We left Brunei on Wednesday 2nd
May to travel by bus in to Sarawak. It was just a local daily scheduled bus but quite comfortable and the border crossing was easy, no hassle at all: there are still a couple of empty pages in our passports, despite the eager rubber stamping that takes place at each border crossing! We arrived at the terminal bus station in Miri, an oil town, close to the border, at about 4.30 p.m. A taxi in to town and a nice reasonably priced hotel and a very cheap Chinese meal rounded of this travelling day nicely.
Miri is Sarawak’s second city, after Kuching, and there isn’t a great deal of interest to the traveller, since it has all been rebuilt since WW2 when it was bombed so much it was flattened. So, unlike KK for example, there are no colonial buildings to be found. It isn’t a town geared to tourism anyway, it is a stop off point, mainly for people wanting to visit the Gunung Mulu National Park where we are now, or the Niah National Park south of Miri. However, we really like Miri. It is a friendly
multicultural place and busy and bustling with local trade. Miri is OK and we shall be heading back there on Sunday, after our three-day two-night excursion to the National Park.
We are staying at “Kenny’s Lodge”. There is no internet here and only weak mobile signals. Electricity is by generator so one can only have the aircon on from 6.00 p.m. until 1.00 a.m. We do, however, have a little fan in our room powered by solar electricity. So, although I am sitting by the little fan typing the first part of this blog, it will not be published until Sunday when we are back online in Miri. It is a basic room in a river lodge, cold trickle for the shower but clean and with lovely views of the river. We are in the heart of the jungle here, having flown this morning over pristine rainforest and mountains; it is truly stunning scenery. We are just 4 degrees above the Equator, so it is hot and humid. Our flight from Miri took just half an hour, in a sixty-eight-seater prop plane, tons of leg room, leather seats and we were even served a complimentary drink during the flight!
Air Malaysia have a lot of style! Are you listening Ryanair? Return flights, two night’s accommodation, all meals included at the lodge, entrance fees to the National Park and our own guide called Fefi (Fefiana), who is really lovely, all for £159 each! Can’t be bad! It is out of season, so there were only sixteen of us on the flight! In Mulu, basically there are just three types of accommodation. There is the Marriott 5-star hotel, dorms and lodges within the Park itself (not cheap) and then little homestays and guest lodges run by village locals. The latter are the best bet if you want to really get the vibe of this little backwater: the people are wonderful. Also, they drink beer (those Evangelical Christian missionaries knew what they were about!)
Up until 1977, Mulu and the local Penan Indians were completely cut off from the rest of the world, until a British Geological Society team ventured there. The first cave to be discovered is called Lang cave, named after a local guy who discovered it. Deer Cave, the largest cave passage yet discovered in the world, was not found until 1984. The whole cave system here covers
340 km, as known at the moment. Many parts have still to be reached and researched. The size and scale are truly awesome.
The surrounding jungle is vast and dense and the Penan settlements have changed little in millennia. The arrival of a small airstrip and a small lodge-style Marriot hotel hasn’t changed their way of life much (but they are hoping soon to get mains power)! The only way to get to Mulu is by plane or a gruelling 4 x 4 overland journey. Fortunately, this will NOT change, because the whole vast area of rainforest here is a World Heritage Site. How wonderful is that! No threat of deforestation at Mulu. Fefi comes from a village downriver where the forest has been destroyed by logging. However, there are more animals there, because they have not been hunted so much. It is now illegal for native Penan to use guns to hunt the wildlife; they can, however, still make use of the blowpipe!
After a good lunch at the lodge we set off with Fefi to the caves, a three kilometre walk to get there over boardwalks through the rainforest. There had been a lot of
rain in the night so the water was high. Thank goodness for the boardwalks! It was a beautiful hike and because it is out of season, few fellow visitors. It is only possible to visit the caves with a licensed guide and there are so many different options that even in high season it is rarely crowded. We visited two “show” caves today. Show caves are those that, with a guide, one can visit without specialist equipment (you just need a torch). Other more adventurous, younger, fitter folk set forth with ropes and carabiners for more serious caving.
The first cave we climbed up to was the Deer Cave, daunting in size and a daunting lot of steps up and down to complete the circular route, about two hot kilometres walking. It was worth the effort. We were humbled by the size of the caverns, over-whelmed by the forces of nature whereby a powerful ancient river had formed such splendour. We felt very small. The other almost over-powering thing in Deer Cave is the stench of Guano, bat poo, mountains of the stuff. Rather challenging that!
After the Deer Cave we went to explore Lang Cave, the smallest
Sungai Melinau Paku
Crossing the Paku on hike to the caves
of the four show caves, but it too is very special. It has a spectacular display of stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, shawls and rimstone pools. So beautiful.
The Deer Cave is home to about three million bats, belonging to twelve different species, the most in any one cave discovered so far anywhere on earth. They cling to the roof all day gearing themselves up for their night-time hunt. Every evening, unless it is raining hard, they fly out on mass, to return at dawn (echolocation, the way they home in on flying insects, doesn’t work well in the rain). We were lucky. It was a clear night tonight and we sat in the “bat observatory” a kind of amphitheatre outside the cave, with thirty to forty other people, waiting for the great exodus. Although we expected the phenomenon of about three million bats flying out of a cave to be pretty spectacular, we were totally unprepared for the awe-inspiring show that we witnessed there tonight. Seeing the bats flying out in long spirals towards the setting sun, forming long ribbon-like shapes across the sky as they swerve to avoid Bat Hawks looking for supper, is an unforgettable sight. Wave after
wave they came, for about thirty minutes and although we got neck ache we simply could not turn away, from what is rated as one of the most spectacular animal performances in Asia. AMAZING!
On the three-kilometre trek back to Park H.Q we saw the first of the year’s fireflies. Fefi was delighted because she didn’t expect to see them so early in May. We tucked in to our supper of rice, spicy chicken and green veggies followed by fruit at about 8 p.m. and we are off to bed early. If tomorrow is as fantastic as today has been then this will really become one of our all-time highlight adventures, despite the silly heat!
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