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This is Bat Country

Thursday, 23 October, 2014

David Attenborough is very persuasive. One moment you’re in Melbourne watching Planet Earth and drinking Earl Grey in your slippers. The next, you’re visiting the Bornean interior looking for bats.

They aren’t hard to find. There are over three million in a single cave and the gentle narration of everyone’s surrogate Granddad shone a spotlight on the National Park they call home.

Found just south of the Brunei Border in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, scant attention was paid to Mulu until 1978, when an expedition of scientists and explorers discovered the vastness of the network of caves beneath the jungle. Four distinct cave systems stretch a cumulative 300 kilometres and that figure rises every year as teams of claustrophiles armed with measuring instruments plunge ever deeper.

MEDIA_bat2_389x624With interest came infrastructure, and a little stretch of grey slashed into a sea of green has helped transform the area.

Mulu Airport opened to commercial flights in 1992, turning a road, river and track triathlon from the sleepy coastal city of Miri into a short aeroplane hop.

On board, the views leave passengers firmly glued to windows. Through a whirr of propellers, the rigid uniformity of palm plantations below is soon swallowed by the tangle of Bornean jungle and the chocolate Tutoh River bends back on itself more times than a Formula One track.

Mulu is equal parts slick tourist operation as it is Bornean village. Luxury hotels lie upstream from homestays offering longhouse living – the river doubling as laundry and bathroom. Boatloads of visitors interrupt local fishermen, who shrug, knowing the region’s economy depends almost entirely on wallets beneath the neon lifejackets, and even staunchly traditional families have a member or two working for the national park.

The jungle renders these juxtapositions almost meaningless anyhow, engulfing the landscape and psychogeography with every known and unknown shade of green. Ali G was right all along; the jungle is indeed massive.

It’s also dense, home to millions of animal and insect species that  you ironically have little chance of seeing until you get home and watch more Attenborough documentaries.

But most people don’t come to Mulu for rare animal sightings, or even the jungle. They come for bats and caves.

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Specifically, bats flying out of caves.

Deer Cave is the second largest in the world, with 150 metre high ceilings and a width of similar scale. The cave is so big it’s likely you won’t see any of the three million plus inhabitants when inside.

You can smell them though. The cave reeks of ammonia and the huge ochre mounds you take for unusual geological formations are actually just mountains of bat shit. Deer used to gather in the cave (hence the name) to lick the salty offerings, but have forsaken the faeces since the national park opened and tourist boots descended.

High above and  indifferent to human visitors, the bats bide their time until dusk when, hungry and tiring of their own stench, they leave en masse. The first waves fly out under Abraham Lincoln’s nose (a strikingly similar rock silhouette) in ribbons of thousands, before the main body emerges, swirling at the entrance before streaming out. Inside, snakes strike at errant flyers and outside, hawks swoop on stragglers.

Watching from a clearance beyond, you can almost hear Attenborough’s clipped narration as the bats fill the sky.

‘Here. They are. Three million bats in a mass exodus. On a scale. Unparalleled. In the animal kingdom. A true. Visual spectacle.’

Bat obsessions temporarily sated, visitors can tackle all the activities that had been obscured by veined wings up to this point. Mulu has mountains to scale, pinnacles to climb and a cave chamber big enough to house forty Boeing 747s (Qantas should express their interest).

The creatures loom large in the thoughts of all those who cross the swing bridge entrance to the park but Mulu is more than just flying mammals. The nightly explosion from Deer Cave is worth the admission alone and besides, there are few places you can quote Hunter S. Thompson with such regularity, “We can’t stop here, this is bat country!”

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