Mulu is absolutely breathtaking, surrounded by green undulating hills and rustic wooden houses everywhere you turn
A shiny kek batik-like hammerhead flatworm
Rapid shooting along the Melinau River is such a delightful experience
The enticing Clearwater River that makes for a satisfying swim
The gorgeous neon green juvenile pit viper snake. Careful, it's very dangerous!
The 480m-long Mulu Canopy Skywalk, which is suspended 10-30 metres above the forest floor
The Penan Longhouse Market at Kampung Batu Bungan. Great place to find Penan handicrafts
The national park has many fig trees, providing food for the birds and other forest animals
The outside of Deer Cave

Gunung Mulu National Park is home to a lush equatorial rainforest, stupefying caves and karst formations, writes Nova Renata

MY trip to Mulu is an afterthought. Like many Malaysians, I often think about yonder places such as Europe and Australia first when planning a trip. I’ve taken for granted the fact that for decades, Borneo has been attracting thousands, if not millions, of tourists and researchers alike to our lush rainforest and azure seas.

In my bid to go local and be more economical on my next travel adventure, I picked Mulu as my destination. Coincidentally, flipping through the Borneo edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook one day, the writer quoted Mulu as the must-go place in Borneo. The recommendation piqued my curiosity even more.

Luckily, Mulu is a mere 50-minute flight away from Kota Kinabalu (via MASwings). I soon find myself landing at the small-ish Mulu airport, surrounded by the verdant limestone hills that adorn the rest of Mulu.

BORNEAN CHARM

Situated in the Miri Division in the state of Sarawak, Mulu town is secluded and remote from the main city, as there are no connecting roads between them. The only means of transportation from Mulu to Miri are via air and water. The nearest town to Mulu is Marudi, which is nearly five hours away via speedboat.

Its location proves to bear both positive and negative effects on the town. Positive as it preserves the Mulu’s pristine state -- probably like how it was in the 1960s and 70s -- with hardly any cars on the road and beautiful scenery. I also find out, much to my amusement, that the town doesn’t have an ATM machine.

However, it is not such a problem for the locals as they basically source their food supplies from the jungle and there’s practically nothing else to spend money on -- no shopping mall, cinema, karaoke bar, etc.

On the other hand, what’s negative is that town still relies on individual gensets for electricity (there’s usually no electricity during the day, until 6pm), water supply is pumped in from the river, and network coverage is virtually nonexistent.

On top of that, due to the limited means of transportation, goods in general also tend to be more expensive. So, if you’re travelling to Mulu on a tight budget, you may want to stock up on food and beverage supplies from home. Nonetheless, every sen you spend in Mulu will go back to the native community.

The highlight of Mulu is Gunung Mulu National Park, a 528.64-square kilometre protected area, which is also a Unesco World Heritage Site. The national park encompasses an awe-inspiring equatorial rainforest, as well as an impressive range of caves and karst formations.

Named after Gunung Mulu (2,376m) -- the second highest peak in Sarawak -- Gunung Mulu National Park is mainly renowned for its extensive cave networks, dagger-sharp rock pinnacles, cliffs and gorges.

Mulu also offers a bag of treats for those interested to encounter birds, insects, amphibians and other smaller animals. In the four days I spend at the national park, trekking various trails, I am lucky enough to spot the brightly coloured hammerhead worm (bipalium), an adorable and swift-moving pygmy squirrel, isopods, a juvenile pit viper, and the gorgeous Rajah Brooke birdwing butterfly (Trogonoptera brookiana) ...to name a few, and many of which are endemic to Mulu.

The national park itself is teeming with activity for its visitors, from a tour to the four showcaves (Lang, Deer, Winds and Clearwater), to a semi-leisure and semi-adventurous Fast Lane Cave tour, to the more thrilling adventure caving tours which are divided into beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.

Of course, there are also options to climb up to the peak of Gunung Mulu and the Pinnacles climb. For the best experience, it’s recommended to stay in Mulu for at least five days and four nights.

DEER AND LANG CAVES

For the first-time Mulu visitor, your first initiation usually begins with a tour of the Deer and Lang Caves (paid guided tour to be booked at the Park Office, which is also the default starting point) that leaves at 2pm and 2.30pm daily.

The journey to the Deer and Lang caves takes 45 minutes to an hour, depending on your strides and whether or not you encounter anything picture-worthy on the way. The first stop of this tour is the Lang Cave.

Located in the Southern Hills area of the national park, the Lang Cave is the smallest of the four showcaves. It is mostly known for its impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations, most notably the jellyfish formation that makes the chamber appear like the interior of an ancient cathedral. Other formations to note are the helictites, shawls and rimstone pools.

Geologically, the formation of the Lang Cave is influenced by the action of standing groundwater that dissolves the limestone, rather than being eroded by an active stream passage. This causes the ceiling to become flat with some notches in the walls. The formations are said to have occurred over the past 30 to 40 million years ago and are forming still.

The Deer Cave is one of the highlights of the national park, being the biggest showcave in Mulu, as well as the largest cave passage in the world. In the past, an underground river used to flow through the cave, dissolving and eroding the limestone to create the existing space. The Deer Cave is also home to some three million bats that attach themselves to the cave ceiling.

If you climb to the top of the cave’s platform, you will be able to see a lush green garden in the distance. This garden is called the Garden of Eden, which can be visited if you sign up for the Garden of Eden valley walk. It is said that a beautiful waterfall lies hidden within this beautiful garden. It is a great place to have a picnic and a cold dip, but beware of leeches!

The spectacular bat exodus takes place outside Deer Cave from 4.30 to 6pm daily. The bat exodus is when the three million resident bats in the Deer Cave go out from the cave in long corkscrew ribbons. The bats leave the cave every evening in order to feed and only return in the morning, producing lots and lots of fresh guano (droppings), which can be used as fertiliser.

CAVES OF WATER AND WINDS

The Clearwater and Winds Cave tour is my favourite tour by far. Departing at 8.45am and 9.15am daily, this tour takes you rapid shooting along Melinau River, passing through the settlement of the native Penan community and making a pit stop at the Penan Longhouse Market at Batu Bungan before exploring the caves.

The first cave stop is the Cave of the Winds where you will feel a cool breeze as you walk through it. Like the rest of the showcaves, the Cave of the Winds was formed by an active river that ran through it years ago. The dried-up river passage leads to the King’s Chamber, named after a prominent display of stalagmites and columns that appear to look like a king and his henchmen standing in his chamber.

The Clearwater Cave is five minutes’ boat ride away from the Cave of the Winds. It is named after the Clearwater River that surrounds and flows through it. Going to the Clearwater Cave takes a bit of a hike but the view inside it is absolutely stunning! If you choose to experience a bit more of the Clearwater Cave, sign up for the Clearwater Revival or the Clearwater Connection advanced package.

The highlight of this tour is the enticing Clearwater river that invites you to swim in it. At the end of the guided tour, I and several friends I made at the park hurry down the staircase and plunge into the water for a dip. It is that beautiful!

NATURE WALKS AND CANOPY SKYWALK

In case you plan on discovering the national park solo, there’s an unguided trail that you can embark on, i.e. without a guide. You can make your way to the Paku Waterfall for a cool dip in the afternoon, or learn more about the unique plants of Borneo along the Botanical Heritage Trail and Kenyalang Loop. Just be sure to inform the security guard in charge of the trail you’re exploring lest you get lost.

For avid birdwatchers, a visit to the Tree Top Tower and Mulu Canopy Skywalk is a must. On good days, you may encounter one or several of the eight species of hornbills found in Mulu, as well as other treetop dwellers like the green crested lizard (Bronchocela cristatella).

TRAVEL TIPS

AT 30 metres above sea level, the humidity level in Mulu is quite high. Be sure to pack thin clothing and drink plenty of water.

● If you are looking for cheaper accommodation options, threare many homestay and bed and breakfast options just outside the park. Mulu Village is a popular option, you can make your inquiries/bookings at www.muluvillage.com

● As network coverage is poor or nonexistent, the only place to use Wi-Fi in Mulu is at the national park -- for RM5 per day

● For caving activite s,l equipment is provided. However, you still have to bring along your own torchlight/headlight and raincoat.

● Not too keen on caves? You can explore the rest of Mulu on a bicycle. Some homestays provide bicycle rental for RM5 per day.

●There are fairly limited places to eat out when in Mulu, but do check out one unnamed small roadside stall -- located about two minutes’ walk from the Mulu Marriott -- that serves the best barbecue chicken wings and laksa in Mulu! The stall only opens after 6pm but you can expect a crowd waiting in line by 5.30pm.

Pictures by Nova Renata

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