Sometimes, I leave the camera behind.
You know how it is. You go somewhere and spend the whole time seeing it not with your naked, soft eyes, but through the narrowed scope of a viewfinder, or the pixelated screen of a digital camera. You capture things for posterity’s sake when you see through a camera lens, but sometimes you miss everything that’s going on out of frame.
And sometimes, the universe wants you to leave the camera in the car. At the Gomatong Caves, in Eastern Sabah, Borneo. I did. Not that I had gotten the memo from the universe at the time; I just didn’t feel like paying the RM30 camera fee. 'It’s a cave. We won’t be able to get any good shots anyways,' I told my girlfriend, who was accompanying me for 10 days in Sabah.
There’s a 500m walkway through the jungle that connects the car park to the main cave complex, known as Simud Hatam - Black Cave. It is not a hole in a rock. It is a gaping rent in a mountainside. If life were a video game, it would be the final bad guy’s hideout.
Hssssshrok. A huge water monitor, a good metre in length, stalked a stream near the cave entrance. Monitor lizards don’t chew their food; they swallow it in messy gulps. This monitor proceeded to do so with a fish carcass, then gave us a satisfied stare.
We moved into the cavern which, with its space, grandeur and immensity, felt like a limestone cathedral. In front of us, there was a long, sloping hill of dark dirt. Upon (not much) closer inspection and a brief smell, we realised that it was not dirt but bat guano; a soft humped breast of guano cloaked in a robe of cave-dark that, for all its light absorbent qualities, still moved. Clacked. Clicked and clittered. Little flashes of light, sparkles of reflection like sunlight on waves, except that these were cockroaches on shit. Millions of cockroaches; a chitinous armour to the soft underbelly of poop.
I give my girlfriend, who is hardly squeamish but no fan of cockroaches, immense credit for crunching through a bat-shit slicked walkway that ran around the entirety of the cavern without losing her head (or her balance - a tall order as the walkway is slippery but you don’t want to grab the handrails, which are crap-and-cockroach coated).
We gulped fresh air as we emerged, laughing, a little disgusted but happy. On the walk back through the jungle we marvelled at a brilliantly-colored caterpillar and chatted about the cave –
The trees bent. My girlfriend gasped.
'It’s an orangutan.'
Monkeys leap from tree to tree in excited hops. Trees shudder from their impact. These trees bowed and sprung back to attention as an orangutan limbered from branch to branch, pausing briefly to snack on leaves, to regard us with dispassionate interest, to reveal her back and her clutching baby, which caused us to gasp and clutch each other.
There are moments when the universe kisses you. When it does, it doesn’t like to be photographed. I firmly believe had I brought my camera, the above, a genuine moment of life enrichment, would not have occurred. Which is why: sometimes, I leave the camera behind.
Adam Karlin authored Lonely Planet's guide to Miami & the Keys.