Borneo Chapter Two: Into Gunung Mulu


We left Kuching for Gunung Mulu National Park in the middle of an afternoon thunderstorm. Our twin-propeller plane took off directly into a snarling black wall of clouds and sideways rain and serious doubts about near-term safety. Luckily, the inclement weather was mostly low lying, a meteorological bluff that gave way to sun and a fluffy white bed of clouds a few thousand feet off the ground. Far less (superficially) dangerous, was our arrival an hour later at Mulu Airport, swooping down over mountainous jungle into a remote town set so deep in the heart of Borneo that one must fly or travel by boat to reach it (logging roads exist, but it is almost impossible to reach Mulu by land).

Gunung Mulu National Park is a 546 square kilometer old-growth jungle preserve set almost in the geographical center of Malaysian Borneo. It is also one of the most spectacular places in Southeast Asia, and probably the world. I don’t toss around descriptive absolutes like ‘most spectacular’ lightly, but Mulu deserves it. Why the effusive praise?

Walking into Deer Cave. Hopefully I (the person walking) lend some sense of scale to the enormity of the place.

Walking into Deer Cave. Hopefully I (the person walking) lend some sense of scale to the enormity of the place.

CAVES. 286km of cave systems; the largest known cave chamber on earth – Sarawak Chamber at 700m in length, 400 meters in width, and 70m in height; the largest cave passage on earth (or was, apparently the recent discovery of a cave in Vietnam has usurped this title, but I’m not an official, so 1st or 2nd biggest) – the entrance passage to Deer Cave is about 2km deep, 174m high, and a couple hundred meters in width depending on your location; the longest cave in Southeast Asia – Clearwater cave clocking in at 180km of explored passageway; and a variety of other superlatives that I will skip. The caves are almost incomprehensibly enormous. The entrance to Deer Cave hits 300m tall in places. If you wanted, you could sail the entirety of the United States 7th Fleet into Deer Cave and probably have room for a 9-hole underground golf course.

A trio of lantern bugs cling to a tree. Despite the name, the long snouts do not emit light.

A trio of lantern bugs cling to a tree. Despite the name, the long ‘lanterns’ do not emit light.

FLORA AND FAUNA. Do you like old growth jungle? Do you like rare, exotic, Burton-esque types of insects and land mammals? Or 170 distinct species of orchids? Does the phrase, ‘10 different species of the carnivorous Pitcher Plant,’ arouse your curiosity and/or toss gasoline onto the always smoldering ember of wanderlust buried right beside your gypsy heart? Well, maybe you’re not a botanist, perhaps it takes giant moths, emerald pit vipers, pygmy squirrels, Rhinoceros Hornbills, hand sized snails, face sized spiders, 276 species of butterflies – including the luminescent Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing, porcupines and deer and scampering lizards to pluck those traveler chords. While exotic, the terrestrial leeches and extremely aggressive ants aren’t as fun. Granted, population densities for mammals are quite low, and many animals are active nocturnally, so sightings are not guaranteed, but that makes any encounter even more special.

One of the bridges on the 480m long Canopy Skywalk, one of the most fascinating attractions in the park.

One of the bridges on the 480m long Canopy Skywalk, one of the most fascinating attractions in the park.

MANAGERIAL EXCELLENCE. Gunung Mulu National Park is an incredibly well managed, world-class eco-tourism destination and  is consistently voted as one of the best managed parks in all of Malaysia and Southeast Asia. Park staff are courteous, knowledgeable, and professional; activities are diverse and well organized; the food is good; the trails are well maintained; the amenities are nice; the internet can be slow, but hey, you can’t even get to the park by car so if clouds problematize satellite reception facebook status updates will have to wait. Stay at Park HQ if you can. It is a collection of bungalows and cabins nestled right at the edge of the rain forest and it is remarkable. If time is a concern do the Canopy Skywalk, Deer Cave, Clearwater Cave, and the  Night Shift. If time isn’t a concern add some adventure caving, a river boat tour, and lounge around to your heart’s content listening to the gorgeous aural environment.

A group of wrinkle-lipped bats sleeping during the day.

A group of wrinkle-lipped bats sleeping during the day.

By making a list of things designed to capture the superlative nature of Gunung Mulu I may have given the impression that the beauty, scale, and otherworldly character of the park is somehow quantifiable. I don’t actually believe that is the case. Take for example Deer Cave. Its entrance is roughly the size of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. 3 million bats chatter away about 180m above your head. It is a 60 million year old testament to the geological alchemy of acidic water and limestone. None of those numbers really convey the historico-emotional synesthesia of being there. To rephrase without bullshit hyphenated terminology: being inside Deer Cave sets off some kind of innate sense of rapture that always existed and continues to exist in the cracks and recesses of the brain.

And the same goes for the afternoon and evening showers. Laying in a bungalow, with slatted blinds open, and the rain – its rising and falling percussive waves of sound – washing over the room, the bed, everything. The rain in Mulu is felt, and the rain begets a throaty, raucous, insistent insectoid symphony that wrings an unlikely harmony out of chaotic dissonance. It is such a deeply sensory experience; I want to write myself straight out and into a purpled, adjectival wilderness. And I guess that desire for descriptive excess is kind of the point: Mulu is special in a way that few places are – a truly unique, irreplaceable part of our world. I want to avoid valedictory clichés like, ‘go see it for yourself,’ or, ‘make it part of any Southeast Asian intinerary,’ but I have to say those things. So do it, go, you should, absolutely; see the bats, and the caves, and the lantern bugs, and definitely, definitely listen to the rain.

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