M is for Mulu National Park

by V. Jegatheesan

Toward the end of Gallery D is an information board indicating the UNESCO Heritage Sites in Malaysia. One of the sites listed is Gunung Mulu National Park. The accompanying description states that it was gazetted in 2000. Situated in the north of Sarawak, it is 528 sq. km. with 17 vegetation zones and 3,500 types of plants. The 109 palm species alone are within 20 main genus. Gunung Mulu itself is a 2,377-metre sandstone pinnacle. Virgin rainforests cover an extensive network of caves and underground rivers, as well as a limestone pinnacles. However, the most attractive features of interest to an average traveller are the caves and the pinnacles.

Gunung Mulu National Park in 2004. Image credit: Juanita, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Gunung Mulu was first referenced in 1858 by Spenser St. John, the British Consul in Brunei. However, it was only in 1932 that it was finally ‘conquered’ by Edward Shackleton in an Oxford University Expedition. The Sarawak Government gazetted Gunung Mulu and the surrounding areas as a national park in 1974. The first formal study was conducted in 1978, when the Royal Geographic Society started a scientific expedition. Over the course of the next 15 months, some 50kms of caves were discovered, among which were the Deer, Clearwater, Wonder and the Prediction caves. Beginning in 1980, another expedition discovered the Sarawak Chamber. The Clearwater Cave passage, at 102kms, is believed to be one of the largest interconnected cave systems in the world. Over the years, more passages and connections between the caves were discovered over a wider area. In 1984, the Gunung Mulu National Park was declared an ASEAN Heritage Park. Expeditions are still continuing with fascinating discoveries of caves and passages, as well as underground pools, and an immense variety of flora and fauna.

Interior of Clearwater Cave. Image Credit: Sunrise Odyssey from Singapore, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1985, the park was opened to the public and managed by staff located at the park headquarters. Initially, one had to fly to Miri. Then downgrade from the B737 to a Twin Otter to fly to Marudi. From there, it was a daylong journey starting in a river ferry followed by a cramped long boat to the Benarat Inn, which was the only accommodation available for a long time. Over the years, as more tourists became interested in Mulu, one could fly directly to Mulu from Miri and other airports, unfortunately, taking away some of the fun. Early trips to caves were by an engine-driven long boat up to a point after which there was a long trek to the cave entrances. There are more resorts now and the boats are better. Tours are packaged and include not just the caves but also overnight stays in a longhouse and a tough climb to the Pinnacles. But for the more adventurous spelunkers, as those who specialise in cave exploration are called, there are special trips to places where no ordinary person would go. This needs guts.

Photos from the author’s trip to Gunung Mulu National Park in 1993. Clockwise from top left: Mulu Airport in 1993 with a Twin Otter plane in the foreground; on a long boat on the serene river; arriving at the Benarat Inn jetty; Benarat Inn; local village life. Credit for all images: V. Jegatheesan

The caves are usually wide and some lead to caverns. Bats of various species inhabit the caves; the ground and rocks have years of bat dung deposits. Initially, one walked along the natural ground, but now there are well-lit wooden walkways. The Deer Cave is popular as while in it and looking out at the wide entrance, the rocky side appears to be a profile of Abraham Lincoln. The Sarawak Chamber is a gigantic cavern. It measures 600 metres long, 435 metres wide and a maximum of 115 metres high making it the largest cave in the world by area. Guides impress visitors with the fact that eight B747 Jumbo jets can be arranged in it end to end.

The ‘Abraham Lincoln profile’ observed when looking out from Deer Cave’s entrance. Bats can be seen flying in the background. Image credit: Sarawak Tourism Board

Every evening at about 6pm, bats will fly out of the caves for their nightly foraging. The Deer Cave is the most popular for viewing this scene. This simple statement does not come anywhere near the actual sight. Unknown numbers, hundreds of thousands, some say millions, fly out in a continuous stream for an hour at least. It seems they have groups, as one large cloud of bats will fly out, hover and when a group is formed fly off. It is as though they have a predetermined formation.

left: Bats flying out of Deer Cave (1993). Image credit: V. Jegatheesan. right: A bat from Deer Cave (1996). Image credit: Slimguy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Going to the Pinnacles is a journey in itself. From the resorts, one starts on a riverboat trip, then on average a three-hour walk to a campsite. The next day’s climb up a pinnacle is a continuous steep climb, then a clamber and finally a crawl. However, when one reaches the top, the view of massive pinnacles on the hillsides, stretched out like cathedrals, is well worth the effort. After absorbing the view and having a packed lunch, it is back to camp. The return trek and boat trip is done the third day.

left: Steep ascent to the Pinnacles. right: Pinnacles in 1993. Credit for images: V. Jegatheesan

Despite a large tourist flow in certain caves and rivers, the National Park is preserved in its pristine form. It is continuously under study with the deeper caves and caverns not accessible to the public. It is certainly worth a trip.

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.

Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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