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.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.