Gunung Mulu National Park is not the easiest place to get to. A maze of rivers and floodland lie between it and the coast. I usually like to travel via ground based public services when I’m backpacking but the domination of cheap flight services in Malaysia has caused the boating services up the rivers to become less than reliable. Hence, a flight in a small Fokker 50 operated by MAS Wings is included in most packages to experience Mulu.
Our flight to Mulu departed from Miri, Malaysia’s oil town. The hostel in Brunei said they could get us a cheap lift to Miri and arranged for a guy carting mandarines in the back of his car to take us there. The package we organised in Miri was a five day trek tracing the steps of savage headhunters through colossal caves, dense equatorial jungle, up razor sharp limestone mountains and down rivers past ramshackle longhouses. It really gave us a taste for what it would be like to be natively Bornean.
The first night involved a stay in the basic lodge near the park headquarters. In the afternoon we hiked the 3 km boardwalk to Deer Cave over peat swamp and alluvial flats from the park HQ. The week before I arrived, the water level in the swamp was over the top of the boardwalk. The yearly rainfall for the region is over 5 metres and this combined with limestone geology leads to the creation of caves of phenomenal dimensions. Deer Cave is thought to be the largest cave passage in the world – it is 2 kms in length and never less than 90 metres high and wide. The main chamber is 174 metres wide and 122 metres high. It has some magnificent waterfalls tumbling through cracks in the cave roof, a Garden of Eden and a rock formation that is of striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln.
Twelve species of bat call Deer Cave (Gua Rusa) home. This includes an estimated three million wrinkled lip bats. From the amphitheatre at 5:30 pm we saw some of them stream out of Deer Cave in swirling donut, helical and ribbon formations for their nightly insect feast. I never had to wear insect repellent because the bats are so good at what they do.
The second day involved visiting a Penan settlement and their handicraft market, Cave of the Winds, Lady’s Cave and Clearwater Cave followed by a muddy 8 km trek to Camp 5. Clearwater Cave was very impressive in the short section I saw of it. It is navigable over 100+ kms along its subterranean river. Pictured is the crystal clear pool at the cave mouth.
Gunung Benarat (1,585 m) forms a magnificent backdrop over Camp 5 on the banks of the Melinau River. The solar powered Camp 5 is a junction for a number of treks including the Melinau Gorge, Headhunters trail and the Pinnacles. We stayed here a couple of nights under a mosquito net to climb Gunung Api (Volcano) for a sight of the Pinnacles. The Pinnacles are razor sharp limestone spires rising 50m over treetops forming a stone forest of their own. In just 2.4 km the track climbs 1.2 km. It was an incredibly tedious climb that took 8 hours to complete and I was uber anrgy to see cloud covering the Pinnacles when I reached the viewing point.
As far as wildlife goes, we were told by the national park guides that Mulu has vast biodiversity but limited volume. In the evening we took a night walk over the suspension bridge at Camp 5 into the jungle opposite the river to look for sun bears because it was durian season. However, the only mammal we spotted was a barbless porcupine. Camp 5 was a haven for the giant emerald green Rajah Brooke’s butterfly and during the day we spotted a pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills flying overhead with their distictinve whoop, whoop, whooping.
The final trek in Mulu Bec and I completed was the historic 12 km Headhunters Trail which follows the path headhunting Kayan war parties took to attack Murut longhouse and Chinese farmers along the Limbang River a century ago. They paddled their war canoes up the Melinau River to the Melinau Gorge, then dragged them 3 km overland to the headwaters of the Terikan River, a tributary of the Limbang.
Not far from the end of the trail is Gua Cina. The legend goes that a group of Chinamen slept in this cave after harvesting swallow nests and subsequently perished as the water rose overnight. I balanced my way across a fallen log to get the shot out of the cave mouth towards the monkey bridge. It is one of three similar bridges along the trail used to cross the rivers.
Once we reached the end we had to catch a three hour longboat ride down the Terikan and Limbang Rivers. This was thoroughly enjoyable after racking up over 30 kms of trekking. In some sections of the Terikan it was so shallow and rapid we had to empty the boat and meet the driver on the other side, whilst watching him navigate the frothing white water in a vessel that was not entirely suitable. The one time we didn’t empty the boat in a dangerous section, I got a few scrathces as the driver got caught in the current and raced towards the river bank. I put my arms up to protect my face from the approaching tree branches and taking the heaviest blow on the boat got whacked under the armpits!
The final night involved a stay at an Iban longhouse but the experience is worthy of a post of its own because I got some great photographs of their unique lifestyle.