Thursday, October 10, 2019

Gunung Mulu: Of Snakes and Ladders, Hornbills and Coucals, Squirrels and Fulgoridae, Caves and Bats

Me descending the Clearwater Cave • photo by Ferdz Decena
It's an hour and a half flight via MasWings to Mulu and the World Heritage Site of Gunung Mulu National Park from Kuching.  From the air, mere minutes away from touchdown, you've got to wonder where on earth the plane is going to land.  Literally, there's forest as far as the eyes can see, the deep carpet of green interrupted only by karsts, rivers and dry waterways that stretch and meander for miles.  So much so that landing on a paved short airstrip seemed an anomaly, a modern intrusion into the tropical rainforest.  
 
Common squirrel

Why, even the Mulu Marriott where we will be billeted for the next three days seemed more like a modern, extended longhouse instead of the usual concrete monolith hotel found everywhere on the planet.  Walking to and from our room in Block 15 was, in itself, some sort of nature immersion.  Hey, there's a squirrel scampering over that tree.  Oh, the flooded, temporary pool in the middle of some trees has a catfish.  

Even just sitting on the veranda/balcony is an occasion for meditation/contemplation with the trilling of birds and the view of the Melinau river just some 20 feet or so away.  To say it's unlike any Marriott I've ever seen seems an understatement.  Still, it pays to remind yourself you're not just anywhere ordinary; you're in a tropical rainforest, and most importantly, you're in Mulu.
Exiting the cavernous Deer Cave
TO THE DEER AND LANG CAVES.  Despite the temptation to catch up on sleep and enjoy the Mulu Marriott creature comforts, we went to our first cave on our very first day.    Yep, the weather was quick to turn from a bit sunny to overcast then threatening to rain, the rains seemingly following us from Kuching.   First stop:  after some three kilometers of walking over wooden walkways, we got into Lang Cave.   It was sort of an appetizer for the next spectacle that is Deer Cave  (Noteworthy and providential that our guide, Jangin, is the grandson of the farmer who discovered the cave).  Also known as Gua Payau or Gua Rusa, it got its name from the local sambar deers (Cervus unicolor), which used to frequent it for salt licks.    Until the discovery of Sơn Đoòng cave in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park in Vietnam in 2009, Deer Cave was known to have the largest cave passage in the world.  The large southern passage was documented at 169 m wide with a ceiling height of 125 m (410 ft) while the entrance to the cave is 146m or 479 feet.   Cavernous is the word I use to describe it.

Juvenile green viper
Photography is tricky here, the humongous dimensions easily swallowed up the 2000 lumen light that my Klarus torch can crank  (tripods are not allowed here nor in the other caves) so I had to content myself with chatting with our chatty guide, Jangin; admiring the sights, the columns formed by meeting stalactites and stalagmites; the hordes of bats suspended from and blackening the ceiling.  Why, we even saw some sticky threads used by a moth to trap insects (much like the ones I saw in the Planet Earth video series featuring Mexico's Lechuguilla Cave).   Interesting to note that there are 12 species of bats that make this their home including the Philippine horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus philippinensis), a fact that makes explaining the huge mounds of guano inside a bit easy.   A special highlight is the Garden of Eden, a sinkhole to the northeast green with rainforest.  I mean, how cool is that.

Fulgoridae
There is an observation deck below the mouth of the cave for viewing the exodus of some three million bats come evening but the inclement weather kept them from venturing outside.   Still, it was an interesting exploration;  coming up, we saw interesting insects like a fulgoridae.   Walking three kilometers back to the visitors center, we chanced upon a juvenile green viper on a tree not 12 feet high above the walkway; some even saw a tarantula on a tree.   

Not to forget, I've got to admire the logistics (as well as political will) to build such lengthy wooden walkways through the forests and into the caves (same thing I observed when we hiked through Niah Cave in Miri about five years ago).   It keeps the ground from being compacted by guests and prevents them from going off the trail (there are gates as well as clear warning signs for unqualified off-the-trail spelunkers; applicants are required to pass a test to explore off-trail).  Neither do the caves feature the funky multi-colored lights I've seen in the Halong caves in Vietnam.  Really well done and implemented, I must say.


Rhinoceros Hornbill high up on treetop
VENTURING INTO CLEARWATER CAVE.   Instead of taking the hotel shuttle back to the Gunung Mulu Park, we took the boat to head to Clearwater cave on our second day but first making a stopover at the settlement of Kampung Batu Bungan.     Despite the rains of the previous day, the river was very shallow in places.  Only the skill of the boatman kept us from running aground.   Coming and going, we espied Rhinoceros Hornbills on a particular tree (sorry, the speeding boat and overcast conditions made shooting good images impossible).  

With around 60 km (37 miles) of known passages, the Clearwater Cave is considered as the longest cave system in Southeast Asia. If the Deer Cave is cavernous, Clearwater Cave seems to me more chockfull of details.  There were columns shaped like totem poles, people, even a Coke bottle.   Another chamber had walls that look like huge jellyfishes, like something straight out of the Pirates of the Carribean movie.   The labyrinthine wooden path takes us up and down to a low point in the cave where we can see the river sloshing its way, almost beneath our feet.  It's a demonstration of the power of water to patiently carve through rock and limestone.

Racer snake
On the way out, we had a second snake sighting, this time, it's a meter and a half long Racer snake making its way into the cave.  As with the previous day, it was raining when we came out of the cave, ready for packed lunch on the promenade/deck overlooking the clear shallows inviting guests to take a dip.

Having the rest of the afternoon free, we opted to go back the road and walk to the nearest convenience store, the Sungai Mart, some 400 meters from Marriott, where we found not only Pinoy products (think Clara Ole' Pinoy style spaghetti sauce, Jack 'N' Jill chips) but also a friendly dog and cat to feed and befriend. 


Striped Borneo Skink
COMING BACK TO THE PARK FOR BIRDWATCHING.   Since our park pass was good for a couple of days, I decided to take a chance and come back to the park by myself on the third morning to see if I can spot birds.  I actually ran out of local currency to cover the RM50 the park guard requires as deposit for the key to the treetop canopy watchtower but he was kind enough to let me into the grounds.   I stayed for almost two hours but never did see the birds making a ruckus in the forest.  I did spot some skinks (short-legged lizards) and leaf insects though as well as made some new friends of the friendly multi-generational brood of Italians who were also staying at the Marriott and was returning to the park for more nature immersion.
 
Leaf insect on a railing

I walked some more to the Sungai Paku (Fern River) bridge where I did see birds but wasn't able to take pictures.  To make it to our 12noon checkout time,  I didn't wait for the hotel shuttle as I espied the second MasWings flight about to land.  I walked back the two kilometers of wooden walkway to the visitors center plus 2.4 kilometers of road back to the Marriott in around 30 minutes.  But it was rewarded by the sights of some more birds -- Chinese egrets and the local coucals over the fields and by the river.
Mulu NP Treetop Canopy Tower


Acknowledgments:
Many thanks to the kind people of Place Borneo for making this dream trip to Mulu a reality  
• Special mention goes to our two companions from PB, the dynamic duo of Sel Eday Helbat and Carshena Emileen, for going with us on this trip on the heels of sleepless nights before and after the Kuching Waterfront Jazz Festival
• Our Mulu guide, Jangin Bagly, is knowledgeable, chatty and very friendly.  Look him up if you're headed to Mulu; his contact details:  013-8216258 or email: oisinjangin@gmail.com

Some important notes to prospective park visitors:
• After registration and payment of fees, visitors are issued color-coded plastic bracelets that immediately tell the park's staff the participant's duration of access and/or allowed entry/trips. 
• All visitors are required to submit their passports for registration
 • Birdwatching in the park is free of charge unless one's access period permission has already lapsed.  A RM50 deposit is required to get a key to the treetop canopy tower which would be refunded in full after you return the key
Tripods are not allowed inside the caves.  
• Visitors are also encouraged to wear gloves (so they can avoid touching the walls/formations with their bare hands should they need to touch/grip the narrower chambers); refrain from touching stalactites and stalagmites, and wear slip-proof sneakers/shoes
Group hug at Mulu Airport:  Place Borneo's Sel and Carshena, me, our guide Jangin & Ironwulf
Contact Info:
Gunung Mulu Park: Email:  enquiries@mulupark.com • Tel. 60 85 792300 / (+6) 085 792302 (Miri Division)
Sarawak Tourism: (Kuching) (+6) 082 610088 / (Miri) (+6) 085 436637, 438455, 421671
Admiring the river that runs through Clearwater cave • Image by Ferdz Decena

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