is about 74,000 square kilometers, so the area that he indicated was probably about 740 square kilometers.
“Can you be more specific?”
“No. They’re always moving.”
I went to the northern part of that area hoping to find better information once I arrived.
I was staying at a hostel beside the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. There I ran into two Swedish nurses that I had met on my first day in Kota Kinabalu. We had met two pretty Dutch sisters the previous night, and I had stayed up very late talking to the younger of the two, a recent MBA graduate named Klara.
We planned to continue traveling as a group. The Swedish nurses and I had already visited the orangutan and proboscis monkey sanctuaries, but the sisters had not, so we decided that we would stay at the hostel one more day to give the sisters a chance to visit the sanctuaries. After that we would go south to Kinabatangan Park to take nature-watching boat rides on the Kinabatangan River.
I asked the staff at the hostel if they knew where I could find pygmy elephants. They did not. From what they told me, it sounded like nobody would. Even the experts rarely know where they are. Pygmy elephants are restless creatures. They sleep only two hours a day and spend the other 22 walking and eating. They can travel as far as 27 kilometers in a day so, even when somebody does spot them, they are often gone by the time word makes it back to the tour guides. To make matters worse, during heavy rains (like the ones that had been flooding the peninsula in the preceding weeks) the elephants tend to move into the jungle.
Despite this, that afternoon my chances of finding them improved dramatically. A few weeks before my trip I had emailed the Sabah Tourism Board to ask if they could recommend a guide to take me to see the elephants. I also mentioned that I would be working while in Borneo, and that I would be happy to write articles for their tourism publications.
That evening in Sepilok, with just five days left to hunt for the pygmy elephants, I received the tourism board’s reply. They said that they wanted photos of orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and pygmy elephants. In exchange for one hundred photos they would provide me with a room and board, a guide, transportation to Kinabatangan Park, and a private boat with which we could cruise the river.
I replied immediately. I wrote that I’d be thrilled to go, but would only have enough time if I left immediately. After a quick email exchange everything was arranged. My guide would pick me up in front of the hostel the following morning.
At dinner I told the girls about my trip. They were excited for me. They had found some good holiday deals, but mine took the cake.
“Do you know where you are staying?” Asked Klara. “Maybe they will have some empty rooms.”
I didn’t know. I only knew that I would be in the village of Sukau on the river. The girls decided that they would also come to Sukau so that we might find each other there.
Things could not have been better.
My guide, Thorpe, picked me up early the next morning. He was a slender Malaysian man with dressed head-to-toe in khaki and wearing a wide-brimmed trekking hat and large glasses.
On the ride Thorpe told me that the guiding company he worked for was the same one that the tourism board sent all of their major clients to: National Geographic, the Travel Channel, the BBC. I was epically thrilled that I was being guided by the same guy that took out NatGeo photographers, but, I was also intimidated. Thorpe had worked with the best of the best. I, on the other had, was young and new. I was afraid that my photography wouldn’t be up to par.
“Is there anything that you’d like to see today?” Thorpe asked me. “We won’t be go out in the boat until tomorrow morning.”
“I read about cave where they collect nests for bird’s nest soup.”
When I was young I had seen pictures of the bird’s nest collectors in National Geographic—slender Asian men climbing bamboo poles hundreds of feet up the sides of caves to pluck tiny nests from the walls.
“Ah yes. The Gomantong Caves. How tall are your boots?”
“Just above my ankle. Why? Is it muddy?”
“No,” he laughed. “Bat guano. If you want to get the good pictures you will have to climb mountains of bat guano.”
My first Bornean outdoors wildlife adventure was going to climbing giant piles of bat poop.
Two hours later we walked out of the jungle into a large clearing in front of the majestic caves. The entrance to the main cave was at least 40 meters tall. In front of it was a creek with an arched walking bridge. On each side of the clearing was a long rectangular wooden building on stilts. They were the bird’s nest collectors’ homes. Several were lazing in the shade beneath one of the buildings.
As we approached a man came out of the building on the left. He had shaggy hair, was missing several teeth, and was wearing flip-flops and socks. Thorpe asked him to show me one of the bird’s nests. If you took a hollow softball and cut it into quarters, the resulting pieces would be about the same size and shape as the nest. It was varying shades of brown and looked like it was made of melted plastic. He held it to his hand to show it would sit against the cave wall.
“They’re made only from bird saliva.” Thorpe told me proudly.
I thought it was strange that he would seem proud of such a fact.
Of course, Canadians chose the beaver to be their national animal, so who am I to judge?
“This nest is not a very good one.” He continued. “The color means that there are a lot of other things mixed in with the bird saliva. A white nest is pure. It’s worth much more.”
“Because it makes better soup?”
“So, bird’s nest soup is actually bird spit soup?”
Bird’s nest soup is a perfect example why I love living in Asia—at least once a week you encounter something so brilliantly bizarre that you can only shake your head and laugh. It’s like living on one of the planets in Star Wars, except weirder.
I snapped some pictures and we continued to the cave. The bridge that crossed the creek connected with an elevated wooden walkway. At the entrance it forked, each path leading to one of the cave walls and then following it to the back, enabling people to walk a complete circuit. At the rear of the cave there was a large opening allowing the light to stream in. There were also two fair-size holes in the ceiling. We had come at the perfect time of day for photography. Brilliant shafts of light penetrated the massive dome giving it the appearance of a holy chamber.
The floor of the cave was covered by what appeared to be one giant black sand dune. At it’s peak it was at least 15 meters tall. On one side a small creek ran through it.
“Yes. Bat guano.”
“I can walk on it?”
“Yes. But be careful. In some places it’s firm, but in other’s it’s soft. I don’t want you to get stuck.” Thrope grinned.
I didn’t care about the mountain of bat poop. I was too excited about shooting the cave. I pulled out my tripod, put my wide-angle lens on my camera, and climbed over the railing of the walkway, and began hiking up the black dune of excrement.
It was a surprising pile of poop—not at all what one would expect. It was dry and springy underfoot, but overall it was surprisingly firm—except in certain places where my boot would unexpectedly sink in and I’d have to try to pull it out quickly before the bat guano reached the unprotected skin above my boot. Some areas, which I avoided, teemed with cockroaches the size of field mice. Strangely, it didn’t smell at all.
Thorpe opted to stay on the wooden walkway. He had taken out a camera of his own and was also walking around the cave taking pictures.
Thorpe, it turned out, was an amateur photographer with a passion for wildlife photography. On our way back to the car we talked about gear.
“What do you shoot with?” I asked him.
“A Nikon D700.”
“Wow, that’s a really nice camera.” A D700 is a professional-level Nikon worth about three times as much as my high-end amateur D80.
My guide had a better camera than I did. This made me self-conscious. I began to think that I had been given this trip in error. Would my photos be good enough for the tourism board?
“What lenses do you have?” Thorpe asked me.
“I have a 50mm, a 35mm, and an 18-135mm.”
“You don’t have a telephoto?”
“How are you going to shoot the elephants? We will not be able to get close to them.”
At that moment I realized that I really had stepped in a giant mountain of bat guano, both literally, and figuratively.