By Stephen Bugno
The highlight of many visitors trip to Borneo, and the reason for coming at all, is Gunung Mulu National Park. Mulu holds the largest cave chamber in the world, lush primary rainforest, and the spectacular Pinnacles rock formation. I visited for five days and the experience was well worth the effort getting to the hard-to-reach park.
There are over 300km of mapped cave passages in Mulu National Park including the world’s biggest chamber, the Sarawak chamber. Most of the caves are open to visitors—some only to caver’s with experience and the proper equipment. It’s also popular to do jungle trekking and hike the grueling path up to the impressive Pinnacles.
Trekking to the pinnacles offers a real jungle experience and the chance to see some outstanding limestone formations. It’s a three day-two night affair that must be organized and booked through the national park (or an independent tour operator).
Leave from park Headquarters in a long boat at 9am. On the way, stop at a handicraft market in an indigenous village. The Penan are nomadic hunter-gathers. Now some of them live in this village that was recently built. Continue in the boat up to Clearwater and Cave of the Winds for a guided tour. After the caves you have a chance to take a dip in the refreshing stream. Eat lunch in the shade before getting back into the boat for a 45-minute trip upriver. Then your boat driver will drop you off on the riverbank to start in on the 9 km hike through the jungle to get to Camp 5. This part of the journey is un-guided but the trail is clearly marked. Watch out for leeches! Spend the night in dormitory-style accommodation at Camp 5.
Get up at dawn and start hiking to the Pinnacles. It’s basically three to four hours straight up the mountain. Imagine 2.4 km of trail rising 1,200 m in elevation. The hike is challenging. The day I climbed 50% of the hikers turned around before the half-way point. If you are fit and determined, you will make it to the Pinnacles viewpoint. The last 400 m is ropes and ladders, extremely steep, and can be dangerous if it’s wet. If weather conditions are favorable and you are able to make it to the top, your reward is a view of the spectacular and surreal formations of jagged limestone. For me, the way down was even more difficult because my legs were tired and the trail was wet and mostly made up of jagged rocks. If you still have enough energy, you can cook yourself a warm dinner at the kitchen facilities at camp 5.
The third day you will probably be sore. Wake up leisurely, have breakfast and then hike back out the 9km trail to meet your boat which will be waiting to take you quickly downstream back to park headquarters. The trip to the Pinnacles is complete. Spend the next four days or so recovering from the hike.
An alternative to the Pinnacles is the Headhunters trail. You can hike the Pinnacles and then continue an extra two days towards Limbang. The headhunters trail gives you the opportunity to stay the night in a traditional longhouse, an experience that shouldn’t be missed. Even another alternative is to start in Limbang and hike into Mulu National Park.
There are also opportunities to do adventure caving in small groups with guide. I didn’t do any, but it’s a great way to see Racer, Lagang, and Clearwater Caves, among others . The park also offers a night hike to see the fauna that are active (or inactive but visible) after the sun sets. There is also a canopy tour that leads you across 480-meters of elevated walkway. Many of the animals live high in the canopy, so this allows you a close up chance to see them. We saw a viper high on our walk along the suspension-bridge walkways that hang 15-25 meters above the forest floor.
See more photos of Mulu National Park.
Given Mulu’s popularity, it’s a good idea to call ahead to reserve a spot in one of the park’s dorm beds or other accommodation. Tel 085-792300, email@example.com, www.mulupark.com If you are stuck, there is a guesthouse steps outside the park called Riverside Lodge.
The Pinnacles trek costs 325 RM ($110 US), which includes a guide, accommodation, and boat transport. If continuing on the Headhunters Trail it will be 500 RM total. You need to buy and carry all your own food. No meals are provided. A kitchen is available to use at Camp 5. Park admission is 10 RM.
There are no roads to Mulu. It is possible to take a combination of bus and express boat and long-boat taking at least a full day or by trekking in on the Headhunters trail in the opposite direction from Limbang. Most people arrive by plane. Check for tickets on MASwings (www.maswings.com) from Miri or Kota Kinabalu.
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