"Natural wonders below the surface"
Sapulot has natural wonders below the surface, too. Tinahas Cave is a treasure trove of geological artwork and subterranean species. It’s also a haven for swiftlets, whose nests, constructed using their own saliva, are the desirable ingredient of birds’ nest soup. This dish is believed to be an aphrodisiac in many Asian countries, where the nests fetch well over $1000 per kilo on the black market.
Tinahas is a target for thieves so the Gunting family uses caving tours as an opportunity to check on the swiftlets’ nests. We set off into a tunnel that leads deep underground. Wearing rubber kampong (village) shoes, we wade through ankle-deep water and watch out for huge huntsman spiders and long-legged centipedes.
Soon we come across an amazing sight: thousands of bats are swirling around a high-roofed cavern in a cacophony of flapping wings and shrieks like chattering humans.
Image by Sticky Rice Travel
Deeper underground, the cave system opens out to a huge cathedral of stalagmites and stalactites – sleek rock formations glowing in the dim torchlight.
Here, perched on a ledge, there’s a small nest containing a single white swiftlet egg. Jaubi, the youngest guide, disappears into the blackness to check on the other nests.
"Preserving this land is more valuable than quick profits"
The trip ends at the Gunting family longhouse. It’s in an idyllic spot, with a pristine lawn, a treehouse, and a view over the farm to the rainforest beyond. This is the communal home of Richard Gunting and his extended family, where life seems to roll on in rural bliss. Richard’s eldest son Virgil shows us the modest farm, where they use sustainable growing methods such as interspersing mutually beneficial crops. They aim to show the neighbouring villagers that by keeping production small-scale – and not selling off their land for palm-oil production – they can grow enough to feed themselves and make sufficient profit to maintain their way of life.
The richness of Murut culture is displayed with a traditional welcome. First, a Henry-VIII-style feast. In this culture, guests eat first, followed by the eldest to the youngest member of the family. We tuck into sophisticated dishes, such as wild boar and deer (hunted by Richard himself), mirror fish with chilli and garlic, jungle ferns, banana flowers and rice.
After dinner, the rice wine is brought out and a drinking game begins. A large ceramic pot filled with rice and wine is brought out, and we take turns drinking through a bamboo straw until the wine level has dropped by two notches on a carved marker stick. It’s a rich spirit that goes straight to the head but is made more palatable by chewing a slice of wild boar meat.
Image by Sticky Rice Travel
There’s more entertainment to come: a band start playing a mesmerizing rhythm on gongs and out come the children dressed in their finest beaded sarongs and warrior costumes. They perform a shuffle-dance with elegant hand movements followed by a dance that involves stepping between ever-faster-moving bamboo poles.
As I reflect on my way back to the city the following day, I hope the Murut’s laidback lifestyle will carry on here unchanged. And I wish I could take some of the good life home with me.
For more information on trips to Orou Sapulot and other adventures in Sabah contact Sticky Rice Travel. Explore more of Malaysia with the Rough Guide to Malaysia. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.