Mulu National Park ~ Sarawak Borneo
Old Forests, Old Peoples
How effective is an advertising campaign like the one for Sarawak where the island of Borneo is romanticised as untamed, natural and where every corner of the river is a headhunter waiting to hunt down strangers with his blowpipe aimed at the heart? Well, it certainly filled my daydreams with wild imagination on a panoramic scale! The thought of maneuvering a longboat into the deepest cut into the dense jungle of Borneo gave me sleepless nights. Having read tales of naturalists and explorers of the 20th Century slashing their path through the jungles and braving the crocodiles in the wide rivers of Sarawak, I just had to see that for myself. Following the footsteps of Charles Hose (The Pagan Tribes of Borneo), Tom Harrison (the Barefoot Anthropologist) and Odoardo Beccari (Wanderings in the great forests of Borneo) would make a trip to Mulu complete.. or so I thought.
To Mulu … the short way, long way
We arrived in Miri after a 2 ½ hr flight from Kuala Lumpur. Taking the first flight out at 7-ish a.m. is the best. Early enough to catch the 11.00am express boat to Marudi but unfortunately not early enough to travel all the way into Mulu National Park.
Our trip this time was going to encompass several more places before arriving at Mulu National Park. Granted that this would definitely be more expensive than flying direct from Miri to Mulu but we didn’t really want to miss out on the opportunity to see some of Borneo’s interior.
Not to scare anyone else off, there is an easier way to get to Mulu of course. You can book a seat on Maswing flights which take a mere 28min from Miri airport to Mulu airport; granted that it’s not a foggy day in which case it would take a little longer to get there.
But for the intrepid traveller, the planned route was like this: Miri by speedboat to Marudi ; stayover at Marudi ; Marudi by speedboat to Long Lama ; Long Lama by 4WD to Long Bedian ; Long Bedian by 4WD to Tenyok Rimba Resort : Tenyok Rimba Resort by 4WD to Long Terawan : Long Terawan by longboat to Mulu National Park
Our guide, Willie had made arrangements for us to overnight at a small motel in Marudi. The express boat from Kuala Baram jetty (some 45min drive from Miri airport) to Marudi was to be 2 ½ hrs. It turned out to be about 3 ½ hrs as the driver of the boat had slowed down the speed due to rising fuel cost, since not having raised the ticket price of a mere RM20+ per person. We chugged upriver in an .. thankfully.. airconditioned boat. The Baram river is wide and steady.. If you’re brave enough, you can stand on the ledge of the boat for a better view. Once in a while, on the muddy banks, a crocodile was seen sunning itself.
Mulu National Park
The park itself spans an area of 217sq miles or 52,000 hectares harbouring at least 15 types of Borneon virgin forests from lowland dipterocarp areas, swampy jungles to montane forests. The National Park was established in 1975 for the purpose of research study and conservation. The Park’s original people are the nomadic Penans who are now settled in a village just outside the park headquarters. The other group whose ancestors have lived in the area for hundreds of years are the Berawan people. These people live in the upper reaches of Tutoh area and their vast hunting ground also included the Mulu area which also provides them with Native Land Rights to the area.
United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization or UNESCO accorded Mulu National Park with the World Heritage Site in November 2000 in the hope that the area will be conserved and preserved for the future. (Mulu under threat, see her). With such a listing, Mulu has seen a constant stream of nature enthusiasts visiting this natural wonderment with which has a combination of activities that will satisfy any person wanting to experience a little of Alfred Russel Wallace’s Borneo (more on Wallace, http://wallacefund.info/)
Mulu was unknown to the outside world until a 15th month long expedition organised by the Royal Geographic Society explored the area in 1977/1978 and presented their finds to the world. Although they had only 6 cavers present in the group of researchers and scientists, in the 3months there, they managed to chart 42km of the cave system. Then National Geographic Magazine then featured amazing photos captured of the caves and its inhabitants . Mulu was soon thrust into the limelight.
In the early years of exploration, it took 3 days to travel to the HQ at Long Pala. There were neither flights nor logging roads and getting there was simply the old fashioned way – by long boat. Today, it’s a plane hop away…for the hurried, that is. Is it a crime to just slow down the pace a notch?
Around the Mulu Park Headquarters
Where to Stay
The Park HQ is assessable by road from the airport. If you were to take a taxi from the airport to the park, it’ll cost RM8 per person per way and take approximately 10minutes to get there. Most of the accommodations are located around the Park HQ. There are several local homestays ; the upmarket Royal Mulu Resort and also Park lodgings. But because the local homestays are normally run by the Berawan people and they have little or no experience in marketing their accommodation, many visitors opt for either the Park lodgings or the Royal Mulu Resort located across the river from the park HQ.
Where to Eat
Most who stay at the Royal Mulu Resort would opt for the package deal which also includes meals at the resort itself. For those staying at the Park HQ, there’s The Mulu Café serves local and western fare and is open from 7.30am till 9.30pm, last orders at 8.30pm. The restaurant here doesn’t serve alcohol so you will have to BYOB. Alternatively, you can also have your meals at the local restaurants. The one closest to the Park HQ is the Jowel. If you want a cold beer and reasonably priced meals, this is the place to get it. Moreover, it’s a good place to sit and mingle with the locals. If you take the packages that are provided, you will hardly get much opportunity to connect with the local people.
Serving local Borneo dishes and Western fusion
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Serving local dishes operated by Mulu locals
Open for lunch and dinner
Jowel Melinau Lodge
Serving local Borneo dishes
Open for lunch and dinner
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Good Luck Cafe
Open for lunch and dinner
Mulu Airport Cafeteria
Open for breakfast and lunch
What to do
Before you enter the Park, you are required to pay entrance fees and depending on what activities you are interested in, you can pay at the HQ office. At the Park HQ itself there are several activities:
1. The Canopy Skywalk
borneo's jungle - wonder fast disappearing
This was introduced in 2004 and they claim it to be the longest tree based Canopy Walk in the world at 480m long. To get to the canopy walk, you will be taking the same plankwalk towards the Deer and Lang Showcaves. It’s an easy walk to the turn-off to the canopy walk and will take approximately 25min. The Canopy Skywalk is a guided tour. Pre-bookings are required. Congregate at the HQ office and from there the guide will take you there and back. Just be careful with the items you bring along with you. Once you drop them, they’re lost forever in the dark forest floor below.
Time allocation: Approx. 2hrs.
Cost: RM43 per person
2. Night Walk
The night walk is also conducted along the same 3.5km plankwalk. Pre booking is also required, latest before noon each day. The walk is guided but bring along your own torchlight/headlamp, raincoat and hat. Meet at the Park HQ office at 6.45pm and the walk lasts about 1 ½ hrs – 2 hrs.
Cost: RM20 per person
3. Medicine Plant Walk or Plant for Life Walk
This can be a guided walk or you can follow the trail on your own as there are information boards along the way. However, taking a guide with you could be a good idea. Several of the guides are from the local Berawan or Penan villages. They know much more about the plants than what the boards can tell you. It’s a good insight into their way of life in Mulu.
Time allocation: 1hr.
Cost: unguided walk : free
4. Showcave : Lang’s Cave
Lang’s Cave is an easy 1 hr walk from the Park HQ. The plankwalk is 3.5km long so wear comfortable, non-slip shoes. Necessary items are raincoat/poncho, hat, torchlight/ headlamp and a bottle of water. There is a small provisions shop at the end of the plankwalk, by the bat observation area selling bottled drinks and snacks.
Lang’s Cave is named after Lang ~ a tribal hunter who introduced the location to the scouts working on the Royal Geographic Society documentation of the cave system in Mulu in 1977. It’s a relatively small cave with pretty scallops lining the walls and beautiful stalagmite and stalactite formations. The walk is easy but a little slippery. Walking into Lang’s Cave is like walking into Santa’s Grotto. There’re all shapes and sizes like toy soldiers standing in a corner, a large spinning top propped up, a mini city skyline in the distance. What is called a Karst formation, the limestone is slowly dissolved by the action of water. This karst is normally found in limestone mountains. Caves such as Lang’s Cave are still growing. The constant streaming of water seeping through the faults along the ceilings and walls of the cave continues to build and reshape the cave. The only thing is, when I say that it’s a small cave, we Asians are fine. But for those taller than the average Asian woman, watch out for the overhangs. These Showcaves are well lit but all the same, try to stoop low otherwise you may end up with a few cuts on your forehead.
Time allocation: Approx. 1hr.
Park Entrance Fee: RM30 per person to be paid at the Park HQ office before leaving for the cave.
5. Showcave : Deer Cave
Walkway to Deer Cave
Deer Cave is an absolute wonder. Ok, maybe one of the many wonders at Mulu. The gaping mouth yawns to a size of over 170m wide, whilst the arch of the roof rises to some 120m; and maintains a height of no less than 90m high all through the cave. A concrete pathway snakes through the ground level before leading visitors up a flight of stairs to the viewpoint…right next to the Adam and Eve shower. The Garden of Eden at the base level sprung up after a portion of the roof had fallen through.
For those looking for more at the cave, there’s the Garden of Eden Pools guided trip. It starts off from the Park HQ office between 12.00nn and 1.00pm. After the 1 ½ hr walk along the plankwalk and through the deer cave, visitors on this route are guided down to the underground river. This will lead visitors to the Garden of Eden and the Adam and Eve shower which means that it’s going to get wet and dirty. Along the pathway, visitors may be able to see worms littered in clusters here and there. These worms can only be found in the cave ecosystems. For squeamish visitors, caves in the tropics may well be a staging for all future creepy crawly nightmares you may ever have. But the wonderful ecosystem is one to admire...especially how creatures have been able to evolve and adapt to points where skin pigmentation and even vision is no longer necessary to have. Apart from the creepy crawlies found in the cave, it’s also home to some 2 million bats. With bats come guano or bat excrement and with that comes a whole cave ecosystem which includes insects that will send chills up your spine like cave scorpions and cockroaches that fill the floor, making it look like one seething, living black sea as the life forms move in unity to the invisible beat of the cave. In little rock pools, one can also find prawns and fish.
But having handled through all that, the reward is that you will be one of the few who gets to bathe under the natural 30metre shower and swim in a secluded mountain pool!
Time allocation: Approx. 3 ½ hrs (9km) .
Park Entrance Fee: RM30 per person to be paid at the Park HQ office before leaving for the cave.. For more on charges and activities ; go here at http://www.mulupark.com
6. Bat Observatory
The bat observatory is situated about 200m from the Deer and Langs Cave. This is the last stop for all visits to the caves. There is a small provisions shop here selling snacks and drinks at exorbitant prices, a public toilet and an information hall where visitors can red more about the inhabitants of the cave and the surrounding jungles.
The bat exodus is a truly spectacular sight. The bats start leaving the cave from 5pm till dark. Like smoke signals, the bats leave in batches, possibly in family clusters and not as assumed as mass. The clusters could number some 1,000s and head towards the same directions, into the jungle. The bats are voracious insect eaters and can devour up to 9 tonnes of insects in a sitting. These bats maintain the ecosystem of the jungle by keeping the balance intact. Imagine the jungle without these bats! Having said so, the bat exodus is a little unpredictable. During heavy downpours, these bats may choose not to leave the warmth of the cave and so it may be a good idea to stay more than 1 night in Mulu to view this once in a lifetime natural wonder
Further from the Mulu Park Headquarters
1. Penan Settlement at Batu Bungan
penan girls off fishing
This settlement can be reached by boat from the park or you can just take the trail towards Clearwater cave which bypasses this village. The Sarawak government has been trying to settle the Penans for as long as there has been large scale logging in the lands. The Penans are regarded as the ‘True People of the Jungles’ and live a nomadic lifestyle. They never made homes other than makeshift huts due to their habits of moving with the availability of their food source. Once food source in the area in which they roam in has been depleted, they move to a new site. Their staple diet used to be the jungle Sago Palm. The palm started disappearing when the loggers came. As this happened, the Penan with the help of a Swiss activist by name of Bruno Manser (www.bmf.ch) began protesting and requesting for their rights. Today, the Penan people are continuing with their fight for the freedom to roam the jungles, a legacy Bruno Manser left behind. If you look closely, you will see much resemblance of the Penan with the Aborigines in Australia and the American Indians. These true peoples of their land have been pushed into corners by migrants with little disregard for the mental and physical wellbeing under the pretext of civilising the communities.
The gentle demeanour of the Penan is being exploited to the maximum by large corporations in hope that they are seen as great philanthropists for providing these people with amenities they are unused to. Although the younger have assimilated somewhat into society, there are a number working at the park as maintenance and a few as guides, the older generation find this new life difficult. The settlement is their livelihood now. The men and womenfolk make and sell handicraft at the morning markets. The Penan craftwork is considered the more refined compared with other tribes. Their woven baskets and mats have a distinct Penan trademark. The natural black dye mats are a best seller here. The Penan are also good ironsmiths and make parang or knives that are sought after by other communities. Apart from that Penan still rely on their blowpipes and poison darts for hunting. They have different darts for shooting different sized targets from rat or squirrels to monkeys and even humans. So beware..
2. Showcaves: Moonmilk Cave, Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave
Moon Cave ~ The Clearwater Cave can be accessed by taking a boat or you can take a 1½ - 2 hr stroll along the river path past the Penan Settlement. Be careful when taking this path. It can get a bit slippery in areas. You have to be reasonably fit for the walk. A part of the path, about 1.5km from the Park HQ leads up 427 steps to Moonmilk Cave. This cave acts more like a tunnel walkway. It’s narrow in some places and low in others. Bring along drinking water, snacks if you will. All along the way through the limestone outcrop named Batu Bungan – ‘the Lady of the Rock’, there are auto lights but one can’t rely completely on that so definitely torchlight is a must. This cave spits you out on the other side of the limestone massif and its another 15 minutes or so to the entrance of Wind Cave.
Entrance fee: RM10 per person. Guide not necessary.
Wind Cave or Cave of Winds ~ This will be the first stop for those taking the boat. The boat ride takes about 15minutes from the HQ jetty. The Cave is open from 9.30am and closed at 12.30pm daily. Once it’s closed, visitors will not be able to enter. The lights within will be switched off. The boats leave for the caves twice daily: 9.00am and 10.00am from the Park HQ office. Visitors must register themselves to visit these caves. Those who choose to walk, please also register yourselves at the office. For those walking, leave at about 9.00am to make the 10.30am guided tour. When you arrive at the cave, the cave guide will guide visitors in. The namesake is due to it being a wind tunnel for the Clearwater Cave System. The link between Clearwater Cave and Cave of Winds was discovered in 1988 when a caving expedition found a way through a small crack between boulders, linking between Illusion, in Cave of the Winds, and King Seth's Maze in Clearwater. Before the discovery, it was noted that the Clearwater Cave was among the top ten longest caves in the world. With the discovery of the link, the combined length of the two caves instantly thrust the Clearwater System up the ranking of the world’s longest caves.
The caves are linked under the Api Mountain cave system. There are 2 distinct mountain areas in which the caves are found ie Api and Benarat. All the Showcaves mentioned here lie within the Api Mountain Range. When the cave was explored by by G.E Wilford of the Malaysian Geographical Society in the early 60's, the cave entrance’ easy accessibility was by boat from the Melinau river. Today, tourists are led through the higher level entrance rather than the original entrance point used by explorers. The cave itself is well lit but bring a torchlight with you.
Time allocation at cave: 45min. Meeting point at the cave is 9.45am or 10.30am.
Entrance fee: RM 10 per person. For those taking the longboat from the Park HQ and back, charge is RM30 per person.
Clearwater Cave ~ This cave is never to be missed if ever you were to visit Mulu.
For those taking a boat, it’s another 5 minutes from Cave of Winds. There’s a picnic area at the base of the cave and a beautiful natural pool where visitors can dip in. The pool here doubles up as a little nursery for the local fish stock like the empurau.
For those with packages will be provided with a picnic lunch at the Clearwater before heading back to the HQ. The rest of us, bring along some sandwiches and drinks. The entrance to Clearwater is 200 steps above. It can be a little trying for those not used to the humidity and the exercise. I’m sure a combination of the two can be lethal but it’s all worth a try. The Clearwater cave has a massive opening reason being that over the millions of years, part of its roof at the mouth collapsed. Boulders are seen at the base of the cave.
The early explorers must have felt that they had died and gone to heaven when they first discovered this cave. Clearwater cave is a prime example of caves found at Mulu but on the grandest proportion. A gushing river runs through the cave, creating chambers with walls that look as if it’s adorned with Venetian blinds. In other chambers, it looks as if thick, gooey cake mixtures were poured down the sides of the wall, making folds upon folds and then hardened, set quickly by the cold gush of wind through the many channels and tunnels snaking through the mountain.
Meeting point at the cave is 9.45am or 10.30am
Entrance Fee: RM 10 per person. For those taking the longboat from the Park HQ and back, charge is RM30 per person.
Best time to go
The busiest times would be July through to September which coincides with Europe’s summer season. Other busy dates would be during local public holidays
Pre bookings are essential especially flights to/fro Mulu and accommodation. For those taking the longer route, booking of the longboat ride from Long Terawan into Mulu National Park also requires pre booking.
Park fees can be paid when you arrive at the Park. Please keep your receipts after payment. Rangers will require you show them receipts prior to trips.
There are generally 2 ways to Mulu National Park.
maswings fly twice daily from miri to mulu
The easiest and fastest way would be by air. Maswings (http://www.maswings.com.my/) has 2 daily flights to Mulu from Miri. It takes 28minutes to get to Mulu on a propellered Fokker plane that seat 50 persons. During the early years, flights were allowed out of Mulu at 5.00pm but ran into problems as it was quickly acknowledged that the flights were in airspace conflict with bats leaving the caves in the evening to feed in the jungles. These days flights arrive and depart to and from Mulu latest by 1.00pm.
boats will send travellers to kuala litut and return to pick them up in 2 days time
The more scenic but definitely a longer way would be by boat. As per advised, it is possible to get to Mulu from Miri in one day. From Kuala Baram jetty, about 40min drive from Miri town take the 7.30am speedboat to Marudi. This costs RM28 per person and takes 3 hours. From Marudi take another speedboat to Tutoh. Time taken to get to Tutoh is 3 ½ hrs. This may be a bit tricky as this trip may not happen sometimes due to lack of passengers or heavy flooding. So if you get caught along the way, you may have to stay in Marudi or Long Lama. From Tutoh, take a short 4WD ride to Long Terawan. From Long Terawan, hire a longboat to MuluNational Park. The boat costs anything from RM400 to RM450 per way and can take up to 5 persons. Without stayovers, fine weather and any other hitches, travellers can get to Mulu from Miri in 10hours.
Either take a taxi from Miri town centre to Kuala Baram jetty for RM70 per taxi per way or take the public bus from the intracity bus station next to the tourism information centre.