It is not often that a major hotel chain, particularly a renowned luxury business-standard hotel, would advertise its lack of connectivity. That is, however, how the Mulu Marriott promotes itself, with its ‘Unplug at the Mulu Marriott’ tagline.
Sounds a little ludicrous, shocking maybe? Well, it has its fans, me being one of them. How often can you go away to a fancy resort and legitimately say ‘I did not open any work-related communications’? Plus, it is the perfect base to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mulu.
Unplug and Unwind
You will be constantly reminded that you are in a secluded place while at the Mulu Marriott. A secluded, private, quiet place. The only place you can ‘plug in’ if you really need the internet is in the public areas around the lobby.
Connectivity, both cellular and internet, is temperamental, and subject to the weather. Due to Mulu’s remote, mountainous and densely jungled location, only certain spots get decent connections, and the Mulu Marriott just happens to be one of them.
But look at the bright side: little to no distractions from those pesky emails, social media is kept to a minimu and a lot of time can be devoted to inward reflections and actual, physical socializing…with real people! Time spent by the pool reading a book, without needing to check your phone, is severely underrated in our constantly connected world.
Basecamp for Adventure
With a private jetty just outside the lobby, you really do not need to head out to the Gunong Mulu National Park HQ to catch any of the day trips to the caves and treks beyond the Park HQ main compound. That is what my agency took full advantage of when I did my trek to the Pinnacles: my guide and boat picked me up after breakfast, and we headed straight to the start of the Camp 5 Trek without me needing to go to the Park HQ to get to the main jetty.
If you like adventure, but still need your creature comforts, this property would be a good staging post for your little treks out. The Resort Car provides complimentary shuttle services between the Gunong Mulu National Park HQ and the property, so after a sweaty day of caving, hiking and spelunking, always be rest assured that a super comfy daybed by the River Terrace is ready for you to lounge on.
If one looks through my Instagram account, one would notice I have a thing for places to lounge in. Granted, it usually includes sky-high views, or an iconic vantage point, of which the Mulu Marriott has, at least at the latter point.
With the Melinau Paku river meandering by the ‘beach’ and landscaped gardens fronting the riverfront, the Terrace is an absolutely perfect spot to lounge, especially with the sheer abundance of day beds, sofas and, if you are so inclined, proper seating. The daybeds are extremely comfortable, so do not be surprised if you end up sleeping with a book while enjoying your tipple.
The pool is small, but after a day hiking and trekking, the daybeds by the pool will just beckon you to chill. The River Terrace, as I mentioned above, will just encourage you to do absolutely nothing. The spa? Well, they do call it the Mulu Marriott Resort and Spa for a reason: it’s nice, it’s bright, and it’s open to nature outside.
So, after a long hike, or caving adventure, or for the more adventurous, 1 night at Camp 5 after reaching the Pinnacles, the creature comforts at the Mulu Marriott will make you want to do just absolutely nothing. After all, you are meant to unwind!
Lounge and Dine
This may be the third time I talked about the River Terrace but….RIVER TERRACE! The All-Day Dining is pretty decent at the Marriott Cafe, but if you want something other than hotel food, there is a small restaurant just outside the hotel, at the end of the iron bridge which serves decent food. For something more local, there is a small restaurant called ‘Good Day’ suspended above the river just outside the National Park HQ entrance.
For nightlife? Well, there is ‘Good Day’, which seems to be popular with guests from the National Park HQ who just want to chill and enjoy cheap beer. Otherwise, chill at the River Terrace. Yes, all guests will congregate here for WiFi and drinks. Ask Bibi for suggestions on wine. She always gives me a nice carafe of Merlot to end my evening.
To be honest, the main reason people come to the Mulu Marriott is to both enjoy the quiet solitude amidst creature comforts while exploring the unique sights and sounds that is the Mulu UNESCO World Heritage Site.
(Posts on the caves are here and here, the Pinnacles here and a 24 hour trip here.)
The resort itself is at the edge of the Gunong Mulu National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the endless sights, from the Deer Cave and Lang’s Cave close to the Park HQ to the Clearwater Cave and Wind Cave a boat ride away, to the majestic Pinnacles close to the summit of Mt Api are all stunning sites within easy reach of the Mulu Marriott.
And the Rooms?
Somehow I managed to talk about the Mulu Marriott and not touch about the rooms. Personally, go for the Riverside Rooms: those rooms are really nice, and front the Melinau River. The jungle view rooms are basically the same as the river view rooms, no difference there but you only see trees.
The rooms are in ‘blocks’ and are raised on stilts, all of which are connected to a walkway that links the entire resort together. The construction and layout is made in such a way to minimise environmental impact and avoid any untoward incidences in the event the Melinau River decides to burst its banks.
Agency: I used Borneo Rainforest Trekking as my agency. They provide bespoke services and can easily pick you up from the Resort Jetty.
For hotel bookings, I went direct to Marriott.com
Peak Season?: Ah yes. June until September, and December until January can be peak season for Mulu. While it would not be that crowded, it can get a bit…’congested.’
One of the more accessible yet logistically interesting of the national parks in Asia, the Bako National Park is a perfect distance away from the hustle and bustle of urban life, yet lies smack firmly within the city limits of Kuching City. A good escape for nature and wildlife, Bako National Park is also a hiker’s paradise, with numerous hikes through a variety of terrain.
A boat-ride away
Despite being in the city limits, Bako National Park, the oldest national park in Borneo, was gazetted in such a way that the only entrance is via a boat. Not only does this uncommon method of entry reduces large-scale visitor impact, it also provides for an interesting approach to the park.
Getting the boat from the Bako Jetty in Bako Village, about 50 minutes from Kuching City Centre, is pretty easy, as schedules are pretty flexible, with frequent connections provided by the local boatmen. Get your national park entrance tickets and boat tickets at the booth, and you’ll be on your way.
Watch the world go by as you whizz past the Bako fishing village and out in to the Bako Estuary, catching sights of the bamboo stilt fishing points, mangrove fringes and crocodiles. Yes, there will be crocodiles. Do not worry, the crocodiles are too lazy basking on the mudbanks to bother.
Depending on the tides, you would either disembark on the pier at one end of the Park HQ compound, or out in the shallows close to very interesting cliff-rock formations. Trust your boatman when he says it’s safe to get out: it looks deep but it’s pretty shallow, at most knee-deep.
After cleaning your feet of sand at the Park HQ, register at the counter and let loose with the options for hikes. Don’t forget to register where you are going, even if it’s multiple hikes!
Also, look out for the wildlife at the HQ’s main building: you may spot a bearded wild boar by the toilets, or close to the cafeteria. Monkeys and macaques are, well, ubiquitous.
A Diverse Ecosystem
The beauty of hiking the numerous trekking routes in Bako National Park is the variety of fauna you will encounter on your routes. The site is both a photographer’s and biologist’s wet dream: you start off with mangroves or marshes filled with nipah or sago palms, before encountering a steep rock formation. This is just where it gets started.
While the site may look like it is on a river flatlands, the area is mostly on a plateau, and for most hikes, you will be ascending up the central Bako plateau. Here, you will see everything from typical tropical evergreens to kerangas shrubland to lowland montane trees (It has been years since I did biology. I may have butchered a few of these).
Regardless of your fitness levels, the hikes here are always pleasant. Apart from the ascent up to the plateau, which can occasionally get both steep and rocky, the views and the sights from the main plateau are worthwhile.
Hidden Beaches Galore
At the end of most of the hikes in Bako National Park, you will end up in a beach or two, a good reward after an hour or so of hard hiking and climbing. The approach to the beaches are always dramatic, with my favourite, the Telok Pandan trail, bringing you past kerangas and tropical health, before stopping briefly at a cliff and iron-eroded rock formations, and proceeding all the way down to the beach.
The beaches, located in hidden coves, are somewhat secluded, though on occasion, you will encounter, as you do, other hikers. The beach is wide enough for you to enjoy a quiet spot yet not feel too isolated.
Another good plus in Bako National Parks and her numerous coves: you will always encounter a few boatmen moored in the bay. You have some hikers who hike to the beach, or others who just take the boat direct from Park HQ. These boatmen are ready to take you back to the Park HQ for RM15, but subject to their availability. Ask nicely and they may even do a panoramic tour of the rock formations along the bay.
Rock Formations, Everywhere
Bako National Park is renowned for her rock formations: you can spot everything from a cow to a turtle’s mouth to a cobra in strike pose to a dolphin ready to leap out of the water. One of these rock formations is the item you will spot when going from Telok Pandan cove to the Park HQ.
My ever friendly boatman, as we were talking about the best angles to shoot videos and take pictures of the rock formation, proved his point, when, as we circumambulated the rock formation in the sea beyond the cliffs. At various points as we circled on the boat, I saw either a dolphin, a cobra or my cat’s tail.
One of the highlights, or might I say ‘selling points’ of the Bako National Park is its abundance and high probability of observing wildlife. This I do not doubt. One which I eagerly, desperately wanted to see, was of a proboscis monkey.
I took 2 different treks, where apparently I could spot them in the wild amidst the mangroves. While the 2 treks were really interesting, with me observing everything from various types of vegetation to hikers doing an impromptu trail run, I did not spot those famed monkeys.
That was until I was back at the Park HQ: there, in the grounds of the Park HQ’s main building, amidst the trees next to the cafeteria and on the beach, an entire troop of them, lounging in the trees, teasing us, the intrepid travellers, with, initially a tail, then an orange scruff, and then a full-on view. They, for that moment, became the models of this jungle runway, with cameras snapping away at every opportunity, as the late afternoon sun provided the perfect lighting.
These cheeky little critters knew how to tease guests before these same guests took the 3pm boat back to the city. Next time, I’ll get you in the mangrove walkways, next time!
Transport?: Either rent a car and drive to the Bako National Park Jetty at Bako. The road is very straightforward from Kuching City: follow the signs to Bako town. You can also get transport from the numerous travel agencies in the Main Bazaar.
Once at the Bako National Park Jetty, hop on the numerous Park-authorized boats to get there. The last ‘official’ boat leaves from Bako National Park at 3pm, but the local boatmen cooperatives can arrange for alternative transport if you miss the last ‘official’ ride.
If you are doing Malaysia as independently as possible, I recommend getting the Grab app, as Uber is not as popular as Grab in Kuching.
Bring?: Water. It can get hot. Good hiking shoes and a towel. You may be tempted to go for a dip.
Cost?: National Park Fee is RM 20 for foreigners/RM 10 for Malaysians, round trip Boat Fee is RM40 for foreigners/RM20 for Malaysians
I have bad habits. One of them includes combining creature comforts and five star luxury stays with rugged expeditions and extreme activities. Somehow, this Mulu trip would create a perfect marriage of the two.
The evening before my expedition, I had a chat with the General Manager and bartender at the Mulu Marriott. Having known of my mad expeditions before, and my previous drenched Mulu trip, they thought this entire expedition should be fairly easy for me. This went contrary to the tales of jagged rocks and steep chasms I was told prior, which led me to back-to-back leg days and hill runs. When I informed them of what I was told, they rubbished it and got me another carafe of merlot.
The next morning started easily enough. As this was a bespoke, personalized trip, my guide and boat came over to the Mulu Marriott to pick me up. Ben, the GM, true to his word, personally saw me off, wishing me a good trip and was looking forward to getting me another carafe of wine in 36 hours. As I waved at the staff of the Mulu Marriott in my boat, I started to wonder if my self-imposed one-night-challenge was a good idea.
This being a private trip, I had the liberty of deciding my time of departure, my stops and my pace. The day was absolutely perfect for a ride down the river bend. The storm the night before gave way to blue skies and water levels ideal for rafting. Having passed the National Park HQ and Clearwater Cave turn, we reached what was supposed to be the ‘rapids.’
At a certain bend at the Melinau River, the water levels became shallow to the point where passengers had to get off and push the boat to go further upstream. Thankfully, the gods were kind, and all my boat crew had to do was manouver the boat slightly with the help of a pole. For a brief moment, we were punting on a flat-bottomed boat, in Sarawak.
Within 30 minutes, we were at Kuala Litut, the furthest the boat could go. From here, it was, apparently, an 8km hike to Base Camp, also known as Camp 5. My guide Ipoi told me it was 9km. I was somewhat curious at this 1km difference, so I decided to track it on my Garmin.
We estimated 2 hours to 2 hours 15 minutes to reach Camp 5. After trekking through dense jungle, along a clear path, and meeting the Penans, a semi-nomadic tribe that call this place home, we reached the first of 2 bridges. I asked Ipoi about the Penans, and what they did.
“They go to the jungle, stay there for 1 night, maybe 2, to hunt and gather. They still have their homes at Bung Bunan, but they still call the deep jungle home.”
That they did. The 3 Penans I saw had nice t-shirts and shorts, but walked barefoot. They, apparently, find footwear obstructive to their trekking.
At the second bridge, at the 2/3 mark, Ipoi informed me that on clear days, you can see the Pinnacles along Mount Api. Sadly, the summit was shrouded in cloud, and I was still left with my childhood image.
True to form, and at our good pace, we arrived at Camp 5 in 2 hours and 15 minutes, including 2 breaks. I was not sure what to expect on arrival in terms of sleeping arrangements. I found myself in barracks, the only form of accommodation at Camp 5, in a wide, open room, with a few sleeping mats. I had, in a matter of hours, moved from a suite in a 5 star resort to, well, something not as fancy.
As Ipoi got lunch ready, he told me of 2 spots to chill by Camp 5: one was the jetty immediately outside the barracks, another was a small rockpool a short walk along the Melinau Gorge Trail. As this was a perfect day, and I had to clean some clothes, I went to the jetty, placed a bottle of Scotch in the river to chill and cleaned up.
Lunch was a simple affair, as I requested for simple noodles. After lunch, the park ranger, Ipoi and the Camp 5 staff retired for naps in their quarters, as I read a book in the dining area. As it was flowering season, flowers were blooming everywhere, and I was treated to a fantastic display of Rajah Brooke Birdwing Butterfly everywhere. I also had a lot of bees attracted to me for some unknown reason. I moved to the rock pool, where none thankfully followed.
Within a few hours, a group of hikers came in. They were a diverse group: some were hashers from Penang, another trail runners from Penang and Taiwan, 1 elderly French couple from Normandy and 2 Americans from Southern California who were on my flight the day before.
For reasons unknown, the bees were only attracted to me and the 2 American boys. The bees got on my nerves, so I left for the rock pool, telling the 2 Americans that the bees did not bother me there. Soon enough, they were by the rock pool along the river, as another guide came by, chatted with us, and freshened up by the pool.
All of a sudden, the guide told us to look up, in the general direction of the limestone mountains.
“Hornbills,” he said, with that look of pride only a naturalist could give out when he see his favourite creature.
There, 2 large hornbills flew, wings spread out, high above us. Within a few minutes, 3 more appeared, soaring like the elegant avian creations there are. Naturally, I left my camera in my bag, but the image in my head is what matters…says me in this world of ‘pictures, or it didn’t happen.’
Now, I am not superstitious, but apparently the sighting of hornbills before a grand engagement is a good omen. I prayed that was the case. And then it started to drizzle. I started to wonder if the local deity Singalang Burong might change his mind about the trip, or if he was clearing the path free of debris and obstruction.
Dinner was, interesting enough, almost like class warfare here. The French couple and I went on private tours, while the others were on a generic tour. The French couple had a 3 dish display of fresh greens, chicken and steamed fish while I had the largest serving of spaghetti Bolognese, enough to feed at least 5 people. As our guides were related, the French couple and I were sat together and we shared our selections, as the larger group looked on with envy as they had their generic fried noodles. I shared some of my Bolognese with the Americans, as there was no way that I could finish it, and I could not let it go to waste.
As we retired for the evening, the weather started to turn. It rained. It poured. The heavens gushed open, as the Melinau River changed from a gentle stream to a raging torrent within moments. Our guides solemnly informed us that if it continued to rain, the trek would be cancelled. Safety first and all that.
I started to pray that the 5 hornbill omen would come true. I did not bring my bottle of Laurent-Perrier champagne for nothing.
* * *
I was up at 0500, with the clear intention to get my morning toilet done before everyone else is up and the rush begins. The rain stopped, and the weather looked clear. I was starting to wonder if Singalang Burong and his 5 hornbill omens came through.
As everyone was out and getting ready, I had breakfast. While everyone else had the standard generic fried rice, I had bacon and eggs, paired with wholegrain bread and 2 options for peanut butter. Now, when Dorothy the proprietor of Borneo Trekking asked what I wanted for meals, I came out with ridiculous requests. Never ask a man what he wants to eat during an expedition when he just sat in an airline lounge and is waiting for his champagne to be poured. She already passed the spaghetti Bolognese test. Now she aced breakfast, as everyone else stared at my food while looking at their breakfast. I did pay a premium, and now I was flaunting it.
With my hydration pack filled, I walked out to the jetty to look at the sky. The weather was absolutely clear, with the morning star Venus and the moon framed by the Melinau Gorge. The air was as crisp as a Scottish morning, with the soft sounds of flowing water from the Melinau River providing the perfect soundtrack.
By 0645, we were on our trek up. My guide Ipoi was the lead guide, thanks to his seniority and the arrangements by the Park Ranger the evening before due to the composition of our combined groups. As such, I had to be first trekker. It sounds really nice to have that honour, but it also came with the responsibility to keep up with the lead guide and not hold everyone back.
The Park Ranger was very specific with his instructions and his placement of guides. No rushing, no peer pressure, no overexerting yourself, no ‘compassionate pass’ if you do not make the designated stops.
Yes, there were designated stops. While the entire trek would take up 2.5km, distance can be deceiving. The first stop was the ‘mini Pinnacles’ around the 700m mark. To get there, you had a steep hike up. There was no gradual warm-up: it was for all intents and purposes, a climb.
We reached the first stop within 30 minutes. After a 10 minute rest, we continued on. Now, I did do some training before hand, mostly squats and other leg-based weight exercises. What I should have done were hill sprints or trail runs, which I have not done as often as I used to. I after all, was First Violin to our Conductor Ipoi, my personal guide.
It was only later that I truly knew who my guide Ipoi was in the grand scheme of things. He has been in the business since at least the 90s, and has led or been part of many a Royal Geographic Expedition in to the Mulu Cave Systems. His experience aside, and his record of 2 hours to the summit of the Pinnacles when most average 3 hours, and sense of adventure and love for his home has resulted in, among other things, a cave named after him. Yes, there is an actual ‘Ipoi’s Cave’ in Mulu: one he discovered during his numerous expeditions.
Yet looking at Ipoi, you would least suspect it. A small guy, who occasionally smokes but never drinks on the job, he does not look like your standard issue explorer, yet he could easily best them. The least I could do was keep up.
At the second check-point, Ipoi asked me to lead the group. A great honour, and I was slightly perplexed. He explained that he wanted to wait for the rest of the lead group, and that I just had to lead the front end a few hundred meters to the front, at the plateau which was a lot more comfortable, before continuing on to the third check-point.
If the first 3/4 of the hike was not tough or vertical enough, the last 500m would truly challenge us. At the stage, it was essentially vertical. We had ropes and ladders, with steep falls either side, yet coupled with fantastic views of the jungle beyond.
The Park Ranger’ guides instruction were repeating in my head: one person per rope, no crowding on ladders. The slightly wet conditions of the aluminium ladders made me extra cautious.
As we climbed up, I looked on towards Ipoi and the trail runner behind me. I had a good 50ms lead from the trail runner from Penang, yet Ipoi was essentially a mountain goat, ascending without any effort whatsoever. I tried to rein in my competitive side: I was essentially the lead trekker and I should not push my luck. Instead, I enjoyed the view, the sheer drop, the adrenaline running through my veins as I balanced against wet aluminium while high above razor sharp edges.
After counting 10 of the 14 ladders to get to the Pinnacles, I suddenly lost Ipoi, as I was adjusting my Garmin. Since I was all alone, at least for 100m either side, I enjoyed the view, the solitude and the sudden introspection that comes with being in such an isolated spot. Why was I here? What was I trying to achieve? Is a Facebook and Instagram picture worth all this? Why do I feel a cut on my right knee?
Truth be told, I lost count by the stage. All I could do was concentrate on going up. Soon enough, I spotted Ipoi, who was on the ladder ahead of me.
“Do you see anything?” I called out.
“Yes,” he replied, in the most non-expressive voice ever heard.
I climbed up the ladder and through a passageway of 2 boulders.
“There it is” I heard Ipoi say.
I was not too sure what it was until I saw it for myself.
Suddenly, framed against a boulder and some shrubbery, were blades of limestone, poking up behind foliage. I walked up ahead, balancing against stone and ledge, completely ignoring the steep fall or sudden gap next to me. I have finally reached what I saw from a plane, that image of my childhood that has only fuelled my genetic urge to explore.
I heard Ipoi’s voice calling, drawing me ever closer, as the sneak peek of the white shards drew me in like a siren. I looked at my Garmin. 2 hours 05 minutes. If I removed rest time, we made it to the summit, to the Pinnacles view point in just under 2 hours.
“You’re here. We’re at the top” I heard him say. It felt like a distant whisper as I stood, hopping over bounders, to the viewing boulder.
For some obscene reason, the first I thought of was ‘picture.’ Very unbecoming of an explorer, but Ipoi, surely used to this, obliged as he took a few photos of me, as the rest of the group reached the top.
Now, a few of them were hungry, while a few of us could not be bothered with food. Having thought of a lunch at the top, I requested for a tuna sandwich, which was prepared and in my pack. A light meal, easily portable in my hydration pack as opposed to the containers of rice and sambal of nasi lemak which the rest got.
As some of the group enjoyed their breakfast with nasi lemak, I opted against lunch and took a swig from my champagne glass. Yes the same champagne flute that followed me up to Mt Merapi just months before.
I looked at my watch. The climb was steep, but our timing was good. If the descent was similar to the ascent, I could reach base camp in time for lunch, a proper time to have my sandwich. At 0900, we made our way down.
If the ascent was tough, the descent was tougher. With your thighs already on fire, you had to work them even more, doing the entire trek in reverse. At times, I stopped to take pictures or soak in the chasm that awaited me if I took a wrong step.
The trail runners went down ahead of me, and I followed after them, the image of my Laurent-Perrier chilled by fresh chilled mountain water firmly in my mind. For large sections, I was alone, hiking down the well-worn, well-marked track. It was the perfect spot to reflect on what I have done, and the pain I could suffer post muscle fatigue 24 hours later.
At the mini Pinnacles, I spotted the Park Ranger, leading a group that could not make the second check point. We chatted, and he asked me how long it took to reach the view point. I told him my stats, and he without pausing, told me I would reach Base Camp by 1230.
His estimation came true. I tried, truly tried, to beat it, but by the time I reached the base of the ascent, it was 1225, and by the time I reached Base Camp, it was 1230. Experience, years of them, as well as hikers of all shapes and sizes, must have given him a nose for speed, ability and skill.
By the time I reached Base Camp, I chucked my gear aside, got my champagne and chilled it in the river. Trusting the Park Ranger, I did some stretching and cooled down, walking around and relaxing around the facilities, as I had my lunch.
An hour later, I sat down in the rock pool, with my champagne flute and baby bottle of Laurent-Perrier. While my bottle of champagne did not reach the top due to the 2 litre requirement of water, the lack of space in my 1.5l hydration pack + 500ml bottle of water, my champagne flute did make it.
I relaxed in the river, scars on my knee but with a perfectly fine yet sweaty pair of Orlebar Browns, with my glass of champagne, chilling, cooling down and slowly wondering to myself:
“What would I not do for a bottle of champagne if dangled in front of me?”
I could actually make it for another carafe of Merlot at the Mulu Marriott by evening at this rate.
Agency: I used Borneo Rainforest Trekking. If they can manage my Victorian ‘explorer’ requests of pasta, fresh salads, decent sandwiches and breakfast with 2 options for peanut butter, I am pretty sure they could do something for you in the middle of the jungle.
Bring: This is the middle of the jungle. Camp 5 has limited stocks of goods. If you are on a super basic tour, I would suggest some instant noodles. If you are on a full-board with food, bring at the very least a blanket. I used my rolled-up shirts as a pillow. Bring mosquito nets if you don’t like bugs. Drinking water is provided.
Preparation: You Need To Train. I cannot stress this enough. This is not a walk in the park and you need to be of a certain fitness level to get to the check-points and return before it gets dark. The hills are super steep. BRING DRY-FIT CLOTHES. It will get humid and hot as the day proceeds.
Get in: Standard Mulu trip in. Fly in with MASWings via Miri, Kuching or Kota Kinabalu. I flew in via Kuching, taking the 0720 Kuala Lumpur – Kuching flight and the 1140 Kuching – Mulu flight. Just nice.
Minimum time: 2 days 1 night, but only if you get to Base Camp by 1300 from the Pinnacles after your hike. 1st day hike to Camp 5, Overnight, 2nd day hike to Pinnacles, return by 1300 and hike back to Kuala Litut for boat back to National Park HQ. Follow your guide’s advice.
[For Part 1, click here. This second part will look in to my exploration in the Wind and Clearwater Caves.]
An escapade in the middle of the rainforest would usually entail, whether we like it or not, rain. After a quick morning swim at the hotel pool and over at breakfast in the restaurant, it rained. I wondered how it would affect my exploration of the 2 remaining Show Caves of Mulu of this trip.
Like any rainforest experience, the rain stopped as abruptly as it ended, so by 0815, I took the hotel transport to the Park HQ to catch our 0830 boat ride up-river. Our first stop was the Penan resettlement village of Bung Bunan. The Penan are one of the few nomadic tribes who still continue their nomadic lifestyle, albeit limited in scope. Here, in this small village, we saw their new homes, their new enterprises, their new story.
And like any good resettled community, they not only have an information booth detailing their history, but a small retail area where they sold their wares: from bead trinkets to rattan baskets. Some weave their baskets in front of you, others demonstrate their musical skills. You end up buying a thing or two, not so much for the items themselves but what their act of entrepreneurship was trying to achieve.
Continuing on, we went upriver, past a few bends and along the fast flowing river, to a small pontoon, linked to steep-looking wooden stairs attached precariously yet solidly against the cliff face: this was the entrance to the Cave of the Winds.
Not quite what I was expecting, the climb up the stairs went without a hitch and the cave entrance, a good 30m above our boat stop, looked unassuming, especially when compared to the Deer Cave yesterday, yet experience has taught me not to be deceived by initial experiences.
True to its name, you could feel cool air rushing out from deep within the cavern. We walked in to the cave, admiring the ribbed, yet smooth surfaces of the interior, of the different layers of limestone rocks and water stains from a long gone river that used to gush through where we were walking.
There were a few nooks and crannies, and what looked like entrances to side passages. I asked my guide Harvey what they were: entrances to other passages in this cob-webbed network of interconnected caves. I was intrigued, yet we were barely in to the Wind Cave. We went deeper within, taking a sudden right turn in to yet another smaller cavern.
There amidst the rock, unique formations abound: everything from moon-milk to silken algae, small beads of stalactites to low ceilings. A red carpet, of all things, indicated the entrance to the main sights through a gate, and a sudden rush of wind was felt as we entered the tight passageway.
It was then we were greeted by the first of the grand chambers that made the Wind Cave one of the great Show Caves of Mulu: a skylight filled in this deep sinkhole, letting in daylight straight in to the abyss below. Our guide Ipoi gave a very good explanation of its geological features and history, but alas I was a bad student: I was distracted by the sheer sight of what was before me. Harvey, who stood next to me, told me there was more, more to satiate my thirst.
We went through another passageway, this time deeper in to the depths of the Mulu limestone mountains, and there before us, the King’s Chamber. The stairs led down to a natural platform, raised above the cavern floor. On one end, a high passage that led deep in to the bowels of the Clearwater Cave system. On another, stairs that wound pass intricate rock formations and natural sculpture.
We went up the stairs and shone our flashlight at every random thing. At one moment, we saw a human form, in another corner, a falcon, in another nook a guardian lion. Add in a peacock and they should have named this Solomon’s Chamber.
Walking deeper inside this chamber, we encountered a grand sight of numerous columns. Nay, they were larger, grander: a twisting mound of intricate art, of slight intricateness, of elegant proportions. These Solomonic Columns of natural limestone lent this chamber an almost imperious, almost magical feel. You were awed and humbled, all in one go. You were in the presence of majesty.
As we were exploring and being mesmerized by the sights surrounding us, I noticed a group who were kitted out in gear: from head lamps and ropes, to harnesses and action cameras. As we wound around the King’s Chamber, they went through a small gate at the platform. These were the adventure cavers, on a trek deep in to the Clearwater Cave System. They even had a Rockstar send-off, as we shone our lights as a spotlight towards them, as they left the relative comfort of the main chamber and in to the deep abyss.
I asked Harvey where it connected to, and how it connects. To the main chamber of the Clearwater Cave, he told me, and onwards, deeper in to the Clearwater Cave network, deep under Mt Api, deep under the Pinnacles. It did not take much to convince me to sign up for Adventure Caving when I come by to Mulu next.
From the Wind Cave, it was a very short 5 minute boat ride to the Clearwater Cave entrance and picnic spot, by a natural pool. The rains in the morning made the walk along the cliff-hugging wooden walkway a risk, but I was told it was a fun 10 minute walk, suspended above the Melinau Paku River.
The entrance to the Clearwater Cave was even more of a hike up, with at least 150 steps to the cave entrance. I lost count part-way. There, at the cave entrance, was the cloudline, or was it mist? I could never tell. What was for certain was the entrance steps went back down in to the cavern with the mist rolling out, giving the entrance an almost surreal quality.
From up here, it did not look large, but upon closer inspection, mighty rainforest trees, at least 50m tall were dwarfed by the cavern that went deeper in to the chasm below. The main group went down first, as I trailed behind with Harvey. I wanted to capture the scale of the stairs, of the cavern, of the deep, with humans in the foreground as reference.
And it was then, in my head, the theme from The Fellowship of The Ring started playing in my head. I imagined us entering the Mines of Moria, with the soft light lights along the numerous paths adding more fantasy to the great halls of the Dwarves. I started humming the tune, holding my hat firmly on my head, as we descended in to the Clearwater Cave. There better not be a Balrog. I already saw Cthulhu in stone yesterday.
As we reached what I assumed was the cave floor, I heard gushing water. Granted, a common occurrence here, having heard streams in the Deer Cave, but as we walked along the path, it got lounder. It gushed and rushed, it went down in torrents but was as clear as, well, clear water.
We crossed the underground river, and I looked back to where we started. The entrance of the cave, lit from the light outside, was barely registerable against the sheer size and darkness of the interior. As much as the artificial lights tried to illuminate, the contrast of the light and the dark, of the chiaroscuro, was an interplay Caravaggio would have played well with.
Walking deeper in to the cavern, we followed the course of the river. As the main group were with Ipoi, who was explaining to them the history of the cave, I was, yet again, a very bad student and was doing other things. I gazed around in wonder: at the oculus above me, at the sheer size of the cavern, of the gushing torrents. I decided to shoot a video, as my photographs could barely capture the moment. Harvey was kind enough to illuminate the parts where I was shooting the video.
As we admired the rugged beauty of the spot, I asked Harvey if there were any nature documentaries shot here. A silly question, as I am pretty sure there were. He confirmed a few were shot here recently, both academic and travel focussed, and in his view, no amount of photography, of documentary, of literature could ever capture the grandeur of this spot. I could not agree more. Some things escape description, so escape the imagination, that words fail us, as we stand, mouth wide open, humbled by the experience, and also hoping nothing falls in to our gaping mouths.
We climbed back up from the underground river, making a circuit. Up the steep stairs, looking up at the oculus, I heard water trickling down. Not from the river, but from outside, and seeing how grey the skies were from the oculus, I knew it was pouring.
Walking along the upper terrace of the cavern, a lone font was illuminated, water dripping in to a natural, as I would describe it, holy water receptacle. Little did I realize this will not the only religious call-back nature would refer to.
Before going out of the cave, we entered to a side cavern: the Lady Cave. It did not take long to know why it was named so. Barely 100m from the passage entrance, a well-positioned light illuminated a limestone column. The shadow displayed a Madonna, one that made me think of Our Lady of Lourdes. When I saw what was casting the shadow, it did not take too much of a stretch to see a religious icon here.
Here, in the midst of one of the great wonders of the natural world, was literally a grotto, with an apparition(?) of the Virgin Mary. The entire experience felt like a long pilgrimage, from the hikes of the past 2 days and boat trips, of being humbled by grand structures not made by man. Here was a realization that, despite the futility of our existence, there was many a great wonder to gaze and marvel at, to realize that there are things greater, grander than us, no matter how hard we try to tame our surroundings.
And with the heavy torrential downpour, and me not bringing my raincoat, I returned to the Mulu Marriott completely drenched, with my hiking boots squelching as I walked down the open verandas, to the amusement of the staff. Might as well enjoy the experience, and leave decorum at the airport.
Agency: I used Borneo Rainforest Trekking. They can prepare bespoke packages depending on your time and requirements.
Preparation: Be reasonably fit. There will be a lot of walking, especially the approach to the Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave. The Clearwater Cave has steep steps to the ascent, and within the cavern, there are steps galore. Perfect for glutes of steel.
Bring: Water, a hydration pack is ideal. Some snacks may come in useful. Torchlights will come in very handy. Bring good hiking boots. Spare shirt/shorts just in case.
Wear: Something light. If you worry about bat droppings, bring a raincoat.
Time: About half a day for 2 show caves, 24 hours total.
Caution: Bring cash. Mulu is a small settlement with no ATM machines or banks. Credit cards are accepted at the Mulu National Park and Mulu Marriott but have not been observed elsewhere. Cell reception is spotty, and Wi-Fi is limited. Have fun being unplugged!
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.