Mt Rufus and Little Hugel

 

A spectacular circuit that combines Shadow Lake and Forgotten Lake with an ascent of Mt Rufus (1,416m asl) and a side-trip to Little Hugel (1,274m asl). Two mountain peaks, alpine lakes, rainforest and incredible displays of flowering heath.  

My second walk during our stay at Lake St Clair Lodge: this time just Amy is joining me, as we tackle the Mt Rufus Circuit (another Tasmanian “Great Short Walk”)! It’s overcast as we set out, taking the most direct route up to Mt Rufus.

The track climbs fairly consistently but never steeply, with the vegetation changing from eucalypt forest with towering trees to cool temperate rainforest in the gullies.

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It takes us about an hour to reach the junction with the Shadow Lake Track, which means we’re a bit of over half the distance and almost half the elevation gain. Unfortunately, while it’s not raining, it looks like there is low cloud over Mt Rufus.

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From the junction the track heads more or less directly ahead to the mountain ridge, through sub-alpine snowgum forest.

The good news is that it looks like the clouds are clearing, with the long summit ridge of Mt Rufus visible ahead of us.

As we reach the valley below the ridge, there’s an incredible display of flowering heath – Richea Scoparia – a species of flowering plant that’s endemic to Tasmania. I later learn that the flowers are sought out by wallabies to eat, although the plants themselves are fairly prickly.

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After the “field of flowers” the track climbs steeply up to the base of the summit ridge – we’re feeling a bit unprepared as we encounter a few other hikers in serious wet weather gear. Below us is Lake St Clair, with the view sometimes improving as we gain altitude – and sometimes vanishing altogether in the clouds.

Finally we reach the exposed ridge that leads up to the Mt Rufus peak – it’s cold and windy as we follow the path up to a summit that we can’t actually see anymore!

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I’d like to say the view from the Mt Rufus summit (at 1,416m elevation) was amazing… but visibility was limited to about 20m, with the cloud having closed in. We didn’t stay long. But on a clear you should be rewarded with “outstanding views of Lake St Clair, Mt Olympus, Frenchmans Cap and the headwaters of the Franklin River”.

We soldier on, keen to get out out of the driving wind. The track is still fairly exposed, although at least we’re now descending the ridge line that tracks north towards Mt Hugel. The terrain consists of a layer of sandstone (almost 300 million years old) through which magma intruded up (165 million years ago) to form dolerite, which covered the sandstone layer.

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Despite – or perhaps because of? – the low cloud and mist, this part of the walk is incredibly scenic. There’s another field of flowers stretching into the distance as the track reaches the saddle between Mt Rufus and Mt Hugel.

Behind us, still in cloud, is the Mt Rufus summit.

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Ahead of us the Mt Rufus Track crosses the saddle: with its top in the clouds is Mount Hugel (1,357m asl) and to the left is the Cheyne Range. (There’s no marked trail to the Mount Hugel summit but there are informal tracks – a peak for a future Tassie trip!) We’re only a few kilometres from the source of the Franklin River, which begins its 120km journey from just below Mount Hugel.

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As the track continues to gradually descend, there are some interesting sandstone rock formations, sculpted by many years of wind and rain.

It’s quite an impressive vista looking out to the north towards Mount Hugel.

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The duckboard track swings to the east around the base of Mount Hugel (the rocky summit is now largely clear of the clouds and doesn’t seem too formidable to climb)!

The valley below the saddle between Mt Rufus and Mt Hugel is known as Richea Valley, named after the scoparia plants…

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…and pandani that grow here in profusion.

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This is my favourite part of the walk so far, with a combination of eucalypt forest in the background and alternating sections of pandani and flowering heath. The pandani (Richea pandanifolia) is found only in Tasmania and is the largest heath plant in the world (it has no relation to the pandanus palms of tropical Australia and South-east Asia).

As the track descends through the valley, the vegetation gradually changes with a section of cool temperate rainforest and a multitude of Myrtle Beech. There’s some huge trees both upright and fallen!

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There’s a final rainforesty-section as the track reaches the edge of the forested area.

The track then crosses a broad plain, covered with low but dense heath: fortunately there’s grassy path. It would be very slow-going to get through this vegetation without a track. Behind us (bottom left) is the still cloud-covered summit of Mount Hugel.

Having reached the other side of the wide valley, the track ascends gently past a couple of tarns before it reaches the junction with the Shadow Lake Track.

We soon reach the edge of Shadow Lake, and then the track that heads to Forgotten Lake and Little Hugel. It’s a tough choice: continue back to Lake St Clair – or attempt our second summit for the day and hopefully this time have a clear view!

Forgotten Lake and Little Hugel

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We decide to take the detour and head towards Forgotten Lake. The track follows the edge of Shadow Lake, with Little Hugel in the background.

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Up to Forgotten Lake it’s easy walking (although I read later it can get muddy after rain) – the only challenge we have is making sure we don’t step on the many lizards who are basking on the boardwalk.

Once we reach Forgotten Lake, the “track” becomes a “walking route”. We start climbing, quite gently at first, through a forest of pandani, myrtle, deciduous beech and snow
gums.

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There’s frequent orange triangles marking the route, although it’s fairly easy to follow.

It gets progressively steeper through denser rainforest, until we reach the start of the boulders and scree. The summit is directly ahead. (My mum tells me that “hügel” means hill in German – although it looks and feels like more than a hill!)

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There’s a nice view of Forgotten Lake and Shadow Lake through the trees.

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Amy is getting a bit tired – but the benefit of climbing a mountain is she has 4G reception on her phone. She’s quite content with my suggestion of making sure she’s up-to-date with her social media feed, while I complete the last few hundred metres to the summit… It’s steep but fairly quick, with the route now a consisting of scramble up the boulder field toward the summit.

There’s a nice view of the heart-shaped Forgotten Lake, almost directly below.

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From the summit** of Little Hugel (1,274m asl), there’s a great view of Forgotten Lake and Shadow Lake, as well as the southern end of Lake St Clair in the distance. (**In the interest of blogging accuracy – it’s almost the summit! The true summit was about 50m higher; as I didn’t want to leave Amy too long, I went to the outcrop of rock on the right and not the true summit to the west.)

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It’s a much quicker descent down the steep track!

The first few kilometres from Shadow Lake back to Lake St Clair are pretty dreary – the track passes through eucalpyt forest and the landscape is fairly monotonous.

As the track descends further and gets closer to the Hugel River, there’s a few nice sections again of temperate rainforest and towering trees.

It’s not too much further until we reach the turn-off to the Platypus Bay Track and cross the Hugel River. From here there’s just over a kilometre until we’re back at Lake St Clair Lodge. It’s been an exhausting but fantastic walk – and we’re glad to get back to the lodge for an early dinner!

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 0.0km Start at Lake St Clair Visitors Centre (Cynthia Bay)
 0.3km Junction with Mount Rufus Track
 4.8km Junction with Shadow Lake Track
 6.5km Start of Mt Rufus summit ridge (exposed track)
 8.3km Mt Rufus summit
13.8km Junction with Shadow Lake Track (alternate return route)
14.3km Junction with Forgotten Lake and Little Hugel
17.1km Little Hugel Summit
19.6km Return to Mt Rufus Track
24.2km Junction with Platypus Bay Track
25.1km Junction with Mt Rufus Track
25.5km Lake St Clair Visitors Centre
Location Starts/finishes at Lake St Clair Lodge (Cynthia Bay)
Distance 25.5km circuit (8-9 hours)
Grade Moderate.  Total 1,015m ascent.
Track to Little Hugel rough and steep in some sections
Season/s All year. Might be icy in winter and ferry operates less frequently
Map 4233 Rufus 1:25K (south end of lake)
TASMAP Lake St Clair Day Walk Map (print & digital options)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources
lakestclair
Map of day walks from Lake St Clair. Source: Tas Parks “Lake St Clair Lakeside Walk”

Narcissus Hut, Lake St Clair

The hike from Narcissus Hut to Cynthia Bay along Lake St Clair (also referred to the Lakeside Walk) is the last – or first! – section of the Overland Track, and also makes a pleasant day walk.

We’re staying at Lake St Clair for a few days on a family holiday, so one of my day walks has to include the track from Narcissus Hut back to Cynthia Bay and Lake St Clair Lodge. The walk starts with with a ferry ride to the far end of the Lake St Clair – not a bad way to start a walk. In peak season the ferry operates at least three times a day, and picks up hikers who are finishing the Overland Track. Saves them from hiking this last section. Lazy buggers 🙂

The ferry takes just over half an hour, with a stop at the deepest point of the lake – the  maximum depth of 160m makes Lake St Clair Australia’s deepest lake. There’s also great views of some of the peaks in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, which borders the lake on the north-eastern side. (You can also disembark at Echo Point, which reduces the walk by about 7km. The walk from Echo Point to Cynthia Bay is one of Tasmania’s “60 Great Short Walks” – although I found the section from Narcissus Hut to Echo Point a bit more varied and interesting.) We set off from Narcissus Hut at 10am – both the kids have decided to join me on the walk.

Soon after the hut there’s a junction with a track leading to Lake Marion – I had considered this walk, but was warned by one of the Park rangers it was very overgrown (the start of the Lake Marion Track looked OK, though). There are nice views of the Olympus Range, which tower above the surrounding plains and Lake St Clair, as we cross the Hamilton Plains.

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Somewhat surprisingly – seeing as the track follows Lake St Clair for most of its length – that it’s rarely within sight of the water. After a couple of kilometres the track (very) gently rises out of the low swampy areas and the vegetation changes to rainforest, with some huge gum-topped stringybarks…

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…and patches of thick ferns. While there are some occassional muddy bits (and it might be a slightly muddier experience after heavy rain) the track is pretty good with many sections of boardwalk. (Contrary to what Parks staff said, the sections before and after Echo Hut were both of similar quality and neither had any significant muddy sections.)

We reach Echo Point Hut after about two hours, where we stop for lunch. Or, to be more precise, a large packet of chips.  It’s a nice spot, with some benches in a rainforest setting, only a few metres from the shore of Lake St Clair. On the opposite side of the lake is Mt Ida (which is fairly easily climbed if you happen to have a kayak handy to cross the lake)!

The track immediately dives back into the rainforest after Echo Hut, as we continue to follow the invisible shoreline of Lake St Clair.

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The walk continues through temperate rainforest, with tall stands of beech trees and a few tree ferns that look like they’ve been around for a lot longer than I have!

It’s not an unpleasant walk – but it’s also pretty monotonous. There’s not a lot to see, other than an occassionally impressive patch of ferns or huge rainforest trees.

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Towards the southern end of Lake St Clair the track emerges temporarily from the rainforest and passes by a rocky bay. From here we can see our destination in the distance, at the very end of the lake.

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There’s a last section through rainforest and ferms before, the track rises slightly and the rainforest abruptly becomes eucalypt forest with low heath.

Near the top of this slight incline there’s a junction: continue straight ahead on the Overland Track, or turn left and take a slightly longer route via Platypus Bay. (The walk from the Visitor Centre to Platypus Bay and back is another of the Tasmanian “60 Great Short Walks” in the Lake St Clair area). We take the Platypus Bay Track, which descends steeply down to Platypus Bay. It’s a nice beach, with the wreckage of a old barge right in the middle of it. The barge was used in the 1930s to build the pump house on the opposite side of Lake St Clair, and dragged ashore in the 1950s after a large storm tore it from its moorings.

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The track closelt followed the edge of the lake, and bit furher there’s a long platypus “hide”, with lot of interpretative signage. It’s tbe wrong time for platypus-spotting as it’s mid-afternoon (dawn and dusk are best), so we continue without trying to look for the elusive monotreme!

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We’re nearly at the end of our walk… less than a kilometre further, and we’re at the bridge over the Hugel River and junction with the Larmairremener tabelti (Aboriginal) cultural walk.

The last stretch of track is wide and flat, taking us the last kilometre or so back to the Visitor Centre.

Just to complete the “circuit” (ferry + walk) we continue past Cynthia Bay and finish at the Lake St Clair jetty. It’s been 19km from the Narcissus Hut jetty at the far end of the lake – a bit more than the 16.5km that’s stated on the TasParks signage. I’m glad to have done the walk, but it hasn’t been a particularly interesting walk. Definitely not as enjoyable as the day walks at the Cradle Mountain end of the Overland Track: if you’ve got limited time, you’d want to do the Shadow Lake circuit or Mt Rufus tracks instead!

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 0.0km Start at Narcissus Hut jetty
 7.1km Echo Point Hut and jetty
16.6km Junction with Platypus Bay track
16.8km Platypus Bay
17.4km Junction with Larmairremener tabelti cultural walk
18.6km Visitor Centre
19.0km Lake St Clair Jetty
Location Starts/finishes at Lake St Clair Lodge (Cynthia Bay) and Narcissus Jetty via ferry service
Distance 19km (including Platypus Bay detour)
Grade Easy.  Total 184m ascent (no steep sections). 5-7 hours.
Season/s All year. Might be icy in winter and ferry operates less frequently
Map 4234 Olympus 1:25K (north end of lake)
4233 Rufus 1:25K (south end of lake)
TASMAP Lake St Clair Day Walk Map (print & digital options)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources
lakestclair
Map of day walks from Lake St Clair. Source: Tas Parks “Lake St Clair Lakeside Walk”

Liffey Falls

One of Tasmania’s “60 Great Short Walks”, Liffey Falls is accessed via two walking tracks that end up the picturesque cascades.

Another slightly unplanned walk, as we drive between Devonport (having taken the Spirit of Tasmania ferry across) and our accommodation at Lake St Clair. A short detour about half way take us into the Liffey Falls State Reserve, which is on the edge of the Great Western Tiers. The walking track – one of Tasmania’s “60 Great Short Walks” is well-marked from the busy upper carpark, which also has developed picnic facilities.

 

As the well-developed track descends, very gradually at first, through tall wet eucalypt forest with some huge trees (you can also do the “Big Tree Stroll” which takes you some huge Eucalyptus obliqua trees, one of which towers 50m and with a diameter of 3.39m).

 

Shortly before reaching the Liffey River, the track goes under a huge and impressive cluster (or stand?) of tree ferns.

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About half-way – which is only around 600m – the track reaches the Liffey River. Soon after there’s a vantage point over the first of four cascades – Alexandra Falls, then Hopetoun Falls.

 

There’s another nice view of (I think!) Hopetoun Falls a bit further on, where a few steps from the track takes  you down to the river.

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The track follows the river fairly closely, as it goes through cool temperate rainforest. (There’s a junction with the longer track that follows the river upstream from the lower carpark, which provides an alternate and longer route to Liffey Falls.)

 

Finally the track meets the river below Liffey Falls – which are technically called Victoria Falls. Considered one of the most picturesque waterfalls in Tasmania (albeit not as impressive as Russell Falls), the cascades are busy on a warm January afternoon. There’s some clear pools with crystal clear and quite cold water, and a few brave souls are swimming beneath the falls!

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From here, it’s the same way back up to the carpark – although with the aid of a car-shuffle you could do an 6km (one-way) walk between the two carparks.

Location From Launceston, reach the upper section of the reserve by following the Bass Highway (A1) west to Deloraine and turn left onto the A5 just before the bridge at Deloraine. Steep and winding dirt road (suitable for all cars).
Distance 2.4km return from upper car park. 8.2km return from lower carpark.
Grade Easy. 50m ascent back to carpark,
Season/s All year. Busy in December/January. Falls best after rain.
Map 4638 Quamby Bluff 1:25K (not required)
4838 Liffey 1:25K covers the longer track from lower carpark
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources
liffey-falls
Map showing tracks from upper and lower carparks. Source: TasTrails

Meander Falls and Split Rock Circuit (Western Tiers)

One of Tasmania’s 60 Great Short Walks, the hike to Meander Falls can be done as a circular walk, taking in a variety of terrain and a number of smaller (but equally impressive) falls by taking the Split Rock Track back.

The plan was to do an overnight walk to the Walls of Jerusalem. But with the weather forecast predicting rain and snow, I decided to leave the backpack in Sydney and stick to a couple of day walks instead. Meander Falls was my pick for the first day, being fairly close to Walls of Jerusalem National Park (as I’m still doing the Walls of Jerusalem hike the following day) as the weather seemed much better to the east. It’s a fairly late start – about 10:45am – when I reach the well sign-posted start of the walk.

The track follows the Meander River upstream, ascending fairly steadily but not steeply at the start, and crossing some side streams.

The track is not always obvious – I veer off a couple of times before realising my error – but there’s frequent orange triangles marking the correct route. The track is sometimes above the Meander River, which can be glimpsed through the thick forest cover below..

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…at other times the track is close to the river, and there are a few boggy sections where some care is needed to avoid wet feet.

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There’s a very steep section after about 3km, before the first glimpse of Meander Falls in the distance. The forest also changes subtly from here, being a bit more open than the semi-rainforest I’ve been walking through along the lower reaches of the Meander River.

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The falls get more impressive as you get closer, falling 130 metres over two tiers. The last

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As the track nears Meander Falls it becomes somewhat indistinct, but it’s easy to find a way down the slope to the base of the falls. It’s an impressive sight and I regret not taking my DSLR and a wide angle lens, as I can barely fit the entire waterfall into the photo. I’m the only person here and I enjoy the serenity of the waterfall and the clear pools at the botton… Although not for too long, as it gets cold pretty quickly once I stop moving!

I re-trace my steps, but only for about 300m, as I’m going back via the Split Rock Track (also referred to as the Cleft Rock Track) to make this a circular walk. The  Split Rock Track is a bit rougher but still easy to follow, as it descends and crosses the Meander River.

It’s not entirely clear where the track goes as it climbs up from the river to a massive scree slope. But once on the scree, a series of cairns provides an indication of the route that climbs the slope.

Looking back, Meander Falls can be seen again in the distance.

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Once the top of the scree field is reached, the track traverses thick heath, with a few boggy sections and oversize puddles for good measure… my topographical map suggests that there is a side-track to the top of Meander Crag, so I make this detour hoping to get some good photos from the top.

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There isn’t a track – at least not one that I can find. I manage to bush-bash to the base of the rocky summit, and climb up some of the way before it starts getting very steep. And very windy. There’s nice views over the Meander Conservation Area with Huntsman Lake in the distance, from halfway up the mini-mountain.

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After descending back to the Split Rock Track, I continue through the low heath before crossing another smaller scree field.

The track then enters into taller forest again, and descends quite steeply on a rough track. Rough as in lots of tree roots, uneven terrain and steep and slippery sections – but the trail is easy to follow.

There’s numerous small cascades, streams and sections of rainforest that make it pleasant walking.

As the trail descends, it goes through an enormous cleft in the rock – I can see where the track’s name is derived from!

At the bottom of this enormous split rocks there’s a waterfall, which is quite picturesque with the water cascading in front of a large and mossy overhang. According to my map, they don’t have a name…

…but I’ve also realised when looking at the map that I’ve made a small but annoying error: I’ve continued down the main Split Rock Track, and missed a turn-off to an alternate trail that goes past a number of falls. There’s another track that goes along the front of the waterfall and heads back up the hill. I feel compelled to head back up the hill to see what the other waterfalls I’ve missed look like. The track crosses another creek and small cascades, and I’m almost surprised I haven’t attracted any leeches (at least, not yet!).

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The next falls – which are marked on the map – are the Shower Cave Falls.  While the drop is not huge, there’s a fair amount of water cascading over the rock face, surrounded by ferns and towering trees above.

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Continuing up the narrow track through the heavily wooded forest, it’s not far until the next named waterfall.

Split Rock Falls is even more impressive than the last one. It’s possible to walk behind the falls which spill over a large overhang, and the rocks around the base are weathered and pock-marked by the constant falling water. This would be a good spot for a picnic – I encounter a small group of people I et earlier who are having a break on the far side of the falls.

There are a couple more huge caves and overhangs on way back up to the main track – a few of these you could easily camp under (although the walk is not really long enough to warrant an overnight trip).

I rejoin the “main track” about 30min later. The junction is incorrectly placed on the topographical map, and there is a sign – but it’s lying on the ground and is slightly confusing. If you’re coming back via Split / Cleft Rock trails you definitely should take the “waterfall way” – look for the junction at 41.72463, 146.53076 (or Quamby Bluff GR 610 811).

Once back on the main track I re-trace my steps back down through Split Rock (or maybe it’s Cleft Rock?). The track descends fairly steeply through tall trees, past a few more overhangs and along sections of rainforest.

Eventually the track meets the Meander River, where a suspension bridge takes you back across to the starting point, finishing a 50m or so down the road from the main track I took up.

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It’s been a great walk – no pun intended! The terrain’s been quite varied, there’s been a bit of route-finding to keep things interesting and the Split Rock Track back takes you past some very picturesque cacades and rock formations. Would be a fantastic walk to do in winter when Meander Falls sometimes freezes, with the right gear.

Route Summary
0.0km  Start at carpark (606m asl)
4.0km Junction with Split Rock Track (continue straight ahead for Meander Falls)
4.5km Meander Falls (1,060m asl)
5.0km Split Rock Track
5.6km Approx location of side-track to Meander Crag
7.6km Junction with alternate track via waterfalls
9.3km Waterfall track rejoins main Split Rock Track
10.6km Return to Carpark
Actual distance walked longer due to some side-trip and back-tracking.
Location 30km south-west of Deloraine. C167 from Deloraine to Meander, then follow signs to Meander Forest Reserve. Last few kilometres of road is unsealed and rough, but OK for 2WD vehicles.
Distance 12.3km circuit as walked (approx 9km to falls and back on main track)
Grade Moderate. Total elevation gain of 810m. Track is rough or non-existent in sections.
Season/s All year but may be snow/ice conditions in winter.
Maps
  • 4637 Breona (1:25,000)
  • 4638 Quamby Bluff (1:25,000)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to KML format.
Resources
  • Parks & Wildlife Service 60 Great Short Walks – Meander Falls

Bulcamatta Falls Track (Burralow Creek)

Bulcamatta Falls Track is a short and shaded walk from the Burralow Creek camping ground, to a small grotto and waterfall. 

A last minute decision to go camping on a rather damp long weekend sees us arriving at Burralow Creek camping ground on Saturday afternoon. We’re hoping the recent rain might mean it’s not too crowded… the reality is that while there’s still a few spots left in the large, grassy area, it’s pretty busy. I guess being less than two hours from Sydney, it’s going to be busy on any long weekend, even in the middle of winter. It’s a good lesson: don’t leave home on a long weekend!

We find a spot that’s not too close to anyone, and set-up camp. We’ll come back here on a “normal” weekend, as it’s a very nice campground – and even on a winter weekend the weather is pretty mild (a degree or two colder than Sydney).

On the following day, after a leisurely start (the kids cook us bacon & egg rolls), we set out to find the “short walk to a waterfall”. The start of the walk is not marked, but is fairly easy to find. on the western side of the camping ground. Shortly after the metal gate at the start, the track crosses the creek on a dubious “bridge” of logs. Here there is a sign.

The track is very flat – it’s easy walking – as it follows the alluvial flats through tall forest, not far from Burralow Creek. After about 500m there’s a pit constructed from sandstone blocks that’s part of an old settlement. Early settlers thought the swampy area would be suitable for irrigated agriculture: Burralow Creek camping ground is the site of the first rice farm in Australia!  A short side track leads to an impressive termite mound, and a little further there’s a a natural stone grotto and a natural stone grotto.

The track then follows a smaller side-creek through sections of fern and  increasingly moist vegetation.

After about 1.5km a narrow and shaded gorge is reached, in an area of temperate rainforest (coachwood, sassafras, cedar wattle and umbrella ferns).

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At the head of the grotto and surrounded by ferns is the picturesque small waterfall that we’ve set out to visit! We’re told that glow worms can be seen near the waterfall at night – so we’ll try the walk at night next time!

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It’s back the same way – a very pleasant and easy walk with lots to see. (Next visit, we’ll try the slightly harder track to Burralow Creek, which descends steeply to the valley.)

Location Walk starts at the western side of Burralow Creek campground (the campground is reached via Bells Line of Road near Kurrajong (take Warks Hill Road and then Burralow Road). 4WD/AWD required.
Distance 3km return walk
Grade Easy. Total elevation 20m
Season/s All year. Campground very busy on long weekends / school holidays
Maps Kurranjong 9030-4N (1:25,000). Track is not shown on the map.
GPS Route Google GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources National Parks Burralow Creek campground web page

Chasing orangutans in Borneo

This was a slightly last-minute trip during the school holidays – a week in Sabah (Borneo) looking at wildlife, and five days at the end relaxing on a tropical island. We booked through Tropical Adventure Tours and Travel, who I’d used before to book a hiking trip to Mulu Caves and Pinnacles (a fantastic three-day adventure). Richard and his team came up with a good itinerary, and were very responsive to our requests to making some variations.

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About Borneo

Borneo is the third largest island in the world, and is shared by three countries: Malaysia (Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan territories) and Brunei are in the north, while Indonesia (Kalimantan) covers 73% of the island to the south. While much of the island, which straddles the equator, consists of rainforest there’s been significant impact to this vegetation by logging and land clearing. Half of the annual global tropical timber acquisition comes from Borneo (source: Wikipedia) and every year palm oil plantations encroach into more natural rainforest areas. Borneo’s economy is predominantly based on agriculture, logging and mining, oil and gas – and ecotourism.

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When to go (and for how long)

In theory… there’s a wet season and a dry season. In reality the weather is very localised and with some areas receiving over four metres of rainfall a year, it’s can rain anytime! Peak season for tourism is May-September, which is the “dry season”, and rainfall tends to be highest  between November and March. In Sabah, rainfall is lower and more evenly spread across the year in the south, compared to the north. We’re there in late April, which is the best time for both the north and south of Sabah.

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Getting there and around

The main airport serving Sabah is Kota Kinabalu (BKI), which has connections within Malaysia as well as Singapore and many other neighbouring countries. On the opposite side of the island is Sandakan (SDK), with daily flights (Air Asia and MAS) to Kuala Lumpur. Flying is the only practical way to get to Borneo, although a few cruises stop at Kota Kinabalu. You’ll need to pass through immigration even if you’re arriving from another Malaysian city – Sabah maintains autonomy on immigration rules and both foreigners and non-Sabah Malaysians are restricted to a stay of 90 days at a time.

Within Sabah we had a minivan with a driver, which is relatively inexpensive and much easier that renting a car. The main roads are all good quality, although plan on achieving an average speed of around 60km/h due to windy roads and the fact you’ll frequently get stuck behind very slow trucks. From Sandakan, it’s also possible (with some Kinabatangan lodges, to travel up the river by boat, rather than going by road).

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The Itinerary

It’s a pretty straightforward itinerary: we fly from KL to Sandakan on the north-east of the island, and then drive across Sabah to Kota Kinabalu on the other side, with a few relaxing days at the end…

  1. Sepilok – close to Sandakan, this is a popular stop to visit the world-famous Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, as well as the Sun Bear Conservation Centre. Definitely worth a day here, or two days so you’ve got some flexibility with the weather.
  2. Kinabatangan River – generally regarded as one of the best places in Malaysia for wildlife it doesn’t disappoint, with loads of birdlife, orangutans, monkeys and the odd crocodile seen onthe morning and afternoon boat cruises. Three days here was perfect.
  3. Kinabalu – a “half-way” stop as we cross the top of the island, with a short walk in Kinabalu Park (this would also be the starting point for the 2D/1N Mt Kinabalu ascent). Unless you’re climbing Kinabalu, skip this if you can.
  4. Kota Kinabalu – An overnight stop before we head out to Gaya Island. In hindsight, we should have gone straight to Gaya Island in the afternoon…
  5. Gaya Island – a relaxing end to the holiday at a beach resort just off the coast (but still lots of activities). Five days here was plenty… three would have been enough, especially given the outrageously high prices on the island!

Trip Highlights and Tips

Some trips make it challenging to identify the “best bits”, with every day bringing a new highlight. This trip consisted more of some amazing experiences between some rather ordinary days. Which is not to say our Borneo trip wasn’t a great holiday, but that in hindsight you could do a few days in Borneo and not miss much.

  • Kinabatangan River:  definitely worth a few days, even if it’s just to make sure you get some good-weather days (we were lucky and had three mostly rain-free days. Our lodge, like many, was fairly basic in terms of food – but you’re coming here for the wildlife. We had a fantastic guide (Aloi), which made the experience even better. We also had a small motorboat (with our guide) to ourselves, so we could tailor what we were looking for and how long we wanted to stay in one spot to get photos. Seeing orangutans in the wild was an amazing experience.
  • Mount Trusmadi hike: Malaysia is great for hiking, if you’re into that kind of thing – and Borneo has some of the highest mountains in Malaysia. I’d climbed Mt Kinabalu before which is the most popular option (and would have been right in the middle of our itinerary), and really enjoyed the quite different challenge and environment of Trusmadi.
  • Gaya Island – the eye-watering prices (for drinks, meals and some of the activities) on Gaya Island detracted from the experience a little. But it’s a nice way to end the holiday, and there is lots to do from hiking to snorkelling to just relaxing by the pool.

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Sepilok

Accommodation: Sepilok Nature Lodge
Overall rating: 5/5
Food: 5/5. Range of local and western foods on the menu; breakfast included.

Family friendly:  5/5. Two bedroom cottage with upstairs lounge room and balcony
Scenery: 4/5. Not a very particularly nice outlook from our hut, and noisy construction nearby on a new road. Communal dining area is really nice, and overlooks a small lake.
Location: 5/5. Walking distance to Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

We make our way straight to Sepilok Nature Reserve, a short half hour drive from the Sandakan airport, arriving there late in the afternoon. It’s a 200m walk from reception to our spacious hut, which has two bedrooms and a large bathroom downstairs, while upstairs is a huge informal area and balcony. The bar and dining area overlooks a lake, and has both tables and loungers – a relaxed spot for an evening drink.

Night Hike

The only activity we have time for on our first day is a night hike around Sepilok Nature Lodge, conducted by one of their guides. We see a surprising amount of small creatures – insects, frogs, caterpillars and dragonflys – on our 45min walk.

One of the interesting creatures we see is the giant pill millipede, which rolls itself into a ball when disturbed as a defence against predators.

Orang Utan Sanctuary

Conceived in 1961 and established in 1964 with funding by the Sabah Government, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre aims to return orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans back to the wild. You can visit two of the three sections: we start with the feeding platform, in a large area where most animals achieve total independence and become integrated into the Sepilok wild orangutan population. (The sanctuary is only open for a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon, so it does get pretty busy.)

It’s a rather miserable and wet day, and clearly the orangutans don’t like the weather either, as they try and use leaves to shelter from the rain!

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Next stop is the ‘Outdoor Nursery’ where freedom is increased and dependence on food and emotional support is decreased. There are two viewing areas within a modern centre, which overlook the nursery. While shooting through the glass windows is not great, at least we’ve got a temporary respite from the rain.

We spend an hour at the sanctuary despite the inclement weather – it’s fascinating to watch the orangutans, who we’re told share 97% of their DNA sequence with humans.

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

The smallest bears in the world (found only in Southeast Asia), sun bears are threatened by forest degradation, illegal hunting for bear parts and poaching to obtain young cubs for pet trade. The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) is a sun bear rescue and rehabilitation facility which has around 40 rescued ex-captive sun bears. It’s located right next to the Orang Utan Sanctuary.

We quickly spot a couple of the bears grooming each other from the observation ramps and platforms high above the forest floor.

Another relaxes in a nearby tree, changing poses a few times but never leaving his spot.

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Another sun bear gracefully climbs a tree as we’re leaving the sanctuary: they have re large and naked soles are naked, thought to be an adaptation for climbing trees, and large, curved and pointed claws.

Rainforest Discovery Centre

Our last stop for the day is the Rainforest Discovery Centre… it’s now nearing midday and quite hot and humid (but it’s stopped raining), so only Luke and I do a short circular walk with our guide.

There are over 20km of walking trails, which are well marked.

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We only do about 3km, including the 347m-long canopy walkway. It would be a great spot for bird-watching in the morning or evening, but there’s not much wildlife of any sort around at midday.

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We also climb two of the observation towers, which provide another perspective of the surrounding forest.

There’s many signs pointing out different plants, including cocoa seeds (below), figs, and belian trees (the heaviest, hardest and most valuable timber of Borneo).

We head back for lunch at the Orang Utan Sanctuary and to hopefully visit again in the afternoon now that the rain has stopped… but right on cue, just before the doors re-open at 2:30pm, it starts pouring again. We call it a day.

Orang Utan Sanctuary… again

We make one final trip the following morning to the Orang Utan Sanctuary, with the skies now clear. This time we start at the outdoor nursery, which is much busier than it was on the previous day. We watch one of the adult orangutans eating and playing.

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A juvenile orangutan is also partaking in the morning feed.

As well as a long-tailed macaque.

After a short stay in the outdoor nursery, we head to the outdoor area. We get there early to stake out a good spot near the feeding platform. No sign of any orangutans, but a number of macaques leap onto the roof of the viewing platform and wait expectantly for food.

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No orangutans show up today, but there’s quite a show from the macaques, and we spend close to 45 minutes watching them eat, groom and play.

We reluctantly leave the macaques, as our minibus is waiting out the front to take us to our next stop…

Sepilok to Kinabatangan River

We’re picked up from the Orang Utan Sanctuary for the 2-hour drive to Kinabatangan River (I find out later it’s possible, with some lodges, to go by road back to Sepilok and then take a fast boat up the Kinabatangan River). Traveling through what seems like endless palm trees, it’s a reminder of how much jungle has been bulldozed to make way for palm oil plantations.

Kinabatangan River

Overall rating: 3/5.
Food: 2/5. Set menu for dinner – generally one chicken and one seafood plus rice. A small range of beers and soft drinks for sale. No bar.

Family friendly:  3/5. The family cabins have a double bed and two single beds alongside each other. 
Activities 5/5: Morning and evening cruises on the river, night hikes and jungle hikes.

The Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort is located right by the Kinabatangan River, the second longest river in Malaysia (560km in length).  While the upper areas of the river have been significantly impacted by logging, towards the coast the river and surrounding lowlands support a variety of birdlife and provide a sanctuary for saltwater crocodiles, Borneo’s indigenous proboscis monkeys, Bornean orangutan and Asian elephants. (The Kinabatangan “Big 5” consists of the Pygmy Elephant, Orang Utan, Proboscis Monkey, Crocodiles and Rhinoceros Hornbill.)

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The huts are small but comfortable, and the food pretty basic. But we’re here for the wildlife, and we have a fantastic guide – Aloi – for the three days that we’re here.

Our first Evening Cruise

We’re excited about our first trip down the river – and have no idea what we’ll see! The fruit on the trees overhanging the river attract many animals, although we’re hoping we’ll see something more exciting than a squirrel!

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I take the first few photos of the Great Egret – a graceful but common bird along the river.

We soon see our first macaque monkeys along the river, which become a frequent sighting over the next few days.

A cluster of boats indicates a more significant animal sighting…

…fairly close to the river bank is a family of orang utans, feeding on fruit and ignoring the small flotilla of sightseeing boats below.

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We watch them for a while, before heading further downstream. Our guide spots a a small blue eared kingfisher, perched over the river.

More wildlife starts to emerge as it gets later in the day, and we start seeing a lot more macque monkeys on the ground and in the trees.

A small crocodile eyes us passing by.

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Finally, with the light fading, we see the human-like proboscis monkey, one of the largest monkey species native to Asia.

It’s now starting to get dark, and with the sun setting we head back up the river to our lodge – a great first day of sightseeing on the Kinabatangan River!

Morning Cruise

It’s a very foggy morning as we set out at 6am on our second day at the Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort, this time heading upstream. At one point hundreds of birds circle our boat, flying low along the river.

On this trip we’re in search of birds – we see the egret, again. One of my favourites, even though it’s rather common.

And then we spot what we’re really looking for: the Rhinoceros Hornbill.  A large species of forest hornbill that can live for up to 35 years, it is the state bird of Sarawak and Malaysia’s National Bird.

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The morning ctuise is only an hour and a half or so, and with day warming up and the fog lifting we head back to the lodge.

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Oxbow Lake Jungle Walk

After lunch, I take the optional “jungle hike” to a nearby oxbow lake with our guide, Aloi: it’s a short boat trip across the Kinabatangan River, followed by a 3.5km (return hike).

I’m not sure whether the “lake” actually has a name: it’s formed by when a wide bend in the main stem of a river is cut off, creating a free-standing body of water (in Australia, it would  be a  billabong!)

I’ve swapped my shoes for gumboots (rented for the princely sum of RM5 / US$2 for the duration of my stay), and I’m happy I did. The many muddy sections would have sucked normal shoes off my feet!

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There’s not a lot of wildlife, but we do see a few proboscis monkeys in the trees above the trail.

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It takes us about half an hour to reach the lake, which features a modern toilet (not really what I was expecting in the middle of the jungle) and a platform that extends over the water.

It would be a great spot for bird watching, if you came early or late in the day, and even in the middle of the day it’s pleasant to sit under the shelter and look over the lake. And observe a few leeches seeking their prey.

We walk back the same way, meeting a larger group coming towards us who are doing the same hike that we’ve just done.

Another Afternoon Cruise

We’re looking for birds on this afternoon’s cruise… Our first sighting is a collared kingfisher, which is very common bird in Malaysian mangrove forests.

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We spot a troop of proboscis monkeys – although listed as endangered, they’re impossible not to spot along the river (and equally impossible not to stop and observe them each time)!

A bit further on, we get quite close to the majestic Rhinoceros Hornbill, the only bird member of the “Kinabatangan Big Five”.

Between our bird sightings we see a macaque monkeys perched above the river.

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Our next bird is the oriental pied hornbill – it’s one of the smallest and most common of the Asian hornbills, but it’s still a fairly large and impressive bird.

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At the other end of the scale (in terms of size) is the diminutive blue-eared kingfisher. It’s distribution is widespread, although it’s not a common bird. Fortunately for us it sits very still for us as it patiently eyes the river below for food.

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We spot a few more birds as the light begins to fade.

Our last bird of the day is the white bellied fish eagle – we see a few of these, always very high up in the trees along the river, and not easy to photograph.

As we head back down (or maybe it’s up) the river to the lodge, we stop briefly as we see about 20 proboscis monkeys foraging in a single tree – a nice end to another successful sightseeing afternoon.

Our last Morning cruise

It’s a bit less misty than the previous day, as we head out just before sunrise.

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A group of macaque monkeys groom each other on a branch just above the river.

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We spot a few different birds – a brown-winged kingfisher and a Black and Red Broadbill – and another crocodile that’s lurking on the riverbank.

Not a huge number of sightings, but the morning cruise is always much shorter than the afternoon/evening cruise, and we did spot a few birds we hadn’t seen before.

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And our final Afternoon Cruise

We’re determined to see orangutans again on our last cruise, and we ask our guide to look out for them on an overcast and wet afternoon.

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Our first sighting is a crested snake (or serpent) eagle, widespread in forested habitats across tropical Asia.

…and another Rhinoceros Hornbill, as magnificent in flight as it is in perched in a tree.

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Another eagle, this time a fish eagle.

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A squirrel munching on fruit in a tree means there might be some larger primates around… but in this tree, it’s a macaque monkey eating fruit.

The next tree has a very large number of proboscis monkeys. Still no orangutans.

Finally, with the light fading we find a troupe of orangutans. It’s hard to get good photos, but we stay for a while and watch these majestic animals as they  eat and play. t’a a nice end to our Kinabatangan River stay.

Kinabatangan River to Kinabalu

We leave in the morning for our trip across the top of Borneo to Kota Kinabalu. After initially re-tracing our steps through palm plantations, we climb though more natural vegetation.

There’s a lunch and toilet stop at Telupid: the roadside “cafe” has very basic Malaysian food, none of which looked particularly appetizing. But we got some snacks and drinks and stretched our legs. From here it’s another 90min or so to Sabah Tea – which would have been a much better option for lunch.

Sabah Tea is the main tea company in the state of Sabah and the largest tea producer in Borneo. There’s a nice cafe/restaurant, offering food as well as the option to try many of the teas produced here. A tour of the factory is also available, which is conducted by a local guide on demand, and provides an interesting and interactive demonstration of how the tea leaves are processed (if possible, best to do tour in the morning as the factory is more active then). Located in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, there would a nice view of the mountain – on a clear day!

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Sabah Tea is also one of the sites commemorating the Sandakan Death Marches, a series of forced marches from Sandakan to Ranau which resulted in the deaths of 2,345 Allied prisoners of war (widely considered to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen during WWII).

From here it’s another hour to Kinabalu Pine Resort, near Kinabalu National Park. We arrive mid-afternoon, but with very low cloud we can’t see the mountain that’s in front of us.

Kinabalu Park

Accommodation: Kinabalu Pine Resort
Overall rating: 4/5
Food: 4/5. Good choice of food in the restaurant and big portions. No alcohol served.

Family friendly:  5/5. Two adjoining rooms with shared balcony
Scenery: 4/5. All the cabins have a view of Kinabalu (when it’s clear) across the main road and valley
Location: 3/5. Short drive to Kinabalu Park – but if you can, stay inside the park where there’s a range of accommodation options

The following day we wake to a clear morning, so I walk down to the main road to take some photos of Mt Kinabalu (or Gunung Kinabalu). The massive granite mountain fills the skyline in the distance

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Even from here, you can clearly see Laban Rata, the resthouses located at 3,272m above sea level, and the route that continues up the ridge towards the summit.

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Kinabalu Park

We’re not climbing Kinabalu today 😦 although it would be a perfect day for it… but we have got time for a short circuit in the Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden of Kinabalu Park. The botanical garden is well signposted, but unlike the Kinabalu summit trail which has 100+ trekkers every day, we have this secluded garden to ourselves.

Kinabalu Park has one of the richest assemblage of flora in the world, with an estimate of 5,000 to 6,000 vascular plant species. The botanical garden showcases a a number of the more exotic plant species, although it feels very much like a natural forest. There’s numerous colourful berries, including the areca or betel nut (bottom right).

A nursery area has some rarest orchids and pitcher plants of Kinabalu Park; some are in a fenced area and some “less-rare” species are right by the path.

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Just for good measure, we also observe some local fauna…

I’d recommend going one of the guided walks if you’re there at the right time… you’ll probably learn a lot more. But even the kids (sort of) enjoyed spending an hour walking around the “garden”.

Kinabalu to Kota Kinabalu

We continue on from Kinabalu Park after our walk – it’s only about two hours to Kota Kinabalu. (We would have preferred to go straight to KK without the Kinabalu Park stop-over, but this didn’t seem possible. We had a different driver from Kinabalu Park, so maybe this location is the most convenient to swap drivers.)

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It’s all downhill from here, with some sections of winding road as we descend from the cool foothill of Mt Kinabalu at around 1500m above sea level to the coast.

Kota Kinabalu

Accommodation: Le Meridien
Overall rating: 5/5
Food: 5/5. Not normally a fan of buffets, but the lunch buffet was superb, at a reasonable price. Room service menu pretty standard.

Family friendly:  5/5. Two adjoining and interconnecting rooms
Scenery: 3/5. Room looked over the village. Ask for ocean-facing room if this is important
Location: 5/5. One of the better-positioned hotels; easy walking to all the main attractions

We arrived around 2pm, in time for a late lunch… and immediately noticed how much warmer it is here, compared to higher elevation of Kinabalu Park!

After checking-in and a late lunch, no-one was too keen on leaving the air-conditioning of the hotel room, so I went for a walk up to the Signal Hill Observatory. The hotel staff weren’t particularly helpful with directions, so I followed Google Maps which took me up via the road… I discovered having reached the top that there are in fact a set of stairs that provide a steeper but more direct route to the bottom (they start near the Community Centre on Jalan Dewan).

In any case, it really wasn’t worth it other than getting some exercise. The lookout has mixed reviews on TripAdvisor but I think “redharry” nails it: “Short but steep walk to essentially a café with big balconies. Reasonable view of the city and a simple café”. The cafe does at least mean you can get a cold drink after the steep walk up.

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Kota Kinabalu is famous for its sunsets, so we head to the pool and bar, which overlooks the South China Sea, in anticipation. Unfortunately, the weather is not so obliging!

It’s a bit of a non-event in the end… just a touch of orange in the distance, suggesting what might have been!

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Gaya Island (Pulau Gaya)

Accommodation: Gaya Island Resort
Overall rating: 4/5
Food: 4/5. Quality is amazing, but prices are eye-wateringly expensive!

Family friendly:  5/5. Two adjoining and interconnecting rooms
Scenery: 3/5. Nice view, but obstructed by trees (some rooms have more panoramic views)
Activities: 5/5. Loads of things to do – kayaking, snorkelling trips, hiking, nature talks and more…. a few are free; most require additional payment.
Location: 4/5. Speedboat from KK; regular transfers but there’s a charge for additional transfers if you want to visit the mainland during your stay.

We set-off the following day to Gaya Island, a short speedboat transfer from the Kota Kinabalu main jetty. Gaya Island, which is the largest island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, occupies an area of 15 km² with an elevation of up to 300m.

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As we pass the eastern shore of Gaya Island, the illegal Filipino colony called Kampung Lok Urai comes into view. The stilt houses support a 6,000 floating population of largely Filipinos: it’s also considered a dangerous, high crime or “no-go” area by the police and locals.

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There are three resorts on Gaya Island, which is the largest island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. It’s hard to tell from our research which one is the “best” one – they all look pretty good from the reviews. We’ve chosen Gaya Island Resort and booked directly with the resort – it seemed the best option; the other two resorts had more mixed reviews on TripAdvisor. The check-in process is personalised and friendly; after a short briefing we’re taken to our rooms, up the hill… The rooms are all located some distance from the main reception, pool and and restaurant area, some a far way up the forested hill. It’s not a problem for us, but you woudn;tThe pool and poolside bar areas are really nice.

We’re happy with our adjoining rooms – there’s a nice view back towards the mainland, although it’s partly obscured by a tree.

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Hike to Tavajan Bay

I get bored rather quickly sitting around at resorts, so while the rest of the family relaxes I head off to explore some of the trails. The resort doesn’t encourage “independent hiking”, so while the start of the trail is easy to find, I’ve no idea where the trail actually goes. Established as Sabah’s first forest reserve in 1923, Pulau Gaya preserves one of the few remaining areas of largely undisturbed coastal dipterocarp forest left in Sabah.

The trail has a major fork about 1km from the start… I follow the left-hand one which heads up to a ridge that seems to follow the ridge along the island. After another kilometre or so, it seems to taper off, and I head back the same way. (I discover a few days later, when reading one of the magazines in our room, that the partly overgrown trail goes all the way to the far end of the island, and has some tricky sections that require rock clambering. A guide is highly recommended for this, and a boat transfer can be organised to avoid returning the same way.)

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Map of Gaya Island (Pulau Gaya) showing walking trails

I take the alternate fork, which I’m guessing will lead to Tavajun Bay, one of the guided walks you can do. This trail is well-defined, but does go up – and down – a bit as it follows the coast, before descending to the beach at Tavajun Bay. This secluded beach is part of Gaya Island Resort: there’s a bar, beach lounges and a regular ferry that takes guests to and from the main resort. I can get a drink here before catching the boat back… but my plan comes undone when I realise I’ve missed the last boat by about half an hour. There’s just a lot of empty beach chairs and monkeys that hanging around the bar area looking for food scraps.

There’s also a wild boar foraging on the beach, which is quite tame and lets me get close for a photo before it runs away

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I’m really not keen to make the three kilometre (or so) trek back to the resort, but I’ve spotted a solitary kayak that’s on the beach. I figure it’s part of the resort, so I “borrow” it for the trip back. It’s a much more enjoyable way to travel!

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Mt Trusmadi Hike

I leave the family behind for a few days to hike up Mt Trusmadi, the second-highest mountain in Malaysia. About six hours by car from Kota Kinabalu, the trek to the summit takes 3 days and 2 nights (this is the longest of the three routes).  A tough but rewarding climb, reaching the peak just before sunrise and being fairly lucky with the weather!
Full hike details
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Fine Dining – at a price!

There’s a few different restaurants in the Gaya Island Resort – we’ve made a booking at Omakase, a Japanese restaurant set over two levels. Upstairs is shabu-shabu, and downstairs is teppanyaki. We’ve gone for teppankayi. It’s fantastic food, but at RM900 for the four of us it’s outrageously expensive! There’s a bottle of Australian wine that’s being being promoted for RM350. It’s a pretty average bottle of wine that retails for about $10 (RM30) in Australia – these kind of ludicrous prices detract a bit from an otherwise great resort.

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Snorkelling at Gaya Island

There’s two snorkelling activities offered by the resort: you can snorkel off the resort beach, but during our stay there were signs warning of jellyfish and advising people not to swim. The snorkelling tours take you by boat to a more sheltered location. We did the tour to the very small Mamutik Island (Pulau Mamutik), about 30min away. We arrive at the main wharf where a small entrance fee is paid (this is part of the activity cost) – and the small beach here is crowded. You can see the relief on everyone’s faces when we leave, dropping anchor on the other side of the island that we have almost to ourselves.

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Another hike to Tavajan Bay

I’d booked the guided hike to Tavajan Bay when we arrived… so I’ve decided I’ll do it again. It’s amazing how much more I see with a guide, who knows where to spot the elusive wildlife.

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After we spot the lizard just off the path, the guide points out three bats that are hanging in a cave nearby.

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We finish at Tajavan Bay again, but this time after a cold drink I catch the boat back to the resort. (It’s a nice beach at Tavajan Bay, with a small bar that serves food and a range of drinks. There’s also an enclosed – and air-conditioned – aquarium, which is staffed by a very engaging and knowledgeable marine biologist (Scott) who talks about the local environment and conversation programs.

Gaya Island kayak tour

Our last day on Gaya Island, and our last activity – a guided kayak trip through  the mangroves. Justin Juhun, Gaya Island Resort’s senior resident naturalist and local conservationist, leads our group of about ten guests.  We paddle a short distance along the coastline from the resort jetty, with Mt Kinabalu visible in the distance.

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After a couple of hundred metres, we head into the mangroves – a narrow channel (this trip is always scheduled for high tide) leads deep into the trees. There’s a chance of seeing monkeys or even an orangutan, although our group is rather noisy and one kayak has a rather inept couple that spends most of their time crashing into trees and needing help to paddle in the right direction!

When we reach the furthest navigable point, we stop while Justin provides an interesting commentary on the mangroves, and the impact of both tourism and natural events on the local environment. As I experienced also on the previous day at the aquarium, Gaya Island Resort seems to take conservation seriously and has some talented and passionate guides that you learn a lot from on the activities.

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Heading home

It’s been a great trip, and a relaxing end… from here, it’s a boat transfer back to Kota Kinabalu and a flight to Singapore, where we have three days before we go home.

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More Information

As with our last trip, we relied on Tropical Adventure Tours and Travel, although we (or to be more precise, my wife) asked for some changes based on the research she did on-line.

We used the Lonely Planet book “Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei” with general planning.

The Web site World Birds was helpful in identifying the many birds photographed at Kinabatangan River.

Mount Trusmadi (Mannan Trail from Sinua)

A tough overnight walk through the jungle to the peak of Mount Trusmadi in Borneo, the second-highest mountain in Malaysia, via the Mannan trail from Sinua.

I’d booked the Trusmadi (or Trus Madi) hike during our two-week family holiday in Borneo. As the second-highest mountain in Malaysia, it seemed a good alternative to Mt Kinabalu (which I’d climbed twice on previous trips). Although considerably less high at 2,642m (in comparison to Kinabalu at 4,052m), it’s considered a tougher climb (I’ve added my comparison of Kinabalu and Trusmadi at the end.) The plan was to do the shorter 2 day / 1 night Wayaan Kaingaran route which is accessed from Tambunan… but a few days before the hike, our tour guide said “I’ve got good news and bad news about your Trusmadi hike”…

…turns out the access road from Tambunan to the start of the Trusmadi hike was closed due to a recent landslide (I think that was the bad news!). The good news was that I could still go, but would have to take a longer and harder Wayaan Mannan route that starts from the small village of Sinua, and it would now be a 3 day / 2 night trek.

It also meant a much longer journey to the start of the trail near Sinua. Getting to the start point took just under seven hours by road from Kota Kinabalu, including a lunch stop and coffee break, as I was transferred between three different cars for the trip.

 

The final stretch of road, which was only constructed about 30 years ago, provides the first view of Trusmadi in the distance.

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Camp 1 at Sinua is our destination for today: there’s a small bunkhouse and a larger dormitory with rows of hammocks. Soon there will also be one more up-market “cabin” to cater for the increasing tourism market and interest on the Trusmadi trek. I’ve got the bunkhouse to myself – two other groups had booked the shorter trail, but decided not to do the longer option. Compared to Kinabalu where 100+ people are on the mountain every day, having an entire mountain to myself is a new and decidedly more pleasant experience 🙂

 

Sinua (Camp 1) to Camp 2 – 7.4km

The Trusmadi trek starts the next day at 7:30am, up to Camp 2. We’re dropped off 1km down the road where the trail starts – “we” being my guide Sam, Melda the cook, Deo the assistant and myself. It’s a slightly larger entourage than I expected: I would have been happy with two-minute noodles for dinner, but I’m not complaining about having three cooked meals a day. It explains why the Trusmadi hike is more expensive than Kinabalu, where there is a permanent “camp” on the mountain.

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The path crosses a river on a well-constructed bridge as we head towards the Trusmadi forest reserve.

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The next crossing of the same river is not quite so civilised, as we take our shoes off, wade across… and put on our leech socks for the first section of the path.

 

We’re following an old logging road for most of the way to Camp 2, so it’s not too steep. But there are a LOT of leeches as we climb up through the jungle. My cheap leech socks seem to be working, but every time I stop I need to remove another set of hopeful leeches from my shoes.

 

The old road – it’s more of a track in places – gets progressively steeper. There’s a few creek crossings, as well as ferns, orchids and a few flowering plants. The guide tells me that one orchid that we spot (bottom right) is worth USD$5,000 in Europe.

 

After about 6.5km we reach an overgrown clearing, which marks the end of the old logging road. The last 800m to Camp 2 is a preview of the rest of the way to to the peak – a very narrow and rough track carved through the jungle. It’s much slower going, and feels more like an obstacle course than a track.

 

We reach Camp 2 at around 11am – it’s taken us about 3.5 hours to cover the 7.4km. From our starting point at Camp 1, we’ve also ascended from about 680m elevation to 1750m – which means we’ve done more than half of the vertical distance. It’s a nice camp which we have to ourselves, although capacity is about 30 people plus guides and cooks. It’s a but overcast and there’s some rain, but for a few short periods when the clouds part, there’s a view to the east over the surrounding mountains and forest.

 

To the north-east there are occasional glimpses of Trusmadi – although most of the time, it’s hidden in the swirling clouds and mist.

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It’s an early dinner (three different dishes cooked over the camp fire – I feel very spoilt!) and a few cups of tea by the fire before an early night. It’s pretty chilly at this altitude (I’m given a spare sleeping bag, or it would be very cold) and it starts raining heavily. I go to bed with a degree of trepidation about whether the rain will clear…

 

Camp 2 to the Summit – 4.2km

There’s no photos for this section, because it was dark. We leave camp at 1am for the summit – it’s rained all night, but stops just before we set out. I hope it clears in time for sunrise, so the effort of the climb will be rewarded by a great view!

It’s a tough climb, both because the track is steep, and because it’s very rough and muddy. There are some sections where you try and avoid stepping into foot-deep mud, many sections where you’re negotiating huge roots and occasionally a rope to help where the track is nearly vertical! The other “highlight” of this approach versus the other routes, is that there are in fact three peaks. To reach the Trusmadi summit, you must first traverse two smaller peaks along the ridge.

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We reach the summit at 4am, a bit too early. Actually, way too early. Rather than wait at the true summit (2,624m), we continue a bit further down the mountain (along the Tambunan trail) to Jiran Point. Here there is a five metre observation tower – and also a very small shelter that gives us a bit of protection from the cold as we wait for the sun to rise. I’m glad we wait – I’m getting pretty cold and almost suggest that we head back down the mountain to get out of the wind. But eventually the sun emerges, above a thick layer of cloud. In the distance, rising above the clouds, is Mount Kinabalu about 40km to the north.

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It’s a relatively short walk back to the true summit. The view isn’t as good as it is from the observation tower, but there’s still an unobstructed view of Kinabalu in the distance.

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Trusmadi Summit back to Camp 1 – 11.6km

From the summit, it’s back the same way down… Near the summit I can now see a wide range of unique flora and fauna, including the nepenthes macrophylla pitcher plant. Found only at a specific elevation on Mount Trusmadi (between 2200m and the summit at 2642m), its name is derived from the Latin words macro (large) and phylla (leaves).

 

There’s a few more glimpses of Trusmadi through breaks in the canopy.

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It’s less tiring but not a lot easier going down, as the slippery and muddy track requires constant attention.

 

The steepest section is between the “third” (main) Trusmadi peak and the second peak: after the initial descent from the summit there’s a steep climb, with a few sections aided by rope.

 

Other parts are less steep, but still require careful navigation using exposed tree roots for support.

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It takes us about 2.5 hours to reach Camp 2, and we have short break for our second breakfast (our first breakfast having been around midnight, before we set off for the summit).

 

From Camp 2, another two hours takes us back to Camp 1. This is easy walking after the previous section of the walk down to Camp 2 – but after heavy rain on the previous day, the leeches are out in force. I decide not to bother with my leech socks (which I’d bought for $1.50 a few days ago) and continue with my normal hiking socks and long pants. I think I must have removed at least 50 of the little bastards from my shoes and socks. After we reach the base of the mountain just before midday, I remove my socks and change into clean pant. I discover that 14 leeches have successfully latched onto various parts of my ankles and feet!

Leeches aside, it’s been one of my best hikes in Malaysia. Varied and challenging terrain, a great view at the top and a feeling of adventure that you don’t get on many of the more popular walks and summits.

Kinabalu versus Trusmadi

It’s not really a fair comparison, as apart from geographic proximity they are very different mountains. If you can, do both – but if you’ve limited time and have to pick? I’d go for Trusmadi, by a slim margin!

Elevation: Kinabalu is the clear winner for bragging rights at 4,095m altitude, compared to Trusmadi at 2,642m. Although if you compare the vertical distance hiked, they are fairly similar with 2,200m elevation gain for Kinabalu (you start much higher) compared to about 2000m for Trusmadi (if you do the route from Sinua). The shorter trails from Api Api and Tambunan have a lesser elevation gain.

Difficulty: Trusmadi has been described as harder than Kinabalu, and the trail is definitely a lot tougher. The altitude of Kinabalu does make a difference, and descending the mountain’s thousands of steps means you’ll feel your legs for a few days. But Trusmadi (at least if you take the longer of the trails) is more challenging, both in the length of the trail, steepness and the fact it’s largely an undeveloped jungle track.

Flora & Fauna: you’re unlikely to see much wildlife (unless you count leeches) on either walk, although if you’re patient there is a lot of birdlife at Trusmadi. Both mountains offer orchids, ferns and pitcher plants – Trusmadi has the advantage of being home to the huge nepenthes macrophylla pitcher plant, which is found in abundance near the peak.

Solitude: Trusmadi wins by a mile… pick the right weekend or go during the week, and there’s a good chance you’ll have the mountain to yourself. Especially if you go for one of the longer routes. By comparison, you’ll need to book well ahead for Kinabalu, and you’ll be walking up the mountain in a long line of people.

Views: The landscape as you climb Kinabalu is more varied, as you go from jungle to the exposed and rocky summit. There’s the same risk with both peaks that the only thing you see is cloud, if you’re unlucky with the weather. They both offer outstanding views from the top – you don’t really notice the significant difference in height from the top, and both peaks will rise above any low cloud cover.

 

 

Cost: I was surprised by how much more expensive it was to do Trusmadi when researching the walk: I paid around RM2150 / USD$540 x2 (as there’s a minimum of two people) for the 2D/1N version, including transport from Kota Kinabalu. By comparison Mt Kinabalu is around RM1500 / USD$380 for a foreigner, and promotional rates are sometimes available. One of the reasons for the difference is that Kinabalu has a permanent camp at Laban Rata with staff who stay there in shifts, while on Trusmadi there’s no permanent camp. A cook and assistant walked with us up to Camp 2, carrying all the supplies we needed. It may be possible to do Trusmadi without a guide (you still need to book a permit), and you could also negotiate a rate for just a guide if you organise and carry your own food.

In summary, Trusmadi feels more remote and challenging but be prepared for leeches and mud. If you’re not used to hiking or don’t want to rough it too much, Kinabalu would be the best pick.

Location The Mannan trail starts near Kampung Sinua, in the Keningau District.
Distance 7.4km on Day 1 and 15.8km on Day 2.
Grade Hard (very steep/slippery in sections with some ropes). Total elevation gain ~2000m
Season/s All year, but best to avoid wet season (Nov – March).
Map N/A
GPS route View route and export to KML format:
Day 1 – Camp 1 (Sinua) to Camp 2
Day 2 – Camp 2 to Trusmadi summit and back to Camp 1
Resources

Pisang Falls (Sungai Pisang)

A fun “jungle walk” near KL following the Pisang River (Sungai Pisang) through a set of tunnels under the Karak Highway and up to the picturesque Pisang Falls.

I’ve got a couple of days in Kualu Lumpur on the way to a trip across Borneo; just enough time to engage local guide Eddie Yap for a half-day jungle trek with my son. “Something I haven’t done before, not too far from KL” was my detailed brief 🙂

It’s less than an hour’s drive from our hotel in KL to the start of the walk, just past Batu Caves and along the old highway that goes up to Genting. After a brief walk along a rough path that follows the river bank, the river runs under the Karak Highway through two huge tunnels.

We leave our shoes on, and enter one of the dark tunnels – it’s possible to keep your feet dry if you keep to the very edge of the tunnel, where there’s a small ledge…

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…although our shoes don’t stay dry much longer, with the the trail crossing the river a few times – and sometimes the trail is the river itself.

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Unlike most previous walks with Eddie where we are climbing up steep hills or mountains, this walk is fairly flat with the path following the river upstream. It’s a rough track though, as we cross sections of thick jungle roots and scramble under (or over) fallen trees and boulders.

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It takes about half an hour to cover the 1.5km to Pisang Falls (also called Banana Falls), which have a drop of about 30 metres. It’s not crowded for a Saturday considering we’re only about 45min from KL – there are about ten people in the swimming hold beneath falls, and another ten or so people picnicking above the falls. The only steep section is from from the base of the falls up to the top.

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Path near Pisang Falls. Photo credit: Eddie Yap

There’s a camping and picnic area at the top, and the path makes a broad loop around the back of the Falls before descending again on the other side to the river.

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We return the same way down the river and back to the car, the entire walk taking about 2.5 hours. It’s amazing how you can have a “jungle experience” and swim in crystal-clear water so close to KL!

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Location Access via the old Gombak Highway past Batu Caves. Look for signs to Jungle Lodge, where you can park and access the river neat a pumping station.
Distance Return distance 5km (including the loop above the Falls)
Grade Easy. Total elevation gain of 130m
Season/s All year. Avoid after heavy rain.
Maps None available.
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to KML format.

 

Binna Burra (Lamington)

A long day walk that combines waterfalls (Coomera Circuit) with views over the Byron hinterland (Mount Hobwee Circuit).

Lamington National Park is part of the Scenic Rim, a group of forested mountain ranges that was formed by volcanic activity and encompasses south-eastern Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales. The national park is also part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area, which includes an extensive area of subtropical rainforest. The park is divided into two sections: Binna Burra on the eastern side and Green Mountains on the western side of the Lamington Plateau; the Border Track links these two sections by foot. The Border Track also forms a significant part of the Queensland “Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk” (not a walk I would recommend or undertake, as it involves a long section of road linking two sections of the bushwalk.)

Lamington National Park has over 150km of trails (largely constructed during the Great Depression) that were designed by Romeo Lahey. There are references to Lahey laying out these trails based on his observations of dairy cow movements on the surrounding hills, with their paths never having a gradient of greater than 1:10 [source: Wikipedia]. While I haven’t found primary evidence of this, it is noticeable when hiking that the paths are never steep, and often “zig zag” endlessly up the side of steeper peaks.

It’s been just over eight years since my last hike in Lamington National Park, so I’m taking the opportunity to squeeze in a walk before an IT conference that’s being held on the Gold Coast. Being easier to get to Binna Burra (it’s 30min less driving than Green Mountains), I awake early and I’m on the track by 7:15am. I’m starting off on the Coomera Circuit, which is regarded as one of the best walks in this section and takes in a number of the 400 waterfalls that are in Lamington NP. It was rated  as one of the best day walks in Australia by Australia Geographic.

The tracks are well made, and I’m travelling at least as fast as a cow as I leave the Binna Burra track head.

The Coomera Circuit trail soon branches off to the right (the Border Track goes straight ahead), and descends into the Coomera Gorge. The first waterfall, at the 5.4km mark, is the most impressive. Coomera Falls has a drop of 64m, below a viewing platform 160m above gorge.

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The track continues through rain forest as it follows the Coomera River, ascending gradually (the Coomera Falls lookout is the lowest point of the walk, at 695m above sea level). The vegetation is lush and it’s cool on the track, with a number of smaller side waterfalls. Fortunately, there are no leeches!

The next falls are the Gwongorenda Falls and Goorinya Falls. My pace is now slowing, as I stop to take photos every few hundred metres.

Another ten minutes and down a short side-track is the Bahnamboola Falls, which cascades into a deep pool.

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Next, there’s Kagoonya Falls and the smaller Gwongarragong Falls, both of them quite different but all of them very picturesque.

Mercifully, as my progress has now slowed considerably (I’m well below cow-speed, despite the very gradual ascent) with the constant photo-stops, there’s 500m or so before my next step. Moolgoolong Cascades are small, but drop into a large and still pool.

A bit further on, I reach the junction with the Border Track, having walked 10.6km. It’s still early in the day, so rather than turning left and returning via the Border Track, I turn right and continue further. It’s about another kilometre to the next junction, where I leave the Border Track and join the Hobwee Circuit (I’m now about half-way to O’Reillys Guesthouse, at the Green Mountains end of the track). The thick rainforest has been replaced by more open wet sclerophyll forest.

A side-track leads to Dacelo Lookout, with views over the Byron Shire. Mount Warning is the highest peak, directly ahead in the distance (another good hike).

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The Mount Hobwee Circuit track gradually ascends to the summit of Mount Hobwee, which is the highest point of the walk at 1,164m. There is no view, so I take a photo of the sign, eat my chocolate bar (it’s lunch time) and continue on my way.

I add one more side-trip to my walk, taking the Wagawn Track (4km return) out to Mt Wagawn. There’s again no view from the Mt Wagawn summit (1,015m), but a rough track that leads down the ridge from the summit provides some views to the south. (According to my map, the track should continue down the ridge to Bushrangers Cave, but the track peters out, and I don’t have the energy to bush-bash down to the cave. Post-walk research reveals that the cave is best visited by starting from the Nerang-Murwillumbah Road, at the bottom of the ridge.)

From here, it’s back to the starting point… I’ve walked 18km and it’s more or less all downhill from here. From the Wagawn Track I re-join the Hogwee Circuit, and then I’m back on the Border Track. There’s one more nice view from the Joalah Lookout, this time out over the Woggunba Valley and the Springbrook National Park beyond.

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I’m almost back… another 5km  and I arrive back at the car, finishing the walk at 1:15pm and in time to get to my afternoon meetings in the Gold Coast – and a well-earned beer!

Location About 110 km / 2 hour drive south of Brisbane and 45m / 50min from Gold Coast, both via Beechmont
Distance 27km (Cooomera Circuit + Hobwee Circuit)
Grade Moderate. Total ascent of 600m.
Season/s All year round.
Map Lamington National Park 1:35,000
GPS Route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources National Parks web site. Map for Binna Burra.

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Mulu Caves and The Pinnacles

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.

Lang Cave

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.

Entrance to Green Cave (Mulu NP)

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.)

Green Cave (Mulu NP)

Eventually we emerge back into daylight, with the boardwalk continuing under towering cliffs to the next cave…

Deer 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.)

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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.

Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

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.

Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

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.

Garden of Eden, Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

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.

Face in the rock, Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

Bat Observatory

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.)

Bats streaming out of Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

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.

Bats streaming out of Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

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.

Clearwater Cave

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.

King's Chamber, Wind Cave

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).

Clearwater Cave

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.

Clearwater Cave

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).

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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.

Melinau River, beside Camp 5 (Mulu NP)

The Pinnacles

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.

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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!

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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…

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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.

Pinnacles, Mulu NP

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,

Pinnacles, Mulu NP

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.

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It’s a much quicker trip downstream, with the river current pushing us through the shallow sections that presented a challenge two days ago.

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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.
Map N/A
Resources
Notes & Tips
  • Dress appropriately including good footwear – within the caves the ground can be slippery/uneven, and the hike up to the Pinnacles is rough and slippery
  • A head torch is essential for caves
  • Be prepared for the occasional leech!
  • Some short walks in the past can be done without a guide; the caves, Pinnacles and Mt Mulu require a guide and should be booked in advance.
  • Stay in Mulu National Park if you can

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