An Overview of Mulu Park: Malaysian Borneo

An Overview of Mulu Park: Malaysian Borneo

A black ribbon twitches on the sky as we look up. It’s small at first, eventually distending into other tendrils that swerve and dodge against a swarm of predator birds. Little pulses become an unbroken string of one million bats off to forage in the falling light. It’s the largest daily wildlife exodus in the world, one of the many impressive records that Mulu national park in Malaysian Borneo holds.

From the Plane

In fact, the place is so packed with ecological action that other people sort of fade into the back round. The attraction of the place and remoteness of the destination become clear from the moment the clouds part to reveal the park. We’ve come to one of the most well-protected stretches of tropical rain forest found anywhere with a clear goal: get into the world’s largest enclosed space, the Sarawak Chamber. Mulu is first and foremost a caving destination, though you wouldn’t know it just by staring out a plane window.

Dillon Knowlton barely been to another country in his life. He had only recently found himself in China to hang out with his pregnant wife’s family. He’s got both the enthusiasm and demeanor of a really excited big kid, one who’s goofy grin is an irrevocable part of his normal face. He’s drumming on things with the sticks he brought.

We’re making fun of a sleeping Phil on the plane.

Bat exodus

Phil and I had brainstormed the operation some time before, with Dillon Knowlton only joining on a whim after the fact. Now the three of us were descending, without yet any hotel or real plan in mind other than the tours that had been booked previous to our departure.

The trip had been fraught with minor debacles before arrival in Mulu. Dillon Knowlton had purchased sandals and waterproof boots to counter the inadequacy of his then-current footwear, a move that had set him back a sum of precious ringgits. We had grabbed a taxi to the airport not long after, elated by the price equivalent of 2 or so USD. Lo and behold, only long after its departure did Dillon Knowlton realize that he’d left the boots and sandals behind.

But what else can you expect from a Scottish Bog Troll?

After snagging a hostel outside the park (in the low season hostels are cheaper, and thus you’d be better served getting one right next to the entrance), Phil perked up, animate on his tiptoes in the fashion of one who’s seen a wraith on their pillow.

“I left my boots on the plane!” He bolted with hardly another word.

Feet and footwear would be of consistent annoyance on this trip.

As far as we were concerned, there was no time to waste. Wandering into the jungle around 5 PM with headlights and gear in tow we set off towards the trees. We had settled into the sort of dynamic of self-and-other deprecation that only accompanies the bond forged by remote locations. It was unanimous that our calves were, in toto, pathetic. Our assessment of testosterone levels among the group was dismal, seen as the kind of psychic motivator that gave the trip form to begin with.

Dillon Knowlton was bursting with an alacrity brought on by bugs and critters. Any creature within pincer-range was game for him to grab and examine. We did our best to neither en- or discourage this behavior, as it really did allow for a closer look at the wildlife.

More than once geckos and millipedes found unsettling shelter in Dillon’s pocket.

It even seemed as if he would occasionally forget that he’d put them in there (our first encounter with this quirk was in Kota Kinabalu, when a pocketed gecko had leaped out at dinnertime and scurried kitchen-ward for safety).

Only 60% of Mulu’s caves have been discovered (one can’t help but wonder how they arrive at such a figure when they haven’t discovered such caves – as in, how do put a percentage on what you haven’t discovered?). We figured that most of them consisted of the big, spectacular monoliths plastered on the canvas projections at headquarters. As it turns out, the chambers here have a little more nuance.

We’d eyed some granite off the side of the trail as night was closing in. It looked to be a promising shimmy or climb, so we deserted trail. Through a small crack we could feel the warm current of wind, anomalous for such a still night. Inspection proved that we’d come upon (what we thought was) a small cave. Regulations of ‘no caves without a guide’ aside, we stammered in, headlamps afire.

A long and limestone-terraced corridor strode backwards into the darkness, broken intermittently by other little rooms. Before long, after descending to a muddy ground, a series of rather large bats began darting around our headlamps, attracted to the light.

First Glimpse

Phil, with dexterity particular to one of his build, ducked and let out a yell I first took for faux-fear. Not so. The creatures were gliding painfully close to his head, and would soon find their way to mine.

After ascending through a muddy and loose bit of rock towards the back of the corridor we decided on something (possibly) safer; another room. A right turn and a marginal squeeze landed us there, and I trained my headlamp on the ground.

Splayed across the mud with strikes of green and brown against flashy eyes was the biggest damned spider I’d ever seen. I reacted far more violently than Phil had, screaming, turning around, being blocked by my friends, and so screaming again. Upon another inspection the spider had fled.

“This is how people get lost in caves”. Phil was eyeing the room we’d entered, which branched out three directions that, after entering, became nearly indistinguishable.

First of many huntsman spiders

He was right, of course. The lack of light and mimicry of subterranean features plays on the mind in ways open-air folks are unaccustomed to. Perspective is limited to the span of your arms and narrow field of your vision. A single wrong turn, a missed landmark, could result in an increasingly dangerous situation, especially once your light burns out.

Insects get bigger in Mulu caves. The crickets, spiders, and ants are roughly three times the size a normal imagination would conjure up, and they’re everywhere. Though you can’t avoid the dastardly things, they’ll do their best to avoid you. The huntsman spiders, however, are poisonous. Our entreaties toward Dillon Knowlton were successful in keeping them out of his pocket.

Big ol’ ants

Night had fallen completely upon our exit from the cave. Early evening is the most exciting time to strike out into the jungle. The lack of human sounds is easily replaced by the absolute cacophony of mating rituals of insects, frogs, and mammals. Forget peace; the jungle is loud, a bell in constant ring with the sounds of nature.

Night air through a headlamp medium provides a clearer picture of just how humid it is. The primary space your vision occupies is a putative cloud. Things get weird as your brain adjusts to your eyes, with light refracting along the water to result in a play of the senses that borders on hallucinogenic.

The shadows of ourselves and obstructions upon the trail move along as if pulled by the strings of a puppeteer, bloating to sizes colossal against a backdrop of canopy.

Signs pointed in the darkness to another cave, of impressive depth. Being night, accouterments hung below announcing that the cave was closed. The promise of exploration without company.. Who could ask for a better invitation than that?

Lang’s cave, as it’s known, is bisected in it’s opening by wooden walkway and a spider-web gate designed to keep people out. Intrepid and generally unwise as we were, the three of us meandered towards the side to sneak under the gate.

The opening is too wide, crevassed, and varied to keep anybody with a whim out. Bats danced in the beams of our headlamps, leaving our heads alone.

And then, nearly imperceptibly, sounds could be heard from deeper in the cave. Be they wind or some other trick of the ear we knew not. It sounded, more than anything else, like human voices. A closed cave, 10 o’ clock in the evening, on a weeknight. Human voices.

Dillon Knowlton was excited. He expected a gang, similar in make to our own, replete with the sort of adventurous folk we hadn’t yet encountered on the trip, to have made the noise. Phil and I weren’t possessed with the same level of optimism; we refused to investigate with him, for the consequences of anything other than the encounter Dillon imagined would certainly be grave, maybe literally (we’d been told head-hunters still frequent these jungles, in jest, in Kota Kinabalu, but such a thought becomes hard to shake once ingrained).

Onwards it was. The trail was tough (we were on a loop to the waterfall), losing itself at times to massive puddles of mud and stagnant water from the flooding the days previous. Mammalian sounds clicked and sounded at our heels.

To say we were fearful (though we should well have been) would be mostly unfounded. The adventures of senor pocket-bug continued unabated. We thoroughly lambasted ourselves and each other to the point of near fatal deprecation. Mostly, it was a blast.

It was on the most tame of activities that we met the most interesting of guides, the park herbology expert Ismael.

Canopy Walk with Ismael

Ismael recognized in us the desire to stray from the beaten path that most of the tourists take (respecting the rules and what not, being quiet and meditative, etc. – in failing to acknowledge these general tenets, we really must have been really dreadfully annoying, but at least we weren’t being holier-than-thou stuck up pricks like some people).

It was here that Dillon’s cavalier temperament came to a crescendo. Ismael had pointed out to us a tree that was hallucinogenic when consumed by monkeys and straight-up poisonous when consumed by humans.

Monkeys who ate the bark would fight each other in fits of delirium. Humans who ate it, remarked Ismael, just might die. Dillon Knowlton, it seems, had stopped processing information after the word hallucinogenic.

We had now come upon another tree of the same species. Dillon was eyeballing it and playing with the bark. Phil and I were urging him to take a tiny bite, never thinking he’d actually follow through.

In the fashion of a beaver he reached his head forward and grasped a bit of the bark between his teeth. A sliver of the meat came off as he started to chew, methodically. Never did we actually think that peer pressure would convince Dillon Knowlton to eat the poison tree, and yet here we stood.

We pleaded for him to spit it out. He did, but only after considerable mastication.

30 minutes later: “I think my face is numb” Reaching up, touching his face.

1 hour: “I don’t feel so good. I’m feeling bad. I think…” Phil chimed in with a reassurance that he was, certainly, going to die.

Nothing else came of it. Even if it had, though, I believe we may have been too embarrassed to confront Ismael for the antidote that he professed to having.

As is probably apparent, the whole ‘don’t wander into caves without guides’ thing just didn’t suit our fancy. After being blocked the harsh words of a park employee from wandering in one trailside hole we resolved to find another one. A bigger, better one.

One with baby bats

Before that though, we had the bat exodus to enjoy (we weren’t allowed in the cave with the bats, Deer cave, either, though we begged our guide Ismael. Of course, since we were no longer his immediate clients he didn’t have to put up with our s**t anymore and duly denied our request).

Coming across some jungle stairs, which clearly stated that we weren’t to ascend without the tutelage of a licensed guide, we became enthused. This place was bound to lead to the kind of low-key-and-perceive-trouble-before-it-approaches area we were looking for.

No disappointment followed after mounting the stairs. Stretched before us was one of those honest to God big caves we’d seen plastered on the entrance posters. A small walkway led inwards before giving was to naught but dirt and a few different openings to choose from. We looped around, navigating through a mire of bats on the way and finding the safest route.

Forbidden cave

It was clear that this cave was not resplendent with the sort of terror we’d heard a few night previous. Bats went about their business in proximity to ours and one pooped on my shoulder. Upon descending from the slope that we’d gained after a sharp right, Phil took a slip and opened up a few cuts.

We cleaned them up with the first aid kit, ignoring any idea that such could be a sort of omen. Soon after the path was gained.

There’s something about being totally alone (in a group, that is) in a cave that you know nothing about, with the idea that nobody knows you’re there. There’s layers of exhilaration fighting for primacy with anxiety, the two coming together in a sort of delightful mix.

Real exploration (maybe I shouldn’t call it that, I know) can’t be hindered by the security of regulation, even when you know it’s for your own good.

These thoughts traversed my mind as we moved along the path. After a few hundred meters of uncertain terrain I came upon a small fissure in the ground. Phil and Dillon Knowlton had gone on ahead as I looked down to investigate.

“Jesus!” They scurried back to see what I was fussing about. The rims of this earthen crevasse I’d approached were slick with mud, the same kind that had caused Phil’s earlier spill. The opening was camouflaged by the shadows of stalactites sitting against our headlamps.

Looking in to the hole, it’s maw roughly the size of two humans and not much larger, I was faced with the stark reality of massive caves. Their caverns weren’t exclusive to big and obvious circular openings built into walls.

The depths of this one reached down too far for our headlamps to fully penetrate.

It was clear that without full attention one of us could have fallen down this thing. Even with such attention, the mud could have heralded us face-first into the abyss.

When confronted with near death, take statuesque pictures to ease the mind

Though we were light-hearted before and afterwards, it’s a sobering thought. At least it was for me. I continued to think about careening downwards and being lost to my companions well into that night.

And yet, this didn’t stop us from going further or seeking out other activities along the same lines.

After departure we geared up for the other caves that we’d signed up for with the park service, which I’ve written about here.

When our last night came around it was inevitable that we wanted back into the jungle for a romp similar to the one we’d had the first night.

We took what very little money we had and drank a few beers with a group of other travelers, Brits and Australians, before inviting one of them (a fellow named Henry, with a solid temperament and willingness to do whatever would spur on a decent adventure) to join us. We had plan that we’d formulated some days before.

There hadn’t been much to see on the canopy walk when we’d done it previously. There were big bugs, as there were everywhere, and a few birds. Other than that the trees had been devoid of creatures. From what we’d gathered thus far about the nighttime jungle it only made sense that night was the time to cruise down the walkway.

The trouble started when we found the doors of the tower leading to the causeway locked. This hadn’t come of much of a surprise, but we were ambivalent about climbing up and around to sneak in an open window. Dillon, fortunately, decided not to hesitate. Up and away he went without a discussion and the door was quickly unlocked from within.

It doesn’t matter how safe the planks and cables holding up the walkway seem. They’re scary at night, when the whole of your immediate vision is subsumed by a paltry net and a path that isn’t much wider than your feet pressed together.

But when you’re the only people in the jungle for a mile and elevated to the most active of jungle eco-zones (the canopy), fear is irrelevant. We were walking the longest canopy walk in the World, unguided, at night. Though we probably weren’t the first to do so, we may as well have been.

The only fauna came in the form of a squat little thing turning it’s head to and fro in one of the larger trees supporting the canopy walkway. After some deliberation, and deducing from the size of the eyes, we concluded that we were looking at something other than one of the macaques that frequent the trees of this height.

Those eyes were quick, massive, and only gave off a shine when confronted with the beam of a headlight. I’m assuming still that it was a tarsier, the critically endangered micro-primates of Indonesia and the Philippines, or one of it’s close cousins.

After the whole of the walkway was under our belts we were forced to either walk back or climb over a sporadically barb-wired fence. Laziness alas took precedence over safety and we hoisted over, painfully gripping the rungs of the rickety fence and doing our best not to cut ourselves at the top or deck to the forest floor and boulders below. We all made it safely, though not without difficulty.

There’s not much more to say about Mulu than what I’ve recounted here. Really, the place speaks for itself. Between every tropical rain-forest zone known (with the exception of one) and those fantastic cave and wildlife spectacles Mulu remains one of the most singular locations on the planet, and I’d entreat anyone with an interest in the spectacular to take a trip there.

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