Want a quick weekend adventure? Tired of trail running and hiking close to urban areas? Well, if you are within easy reach of Borneo, then here is a ridiculous idea:
Explore 4 caves, including the World’s Largest Cave Passage/Widest Cave Passage/Largest Cave Network by volume, in around 24 hours. Did I also mention that this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
Arrive in Mulu at around 10am. Since I only brought a gym bag, I went straight out. My transport was waiting for me at the airport entrance, and since the airport is basically a Short Take-Off/Landing facility, I was off the plane and in to the Marriott transport in 10 minutes. Another 5 minutes later, I was at the Mulu Marriott.
By 1230, I took the Marriott transportation to the Mulu National Park HQ, which was a very quick 5 minute ride away. There, my guide was waiting for me, and by 1300, we were off to explore the first set of caves.
After a nice walk along well-maintained and managed paths, we reached the a rather fun detour: the Canopy Walk. Apparently, this particular Canopy Walk has the longest single stretch between trees, with the entire Canopy Walk being 850m, and at its max, suspended 50m above the jungle floor.
This Canopy Walk was built without a single nail used, and the entire walkway is suspended by a single cable. Local craftsmen and engineers used local knowhow and international safety standards to make sure the thing is well suspended. The platforms themselves are a marvel, in which they rest against while being suspended on the tree, without a single nail.
Also, remember to occasionally look down: the view of the rivers, jungle floor and engineering skills make for a wonder.
Next up: the highlight of any trip to Mulu, the main reason people visit. The Deer Cave. Now, the Deer Cave is a marvel in itself, being the largest cave passage in the world. Or was it highest? Or was it both? Titles aside, the sheer view and scale is enough to inspire you.
Why visit? Well, for starters, it is a massive natural wonder, and from one particular angle, with the light just right, you will spot Abraham Lincoln in profile. Not exactly Mt Rushmore, but still, Nature has a way with sculpture.
My guide brought us in and through the passageway, up along lightly-illuminated but non-intrusive paths, deeper in to the cave, where you can hear swiftlets flying overhead, spot the occasional patch of bats, watch the stunning dripping of water from the cavern ceiling, all while avoiding guano.
At one observation point close to the other end, 3 wonders will appear: The Garden of Eden, Eve’s Shower and Adam’s Shower. Pictures do none of these sites justice, and words could not even begin to describe the sheer scale and beauty of them. Someone thought images of Paradise would be apt. I am inclined to agree,
Show cave Number 2 is Lang’s Cave. Conveniently next to the Deer Cave, it is not as grand, imposing and majestic but it has its own magnificent quality.
What Lang’s Cave lacks in height, it makes up for in formation. Appropriately lit sections of the cavern highlight the sculptural displays Nature likes to throw. Stalactites and stalacmites in various stages of growth, the stages in the development of a limestone column and effects of water erosion makes Lang’s Cave a geologist’s dream and an impromptu geology teaching hall.
Apart from lessons in geology, there might be a few sights to give you the occasional sleepless night. Where people saw jellyfish amidst the rock formations, I saw Ctulhu and various other beings that would belong in the Necronomicon.
By the time we were done with the 2 Show Caves, we had ample time before the evening’s performance at the ‘amphitheatre’: the Flight of the Bats. Now, this performance can be quite temperamental but very much worth it when you get it. And if the crowd gets rowdy, just say ‘oh, look!’ and instant silence as everyone looks at the cave entrance with anticipation.
Close to sunset, you will see unique spectacles, and as the sun sets behind the treetops, soft whispers fly up through the sky, as hints of the show come out. Batches of bats come streaming out: some in small groups, others in clusters.
And just as the last rays of sun retreat from the entrance of the Deer Cave, the main performance: millions upon millions of bats streaming out, flying in an endless band. Some say it looks like a dragon, others a serpent. Maybe inspiration for the great Feathered Serpent himself, Quetzalcoatl?
Day One finished, I went back to the hotel for a shower, before dinner at a nice local place next to Park HQ and then lazy drinks back at the hotel terrace.
After breakfast at the hotel, I went straight to the Mulu National Park HQ to catch a boat ride upriver towards the Clearwater Cave system. Before that though, we made a stop at the small Penan settlement of Bung Bunan to look at handicrafts and lifestyles of the formerly nomadic Penan, or Punan, tribesman. The market was quaint, the small information boards filled to the brim with the histories and lore of the communities, and the crafts on sale pretty decent.
Another 5 minutes by boat, we arrived at the third show cave: the Wind Cave. Now, the Wind Cave is as advertised: it can get quite windy. After the steep climb up the stairs, the fresh, cool wind is a welcome respite.
Walking down in to the network, you notice the cavern getting smaller, then wider, then smaller, before all of a sudden, encountering a grand oculus above you, the perfect antechamber before entering the aptly named King’s Chamber. There, well, let’s just say you can imagine the Mountain King and his trolls lumbering around.
Within, the beautiful array of rock formations give way to grand chasms and imperious spaces, to antechambers that lead to connecting cave systems and limestone columns that look as if they were frozen mid-dance.
And as if to throw me hints: we were in the midst of cavers, who looked the part of National Geographic explorers, bedecked in gear and coiled ropes slung against shoulders, ready to go on an adventure. Yes, I was sold. Sign me up.
Which then leads us to the grand finale: the Clearwater Cave. This was a short 5 minute boat ride away, which we could have walked to, but as it was drizzling, we were advised against walking on the walkway that hugged against the cliff face, but had a dazzling setting suspended above the Paku River.
Now, the Clearwater Cave’s entrance is at the top of plateau, against the cliff face. This is where your hours of stairmaster, or hill-runs, coupled with squats, will suddenly feel worthwhile. After going up 200 or so steps (I could be wrong, I lost count after 150), you then realize you have to go down towards the cave system.
It is here that you will see the majesty and grandeur of this, the largest cave system in the world by volume, which houses the largest cave chamber in the world within its network.
After descending in to the cave system, which will make you think of the Fellowship of the Ring entering the Mines of Moria, you are greeted by an underground river, with crystal clear water, that runs through and onwards in the system. Clear Water indeed.
Climbing up stairs and ramps, walkways and overhangs, with the oculus providing natural light filling sections of the chamber, you see the interplay of light and dark, of massive trees being dwarfed by even larger rock formations and caverns. You feel so small, yet so at awe and inspired, yet insignificantly puny at the sheer scale of it all. You suddenly feel inspired yet lost for words. You feel human.
Adjoining the entrance is the aptly named spur of the Lady Cave, which for the religiously inclined, will suddenly make you turn this spot in to a Marian Grotto. A rock formation looks like the Virgin Mary, standing in prayer, with the accompanying shadow highlighting this image.
After all that hiking and climbing, lunch was a welcomed delight. The good thing about this spot, at the foot of the cliff leading to the Clearwater Cave entrance, is that it’s a ready spot for a picnic and a dip in the aptly named clear streams and pool.
The four caves done within 24 hours, with all the highlights. The main group actually did do this entire trip in 24 hours, and they caught the 1330 flight to Miri. There is a jetty that leads to the airport right across the street, along the river on the way back to Park HQ, so there really is seamless transfer to make this quick 24 hour trip doable.
What did I do for the rest of the 24 hours before flying back the next day? Took a dip in the pool and enjoyed the terrace at the Mulu Marriott of course.
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!
Get in: So, how do I go about this ridiculously tight trip? First, fly in to Mulu in Sarawak on Malaysian Borneo. There are direct flights from Kuching, Miri and Kota Kinabalu on MASWings, a regional subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines, but I highly suggest flying in via Miri as the first flight in to Mulu is the prerequisite for this madness.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.