Monsoon Trekking

According to the ancient myth, the human Sisyphus is challenged to push a giant boulder up a mountain because he dares to claim that he is a god.  Like a fool, Sisyphus attempts to complete the impossible task.  But the mountain is steep and the boulder is round so every little bit Sisyphus pushes the boulder up the hill, it rolls back down.  Thus, for the sin of his arrogance, Sisyphus is condemned to pushing a round rock up a big hill for all of eternity.

Sometimes, I feel like Sisyphus.  But instead of a single big round boulder to push up a big mountain, I have an infinite pile of smaller rocks spread across Delaware and Otsego County that I have to pick up and put together into never ending stone walls.  My stonework business is booming again.  For the first time really, since 2008, my work schedule is slam packed for the foreseeable future and the phone just keeps on ringing.  Piles of rocks are everywhere just waiting for me to get my hands upon them.

There is, of course, a big difference between me and Sisyphus.  In the story, the great challenge becomes a great burden and Sisyphus comes to see it as a punishment.  After all, the act of pushing a rock up a hill is not much fun.  But for me, I can’t imagine my challenge ever becoming a punishment.  Building beautiful stone walls out of random rock piles is the most fun thing in the world.  So let the rock pile keep on growing.  It makes me very, very happy…  And the money’s not bad either.

The only downside to all this stonework is this travel story blog.  I am so busy with the rocks that I have no time for words so there will probably be no new stories for a while. Oh well, I still have sixty or so old ones left in my ancient archives and I will continue to post them.  This week’s tale is another excerpt from my Borneo book.

Monsoon Trekking

Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo; January 15, 2010.

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink…  Actually, that’s not true.  This time, at least, my water bottle is full, I have plenty to drink and I am not even thirsty.  In fact, I am the complete opposite of thirsty.  I’m drenched; soaked to the bones.  The clouds have split open and unleashed a torrent upon this jungle.  Water gushes forth from the heavens.  I’ve never seen so much rain in my whole life.  The gods must be angry.  Perhaps I should build an ark. It’s monsoon season in Borneo and I happened to be caught in a downpour.  But I’ll be all right.  At least it’s not cold.  Not even really uncomfortable.  Just wet….very wet.  But what should I expect from a rainforest/jungle in monsoon season.  There’s no danger of hypothermia or anything.  I’ll be fine.  I only have to trudge eight kilometers or so through the wet jungle to reach park headquarters and my warm and dry dorm room.  It’ll take a few hours.  I’ll get even wetter…if that’s possible.  But I know the trail so there’s really nothing to worry about.  I just have to go back the same way I came.

OH SHIT!  Flashes through my brain.  I remember the waterfall.  The current was swift and the water ankle deep when I crossed it on the way here.  If the water level rises in the storm it may be impossible to cross on the way back.  I could be stranded…stuck…unable to escape the jungle until the rain stops and the water level drops again.  And in monsoon season that could be a very long time.  OH SHIT!   I better run…

Well, what do you know? I finally made it to Borneo.  The flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching, the capital of the Sarawak province, only takes an hour or so.  I have a window seat and when we fly in above the island, my heart goes pitter patter with excitement.   I can hardly believe my eyes….endless greenery criss-crossed by winding rivers.  I’ve wanted to come here for a long time.  It almost feels like destiny.  I take taxi from the airport into town and find a cheap room at the B & B Inn.  I spend the next two days exploring the city.  As I’ve said before, I’m not really a city person but as cities go, Kuching gets two thumbs up.  There’s a very pleasant riverfront walkway lined with cheap little restaurants and food stalls.  There’s a nice collection of cool bars and restaurants in the hip neighborhood.  The people are very friendly but not overbearing and there’s a rather excellent museum.  It’s definitely the kind of city I could linger around in for some time.  But no, Bako National Park is a short distance away and calling out to me.  After only two days in Kuching, I head for the jungle.

The guidebook says you can camp or stay in a dorm or a chalet.  I bring along my tent hoping to camp out.  The local bus from Kuching to the jetty takes about an hour.  Then it’s a half hour boat ride to the park headquarters.  As I approach the female administrator and explain that I want to camp, I am greeted by a polite smile that seems to be working hard to hold back a laugh.  “People don’t usually camp this time of year,” she says, “because of the rain.  And besides, we are not very busy now so the dorms are almost empty.  Why don’t you stay in a dorm for a night to get a feel for the place?  If you find a good place to camp, you can set up your tent tomorrow night.”  I’m a little disappointed.  Nevertheless, I agree to the suggestion and decide to spend the first night in the dorm.

After settling into the room, I head out to hike the trail known as the big loop.  Once again, I am warned.  The park ranger tells me that most people stick to the small loop this time of year because the trails are so wet and muddy.  But I am bursting with enthusiasm and not to be discouraged.   The big loop is only 13 ½ kilometers.  I could walk that blindfolded on my hands.  What’s the big deal?  I’m not worried about mud.  I’ll be just fine.  And so, I head out walking on my own.

It is one of the nicest hikes that I have ever been on.  It is, however, much more challenging than I expected.  13 ½ kilometers is easy peasy in the cool mountain air or on a nice country road.  But 13 ½ kilometers in hot, sweaty, steamy, muddy jungle is a whole other bowl of potatoes.  For starters, I don’t bring nearly enough water.  I have a two liter bottle but the way sweat is gushing forth from my pores, I could easily drink six liters.  Additionally, the mud is unbelievable.  Yeah, I know, I was warned.  I expected to trudge through mud.  I planned on mud.  But this is mud in epic proportions.  I try to avoid it.  I balance across logs.  I jump from rock to rock.  But it does no good.  Squish, squash, squish; it’s up to my ankles, up to my knees… I can barely make it through and the effort is exhausting.

But alas, it’s all worth it.  Hiking solo through dense jungle is nothing less than a mystical experience.  I see monkeys swinging through the trees; birds and butterflies in psychedelic colors; scary spiders clinging to multi-dimensional spiraled webs and a seeming infinite variety of tiny bug like creatures.     And of course, the sunlight shines through the canopy to light up the rising mist bathing the entire jungle in alternating prisms of ethereal light.   It’s cool beyond words…unreal…intense.  I keep my eyes on the lookout for snakes.  I know in my brain that snakes avoid humans and this trail is fairly well traveled so it is unlikely that I will see any.  But I also know that there are pit vipers in this jungle…one of the deadliest snakes on the planet…. And this trail isn’t used so often in the rainy season and all it takes is one lost snake surprised at the wrong time.  But my senses are heightened; I hear and see everything.   Can I smell a snake?  No, probably, not.  But I’d sure feel it if I got bitten.

But no, I have no snake encounter.  I trudge through the mud, up over the hills, across the slippery logs, climb over the tree trunks and untangle vines.  I make my way through, slowly, one step at a time.  And then, somehow, some way, during the course of the day’s journey…the thing happens…the experience…to be lost without being lost.  I disappear from my self and become a part of the whole; part of the jungle.       I don’t know why or how it happens, but it does.  And it is a million times better than any television show or book or movie or computer game.  Perhaps it sounds like shit.  But that is only if you have never been through it.  The self will disappear; the human superior, the dominator, the controller, the devil, the intruder…breaks down and fades away.  The human animal within emerges and I become the jungle…  Or perhaps all that is just a symptom of dehydration.

After 10 or 11 kilometers of walking, several thousand calories burned, multiple liters of sweat soaked into my clothes and only three kilometers from park headquarters, I come upon the waterfall; a waterfall with a pool deep enough for full body submersion.  Can you say paradise?  Is there a better sensation available to the human animal than plunging the totally exhausted, sweat soaked body into the cleansing waters of a jungle waterfall?  I am a very happy man.

I make it back to park headquarters and the dormitory around 6:00 pm.  I am exhausted.  I eat a big and surprisingly good meal in the park restaurant and go to bed early.  I sleep like a pile of rocks until about 1:00 am when I am rather suddenly awakened by the sound of rain…..monsoon rain.  It sounds like the end of the world.  How much rain can possibly fall from the sky?  No doubt it’s a beautiful sound but I sure am glad I’m not in my tent.  I’d probably be washed out to sea in this madness.

The next day, I take it relatively easy.  I hike to a nice beach only four kilometers away.  I get caught in a couple rain showers but nothing severe.  The surf is too rough for swimming but at least it’s a beautiful spot.  I meet two friendly Irish couples at the beach and we have a pleasant conversation sitting under the small shelter waiting for the rain to stop.  It let’s up but never really stops.  I get rather wet hiking back to the dorm in the rain.  It is monsoon season after all.

On the third day at Bako, I decide to go on another adventure.  A short distance past the waterfall on the big loop, there’s a side trail that shoots off for four more kilometers to a distant secluded beach.  The round trip from park headquarters is almost 16 kilometers but I should be able to handle it.  I begin right after breakfast under a cloudy grey and threatening sky.  But at least it’s not raining when I begin.

The sprinkles begin shortly before I reach the waterfall.  No big deal, I have a rain jacket and I am expecting to get wet.  Upon reaching the waterfall I notice that the water level is significantly higher than it was the other day when I passed through.  The monsoon rains certainly do affect the terrain.  Nevertheless, the river is not impassable.  I have to wade through a fairly strong current of ankle deep water but I’m a strong man so there is little chance of getting swept over the falls.  I don’t stop and swim today either.  Perhaps I will on the way back but today I am going to the beach and I’d like to swim there.

About a kilometer past the waterfall, the side trail branches off the big loop and heads towards the secluded beach.  I’m on a new path now…unfamiliar territory.  Obviously, it’s not walked very often because it’s very grown over and extremely muddy.  There are many beaches much closer to park headquarters that are more popular with the normal tourists.  This particular trail is only traversed by the more adventurous types.

Again, the jungle is amazing; so wet and green and dense and intense.  It feels primordial, ancient…far removed from that thing called civilization.  I balance on logs, duck under vines, trudge through mud.  For a while, I try to stay dry.  But in a short time, staying dry seems ridiculous.  Accept the wetness, accept the water, let it happen, let it go.  It’s extremely liberating.  Once I accept the water, everything is easier.  The human fades and the animal emerges.  I want to roar, I want to shout, I want to sing, I want to dance…

The trail rises up over a hill and descends through a steep ravine.  There are more logs to balance across and vines to grip to keep from falling.  The jungle hums with life.  Water drips from the canopy and sweat drips from my pours.  Finally, at the bottom of a steep decline, the jungle opens up, there is a small cliff but a rope is attached to help me climb down.  I have reached the secluded beach.  Wow.  What a beach.  I feel like Robinson Crusoe.  No one else around and it looks like no one has been here for ages.  The beach is large and it stretches out into the ocean because of low tide.  Nevertheless, waves pound the shore from the rough surf.  The drizzly grey sky and tumultuous muddy sea discourage swimming.  The scene is foreboding, impressive, semi-apocalyptic.  Massive dark clouds hover above the sea a short distance away.  Large rock cliffs covered with abundant green vegetation stand up behind me.  It feels so isolated, so forgotten.  It definitely brings to mind the end of the world.

I take off my shoes and walk along the beach.  A short distance ahead, a good sized river flows in from the jungle.  It’s the perfect setting for a prehistoric crocodile.  A chill runs down my spine.  I am afraid of crocodiles…  But no, I don’t see one; only the impressive murky river flowing towards me from the depths of the endless, dense jungle.

As I stand there, with my eyes peeled, searching for pre-historic beasts, the dark looming clouds decide to make their move.  When I look back towards the ocean the darkness is upon me.  The heavens crack open and the rain gushes down upon me.  It’s a downpour, a monsoon rain, a storm like I’ve never seen before.  I run across the beach towards the jungle seeking cover.  It’s useless, after ten steps I’m soaked to the bone.  I might as well be swimming.  But I keep running until I reach the rope on the cliff.  I pull myself up until I reach the cover of trees.  With a small measure of shelter I look out towards the ocean.  Wow.  Holy Shit.  What a rainstorm.  I’ve never seen anything like this before.  It’s pretty damn impressive and kind of scary.  Not really scary, just a little.  I do know the way back and it’s only eight kilometers.  I’ll get very wet.  But how much wetter can I get?  It’s no big deal.  I will make it back.

OH SHIT!  It’s then that I remember the waterfall with the river crossing.  Oh shit!  I could be stranded for god knows how long.  I start to move…quickly…very quickly.  Not quite running because the tangle of vines, precarious logs and endless mud holes make running impossible.  But I move as fast as I possibly can without running.  My heart is pumping as the adrenaline surges through my veins.  I’m scared, excited and somewhat desperate.  I can’t get any wetter.  I’m soaked to the bone.  But at least it’s not cold.  Go quickly, faster, over the hills; under the vines; through the mud holes.   Hopefully, the poisonous snakes and spiders are hiding somewhere deep in their holes.

Finally, I reach the waterfall and the river is a rushing torrent.  At the crossing place; it’s well over knee deep now and the rain continues to pour.  The pool where I bathed the other day is now a roiling cauldron of mud and foam.  I’d be swept over the falls to crash on the rocks if I tried to swim or bathe now.  Can I make it across?  I don’t bother to take off my shoes.  I figure the extra weight on my feet will give me balance.  I sit on my ass to slide down the slippery rocks on the riverbank.  When I reach the water, I stand up.  On the very edge, it’s up to my knees and the current is strong but I think I can make it.  Slowly, one step at a time, I move towards the center.  I’m poised and ready to dive for the rocks on shore if the current becomes too swift.  Out in the middle, the water rises to my thighs and then my crotch.  I can feel the force of the current trying to push me over the edge.  But still, I have more weight above water than below.  I can make it.  I will make it.  I do make it.

When I reach the other side, I climb up the slippery bank and breathe a sigh of relief.  And then, I give a shout for joy.  I made it.  The rest of the way is easy

For the last hour of my monsoon trekking, I am one of the happiest people on the planet.  The trails are flowing mud, the water still gushes from the sky, and I am as soaking wet as a person can be.  Nevertheless, I am laughing, dancing, and singing in the rain.  There’s nothing like a good scare to put things in perspective.  Once the danger of the river crossing is done, I can relax, slow down and enjoy myself.  I got my adrenaline high and now I have a rain drenched jungle to experience.  It sure is great to be alive.

I make it back to park headquarters and my warm dry dorm room in the late afternoon.  I have myself a good feed in the restaurant and I sleep like a pile of rocks.  The next morning, I take the boat and the bus back to Kuching.  My journey to Bako National park was a good one.  Now it’s time to continue on to the next destination.

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