By Jamilah Samian
Mention Borneo and some may start conjuring images of headhunters lurking in the wild. But that was many years ago and the island is now celebrated for a different reason. Within its shores lies a rare treasure millions of years old — the Mulu caves.
From Miri, you can reach Mulu either by air, which will take only about 30 minutes, or via an eight-hour boat ride.
I find the second option more adventurous but neither practical nor appealing as I have children in tow.
Our guide met us at the Mulu airstrip. Our group of ten, comprising seven Malaysians and three Britons, then proceeded to the Royal Mulu Resort. The hotel itself was a pleasant surprise. Built on wooden stilts, the sprawling complex blended with the surrounding verdant rainforest. Its design, based on the longhouses, lent it a rustic charm.
The initial trek to the Mulu Caves began along a plank walkway about a metre high. Mulu National Park, in which the caves nestle, is a gem of a forest. Thousands of species of ferns, fungi, mosses and flowering plants snuggle among each other. Creepers dangle from the boughs of towering trees. Tree tops conspire to provide a canopy that shelter visitors from the afternoon heat.
I was mesmerised by the shimmering rays of lights that poked through the dense canopy to reach and nurture the thriving flora on the forest floor. Small wonder then, that Unesco inscribed the park as a World Heritage Site on November 27, 2000 citing it as an area of exceptional natural beauty.
Forty-five minutes on, the entrance to Lang Cave greeted us. Electric lights plus a cement pathway joined intermittently by wooden steps, with firm handrails mounted against inclines, ensured we didn’t lose our way. Stalactites and stalagmites glinted with moisture.
The whole interior was enveloped in darkness. I had read about how spectacular the rock formations in Lang Caves were but in reality, they were far more magnificent. Some of the shapes and patterns resembled creatures and scenes of the rainforest itself. Razor-sharp daggers stared down from the ceiling. It was as if someone had brought in a colossal piece of ivory and sculpted a priceless masterpiece that took millions of years to complete.
A short distance away was Deer Cave, the largest cave passage known to man and home to millions of bats. Long ago, hordes of deer used to roam within its walls to seek shelter and lick salt.
“Talk if you must,” said the guide before we stepped in, “but keep your voices low.” Loud noises may distress the bats. I stood on the cement walkway, dwarfed by its sheer magnitude. Caverns lunge into nothingness. The cave is said to be large enough to contain 20 wide-bodied Boeing 747s parked side by side.
I hadn’t gone far when an acrid smell permeated the air. “Keep your hands off the handrails,” said the guide. They are covered with bat guano. Besides, there are hordes of hairy earwigs, which love greasy stuff. It’s difficult to get them off once they cling to your skin. I shone my torchlight around. Heaps of bat guano surrounded us.
The roosting bats, however, weren’t visible in the dimly lit area. Because of the bat excreta, the whole area was teeming with creepy-crawlies like cockroaches, beetles and flies that feed on it!
At 6pm, we adjourned to the bat observatory near the mouth of the cave to witness the climax of the evening: migration of the bats into the jungle to forage for food.
It wasn’t long before the first batch appeared. One minute they were hovering near the mouth of the cave. The next, they had transformed into a black wavy cloud and had snaked out of view.
Dusk began to descend as we trudged back to our lodgings. We had covered more than six kilometres by foot. Syarif, 7, began to complain of exhaustion. I had unwittingly tied my shoelaces a trifle too tight when we set off and now had a pair of blistery feet to reckon with. Carrying a seven-year-old was out of the question.
“I’ll share with you a little secret,” I whispered. “Lean on me and hold my hand tight. My energy will flow into you.” It worked. A few metres ahead, five-year-old Siraj, the youngest member of the group, was dozing on his father’s shoulder.
The next morning we cruised along the Melinau River. It was shallow in some parts and at times, the guide’s partner had to nudge the boat with a long, sturdy stick. We visited a Penan settlement before proceeding to a small quay. We ascended the winding steps that flanked the limestone cliff to reach the Wind Cave. The breeze at the entrance was invigorating.
Inside lies the King’s Chamber, an area which contains stalactities and stalagmites. We negotiated the slippery planks up a steep incline more than 200 metres high that led to Clearwater Cave. Within the limestone cavern, a river meanders. The sound of rolling water was like music to the ears.
With more than 100km explored so far, the cave is easily the longest inSoutheast Asia. A small pool at the entrance welcomes visitors who desire a refreshing dip. If the adventurous streak hits you while in Mulu and you are not satisfied with just seeing the caves, the National Park Department has identified a number of sites suitable for adventure caving trips that will put your mental and physical fitness to the test.
Published in Life & Times, New Straits Times on 25 October 2003