Sarawak May 28 – June 6, 2017
GUNING MULU NATIONAL PARK
Gunung Mulu National Park is Unesco World Heritage listed. 53,000 hectares big, it lies in eastern Sarawak just south of the Brunei border. It is known for its karst formations with pinnacles and magnificent caves. It’s altitude varies from 27m at the park headquarters on the floodplains to 2,377m at Mulu summit with topography from flat but deeply cut floodplains to the steep mountain slopes and vertical cliffs of the limestone gorges. The annual rainfall is 4.5m with no real dry season, but is highest in April-May and October-November and lowest in July-September. Average temperatures in the lowlands are 23-26C and at summit of Gunung Mulu 14-18C.
Tropical rainforest (jungle) exists only under 22.5 degrees – it requires high daily temperatures and at least 200mm of rainfall per month. Mulu lies at 4 degrees north.
Biodiversity. The park has amazing biodiversity with 2,000 species of flowering plants (especially palms), 450 species of ferns, 1,700 species of mosses, 4,000 species of fungi, 115 mammals (including 54 species of bats), 305 birds, 197 reptiles and amphibians, 48 fish, and more than 20,000 types of insects and spiders. Many cave living species are unique.
Most visitors to tropical rainforests expect to see huge numbers of birds, mammals and reptiles scurrying about on the forest floor and swinging through the trees – but that is not what they are like. Despite high biodiversity, there is low species abundance. The animals are all there but are generally very shy of us predatory humans and most of us are not very clever at spotting them. We smoke, wear insect repellent, antiperspirants and perfumes and we make noise. Then animals know we are coming long before we are close enough to see them.
Mulu is best known for its caves, as these are the largest caves in the world. The caves were first discovered in 1856m but basically forgotten until 1961 when they were rediscovered. It wasn’t until 1978 that they were actively explored.
Why are Mulu’s caves so big? The upper limestone layer here is 1500m thick and extremely fine-grained and thus very hard. The limestone under it is thin and much more fragile. With movement of the earth’s crust, the area was tilted and folded 30 degrees producing cracks and fractures, allowing easy movement of water through the hard limestone. As tropical areas get lots of rain, cave formation can occur relatively rapidly in geologic time. The cave passages at Mulu are generally long, straight, wide and tend to be circular in cross-section with very little roof collapse.
The caves of Mulu have classic underground geomorphology, especially the sediments and layered sequences of wall notches showing 1.5million years of geologic history. The giant doline of the Garden of Eden is one of the world’s finest examples of the collapse process of charts terrain. Cave fauna have evolved from ancient groups that have largely disappeared. This has been possible because of the large transfer of food energy from the forest to caves by bats and swiftlets. Millions of bats and swiftlets entering and leaving the caves is a spectacle.
The geologic highlight of the park are the Pinnacles, a fantastic collection of razor sharp limestone formations that rise up to 50m. But it was entirely booked out when we were to be in Sarawak. The is a 3day/2night trip that entails a longboat trip and then an easy 9km walk to a camp. From camp 5, the trail to the ridge overlooking the Pinnacles is 2.4kms and a 1200m vertical climb. The last section is vertical with several ladders and ropes to climb. If the guide thinks you can’t reach the top in time before being able to descend by dark, it is necessary to return to camp. The trip back down is often much harder. You have to supply your own food, water and sleeping bag.
Instead of the Pinnacles that required 3 full days, we booked many cave tours. International caving standards require that all caving groups have a minimum of 4 persons (3 guests and a guide).
There are 3 ‘Show Cave‘: 1. Deer and Lang Caves (Deer is the largest cave passage in the world, although this would be disputed by Vietnam; this tour is always at the end of the day to see the millions of bats exiting the cave at dusk, both these caves are included in the Garden of Eden tour). 2. Clearwater Cave and Cave of the Winds (see below) and 3. The Fast Lane (includes a 20minute longboat trip, climbs up to the stalactites at the top of the cave).
There are several “adventure” caves: 1. Lagangs Cave (family oriented) 2. Race Cave (see below) 3. Clearwater Revival (see below) 4. Clearwater Connection (advanced cave, takes 6-8 hours; begins in Cave of the Winds and continues for 5kms of Clearwater Cave, climbs over boulders using fixed ropes and a 1.5km river section that requires swimming) 5. Sarawak Chamber (2 days/1 night, 3h trek, the world’s largest enclosed space – 600m long, 415m wide and 100m high, must be able to swim; one of our guides said it was not a great cave to visit as you can only see the roof and floor, but nothing else as the distances are so big) 6. Kenayaland Cave and Fruit bat Cave (4-5h) and 7. Stonehorse Cave (2-3h).
There are several guided walks: 1. Canopy Skywalk (see below) 2. Night Walk (see below) 3. Garden of Eden (see below) 4. Pinnacles and 5. Mulu Summit (24kms, 2400m elevation gain, 4 days/3 nights, guide required).
There are several unguided walks: 1. Botanical Heritage Trail (1.5km, signs explaining the plants) 2. Kenyalang Loop 3. Paku Valley (8kms that takes 5-6h) 4. Paku Waterfall (see below) 5. Long Langsat Walk (see below) and 6. Kuala Litut + Camp 5 (90 minute longboat ride
May 27-28. It was a long day of travel – a 3h train from Shenfang (the closest high-speed rail station to Hongqiao) to Hangzhou, a 4h flight in the middle of the night to Kuala Lumpur, a 2 hr flight to Miri, Sarawak and then a 30m flight to Mulu National Park. But we accomplished all of that in 24 hours because of lots of great flight connections on Air Asia. I was able to store my large pack in the Hangzhou rail station for 20 RMB per day and we were able to spend some time in downtown Miri (not much to see or eat). We had a great Uber driver in Miri, an older Chinese guy who had relatives in Canada and traveled there often. We would have saved considerable money by booking our Air Asia flights earlier.
We took a shuttle from the airport to the NP headquarters for 5MR each. Other than supporting the local economy, this drive is only about 1km and would make a nice walk after sitting in an airport and on a plane. Turn right (west) out of the airport, walk 10 minutes, turn left at the sign and walk 10 minutes to the bridge that crosses the river and enter the park. After lots of initial confusion about our booking, we determined that we were staying in the hostel for the 28th, 30th and 31st (110MR/night for two) and a longhouse for the 29th and 1st (260MR per night, but with a private bathroom, air conditioning, nice bedding and four single beds). So for 3 of our mornings, we had to pack up all our stuff and move. After we had bought cereal in Miri for breakfasts, we learned that breakfasts are included in the accommodation. Instead of paying the high cost of non-dorm accommodation and relatively high cost of accommodation provided by the National Park, there are several guesthouses along the road to the airport – most charged 30RM/night, and this is where most people visiting the park stayed (either there or at the very expensive Marriott down the road). The first (D’Cave) is right at the intersection and there are three more along the road toward the park, two right at the bridge.
Night walk. This followed a loop through the forest all on boardwalk. The main thing to see are insects and spiders: many thorny stick insects (some are huge and we saw a copulating couple where the female was 10x the size of the male), millipedes, tarantulas, scorpions, normal stick insects and heard the constant magical sound of katydids. There were two birds (one a rufus kingfisher) that sat on branches a few feet above our heads). There were also big river frogs and tiny tree-hole frogs (they tune the pitch of their calls to resonate inside hollows in trea to make the calls louder – this is the preferred place for them to mate), many geckos and giant snails that hung out on tree trunks. Snakes are apparently common sightings but we didn’t see any. It was a pleasant walk in the woods.
We hope to go out on our own in the coming nights.
Paku Waterfall. One of the unguided hikes at Mulu, this is an 8km walk in the woods. As stated above, rainforest walks are on the dull side. Even though neither of us wear perfume and we walked very silently, we saw no critters other than several geckos and butterflies. The walk went along boardwalk, and then a prepared path along a small river with a massive limestone cliff on the other bank. The small waterfall comes off this cliff. We took a little less than 2 hours.
Racer Cave. This is an intermediate level cave used by the national park to determine your suitability to do any of the “advanced” caves. We got our hard hats, lights and harnesses and then had a 25minute boat ride to just outside the entrance of the cave. Basically there are a series of ups and downs using knotted ropes as aids. The last one is vertical and must be gone down and then up to be able to do the advanced caves. All 8 of us “passed”. There were lots of bats and guano all over, an area with swarms of flies (bats apparently do not eat the insects inside their own caves) and a small shelf that always has racer snakes, for whom the cave is named. They are large, bright lime green and are able to snatch bats and swiftlets out of the air. The cave has a few nice formations but nothing spectacular. Everyone got pretty dirty.
Clearwater Revival. This “intermediate” cave includes both of the show caves: Clearwater and Wind Cave.
Wind Cave: has a cooling wind but no longer has an active river flowing through it but evidence of the river is all around you. The passage leads to the King’s Chamber’, a particularly special display of stalagmites and columns.
Clearwater Cave: A crystal clear river flows through this cave for over 200kms of cave passages, making it the 10th longest cave in the world. We crossed the river and walked through the forest to a barely noticeable entrance to a cave parallel to the actual Clearwater Cave. We waded through all varieties of cave terrain: narrow passages, areas with very low roofs (if high water, this cave cannot be done because of these areas), lots of mud and some larger caverns. We finally reached the actual cave and walked past the walk way along the rocky bank for several hundred metres including an area of rockfall. It was then swimming time – we swam back down to the walkway with the current. Anna can’t swim so we used a dry bag inside a small back pack to add flotation and gave a brief lesson on how to breast stroke. She eventually simply floated on her back and did fine. Back at the walkway, we climbed the stairs high up to visit the Lady Cave, so named because a front lit stalagmite casts a shadow vaguely like a woman’s face. There was an example here of an odd speleoform, phytokarst needles – These form where there is a light source and cyanobacteria which dissolve the limestone forming deeper and deeper pits and long needles that point in the direction of the light source. The walkway dead ends at a huge hole. We exited the system via a high open entrance (the normal way to enter and exit Clearwater Cave) and descended a long flight of steps to the picnic area. Full of people when we left, it was now completely empty.
May 31st. We basically took it easy and read in the morning.
Canopy Walk. At 480m, this is the longest canopy walk in the world. It is 30-50m off the ground and follows a loop crossing the river twice. There wasn’t much to see until the very end where a pit viper (quite poisonous) sits next to the canopy. All the huge trees that form the anchors for the canopy walkways are labelled with names and information. I wouldn’t bother if I had other things to do.
Garden of Eden. This includes both Lang and Deer Caves and a walk through the Garden of Eden to a waterfall and back, followed by viewing the bat exodus.
Deer Cave. This is the largest cave passage in the world – 2kms long and 174m high. And it has a colony of 2-3 million bats. There are 12 species of bats here but most are wrinkle-lipped bats. Each bat weighs about 15 grams and eats approximately 2/3s of its body weight in insects every night – that equals about 20 tonnes of insects per night for the whole colony. Bats also play an active role pollinating plants – fruits favoured by bats are ones that hang upside down, have flowers that open at night and are white in colour. The cave also has swiftlets, the birds whose saliva is used to make their nests and is valued as bird’s nest soup. They also use echolocation to navigate the dark caves but they have an audible click whereas the sound bats use is outside the range of the human ear. As swiftlets feed during the day, the residents of the cave provide 24 hour, around the clock insect control. Deer Cave is always visited late in the day to see the bat exodus.
It is a truly huge cave with up to 125m high. We walked along the normal gangplank but left it when the river became audible. It was then a scramble over a boulder field to where the cave ends and you enter the Garden of Eden, one of the best examples of a dolene in the world. On the other side of the “garden” is Green Cave, simply once a continuation of Deer Cave, but the entire roof of that area has collapsed forming the Garden of Eden in the centre of a huge limestone area. A trail follows and crosses the Eden River to a lovely cascading waterfall with a nice pool at the end. We all went for a swim and Anna got to practice her swimming again. Just as we finished lunch, it started to rain hard and we decided to walk out – if there is a lot of rain, Deer Cave becomes impassable. But it stopped and we ended up with a lot of time to spare to explore and take pictures.
Deer Cave has a tremendous amount of guano in it – guano covers absolutely everything and there are even guano dunes. The way we went back passed was a little off the tourist route. The shower is a continuous waterfall coming from the centre of the roof of Deer. We walked up to a viewpoint on the boardwalk with great views. Here was also a laser used to determine the dimensions of the cave. From the centre of Deer, when you look back towards the entrance, a profile on a huge piece of rock that has fallen from the roof, looks exactly like Abraham Lincoln.
Lang Cave. Then entrance is just a few meters past Deer. Directly above Lang is a lake so there is a constant movement of water from above. And Lang is easily the most spectacular of all of the caves in Mulu for formations. Tons of interesting stalagmites and ‘tites’, large curtains, some wavey, big areas of flow with tendrils that look like a jellyfish or coral. The cave is only 280m long, but completely full of speleoforms (cave formations).
The Bat Exodus. Everyday usually between 5 and 6pm, all 3 million bats leave the cave for a night of feeding. As we had finished Lang at about 3:30, we had a long wait and finally gave up at 5:30 and returned to the park headquarters. Apparently the bats exited at 6 and it took over a half hour for all of them to leave. There was a huge crowd there, possibly 150 people.
Hornbills. These almost prehistoric-looking birds are an important ecological indicator of the health of the forest. They are large, black-and-whit birds with disproportionately huge bills, often bent downwards, topped with an ornamental casque, a generally hollow structure attached to the upper mandible (function unknown but probably attracts a mate). Ten of the world’s 46 species of hornbill are found in Malaysia, many endangered air print only in small, isolated populations. Good places to see them are Gunumg Mulu NP and Sabah’s Danum Valley and Gunung Kinabalu NP.
KELABIT HIGHLANDS – BARIO
June 2nd. We were up early, had breakfast and walked the kilometre to the airport. As we only had 45 minutes between flights, we got the boarding passes for the second flight to Bario at Mulu. There were two short flights, 30 minutes Mulu to Miri and about 40 minutes Miri to Bario.
Along the border of Kalimantan and 100km southeast of Gunung Mulu, this long, high plateau has been the home of the Kelabit people for hundreds of years. They were not really known until WWII when British and Australian commandos used them as bases for a guerrilla war against the occupying Japanese. After the war, Christina missionaries converted the animist Kelabit to Christianity.
Megaliths associated with burial rituals have disappeared into the jungle but some dolmens, urns, rock carvings and ossuaries used in funeral processes are locatable.
Bario is the most populous Kelabit settlement and has regular air service using Twin Otter planes. The highlands are unspoiled, have vivid flora, occasional animal sightings and a cool, refreshing climate. The only thing to do is jungle trekking to visit longhouses surrounded by their livestock, fruit trees and rice paddies.
Bario is 15km west of the border of Indonesian Kalimantan and a few day’s hard hike from the closest villages. It is a small, widely dispersed community arranged on either side of a long road. There is irregular mobile reception and haphazard internet. The pace of life is slow with many people’s schedule organized around the arriving planes. There are two daily MASwings flights from Miri but flights are often cancelled when the weather is bad. Book ahead as the flights fill up quickly. The airport is 2km from the centre of the village.
When we arrived, we thought we would stay at the Chalet – a guesthouse owned by a Canadian from Gabriola Island, but it was down a muddy tract in the opposite direction of the village and we turned around part way and got a ride on a motorbike into town. There was some choice and we finally settled on a simple room of 60RM per night and ate in the nearby restaurant (Bariew Backpacker Lodge and Homestay about 50m past the telecenter block).
There are 3 day hikes from town 1. half day hike along unpaved roads to two longhouses Pa Umor and Pa Ukat, 2. Bario Gap – an energetic 4 1/2 hour round trip to a cutting with good views over the Bario plateau. The other treks are 3-5 day treks to other large longhouse communities
We found little to do in Bario and basically wanted to leave shortly after arrival. The Saturday market occurred on our second day. It basically was tables where people were socializing over tea or coffee. Nobody was eating and there wasn’t much for sale. We walked out to the airport to see if we could change flights and fly back to Miri the next day. There were 16 confirmed passengers and we were the first two on the waiting list knowing that the twin otter seats 18.
We flew on June 4th back to Miri and stayed at the Mega Hotel, a nice hotel downtown for 155RM/night. We relaxed for a few days before returning home. There is not much to do in Miri.
On June 6, in the evening, we flew from Miri to Kuala Lumpur (2h 15m) and had an 11h layover in the KL Airport overnight from 9:10pm to when our flight left at 8:10am. We slept in the Movie Lounge in KL1A2 part of the airport. We arrived in Hangzhou at 1:10pm and Anna and I went our separate ways by train – Anna home and me to Shanghai after collecting my pack from long term storage. I stayed at Blue Mountain Bund Hostel, where I always stay in Shanghai. My flight home with United was long with two stops, first in San Francisco and then Seattle arriving in Vancouver taking only an hour in time because of the time zone changes. I made my usual stops to get my truck insurance next door to the Broadway SkyTrain station, the mandatory stop at MEC and then dinner with my daughter.