Gunung Mulu was at the top of our must-see list since we first started planning our trip. This remote National Park in the state of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo is famous for spectacular caves, nightly exodus of three million bats, accessible rainforest hikes, and a vertigo-inducing canopy walkway.
Gunung Mulu is certainly visceral. It will be some time before we forget the ammoniac smell of tons of bat poo, the ever present sheen of greasy sweat, and the ferocity of the midday sun.
We stayed at the grungy Mulu River Lodge for three nights. It is cheap and is located just outside the park entrance. But, convenience aside, there is little to recommend it. The breakfast provided by the hotel restaurant was pretty low quality, so we ate lunch and dinner at the Park’s Mulu Cafe.
There are a huge range of activities on offer at the park. Spelunkers can travel through some of the world’s largest cave systems. Intrepid trekkers can climb the 2700m Mulu Summit or visit Mulu Pinnacles. Lord knows why you would want to trek in the hideous heat and humidity though.
We opted for the less strenuous pursuits. We visited Deer, Clearwater, Wind, and Lang caves. We swung in the canopy on the world’s longest jungle walkway. We hunted down weird looking bugs on a night walk. And we watched the astonishing sight of three million bats exiting Deer Cave for their nightly feed. We pre-booked most of these activities by email and paid for them when we arrived.
Gunung Mulu Day One
The only practical way to get to Gunung Mulu National Park is to fly. Good thing the flights on MASwings are so cheap (around $25). Our first impression of Sarawak was more pleasant than Sabah. As our prop plane approached Mulu, all we could see was the broccoli-like canopy of untouched rainforest with the occasional brown river snaking through. Looks like the palm oil plantations are not yet as widespread as in Sabah. As we got closer to the tiny runway, the limestone hills and cliffs that hide Gunung Mulu’s famous cave systems loomed up. It was one of the more scenic flight arrivals of our trip and whetted our appetite to explore.
During the late afternoon we walked the 1.5km Botanical Trail. Even though it is very close to the park, the trail cuts through some very impressive jungle. The trail is annotated every 100m or so. There is tons of information about the mighty flora that is found in the park. It is a great introduction to rainforests and makes it abundantly clear on the importance of protecting these delicate ecosystems.
The night walk is a two hour guided walk that follows a clearly marked boardwalk for a couple of kilometers. Chances of seeing big beasties is fairly slim. However, if you love weird noises and odd looking insects then this is definitely the tour for you!
The cacophony of frog, insect, and bird sounds is truly overwhelming. It certainly made listening to the guide all but impossible. If there was less of one kind of big beastie on the tour I think it would have been more fun. But 10-12 humans crowding round a softly spoken guide and two inch spider made for a less than satisfactory experience.
We saw lots of big spiders, an amazing array of oddly shaped stick insects, and a ghostly white moon rat scurrying around in the undergrowth. But, for me, the sounds were the real highlight.
Gunung Mulu Day Two
Day two started with a quick shuttle up the river in a speedboat to a local market. The local Penan people sold some cool stuff like blowpipes, rattan wall hangings and baskets. However, most of it was pretty impractical as souvenirs for the average backpacker.
We jumped back in the boat and moved on to the first of the show caves, the Wind Cave. The cave is aptly named since a cool breeze wafts through at one point. But, in general, I found the whole experience a little underwhelming.
The next cave was more impressive. The Clearwater Cave is one of the world’s biggest cave systems. More than 200km of cave have been navigated and there is still more to explore. The average tourist gets to see about 300m. The cave has some fairly impressive stalagmites and stalactites, but the best view comes at the end just before you exit. The entrance of the cave is gargantuan and the view is hugely impressive and a little bit ominous. Laura likened it to the Mines of Moria from Lord of the Rings. Check the photo above. She definitely has a point.
In the late afternoon, we grabbed a key from the security desk and climbed up the Tree Top Tower. This huge structure gets you right up among the trees. It’s a fine spot to check out the epiphytes that cling to larger trees. It would probably be a great spot for birders very early in the morning. We saw no birds but got a nice view of a tiny green lizard feeding his face on bugs up in the canopy.
Gunung Mulu Day Three
Those who suffer from vertigo will probably want to give the Canopy Walkway a miss. Unlike the walkway at the Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sepilok, which is a robust metal structure firmly bolted to the ground, the Mulu Walkway is truly Tarzan style. The rope bridges literally swing between giant trees. The tour is guided with a maximum of 8 people. Only two people are allowed on any bridge at one time and only four people max on any of the platforms attached to trees. In essence, this means you move through the walkway pretty quickly. Lingering on the bridges was not fun, so moving quickly was no big deal. In fact, lingering anywhere is fairly tricky. The walkway is not a place to hang out and look for animals or linger over a great jungle photo. I wouldn’t say it was an adrenaline pumping adventure but it gets the heart pumping. Overall, it was a curious experience. The overall memory is more vertigo rather than nature watching.
On the walk up to the canopy the guide introduced us to the bomb ants. They have a symbiotic relationship with the tree they call home. When the tree is under threat the ants go on the attack. They have a vicious little bite. But, to double the agony the ants explode on the bite covering it in noxious chemicals. Truly Kamikaze! The jungle gets weirder and weirder!
In the afternoon, we went on a 3.5km guided walk to the Lang and Deer Caves. Lang Cave was my favorite Mulu experience. It is a beautiful otherworldly place. It looks like a set for Alien designed by HR Giger. The lower ceiling gave a more claustrophobic feel than other caves, but the rock formations were truly mind blowing.
Deer Cave is a place to endure rather than enjoy. The ammoniac stench of bat guano hits you before you even enter. The cave is huge. The walkway winds in between mountains of bat poop. There are some curious cave dwellers within. Sticky worms dangle spindly gossamer threads to capture bugs that fly by. Phosphorescent centipedes wriggle around the poop piles. The cave comes to an abrupt halt at a platform overlooking the entrance to the so-called Valley of Eden, a lushly forested river valley. I am not sure I would like to scramble over guano covered boulders and swim through narrow channels of chilly water to get there, but it is on offer if that appeals. It did look beautiful from afar.
The main event, though, is the bat exodus. It usually occurs between 5.30 and 6.30pm. The bats swirl around the exit before streaming out in corkscrew patterns. This curious behavior helps protect the bats from the predatory hawks that lurk around the cave entrance. The bats come out in short bursts. It is an extraordinary sight. The stats are even more staggering. Three million bats consume 30 tonnes of bugs every night. You won’t get too much hassle from mosquitoes in Mulu. Now you know why!
Gunung Mulu certainly delivers. The caves were spectacular. The jungle was pristine and beautiful. The locals are friendly. The guides are knowledgeable. You can explore the park swinging between trees, atop a huge tower, in the dark, below the ground, and on the water. Even the National Park cafe serves up tasty and affordable meals. So, why didn’t it hit my top ten list or truly blow my mind?
The heat and humidity. It is unbearable day and night. We have tolerated extreme conditions on this trip. 54 degrees Celsius in Ashgabat all the way down to minus 20 degrees in Gokyo. But, somehow Gunung Mulu’s humid climate was the toughest for us. Sit still. Sweat. Sleep. And, sweat. Shower. Then, sweat! Ha! Maybe we should have sucked it up and stayed at the Mulu Marriott. But, that would be cheating, right?