[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.