A three day adventure exploring one of the biggest cave systems in the world, and climbing up to The Pinnacles, a unique karst formation in Mulu National Park.
Getting to Mulu is the first challenge… I’d organised the 4D3N itinerary a month ago through Tropical Adventure Tours & Travel (who were very efficient and easy to deal with), then booked two MASwings flights from KL connecting via Kuching. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, having stumbled across The Pinnacles Trail on a “top hikes in Malaysia” Web site while researching potential walking destinations for my next work trip. The second MASwing flight flying over what seems to be never-ending jungle before landing in the very small town of Mulu… it starts to give a sense of the adventure ahead.
Mulu is the “gateway” to Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which encompasses caves and karst formations in a mountainous rainforest setting. (The national park is named after Mount Mulu, the second highest mountain in Sarawak.) It feels very remote – before the opening of the airport in 1991, access took 12 hours by riverboat covering the 100km to the nearest town of Miri.
I’m hoping someone will be at the airport meet us, having arranged the trip via a few emails, and my fears are quickly allayed as we are met by our friendly guide at the small airport. We (I’m travelling with Hanna, a work colleague) are taken in a rather battered vehicle to our lodging a few kilometres away at Benarat Inn. It’s very basic accommodation (a couple of mattresses on the floor and a ceiling fan!). With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been preferable to stay within the Mulu National Park, which has bungalows as well as a shared dormitory option.
We head off reasonably early on the following day for a tour of Deer Cave and Lang Cave, which is a short car ride away followed by a slightly longer walk . After crossing the Melinau river just after the national park headquarters, the boardwalk enters into fairly thick jungle for it’s 3km length.
The area has been recognised for it’s high bio-diversity, and our guide is soon pointing out some of the smaller animals that inhabit the park.
The national park also has seventeen vegetation zones and over 3,500 species of vascular plants (according to Google a vascular plant is one that has “the vascular tissues xylem and phloem”, which doesn’t really help much!). But it means we see a number of interesting plants along the track.
It takes less than hour to reach Lang (or Langs) Cave, which looks pretty impressive despite being one of the smallest caves in the park. The cave was named after a guide who led a research expedition in the 1970s.
While comparatively small in size, the stalactites and stalagmites are representative of the very best limestone formations in the Mulu cave system. There’s all sorts of shapes and sizes among the thousands of stalactites / stalagmites; our guide explains some of the more interesting ones. Including an interesting formation that I discover later frequently features in examples of phallic rock art!
For a “small cave”, it’s still fairly large and takes about 45min to walk through… allowing a fair few photo stops. (Tripods are not allowed without prior permission – so bring a “gorilla pod” or something small you can use to rest a camera on.)
Eventually we emerge back into daylight, with the boardwalk continuing under towering cliffs to the next cave…
The Deer Cave is over 2km long and 174m high (at no point is the roof of the cave lower than 90m in height) and was the world’s largest cave passage open to the public, until the discovery of Sơn Đoòng cave in Vietnam . (A survey of the caves in 2009 increased the known passage length to 4.1km and established that Deer Cave was connected to Lang Cave.)
Also known as Gua Payau or Gua Rusa, the cave was named by the local Penan and Berawan people due to the fact that deer used to shelter within the cave and lick the salt-bearing rocks.
The main chamber is 174 meters wide and 122 meters high; natural light still reaches this first cavern, and there are glimpses of the rainforest outside.
You start to appreciate the magnitude of the cave, as the boardwalk follows the side of the vast cavern. It’s hard to convey the size in a photo… I’ve never really been a “cave person”, but walking through here was an amazing experience!
We frequently stop as our guide points out different cave features (or patiently waits for me as I set-up the camera for another long-exposure photo!). The photo below doesn’t really do justice to the sight of waterfalls cascading from the ceiling over 120m above us.
The cave leads to the Garden of Eden, a hidden valley and waterfall. A karst valley or sinkhole with a volume of 150 million cubic meters, the one kilometre wide, circular depression is encircled by 150–300m tall limestone walls. The bottom is covered with rainforest.
On the way back from the Garden of Eden (the furthest point we go), our guide points out the guano or bat poo from the two million to three million bats belonging to 12 species which inhabit the cave – more than in any other single cave in the world. The guano can be metres deep and is part of the cave ecosystem (the poo supports the growth of fungus, which feeds insects, which in turn supports the larger animals living in the cave). It’s probably worth mentioning that this also does contribute to a strong and not particularly pleasant smell – although it didn’t really bother us.
On the way out, a silhouette of Abraham Lincoln oversees our exit from the cave.
We finish our tour of Deer Cave around 4:30pm, and make our (short) way to the Bat Observatory for the final attraction of the day… A small clearing in the jungle, with a couple of rows of seats, provides the viewing area for the (literally) millions of bats that stream out of Deer Cave in the early evening. Except when it’s raining! Fortunately the skies are clear today. There are a few people here although it’s not crowded; during our two cave tours we saw less than five people.
It’s an impressive spectacle, appearing like a never-ending plume of smoke that rises and spirals above the cliffs that surround the clearing! (Apparently it lasts about two hours: we stay about 45min and there’s no sign of the “bat-cloud” abating.)
The twisting and constantly changing trajectory of the bats is designed to avoid the bat hawks that are perched on the surrounding cliffs. It’s thought the bats travel up to 100km from the cave to feed before returning in the early morning, collectively eating 30 tonnes of mosquitoes and other flying insects every night.
As the light fades (we have our head torches with us), we head back along the boardwalk to the Mulu National Park entrance after a fantastic first day in Mulu.
Today (Day 2) is when the real adventure begins, as we head up the Melinau River towards the start of the walk to The Pinnacles. We load up and “board” our water transport not far from our accommodation, near some village longhouses.
The water is deep and calm, as we make our way at a good speed up the river (that will change a little later in the day!)
First stop is Wind Cave (only about 15min away – you can also walk here along 1.4km boardwalk from the park headquarters), named for the cool breezes blowing through it which we can feel as we climb up the first set of steel steps. It’s part of the massive Clearwater Cave system. Again, we have the caves to ourselves today.
The section of the cave we are walking through is not at large at yesterday’s Lang Cave, but is equally impressive as the boardwalks climbs and winds through the many rock formations. Part of the way in, a skylight high above us lets in some natural light.
One of the larger chambers within Wind Cave is dubbed King’s Room, with huge columns of stone including stalactites, stalagmites, flowrocks, helitites and rock corals on both the ceiling and the floor.
Exiting the cave, we follow a boardwalk perched above the Melinau River that connects the Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave (they do also interconnect underground, and it is possible to book a “Clearwater Connection” circuit of about 8km that enters by Wind Cave and exits by the Clearwater River Cave, offering six hours of walking, scrambling, crawling and squeezing.)
Clearwater Cave held the title of the longest cave system in Southeast Asia until the late 1980s, with a length of approximately 51km explored between 1978 and 1988. Since then, further expeditions have expanded the total (known) length to 222.09km, making Clearwater the largest interconnected cave system in the world by volume and the 8th longest cave in the world. The cave welcomes us with a massive group of stalactites covered in monophytes (single-leafed plants that are endemic to the park and found only in Mulu).
The entrance to this cave is massive, with sunlight penetrating the first chamber we walk through, feeling rather small compared to the cavern we’re in!
Not far into Wind Cave, we cross a crystal-clear subterranean river which has travelled through the cave for over 170km. The smooth, curved walls above the river show the power of the river in flood, which has carved a massive groove into the cave walls.
Further into the cave, our guide points out some phytokarst, a phenomenon where speleothems or speleogens (mineral deposits) orient towards the sunlight coming from a a skylight above.
While our Clearwater Cave tour only covers about 0.5% of the total length of the system, it’s given us an appreciation of the beauty and size of the caves.
It’s now about midday, so a steep set of 200 steps takes us down to a picnic area and our lunch spot, where’s there a crystal clear pool that is filled by water that flows out of the cave. A great spot for lunch – and a swim in the pool.
Getting to Camp 5
We continue up the Melinau River after our lunch… it gets a bit more adventurous as we continue upstream. As the water level drops, I jump out and help our guides push the boat through the shallower sections of the rivers. Every so often the engine stalls. I’m not convinced we’ll make it. The guides seem pretty nonplussed by it all, as the engine splutters along and the bottom of the longboat scrapes along the rocks at the bottom of the river…
…eventually, we do reach the start of the track to The Pinnacles at Kuala Litut. From here we walk about 8km through the jungle along the along the Litut river to Melinau Camp (Camp 5).
It’s a pleasant jungle walk, taking a bit under three hours to reach Camp 5. Our destination for today, the camp will be our starting point for the last part of the hike up to The Pinnacles the following morning.
We stay in a very basic dormitory, right by the Litut River. Meals are included as part of our itinerary, so there’s not much to do but relax, and have an early night in preparation for the next day’s climb.
It’s an early start the next day. The climb to the Pinnacles is short but hard, climbing about 1200m over 2.4km. The first few hundred metres is fairly flat, and then the climbing starts. There are many sections of rope to help ascend the sometimes very slippery track. We need to reach the first “checkpoint” at 400m within an hour, which we comfortably do.
It gets progressively steeper for the next two sections, as the track ascends from 400m to 1000m. More sections of rope and metal rungs in the rocks provide some assistance. My work colleague, Hanna, is now questioning the sanity of climbing a jungle-covered mountain peak. I’m not sure she’ll ever be joining me on another walk…
There isn’t a lot of interesting vegetation along the way; I haven’t seen any pitcher plants as others have observed, but this little mushroom among the green moss looks quite photogenic!
As we get to the final, steepest section, we start on the first of the 16 ladders that go up the most vertical rock faces.
When we get to about 1,135m, there’s a brief opening in the jungle with views over the surrounding area. Or, there would be views on a less cloudy day…
There’s now just 100m left to go (and 65m vertical climb) to the viewing platform…
Finally, after about three hours of solid climbing, we reach the platform at 1200m elevation, overlooking the Pinnacles.
Located on the side of Mount Api (Gunung Api), one of the three mountains in Mulu Park, they are a series of 45 meters high, limestone spikes that are clearly visible above the surrounding vegetation. It’s quite a surreal sight,
Going down is much quicker than going up… but just as tough, and I’m glad to reach the bottom at around 1pm. Although I’d read reports saying many people don’t make it to the top, everyone who left this morning successfully completed the ascent.
Arriving a bit before the rest of the group, I has time to explore the area around Camp 5, walking up the river about 500m toward the the Melinau Gorge. Not too far from the camp is a beautiful swimming hole and cascades.
Back to Mulu
The next day, we head back along the 8km track to Kuala Litut, where we hope a boat will be coming to pick us up, and take us back downstream to Mulu.
It’s a much quicker trip downstream, with the river current pushing us through the shallow sections that presented a challenge two days ago.
We leave on an afternoon flight, back to KL and then onto Sydney. I’ve really enjoyed my three days in Mulu. I think Hanna has too, although she’s still not talking to me (no, not really, despite sore legs she enjoyed the trip. I think!)
|Location||Mulu National Park in Sarawak, Malaysia. Access by MASwings flights from Miri, Kuching or Kota Kinabalu (2-3 hours from KL)|
|Distance||Caves tours are about 7km in distance
Pinnacles trek is 21km over two days
|Grade||Hard (very steep/slippery in sections with ropes & ladders)|
|Season/s||All year. Best time is considered to be July, but there is high rainfall all year around. We went in March (one of the highest rainfall months) and experienced almost no rain.|
|Notes & Tips||