It's a five-hour drive from the frontier town of Tawau to the gateway of the Maliau Basin Conservation Area and another hour of muddy tracks and momentary encounters with passing wildlife before one reaches the study centre near the foot of the bowl. The suburban patchwork of tropical woodland and weary terraces soon gives way to a landscape of palms: crests, valleys, slopes and dull plains of trunks each topped with a spray of dark fronds and the promise of biofuelled profit. Ferns maintain a footing on the fibrous skin of mature trees, while a monoculture of broad-leaved creepers occupies the spaces between saplings not yet tall enough to steal their light.
The drivers, who proffered a running commentary on rivers that once ran clean and vales of unshorn woods, break the pace at a junction where estate workers linger and smoke by a shack with no lavatories. A timberyard lies just beyond the dust, welcoming the felled hearts of Borneo on flatbeds of diesel. It's the last chance to throw small water into the bushes and stock up on sweet goods before a week of small comforts. It must have been a slow day, for the purchase of a beverage that cost a little less than two ringgit resulted in a bashful handful of mints. "Tak ada duit kecil!" declared the makcik who manned the sundry facility with a pair of mates.
Eight days later, the ladies endured another pitstop of empty tummies and full bladders as two filthy four-wheel drives rolled in from the interior. This time, a flock of hens and cockerels patrolled the perimeter of the shed, worrying more about fowl pecking orders and a playful ginger than their place in the rural value chain. The half-grown kitten stretched and sauntered from the floor planks to the table wares with a face of grubby bemusement. On the wall nearby hung a retail display for sachets of coffee blended with lolsome herbs. Each pack cost a pretty song, enough to satisfy the whims of curiosity without killing the cat. Scratch that, I thought of the opportunity to pass up the concoction. Powder in pocket and head in pain, there was nothing left to do but watch the moggy prance on the gallery and wish that the hours ran short of a sign between this crossroad and two flights of delayed agony.