Borneo – Gunung Mulu National Park

Borneo Adventure 4

April 4 – 6, 2018

Mulu (or Gunung Mulu National Park) is a UNESCO Heritage Site and with good reason: it includes the largest single cave chamber in the world and the largest cave in the world accessible to visitors, named Deer Cave (there is a larger cave in Vietnam but it cannot be visited). It also includes plenty of mountains, rivers and valleys, all of it shrouded in or surrounded by thick jungle teeming with life.

That’s one thing: if ever you meet someone who describes the jungle as “quiet” you know they’ve never been to the jungle. The jungle is NEVER quiet. Cicadas ululate and grind throughout the day, occasionally making you feel as though you’re inside some great machine, while birds and frogs and other unidentifiable (to me) creatures caw and croak and cry out throughout the night. Still, my lodge in the park was fairly sound proof (though not ant proof, but this is pretty common in Malaysia, I learned).

I wandered a few trails when I first arrived but headed to bed early as I’d be heading to the park’s Camp 5 the next day. To get to Camp 5, you take a longtail boat from HQ to a pair of rather impressive caves, Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave, a tour that can be done on its own, but once you’ve all explored the caves, those headed to Camp 5 continue on up the river.

Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo
Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo

I say up the river, but we were going against the current and the water level was occasionally too low for the small motor, forcing our boatman to pole across the shallows. At times, we would jump out to help as the boatman even had to abandon his pole and push the boat over the rocks and against the current.

Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo

Eventually, though, we made it to the drop off. The drop off, however, wasn’t at Camp 5 proper, just a small pier on the edge of the jungle. We still had to trek 9 km along a well-trodden but still rough jungle path, including a couple Indiana Jones-style hanging bridges.

Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo

We had no guide but the path was very well marked. I make the whole thing sound like a real accomplishment for us, but while at Camp 5 I saw how they get food and fuel for the generators out there: young guys in their late teens or early twenties make that same damn trip on a boat, then trek those same damn 9 km, but they do it while lugging tanks of gasoline or towering stacks of pop cans on their backs. The locals who work at the camp, including the guides, are absolute beasts. You get the sense you could dump one of them in the jungle with a handful of rice and a knife and they’d live out there indefinitely.

Along the way, we all got to know each other. Logan and Ishi were a married couple in their early 30s. Logan was from Florida but had left the US to live and work abroad when “things started to get too weird”. He’d since lived in India, Malaysia and now New Zealand. Ishi was Malaysian, having grown up in Kuching, but said she was what other Asians called a “banana” (yellow on the outside but white on the inside). They’d met while they were both living in Kuala Lumpur. Frank was German and in his early forties, having just tackled Mount Kinabalu (a three day trek) and was now going to do the Pinnacles. Hiro was Japanese but had lived 9 years in Paris, working as a French chef, and was now spending about a year traveling through Asia before returning to France to hopefully open his own bistro.

After about two hours, our little troupe made it to Camp 5, a set of surprisingly well maintained and clean buildings by a river and surrounded by towering limestone cliffs. We were told it had a bee problem, however, and that these bees were especially attracted to sweat. “So, don’t sweat,” one of the guides said with a grin. Indeed, when I stripped off my sweat-soaked t-shirt and draped it over a railing to dry, it was immediately swarmed with bees. I don’t know what kind of honey these sweat-collecting bees make but I had no interest in trying it.

Camp 5 is used exclusively by visitors who’d signed up either to trek the Pinnacles or the Headhunters’ Trail. We would be headed to bed early, once again, as we’d all be leaving on our trek to the Pinnacles the following morning.

To make a short story shorter, unfortunately, I did not complete the trek. I can’t say exactly why, but the humidity got to me and I was struggling to the point of not enjoying it at all. I felt that, though I could push myself, I wouldn’t enjoy the trek and could actually injure myself as my footing wasn’t as sure as it should be. Anyway, I took what I hope was the safe way out (though acknowledge that it may have only been the easy way out) and decided to head back after the first kilometer. (It should be noted that, though the trek is only 2.4 km in length, it is over 1200 meters in elevation, so that you are essentially trekking at a steep incline, often pulling yourself along using ropes, throughout).

So, yeah, I probably should have tried the Headhunters’ Trail instead. . .

Still, the others agreed that I did the right thing as, though the view from the top was impressive, they said the point was more to accomplish a difficult trek and enjoy the challenge. If I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, they opined, then there was no point. They showed me some photos of the views and, though they were nice, they were identical to photos I had seen before. I mentioned this and they agreed, saying there is no way to capture a different angle. But, hell, maybe I’m just justifying abandoning the trek. . . Either way, when they suggested I could always try again, I said yes, but haven’t much interest to do so; I’d much rather spend that time and money exploring the Rajang River.

The following day, we hiked the same 9 km trail, this time in reverse, to catch our longtail boat back to HQ. Though exhausted, I still had two more days to spend in the park and a fellow teacher would be joining me. She had been traveling in Thailand with a friend and, later, in Vietnam with her mom, and though she’d planned to head to Japan on her own, she simply couldn’t swing the cost. So I’d suggested she go to Kuching (a few days after me), then catch up to me in Mulu, after which we could go to Brunei together, and then I would go to Penang and she would fly back to Bangkok.

Anyway, Logan and Ishi left that night, flying to a wedding in Kuching, and when she arrived, I introduced my friend to Frank and, later, we met and befriended a Frenchman named Louis. Before they’d gone, Logan and Ishi had highly recommended doing the Garden of Eden tour, a 20 km trek that took participants through jungle trails and two massive caves, including Deer Cave, the aforementioned largest cave in the world that can actually be visited. In fact, a full 2 km of the trek takes place within Deer Cave alone. Logan said that, bang for buck, the tour was the best one and that if someone could do only one thing in Mulu, that should be it.

So, I signed my colleague and myself up for it even before she arrived, knowing she would be all for it, and, after I told him about it, Louis signed himself up, as well. That night we had drinks with Frank as he was leaving the following morning. The park HQ is actually pristine, the lodges beautiful and comfortable, and the Mulu Café—which I expected to be little more than a canteen—is excellent, producing expensive (all food and ingredients are flown in) but delicious meals.

And yet, even within the well-appointed safety of the Mulu Café, you never forget that the jungle is out there, dark and deep and full of life. At one point I felt something hit me between the shoulder blades, as though someone had given me a light slap on the back, and my shirt suddenly got heavier. I tugged at my shirt and dislodged a fly-like creature that was fully five inches long, with a wingspan that reached at least a foot. It had the body of an enormous moth but its wings were clear and veined like a fly’s. I’m still not sure what it was but we saw plenty of them flying about at night.