Today required a very early start before stocking up on inflated price grub and an unflattering rain poncho in anticipation of a 2 day wilderness sojourn. Though there were a few trekking alternatives on offer from within Gunung Mulu National Park, it had really been the draw of the world's largest cave chamber at what is after all one of Malaysia's 2 UNESCO sites which had prompted my resolve to visit. The trekking here was overpriced and problematic to reserve and yet I found myself signed up for the Pinnacles Trail, a ........ which did not even particularly appeal to me, yet given the money and effort involved in getting so close it seemed perverse to come here to visit the caves and no more. Part of the expense was perpetrated by the necessity of taking a longboat from the Camp HQ for a 30 minute river jaunt, quite clearly a local scam in securing employment and a quick buck where a forest trail could quite clearly have been created. First stop was an unexpected brow slapping layover at a telltale modern longhouse community clearly recently established for forcibly resettled Penan people, the last nomads of the forest, where stalls layered with tourist tack did not exude a good first impression. After sweeping round shady bends and negotiating at length a shallow rocky section which had necessitated other boatloads to get out and walk the boat over it, we put in at a boardwalk leading up to the second major brace of "Show Caves". First was the Wind Cave which though on a smaller scale than the previous giants made up for it in character, a golden underground chasm of sugar icing and many unlikely stalagmites. Clearwater cave had to be my overall favourite however, another fantasticly proportioned void which most remarkably as the name suggests, has a major and very clean looking river flowing through it. For the daring you could don a wetsuit and go caving from this point onwards, the initial phase being a swim down the quickly darkening gulf. Not for the faint hearted but what an adventure. It was here that I learned of the principle of "Keyhole" erosion, whereby the effects of alternating soft and hard layers of rock had over the millennia created a cleft of that very shape, as the river variously carved the rock side or river bed more than the other.
The boat from there took us up another excellent jungle clad highway until we were dropped at a shingle banking for our eventual egress into the forest. This was the start point of the real stuff now, an easy if somewhat boggy flat 8.5K trek punctuated by 2 bouncy wire suspension bridges. At the end of it materialised a haven christened only as Camp 5, a basic forest shelter which though mustering a busy kitchen for the all inclusive big spenders had only rubber mats and not much else under an open air roof to offer.
The day previous proved unremarkable in a indulgence of deserved relaxation and reading, marked only by the realisation of an anniversary for me, now a full 11 months on the road. I knew now that I had entered a different world indeed where time had been relegated to secondary importance to the incalculable wonders on offer, Indonesia and Malaysian Borneo were only conducive to a timescale which I could never have hitherto contemplated and yet they justified every last day. Every day I impatiently thought of oh so near Australia and yet it was still a world away, I let that consideration remain surprisingly inconsequential in the presence of other important attractions. Certainly though I didnt wish any further unnecessary delay there could be no question of cutting corners.
Fearful of not uncommon delays and cancellations, we were fortunate in waking to a day of acceptably scattered cloud which would not preclude our departure. Nights of entertaining conversation with Swiss duo Alex and Melanie revealed that they had flown out in advance of us with the intention of next tackling Gunung Mulu National Park, and our immediate connection via Miri airport had us booked on the same flight as them back out into the jungle folds. Arriving at Miri airport after another panorama of forested rolling hills and logging track scars, it was a strange permutation to variously spy or meet up with a myriad of travellers whom I had met over the last fortnight or so. The Swiss duo booked on the same flight as us out to Mulu were predictable, and yet besides a gaggle of other fellow itinerants previously encountered I was shocked to unexpectedly come across Sine accompanied by an Ozzie bloke, she should have been long gone. My mind had writhed at an opportunity missed ever since I had left her here in Miri, and as though now to rub it in here she was having just completed the impending delights of Mulu and the Headhunter's Trail to boot. If I had been more partisan in forsaking Roberto and let my heart rule for once, it would have been me instead of the Ozzie that was plain, it helped that he was a nice guy though and I didnt let the perversity of the situation take the piss out of me. I was just left wondering whether I had made an error of judgment, or was it just the story of my life?
Another incongruous farewell saw me loaded onto a Fokker 50 in Malaysian Airlines colours for the backtrack up the now familiar route to Mulu, a flight less than full despite the ostensibly premium availability, and the remarkably swift 18 minute hop had us land at an airfield surrounded by jungle-clad limestone outcrop scenery reminiscent of southern Thailand. Our naivety played into the hands of touts awaiting the easy pickings of disorientated arrrivals, who we paid generously for an unnecessary short van transfer, upon which the park HQ became a focal point for further uncertainty. Hoping against hope that a bed with our name on it had been reserved, we had to collectively back down from expected confrontation when we found our names on the books after all, I joined Roberto, Alex and Melanie in a large dormitory against our expectation. They obviously didnt have a habit of confirming booking requests and given the propensity for problematic ramifications it was a poor excuse for service however they redeemed themseves since, especialy given the stereotypically inflated pricing.
With only 3 nights at Mulu, Roberto and I were forced into dropping our bags and immediately heading out on a lone and technically illegal evening foray, our itinerary for the next couple of days would leave us no other avenue to explore one of the local cave systems and so it had to be now. With the caves ostensibly closing at 6pm it was a rushed boardwalk speedmarch with no time to afford appreciation of especially prolific bird calls, and so we arrived at what was actually a less than immediately obvious yawning which unfolded only once almost within it, the cavernous entrance to the Deer Cave. Our first of the 5 resident "Show Caves", the Deer Cave was no ordinary hole in the ground. Boasting the worlds largest cave mouth and largest underground chamber, you could allegedly park 40 Jumbo Jets in it nose to tail......
Then nearby Lang's Cave after watching the amazing periodic sunset exodus of millions of bats......
After the now celebrated daily indulgence of a coconut bun brekkie, we had after all got into the habit of securing Bario's single daily packet flown in from Marudi presumably at the expense of some bamboozled local, we decided to redeem our presence with another day trek. The prospect was a seemingly easily managable contrived triangular circuit first out along the rough vehicle track to neighbouring village Pa'Ukat.
To Roberto's delight we encountered quite a lot of birdlife in this endeavour, and though the originators of a myriad of contrasting calls proved elusive in the main as ever, we made a good team with Roberto's binoculars, bird book and evident expertise complimented by my 24X camera zoom. I also spied a cutesy inquisitive Tree Shrew before he darted off, a green tinted beastie which I had hitherto mistaken for a Squirrel species, certainly they looked for all the world like one. Then a large buffalo cowpat was an unlikely blessing in proving an irresistible draw for various insect species. Tiny vibrantly coloured crickets were contrasted by a lone black and green specimen a full 4 inches long, and butterflies and wasps added to the mix. Pa'Ukat proved to be an even sleepier haven than Bario, with the odd job of timber construction and paddy field tending being the only signs of life bar the sweet as you like kite towing kids. From there it was a contrastingly narrow forest encroached jungle trail in order to make the cross connection to neighbouring village Pa'Umor, though the poor mud and puddle troubled slog compounded by a full on downpour lasted much longer than anticipated. Having learned the hard way that my retro ski jacket gifted by old timer Steve in Bangkok was far from water proof whatever the promises, Roberto's quality gear proved similarly useless in defending us from a full on deluge. That eventually provoked refuge upon reaching a second telltale vehicle track mysteriously still short of the anticipated village.
A sign promptly promised Gem's Lodge however, a well known yet isolated country retreat where we ventured in search of tea and shelter. Devoid of further custom, James the owner proved a warm, engaging and soulfull host and it was our only disappointment in opting to eventually have dinner there under pressure of the persistent storm that he and his wife failed to join us. Though it was only a later realisation, I could only guess that having arrived unexpectedly in the middle of nowhere, they served us what should have been their own dinner. The conversation was good though as we hopelessly tried to dry out our boots and atire by the open fire, descending into flame defying darkness as the storm endured thunderously outside. Pa'Umor was relegated to the land of unfulfilled dreams then, and it was only under pressure from Roberto that I let the daylight slip and an ominous sodden trek home in the dark loom. Though surely unintentionally troubling, James' parting insight into our locale revealed his indepth knowledge of the forest by telling of the 8 Tarantula species pervading these parts.
We escaped into the jungle night to be enveloped by a world of intimidating sounds and mystery, redeemed mercifully by the vague glow of the talcum white track along which my faithful "Almond" torch proved itself more valuable than its weight in gold in allowing us to dodge the worst of the puddles. When you come across a herd of buffalo ahead of you in the pitch black it does tend to concentrate the mind, it has to be said. Miniscule Bario eventually rematerialised every bit as important an outpost of civilisation as it must seem to the locals.
In an environment entirely conducive to relaxation it was only after a chill out morning that we stole ourselves to reach out in another exploratory foray, this time electing to take in the lie of the land around the scattered surrounds of Bario. A first point of note was the discovery of a new longhouse under construction and it was interesting to see how it was being slapped together piecemeal according to as and when the families could afford to fit their particular section out. The basic foundation and exterior framework was pocked with periodic boxes individually completed, a very unusual strategy not exactly in line with the underlying ethos of communal living. Climbing a small hill we then came across the "Bario Motivational Centre" much to Roberto's delight, merely a kiddies park of assault course style challenges. A couple of waterholes here added to the mix with a large population of frisky frogs, and evetrywhere we wandered any locals encountered were uniformally inquisitive and friendly.
Descent down through the local school which lined both sides of the track was in the process of being blessed with Bario's first paved road, and you had to wonder just how rural it could get to learn of the presence of boarders here in tiny Bario. Our main priority lay now in tracing the couple of Ks out to a local development gone wrong, whereby the fantastically disastrous Hydro Dam project intended to harness a local rivulette for power generation had been officially declared a flop after only one day of operation. Costing 14.2 million Ringgit, over 2 million Pounds, I had to suspect that it had had more to do with greasing sticky palms in Kuching than in helping the locals do their dishes.
It was in this direction that we chanced upon an amazingly fluent English speaking woman tending a paddy field, looking for all the world like stereotypical peasantry, it reminded us of the fact that some international survey had declared the Bario region as considered to be one of the most intelligent communities in the world. Hidden in the rural interior of Borneo of all places. I actually stopped short of an assured soaking in discovering the dam itself but Roberto confirmed that I wasnt missing much, it was nice just to sit by the evidently much too humble river in any case. Finalisation of a loop back to our den of rest allowed more bird spotting across the paddy fields, and it was at this point that we met up with a newly arrived Italo-Spanish couple. Under pressure of time they ended up plumping for Reddi's super pricey compromised Bario Loop trek, and we later learned that he had not only predictably proved to be a lacklustre guide, but he even shortchanged them by a day. The Italian guy was so firey as to appear manic however and so we didnt quite know which to feel sorrow for, frankly neither. Conversely it was around this time that we met Alex and Melanie, a Swiss German couple who proved to be good company and on a par in the crazy stakes. Unbeknown to us at this point we were destined to share many adventures together.