Borneo – Gunung Mulu and The Garden of Eden Trek

Borneo Adventure 5

April 8, 2018

So, my colleague, Louis and I, along with a couple of British women, set out at 9am for what is called the Garden of Eden walk. “Walk” is a bit of a deceptive term here, as it is more of a 20 km trek through jungle, rivers and caves. The guide gave us a quick run-through, ensuring that our headlamps were satisfactory and informing us that, in addition to fording a few streams and rivers, we would be required to wade through chest-deep waters, holding our bags overhead, and hike and clamber over rocks smothered in a carpet of bat guano. After confirming that we had no problem with this, he then asked if anyone had allergies to leaches. None of us did, so we were off.

Along the first part of the trek, our guide spotted and pointed out various plants and insects, including magically camouflaged stick bugs, their spindly forms blending perfectly with the surrounding trees and plants. I joked that, on off days, guides could simply point at various branches and twigs, declare them stick bugs, and tourists like us would be none the wiser.

Can you spot the stick bug…? Yeah…neither can I…

As promised, the trek took us deep into the jungle and to the first of two caves, this one named Liang Cave, after its discoverer, a local hunter. The cave was impressive but proved just a taste of what was to come.

Deer Cave was the second of the two caves we would visit. It is so vast, so massive that just entering feels like being miniaturized.

Deer Cave, Gunung Mulu, Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo

Deer Cave is famous not only for its size, being the largest cave in the world open to visitors, but also for its famed bat exodus. Nearly every evening, just before dusk, some three million bats exit the cave to hunt for bugs. They stream out in a smoke-like ribbon, swirling en masse to avoid predatory hawks. We were lucky enough to witness the natural spectacle the evening before and now we would be entering this same cave from which the bats escaped.

Gunung Mulu, Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo, bat exodus

The hike through Deer Cave took up a full 2 km of our 20, taking us along wooden walkways, but also over rubble and through ice cold streams. The chambers are absolutely massive, large enough to fit a 747 airliner and impossible to capture adequately through photos, let alone words, though I’ve tried with both. I can only say that the cave is stupendous, the roof vaulting overhead, higher than any cathedral, and then vanishing into blackness, not unlike peering into the ocean depths, but looking up. It’s in that blackness that the bats reside, in what seems like a bottomless pit turned upside down. At the cave opening, some hundred feet wide and twice as tall, the jungle pushes in, trying to fill the gap but soon choked off by the lack of sunlight.

Deer Cave, Gunung Mulu, Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo
Deer Cave, Gunung Mulu, Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo
The “Lincoln Rock”, only visible from the right angle
Deer Cave, Gunung Mulu, Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo
The walkway, dwarfed by the cave exit, is visible at the bottom of the pic

The deeper we went, the less light was available and we had to rely on our headlamps to see where we walked. Eventually, we came to another opening, this one leading to our ultimate goal, the so-called Garden of Eden. To reach this opening, however, you had to either hike over stone or swim along an underground stream strewn with fallen tree trunks dragged in from just outside the opening. Louis and I chose to swim, handing our bags over to other members of the troupe and shucking our clothing (Logan had warned me that the opportunity for a swim would present itself so I had worn gym shorts that doubled perfectly as a bathing suit). The water was cold (and most certainly salted with bat guano) but refreshing after the hike. The rest of the group did not escape getting wet as the last challenge before exiting the cave was to wade through a shallower section of the same stream.

Deer Cave, Gunung Mulu, Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo

Once out of the cave, we hiked through more jungle, this section steeper and somewhat more treacherous, before finally arriving at the Garden of Eden. You hear the waterfall before you see it and, as you crest a jungle-shrouded hill, you see the waters plunging into a small lagoon hemmed in by large but slippery boulders. We spent about an hour there, swimming and enjoying lunch, before heading back into the jungle and Deer Cave.

Though we could have backtracked through Deer Cave using the exact same route, our guide took us along a different path, scrambling over rocks and squeezing between gaps, more akin to actual spelunking and great fun.

When we finally emerged from Deer Cave we were all happy and sweaty and exhausted . . . and covered in bat shit. Let’s just say that three million-plus bats produce a lot of crap. The stuff isn’t anything like bird shit; it looks and feels more like damp sand, though it smells much worse (this was one of those moments when I was supremely thankful for my terrible sense of smell). It coats everything, especially your hands, but also your clothes. We were, of course, glad to head back to HQ and our lodges and hostels to take well-deserved showers.

I later sat on my lodge’s small porch as thunder rumbled and, moments later, rain fell. Enjoying the freshness of the rain, I was visited by a large stick bug, about the length of my hand, from wrist to tip of my index finger. It strolled by casually, even forcing me to shift in my seat if I wanted to avoid providing part of its path, then it disappeared into the jungle. The scale of wildlife here is difficult to explain. . .

As Logan and Ishi had promised, the Garden of Eden tour did prove to be the highlight of my stay in Mulu. If someone had only a couple days to spend there, the trek offers a challenging but not too difficult overview of much of what makes Mulu such a special place.

After that, I was fully satisfied and ready for more relaxed travels. The next day, my colleague and I boarded the plane at Mulu’s tiny airport and flew to Miri for a single night before taking the bus to Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, the following morning. In Brunei, we would be meeting with Aisyah, a woman who I’d contacted via a high school friend of mine, Melanie, who had taught In BSB some six years ago.