The sun was just starting to dip between ancient trees as our jeep pulled into the jungle camp at Gunung Mulu. Grains of pollen were like glitter suspended in the moist pink haze that wrapped around us and touched everything with gold.
We decided to walk to Moon Milk Cave before dinner; a romantic, 45 minute trek that could be done without a guide, ideal for spotting tropical birds en route.
We dropped our bags at the room, changed into our walking boots and long trousers and ran straight back out the door, grabbing my camera equipment on the way.
Before joining the trail we let security know our route and expected time of return. We found the way easily and were impressed to find properly covered footpaths instead of the dense scrub we had come across in other parts of Borneo.
The trek started off very easy going - nice and flat, cool under the shade of the canopy, but soon things got more difficult: The flat path turned into a near vertical climb up narrow, slippery wooden steps. We climbed and climbed, the muscles in the backs of our legs burning under the strain. The higher we got, the hotter it got. Humidity soaked through our clothes. Sweat dripped down our bodies, replenished only by the one small bottle of water we had brought between us.
Eventually we came to a clearing and the opening of the cave. We could hear voices inside and followed them. Another couple were just up ahead and waited so we could walk together. We paused now and then to take photographs of the stalagmites and stalactites, breathing in to fit through gaps where the two almost joined. The flashes of our camera outlined long silvery strands of slime excreted by glow worms to ensnare their prey and spiders webs dotted with beads of cave dew. Giant images of monsters and witches moved around us like Chinese shadow puppets.
As we emerged at the other end, the sky was aflame with the burning red glow of the day’s last rays. We watched the sun melt away into distant peaks of black mountains before we were ensconced in darkness.
I was briefly distracted by the on-off flicker of fireflies dancing around us like fairies. I had never seen them before and wasn’t even sure they were real. We followed the wooden steps back down, lit only by the beam of a mobile phone held out in front. We stopped to take pictures of giant snails the size of my fist and hairy caterpillars like an old man’s eyebrows.
The walk seemed an eternity, much longer than before. We had been back on the flat for a while now and I didn’t remember it being so far. When we reached another set of steps, steps that hadn’t been there before, a little bead of worry crept in as we realised we may have taken a wrong turn. All we could do was carry on until we came to a sign pointing back to camp.
We now had half the bottle of water between the four of us – the other couple had been even less prepared for this than us. None of us had a torch, none of us was wearing insect repellent. The mosquitos seemed to smell our fear and were having a merry feast.
We continued; panic setting in. Not only had we told security that we would be back two hours ago, but they were expecting us to be on a different route entirely. If they came looking for us, they’d be looking in the wrong place.
Eventually we arrived at a map. And a sign. What we thought was a circular route was, in fact, a straight line. We should have turned back in the direction we had come when we exited the cave. Instead, we had walked 6km in the wrong direction.
Tears were rolling down my cheeks, leaving a salty tidemark through the grime on my face. This wasn’t an adventure any more; I was terrified. All I wanted was to be safe and tucked up in the comfy bed back at camp. The others encouraged me to keep going.
When we finally saw the outside light of the security building, we ran, expecting to be greeted by a relieved search party. What we found was that security had gone home for the night, ours were the last names on the board.
No one even noticed we were missing.