It was jungle time. You can’t come to Borneo and not see a) jungle, b) Orangutans, c) heavily-tattooed men in loincloths. Mulu National Park is one of the most-promoted of Malaysia’s impressive selection of national parks on account of its network of vast caves, jungle hikes, headhunter trail and abundant wildlife. So abundant that I met at least four separate biology researchers there, honing in on bats, jumping spiders, snakes and scorpions, among other things. It’s accessible by land… if you are prepared to travel for two days through Brunei and up the river to get there. Most people (including me) choose to fly in using the government-subsidised MASwings flight.
A twin-prop departs direct from KK a couple of times a day, landing briefly in Miri then pressing on to Mulu airstrip. The scale of palm oil production really hits home as you soar over enormous tracts of neatly-planted palms before you reach jungle. Scarily, they also seem to be recarving and diverting watercourses left, right and centre too. I hope they know what they’re doing.
The national park HQ here is a slick operation run by an Australian family. It has an onsite restaurant, dormitory, private rooms and bungalows all built and maintained to a very high standard but correspondingly high-ish prices. The skanky (me) can stay outside the park in local homestays which start at 15ringitt a night. There are two swanky hotels in the neighbourhood, if you’re so inclined. I checked into a homestay that my new Belgian friend declared ‘smells of bat shit’.
I spent the first day information scouting. Having missed out on the Kinabalu climb, I wanted to replace it with another, superior trek. The headhunter trail runs from the HQ for five days(ish) walking down the river to the town of Linbang, from where you can catch overland connections out. ‘Headhunter’ is a misnomer; it was actually a trade and commerce route for the nomadic tribes but the shrewd tourism folks realised that travellers wouldn’t be interested in ‘the Durian trail’ so, on finding some skulls off to one side of the path, injected some tribal mystique.
Already had a flight booked out to Kuching five days later so it was no good to wind up in Linbang. Instead I opted for the Pinnacles trek, a three-day, two-night dawdle up to some pretty limestone pinnacles and back. Choosing a hike meant opting out of the adventure caving on offer but next time… It took me two days to gather a group so I spent that time exploring the show caves and park walks on offer.
The show caves are super-touristy (think Wookey Hole) but breathtaking nevertheless. The Deer Cave boasts the title of ‘largest cave chamber in the world’ as well as a colony of 3 MILLION bats. In the day these bats hang out on the ceiling, chirping and pooing, but all depart each evening en masse on their hunt for insects and you can watch them pour out in what’s known as the exodus. They eat a staggering 15 tonnes of insects each night, including mosquitos so that’s totally fine with me.
Nearby is Lang’s Cave, a smaller affair but with marvellous stalagmites and stalactites. It’s not quite Lebanon’s Jeita Grotto, but it’s close. Plus it has tiny weeny bumblebee bats hiding in the crevices.
Pinnacles day arrived. My hiking buddies were a Belgian chap with uncontrolled flatulence and two Hungarian warlords. Ok, not warlords but they were pretty cagey about their work. We began at 8am with a longboat ride up the river to Clearwater cave and the local village for a poke about on the way to our overnight destination, Camp Five. Getting there involved an 8km amble along the flat but you arrive pretty sweaty and greatly appreciate an icy dip in the river that flows in front of the camp.
It’s pretty flash, as bunk houses go. Established in 1978/9 for the 18-month National Geographic Society exploration of the area, it has since been expanded to include a posh shower block, a big kitchen equipped with more than enough stuff to make a hearty meal and several dorms. Sure, you have to sleep on a matt on a wooden platform but I was comfortable enough. The main complaint from folks was the volume of the jungle noises. Cicada are insanely loud and sound like car alarms. If you catch one, you can make it sing by pressing its belly with a chopstick.
That 8km hike counts for day 1 leaving eons of time for fecking about by the river, taking dips and wandering about. I was taken with the butterflies so spent nuff time chasing them and, when bored of that, discovered that my phone comes with Sudoku. Yippee!
The guides – and you have to have one – don’t want you to be under any illusions and take pains to emphasise how hard the Pinnacles hike is. The last 200m of climbing involves a series of stemples, ladders and ropes. There’s a check-point at the bottom of the ladders that you must reach by 11am else you’re not allowed to climb as you won’t be back before dark. Time frames of 8-12 hours were bounded about and we were urged to eat high-energy food. They were making me nervous.
We set out at 6.15am the next morning, as early as the daylight would allow, to avoid the heat of the day and allow ourselves maximum time on the mountain. The path upwards is relentless, averaging about 70degrees over terrain of rocks laced with tree roots.
It’s sweaty, but it’s not unbearable under the shade of the trees and our guide had carefully-mapped rest stops and times, stashing full bottles of water on the way up to lighten the backpacks. One of them was here, at the mini-Pinnacles.
For all the fearing, we were at the top just after 9am and the ladders bit was well easy and only a little exposed for the last 100m. At this stage you’re in the cloud forest too so the trees are dripping with moss and succulents. We half-expected a Navi to appear around the next corner.
I reckon it looks a bit like those famous ones in Madagascar with the lemurs hanging out at the top. They’re on the list.
The way back down was boring. It’s tiring on the legs and knees and requires constant concentration not to come a cropper on the slippery tree roots. I proposed a zip wire or some paragliding.
Still, you can distract yourself with the omnipresent wildlife. John was an expert at identifying the animals and showed us spots where wild boar had been foraging, the sound of a hornbill flying, the cry of a flying lizard and some real live delights, both here and on a nightwalk from the camp later on. The biggest was a cool Red Leaf Monkey, about the same size as a baby Orangutan. About eight of them were just hanging out in the trees at the side of the path having a lunch of fruit. They looked like skulls with a shock of ginger hair. Love.
Got mildly obsessed with butterflies over the course of five days. There are just so many here, it’s hard not to. Bit tricky to take photos of because, unlike moths, they sit with their wings closed but they like to drink wee so if you hang out by the drains, you’re winning.
By the time we arrived back at camp, there was still plenty of time for dips in the river and to get munched alive by sandflies. Day 3 of the not-really-three-days trek involved a simple retracing of steps through the jungle back to the river and onwards to the park HQ for a slap-up noodle meal and full-fat coke at one of the two river-front restaurants ahead of my flight.
Wham bam, thank-you Mulu.