A slender snake slithered high above our heads on the damp rock wall and the brown guano floor felt spongy beneath our feet, alive with golden cockroaches. But the overpowering sensation was the smell of bat droppings that carpeted the massive cave system. 

Shafts of torchlight revealed swiftlets darting around their tiny nests stuck with saliva securely onto the cave ceiling. Clumps of dark leafy undergrowth hung from dripping crevices, and legions of nocturnal hanging bats waited for dusk to leave the cave in a swirling smoke spiral, swapping places with the birds returning home for the night. I shivered in the hot dank air as we passed stalactites clinging to the ceiling, a palette of pastel hues. 

A cornerstone of Sarawak tourism, Gunung Mulu National Park is a world heritage site with huge caves and karst formations set in a mountain equatorial rainforest. Mulu boasts the largest cave chamber in the world, so big that it allegedly can accommodate 40 Boeing 747s. Explored in the mid-nineteenth century by British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace (he of the Wallace Line and Charles Darwin’s nemesis) but mapped only in the late 1970s by the Royal Geographical Society, Mulu contains a massive underground network of over 150 km of watery cave passages eroded for millennia out of porous limestone.

Read also: Hanging out with the headhunters, Lisa Choegyal 

Despite Mulu’s unique speleological ecosystem and superlative credentials, I felt more comfortable in the rainforest outside, amongst the canopy of tall trees, early morning gibbon calls and unrelenting throb of insects. Dave climbed Mount Mulu, up steep slippery trails past the jagged limestone pinnacles and rare orchids wreathed in mist, but I never did. The so-called Garden of Eden was enough for me, a humid hidden dell with moist foliage and a noisy waterfall enclosed by pockmarked cliffs. 

Our most alarming encounter was accompanying the Sarawak national park director, Oswald Bracken Tisen, through the Niah Great Cave system with a couple of armed park rangers. His patrols had been having trouble with the illegal collection of edible swiftlet nests outside of the carefully controlled season, highly prized by the Chinese for making bird nest soup, and Oswald wanted to see for himself. The illicit harvesting of the delicacy prevented birds from breeding and threatened the valuable trade, licenced to the local Iban villagers. 

Dave Bamford and Les Clark (right) working on the Sarawak Tourism Masterplan in Kuching 1992.

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.