Tropical Travels Part 9

We spent Monday morning buying some food for Mulu – knowing that supplies would be very limited and expensive over there. We quickly learned that the local shops don’t officially open before 9am, which would be more accurately described as 9:30am.

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After a pineapple juice from a street vendor, we made our way to Kota Kinabalu airport. Our taxi took longer than anticipated to arrive, and we found ourselves at the airport just under an hour before our flight. This wasn’t a concern until we discovered that Malaysia considers a flight between Sabah and Sarawak as an international flight, even though we would be remaining in the same country.

We got through passport control, but our flight departure time was less than 10 minutes away by the time we were through passport control. Our boarding gate was A14, but the sign only referred to gates A1-12 – so we headed for A12 to find that gates A13-20 had been added, but the signs were never updated.

The notices informed us that our flight was boarding, so we had to run across the airport to our boarding gate. On arrival, we discovered that our flight was late and that we were actually fine.

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Eventually our MAS Wings 60 seater turbo-prop was there and we were ready to board. It was just over half an hour late. It was Matthew’s first time in a turbo-prop. He has been on far more flights than me, but I am used to traveling to obscure locations, so I have done plenty of flights on small aircraft, including a 4 seater and a 12 seater.

The flight went through Miri, where we had to get our passports stamped. Flying from Miri to Mulu, it was notable that the majority of the land we were flying over was clearly untouched. Mulu is only accessibly by flight or boat, and has basically no phone signal – it is genuinely in the middle of nowhere!

Coming into land, it was clear that this was a really spectacular part of the world.

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We checked in to the reserve, paid our RM30 permit fees as well as the fee to stay at the hostel for most of the next week, and proceeded to the room to put our things down. The hostel was surprisingly nice for the cost. Breakfast is included, and the beds are comfortable. It has hot water and electricity and the ablutions are in perfect – not bad for a place that is so far from the outside world.

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We took the boardwalk out to Deer Cave to watch the bat exodus – one of the most famous events at Mulu. It includes 2 to 10 million bats leaving the cave – a sight that can’t be seen in many places globally. But before the bats did their thing, it began to rain, and as a result the bats didn’t depart in masses. We saw a few hundred, but nowhere near as many as expected.

We were the last to depart the viewing area as we waited for the rain to stop before heading back.

Tuesday – day 18

The breakfast included with our accommodation turned out to be a choice of a few different meals, all with local fruit, fresh juice and as many cups of tea or coffee as you like. The meals at Mulu are actually really good. If you compare the prices to what you pay in Kota Kinabalu, they are a bit expensive, but they are much cheaper than the equivalent food back in South Africa – definitely worth eating at the Mulu restaurant.

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Soon we were in a powered long boat on the river. We were on our way to Camp 5 for the Mulu Pinnacles, but would stop at Winds and Clearwater Cave on the way.

Before the cave we stopped at the local town. I didn’t take any photos as I don’t think it is right to take photos of people living their normal lives as if they were a tourist attraction. If you take some cash along, there are some locally made handicrafts available, and for RM1, you can have two tries at shooting a blow-dart. We didn’t have cash with us, so we just walked around and looked.

Just a heads up on my cave photos – I am aware that the focus isn’t great, it is the nature of low lighting shots with a small handheld camera. Photos never do justice to these things anyway, so rather go and visit them in person!

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We started with the Cave of the Winds. It is actually connected to Clearwater Cave, and with an 8km hike, you can go from one to the other. It is adventure caving and requires a qualifying “intermediate” cave before you can give it a go. It requires 2km of swimming, so I decided to give that a miss.

Cave of the Winds gets its name from the narrow passage where you can feel a wind as the air pressure tries to normalise itself.

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We went back to the boat and made our way to Clearwater Cave.

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We had lunch outside the cave before getting back in the boats an getting dropped off at the turnoff to Camp 5.

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The walk to Camp 5 was roughly 9km and took just over 2 hours. It was on a good, but wet, trail and included a few bridges. It was mostly flat and in thick vegetation, so not much to report on there.

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The camp is on a raised platform in the valley between Mount Api and Mount Benerat. It is in a spectacular setting. It is around 50m above sea level, despite being over 100km from the sea. The mountains on either side are above 1600m and have exceptionally steep sides, making for a really worthwhile view. There is also a great spot for swimming in the river right by the camp.

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The camp also has cooking equipment and a gas stove. We had been told we had to bring our own equipment, so we left food requiring cooking at home. The advantage of going to an obscure place that no one has ever heard of is that you get to experience untouched nature and amazing scenery without crowds. The downside is that there is very little information available online.

We were given a briefing on our hike for the next day. We were a group of 14, which is unusually large. We were told we needed to be walking by 6am, and had to reach certain checkpoints by certain times. It was made clear to us that this is not a game, this route is serious and injury and the occasional death have occurred on this route. Another problem with being in the middle of nowhere is that no real medical care is available nearby.

It rained that evening, but by now we had realised that this happens every day during monsoon season – it rains for an hour or two in the late afternoon.

The next morning we were all up nice and early, and soon found ourselves walking up a very steep and slippery trail. Checkpoint #1 was the “mini-pinnacles”, a rock formation you wouldn’t notice if it didn’t have a name. We had an hour to cover this 800m stretch, that included 400m in altitude gain. A gradient of 2m flat to 1m vertical is very steep, easily on par with many hard Drakensberg routes. This is not a route for newbies, I can tell you that!

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Matthew had been struggling a bit, and I had ended up ahead of him. We all regrouped at the first checkpoint and the last of the team was there within 52 minutes, so everyone was allowed to continue.

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I made a point of staying with Matthew for the rest of the route. It was very slippery and steep. We knew that we had to put on 1.2km in altitude over the space of 2.4km, so this would be no joke.

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We made checkpoint 2 well within time. This was halfway, so we were told to leave half a litre of water here for the trip back. Dropping 500g from the pack weight was nice, but a lot of people had realised that the 3 litres of water we were told to carry wouldn’t’ be enough. Luckily for me, experience does come in handy in cases like this, so I made a point of rationing my water. I am happy with how it worked out, as I finished my last bit of water as I walked into camp later that day. But back to the way up.

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Matthew was coping better now than he had been earlier in the day. I could see he was struggling a bit, but that was to be expected – in all fairness I was not finding this to be a walk in the park either!

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We eventually had a bit of a gap in the vegetation and could see how high we were. The pinnacles are on Mount Api, which is a subsidiary summit of Mount Mulu. Sadly you can’t connect the hikes – I would have liked to summit Mount Mulu, and not just because it is an ultra. As it turns out, the summit is almost never out of the mist. In our week there, we did not see the top once and the local guides confirmed that it is very rare to summit in clear weather. So probably a good thing we picked the pinnacles over the main summit.

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We eventually reached the first of the 17 ladders. The sign “welcome to the danger zone” resulted in a few group members singing a certain song. Much like when we arrived at Camp 5 to a greeting of “welcome to the jungle”.

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The ladders were considerably easier than the approach section, mostly due to there being something to hold onto. We saw a pitcher plant on the way up – which is quite something to see in the wild.

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The Pinnacles were smaller than anticipated, but it was a relief to reach them. There aren’t many places on earth that include rock features like this, and the scientific opinion on how they are formed is also still debated. Nonetheless, the hike up is really worth it, even without the pinnacles, so definitely a hike worth doing if you are at Mulu and are up for the challenge.

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We had lunch at the viewpoint, enjoying the scenery. I eventually found a tree that provided a great view point over the valley.

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As usual, descent proved trickier than ascent. Many rocks had red paint on them, and if you asked why, you got a reply of “that’s not paint”.

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Our team was all safely back at Camp 5 within 7 hours of departure. This is apparently a bit faster than average. Imran (our guide) informed us that we were one of very few large groups where everyone made all the cutoffs on time.

Matthew was clearly very tired and was soon fast asleep. I played some backgammon with one of the other members of the team before calling it a night.

The camp is very basic, no electricity (aside from a few lights, probably solar powered), and no hot water.

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The following morning, one of the couples who had an early flight to catch asked if anyone was happy to leave at 7am so that we could fill a boat and leave earlier. Matthew and I decided to take them up on this, along with Sean from Canada.

On the walk back, Matthew and Sean both picked up leeches. Somehow I managed to avoid them.

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We made good time back to the boat. But when we arrived, the boat was not there yet. I had a look at Matthew’s leg and realised that it was still bleeding from the leech. I got out the first aid kit, cleaned it up a bit, put on some antiseptic cream and plastered it up.

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The boat ride back was slow – the engine kept cutting out.

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The couple was dropped off at the airport, and the rest of us were dropped back at the offices. We signed up for the Deer and Lang Cave hike that afternoon, as well as the Canopy Walk and Racer Cave for the next day.

These showcaves are accessed by the boardwalk from the office. Deer Cave is one of the largest known caverns on earth, while Lang Cave is a small cave right next to it. We saw a hammerhead worm on the way out.

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Of the show caves, Lang Cave was definitely the most beautiful.

We proceeded to Deer Cave. This cave is roughly 4km long, and at its highest point, the roof is 146m above the ground. The high roof makes it ideal for bats, and it is home to 12 different species and the estimate of numbers ranges from 2 to 10 million bats.

When you are quite deep into the cave, you still have daylight visible due to the massive entrance.

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If you look at this photo closely, you will see people walking on the boardwalk – it gives you some sense of scale.

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The angle of this photo looks like it is close to the ground, but I am actually standing up.

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The opening on the other side of the cave:

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This rock formation is called the shower-head, although I think some people might have a different name for it.

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After Deer Cave, we returned to the bat observatory to watch the bat exodus. It rained and the bats didn’t arrive once again. We waited for the rain to stop before heading back to the restaurant and having sweet and sour chicken – which was amazing, by the way – and calling it a night.

We were halfway through our stay in Mulu, and it was starting to dawn on my that my holiday would soon be over.

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