As we entered the first Niah cavern, twinkling pins of torchlight around the upper perimeter were slowly extinguished – tension hung palpable in the air as hundreds of eyes watched us from high on their precarious bamboo ladders. We kept close on Oswald’s heels, conscious of the hoards motionless and silent in the dark above us, our footsteps echoing as we penetrated to the inner caves where prehistoric relics testified to habitation 40,000 years ago. Striding back through the heavy stillness, it was only when glimmers of daylight signalled we were nearing the exit that I breathed a sigh of relief.
We were in Malaysian Borneo preparing a tourism master plan for Sarawak, my first big consulting job in 1992. The night I landed in Kuching was hot and close. Les Clark and Dave Bamford met me at the airport and as we drove beneath the flame trees to the sprawling suburban home that would be our base for the coming months, they explained the project approach in their languid, logical Kiwi way.
It was a monster study of many sectors, and the revolving team consisted of a roster of New Zealand professors, British biologists and Malaysian experts. To add credence, Jim Edwards made a cameo appearance to share his Nepal wisdom ‘You have to be clever’, as did the urbane Neil Plimmer, former head of PATA and chief of New Zealand tourism. We sat around the polished acres of oval conference table with closed curtains and humming air-con in the State Secretariat whilst Les presented the strategy to our Malaysian client Datuk Chin Jew Bui who listened, fingers steepled and eyes hooded.
Les and Dave sailed the murky swamp of Sarawak politics with Kiwi innocence, relying on rationalism, transparency and honest hard work. I came to admire their equitable un-Asian approach, refusing to haggle in the market and insisting on washing up despite a housemaid. Their trusting natures sometimes came across as naïve and there were a few casualties – a bank account was emptied, kitchen plates were thrown, and voracious ladies tried to take advantage. But the New Zealand partners’ pragmatic approach seemed to resonate with clients and more jobs followed. I didn’t realise it at the time, but for me this was the beginning of a 25-year work association with Tourism Resource Consultants (TRC), and a deep connection with their country.
Tenzin and our young sons joined for a Borneo trip up-river in a native motorised dug out, a hazardous craft as was demonstrated when my husband stood up and tipped over into the shallows, much to the hilarity of Sangjay, Rinchen and the entire watching village.
The proboscis monkeys’ weird red noses leered as we cruised cautiously up the Kinabatangan river, and the orphaned orangutans in Sepilok rehabilitation centre gazed down at us sadly from their tree platforms. A coconut throwing competition with the Bamford twins in the garden of our Kuching house proved to be the holiday highlight for the boys.