Into the Heart of the 'Green Mountain'

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August 16th 2019
Published: September 1st 2019
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Scenic RiverScenic RiverScenic River

Longboats tied up on the Sungai Melinau
With just ten days left in our month-long Malaysian holiday – and having fully immersed ourselves in the country's cultural offerings during the first three weeks – Linda and I decided it was time to heed the call of the wild and discover some of the country's natural assets. And when it comes to natural attractions in this part of the world, nothing we'd read about came close to matching the aura and mystique of Gunung Mulu National Park. Located in the heavily-forested interior of Borneo, the 500sq km park packs in mountains that rise up to 2300m high, featuring extraordinary geological formations such as the razor-sharp limestone spires of the Pinnacles, riddled with caves of truly epic proportions, and cloaked in some of the densest old-growth rainforest to be found anywhere on Earth – which in turn supports some of the richest biodiversity on the planet. Small wonder then, that Gunung Mulu NP was inscribed onto Unesco's World Heritage List back in 2000, having fulfilled all four criteria for selection. One alone would have been enough to make the list.

With no road access of any kind, there are only two ways to reach the park: by plane or
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Suspension footbridge across the Sungai Melinau
on foot. We chose the easier option, hopping on board a 70-seater turbo-prop plane (Monday 12th August) for the daily 90-minute flight from Kuching to the tiny Mulu airport, located just over a kilometre from the park's headquarters. To give you some idea of how small this airport is (receiving just four flights per day), we watched as the baggage handlers manually wheeled the baggage trolleys from the side of the plane to the 'baggage reclaim area'... which was all of about twenty metres away! Having made our way outside with our bags, we then watched as the vast majority of passengers from our flight made a beeline for the free shuttle bus (an open-air trolley bus, no less!) laid on by the 5-star Mulu Marriott Resort, to be whisked away to their luxury home in the jungle; while Linda and I settled for a clapped out old minivan with a geriatric driver that had a top speed of about 30km/h! Still, we only had a two-minute drive ahead of us – and we had the whole back of the van to ourselves!

Crossing the suspension footbridge over the Sungai Melinau, we entered a different world, with the various
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Rough-sided Frog spotted on our Night Walk
buildings at National Park headquarters scattered amongst the trees on the edge of the rainforest. Checking in was an interesting experience, with a helpful Park employee doing his best to assimilate all of our various accommodation bookings (three of our nine nights in the National Park would be spent at two different camp shelters far away from headquarters, as part of multi-day treks), which saw the man in question wandering from one end of the reception desk to the other and back again multiple times – stopping to ask questions of any other employee who might be able to assist him – whilst trying to find a record of our booking! Thankfully all of our pre-booked guided activities (this being the dry season – and therefore the peak tourist period – we had been warned to book most of them ahead of time) were on file... and by that I mean they were all written down in pencil in a large book, which surely would cause anarchy if it were ever to be misplaced!

On a sad note however, we were informed that our guided hike to the Garden of Eden Valley (which passes through Deer Cave – one
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Brightly-coloured Kingfisher
of the largest cave passages in the world) had been cancelled – and the entire valley closed to visitors indefinitely – after a group of nine visitors and one guide had been caught in a flash flood about one month ago, with two of the participants (including the guide) losing their lives. According to the man in reception it had been worldwide news, but it was the first we had heard of the tragic accident (having been trapped in our little travel bubble for the past three weeks, blissfully unaware of the goings on in the wider world) and it certainly came as a shock to both of us... especially given that we were booked on no less than three caving tours (involving actual spelunking, as opposed to visiting the main 'show caves' in the park, which involve nothing more than being guided around on well-lit paths) that would presumably all be susceptible to flash flooding in the event of sudden, unexpected rainfall. All we could really do was cross our fingers and hope for reasonable weather...

With the humidity having been cranked up to 'extreme' upon our arrival in the rainforest, we were content to ease our way
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Rajah Brooke's Birdwing Butterfly
into our time in Mulu, so apart from taking a cooling dip in the Melinau River (which marks the western boundary of the National Park) we pretty much lazed about for the rest of the day, before heading out for a guided night walk with a softly spoken, but very knowledgeable, local guide named Suki. Though we probably covered no more than 2 to 3 kilometres in our leisurely two-hour walk, the variety and exuberance of the wildlife (mostly insects) that we saw was quite incredible. Whether it was frogs, lizards, caterpillars, stick insects or a seemingly endless procession of spiders, it seemed that with every bend in the trail we were stopping to check out yet another creature of the night. My personal favourites would have to have been the bright red-and-black striped Millipede that Linda spotted; a Hammerhead Worm (exactly as the name suggests – though I would never have imagined such an animal could exist!) and a brightly-coloured Kingfisher that sat motionless on a tree branch even as we crowded around for a closer look only a metre or two beneath it!

After enjoying a late dinner at a restaurant just outside the park (the restaurant
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Linda, 30 metres above the ground, on the Canopy Skywalk
at park headquarters having already closed by the time we got back from our night walk) Linda and I both slept far more soundly than we would have expected given the absence of air conditioning in our 14-bed dorm – though it must be said the fans in the room were all left on top speed for the entire night... and every night after it as well! We were then up at the crack of dawn the next day to embark on another guided walk through the rainforest – this time tackling the longest tree-mounted Canopy Walkway in the world. Spanning 480 metres in 16 sections between 15 and 35 metres above the ground, the walkway itself is a marvel of both engineering and ingenuity; but better still was the feeling of being able to pass through a habitat that would otherwise be completely off-limits to us: the canopy of a tropical rainforest.

If there is a better way to start a day in the rainforest than by tip-toeing through the canopy in the fresh, crisp morning air while all around animals of every description start to stir, then I'm yet to find it; and if there is a
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Geared up and ready to go for our tour of Racer Cave
cuter forest animal than the tiny Pygmy Squirrel that we saw scampering around amongst the branches of one particular tree – it's body no bigger than an ordinary mouse, but with a delightfully fluffy tail waving around behind it – then I would very much like to meet it! Throw in a sighting (albeit brief) of a pair of river otters as we crossed a small river on the way to the Canopy Walkway, and we could confidently say that we had been justified in our decision to leave the comfort of our beds at 6:45am in the morning!

A little later in the day it was then time for us to tackle our first caving trip of the week – and our first longboat ride to get there – to Racer Cave. Having booked ourselves onto two of the Park's 'advanced' caving tours (for 16-year-olds and up with previous caving experience only) later in the week, we were first required to complete an 'intermediate' caving tour (for 12-year-olds and up with no previous experience necessary) in order to qualify for the later tours; and Racer Cave fit the bill nicely. Starting with a scenic twenty-minute longboat ride upriver,
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Longboat ride on the Melinau River
followed by a short walk through the forest, we soon came to the mouth of the cave – which is named after the non-venomous Cave Racer Snake, that lives inside the cave and feeds mostly on passing bats – where we put on our harnesses and helmets and headed off into the darkness.

Having completed a reasonably challenging caving tour in Waitomo (New Zealand) a couple of years ago, we found the tour of Racer Cave to be pretty easy and straightforward, with a few short rope-assisted sections of climbing or rapelling interspersed with some slippery scrambling and one tight (though mercifully short) squeeze to get through right near the start. I say 'mercifully' short, because in addition to being 1.95m tall I also happen to suffer from claustrophobia! And if caving seems like a peculiar choice of holiday activity for someone with claustrophobia, well, it is! Many times over the past few months I have questioned the wisdom of booking three caving trips in the space of nine days, but given how much Linda loved our only previous caving trip in Waitomo – and that Gunung Mulu NP is perhaps more famous for it's caves than for any
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Looking out through the mouth of Lang Cave
of it's other bountiful assets – I had decided to just throw caution to the wind and go for it.

At least that had been the case, until after our Racer Cave tour when I mentioned to our guide a picture that I had seen in one of the Park's brochures of a couple of guys squeezed in between two vertical walls deep underground, and was told that not only was that picture taken on the Clearwater Connection (an advanced level tour which we were scheduled to take in two days' time) but that it was only one of three 'significant' squeezes on that tour! When he went on to mention that one of these squeezes would take fifteen minutes to negotiate, I decided that I'd heard enough... no way was I going through that sort of prolonged agony! A quick trip into the National Park office when we got back, and it was official: Linda was doing the Clearwater Connection without me!

But first we still had Wednesday to fill in – due to the cancellation of our Garden of Eden Valley guided hike – so after taking the opportunity to walk to the nearby Mini Mart
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The enormous entrance chamber in Deer Cave (175m high x 125m wide)
to stock up on supplies for our three-day Pinnacles tour at the end of the week, we joined an afternoon guided tour to Deer Cave and Lang Cave, which we would otherwise have seen on our cancelled tour. Named after the local man who led the 1977/78 National Geographic Mulu Expedition there, Lang Cave features some beautiful cave formations – resembling everything from chimneys to giant jellyfish – as well as the usual assortment of cave-dwelling spiders, centipedes and bats; though perhaps it's most endearing residents (as in many of the other caves in the Park) are the Mossy-Nest Swiftlets, a species of bird that has adapted to living in near-total darkness by developing it's own system of echo location, using loud clicks as a form of sonar as they pass by overhead.

We then moved onto the enormous Deer Cave, which at over 100 metres wide and 175 metres high is (according to Park officials at least) the largest cave passage in the world. Walking into this gigantic tunnel through the earth was a surreal experience, and it wasn't until we left the initial chamber behind and entered a more constricted section of the cave that the daylight
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Looking back at the mouth of Deer Cave from the 'Bat Observatory'
from the world outside finally faded and required the use of head torches. The boardwalk ended at the beginning of a second massive chamber, where the rear entrance to the cave could be seen leading to the Garden of Eden Valley beyond. In fact this heavily-forested valley was once part of Deer Cave, until the roof in the centre of the cave collapsed, separating what is now known as Green Cave to the north from Deer Cave to the south, with a lush, steep-sided valley in between. It is also in the second of the two soaring chambers within Deer Cave that a 30-metre-high mountain of guano (bat shit) betrays the existence of a huge colony of Wrinkle-Lipped Bats (thought to number somewhere between 1 and 2 million) roosting somewhere high up out of sight.

Having completed our tour of the two caves, we then joined the ever-growing crowd of excited onlookers at the nearby 'Bat Observatory' – basically just a clearing with a view back towards the cliffs housing the mouth of Deer Cave – where after what seemed like an eternity the daily 'bat exodus' finally began! Every minute or so, a new group of bats would
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Thousands of Wrinkle-Lipped Bats flying in corkscrew formation on their way to their feeding grounds
emerge from the cave mouth and begin corkscrewing their way up into the sky (a tactic they use to confuse any possible aerial predators – though the resident Bat Hawk seemed to have no trouble picking off one of the passing bats whenever it felt compelled to do so) on their way to their nightly feeding grounds, where they are said to devour up to five tonnes of insects in a single night! And though there only appeared to be a few thousand bats in each of these flying 'squadrons', it has been estimated that up to 1.8 million bats (made up of twelve different species – more than from any other single cave in the world) join in this mass exodus on any given day... though why they only use the Southern entrance to the cave (as opposed to the Northern entrance, which nobody would be able to see) is anyone's guess; perhaps they just really like the attention!

Thursday brought Linda's much anticipated Clearwater Connection caving tour, while I set off to hike the 8km Paku Valley Loop, leaving nice and early so as to have the privilege of walking through the misty forest (it had rained
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Heading through the still-damp rainforest on the Paku Valley loop trail
quite heavily the night before) while the air was still (relatively) cool and fresh. Taking a short detour to the banks of the Sungai Melinau – which acts as a major thoroughfare through the Park, connecting a number of the area's top attractions to Park Headquarters – I happened to see Linda's longboat pass by on it's way upriver; before turning away from the river and heading past a couple of different entrances to Lagang Cave on my way to the Paku Waterfall. And while the waterfall itself might have amounted to little more than a trickle of water flowing down six metres of rocky cliff on the Sungai Melinau Paku, the setting couldn't have been more serene – and even more so when a fellow hiker from Austria departed stage left, so that I had the whole place to myself!

After snapping plenty of pictures both in and out of the water – and taking the obligatory waterfall shower – I was about to leave when suddenly I realized I had a problem. I sweat a lot on hikes – even more so when I'm in the heat and humidity of an equatorial rainforest – and had come
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Paku Waterfall, shortly before my half-naked sprint through the forest
to discover in recent weeks that many of the forest's smaller winged inhabitants (particularly bees) enjoy nothing more than lapping up the salty nectar left on my clothes whenever I take them off and leave them somewhere outside to dry. (In Penang a butterfly rode on my arm for a full five minutes lapping up my sweat!). Accordingly, when I went to put my shoes, socks and singlet back on to continue my hike, I found them all covered in a blanket of bees that showed no interest in moving onto another food source... leaving me with little choice but to grab all of my clothes, give them an urgent shake to try to dislodge any freeloaders, and then high-tail it through the rainforest for a few hundred metres in nothing but a pair of boxer shorts (and in bare feet) until I felt confident that I had managed to outrun my winged assailants!

Making it back to Park Headquarters by 1pm, I headed into the Park Office to see if there had been any last minute cancellations for the Lagang Cave 'Fast Lane' tour that afternoon, and lo and behold a couple of spaces had become available –
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Inside Lagang Cave on the Fast Lane tour
so after knocking back a delicious platter for lunch at the adjacent Mulu Wild Cafe that included local jungle fern, I ended up travelling by longboat back to the same point on the river where I had seen Linda pass by five hours earlier... and wouldn't you know it, just as we were heading off for our short walk through the forest, along came Linda's caving group on their way back downriver!

Retracing my footsteps from the morning, I soon found myself back at the main entrance to Lagang Cave (this time with head torch at the ready – and a guide to unlock the entrance gate!) where our group spent an enchanting hour or so walking through over a kilometre of inter-connected passageways and chambers past an endless procession of stalactites, stalagmites, helictites and pretty much any other type of speleotherm (cave formation) you can think of, accompanied by the usual cast of characters including a cave cricket, a baby scorpion, and even a pair of tiny swiftlet hatchlings still yet to open their eyes, waiting in their mossy nest for their mother to return!

Friday brought the start of our first multi-day adventure, as we embarked
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A pair of Mossy Nest Swiftlet Hatchlings waiting for their mother to return inside Lagang Cave
on our three-day, two-night trek to the Pinnacles and back. Heading up the Melinau River with the sun shining overhead (despite rain having fallen on three nights out of four so far, only a gentle shower the previous day had brought any rain during the daytime), we soon made the first of three stops along the way, to explore a crafts market in the nearby village of Batu Bungan. From there we continued on to Wind Cave, where our guide from Monday's night walk (Suki) led us through another dry cave, passing a soaring skylight on our way to the regally-named King's Chamber – which as with Lagang Cave the day before was filled to the brim with impressive formations.

Pressing on just a few minutes further upstream, we came to the landing for Clearwater Cave. After a punishing climb up the steeply-sloping, forested flanks of a large limestone hill, we gazed down at the yawning chasm that formed the cave's mouth; while hovering ominously above us were a multitude of formidable stalactites looking like spears ready to rain down on us from the underside of the overhanging cliff. With the cave entrance split into two chambers, we started
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The main entrance to Clearwater Cave - one of the largest cave systems on Earth (230km and counting...)
out through the smaller right-hand passageway which led us over a bridge across the Clearwater River; before looping around underneath a small skylight and emerging from the larger entrance chamber to the left of where we had started.

Linda meanwhile sat outside reading her book – as she had done while the rest of us toured Wind Cave – since she had already seen both 'show caves' during her Clearwater Connection caving tour the day before, which as the name suggests links the two caves by way of the three 'squeezes' mentioned previously. Yet even the eight kilometres she covered is just a tiny fraction of the overall Clearwater Cave system, with over 230 kilometres of inter-connected passageways having been mapped thus far. This total is expected to rise during future exploratory expeditions, yet already the Clearwater Cave system is ranked in the top ten longest cave systems in the world; while it is estimated that it may in fact be the largest (in terms of volume, which cannot be accurately measured) cave system in existence! Crucially (for me at least) it also happens to have a drop-dead gorgeous natural swimming pool directly outside, with crystal clear water encircled
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Inside the entrance chamber of Clearwater Cave
by beautiful rainforest, whose siren song I had no intention of ignoring...

After enjoying a delightfully refreshing swim and scoffing down a quick lunch, we then said our farewells to Suki and the rest of the tour group – who would be heading back to Park Headquarters – before hopping back into our longboat with just three German guys and the two local boatmen for company, and continued upriver for a further hour, pressing ever deeper into the Bornean jungle.

To be continued...

Additional photos below
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Bend in the River

Sungai Melinau, looking upstream from the footbridge
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Bend in the River

Sungai Melinau, looking downstream from the boat landing
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Well Camouflaged

Huntsman Spider on a tree trunk spotted during our Night Walk

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