Gunung Mulu National Park is a vast protected area of primary rainforest and cave networks in the interior of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. The Park contains one of the largest and longest cave networks in the world, some of which is still being explored. As there is no major road to the Park, the surrounding area is still very remote, with a few villages nearby connected by the river.
Flying over Sarawak to Gunung Mulu National Park you can see both vast rainforest and giant scars in the land where the forest has been stripped bare. In recent years, the land abutting the Park has been subject to conflict lately between oil palm companies and the Penan and Berawan Indigenous communities. Rainforest in the immediate vicinity of the Park is being cleared for a palm oil plantation. This will also impact a wildlife corridor connecting Mulu National Park to the primary rainforests of Brunei to the west.
For its remoteness, the Park had remarkably good infrastructure, with several kilometers of wooden walkways.
We did several day hikes around the Park, including the Botanical Trail, and the hike to Paku Waterfall. On the way I spotted an otter scurry along the riverbanks and slide into the water. You can take a refreshing dip in the waterfall, which provides respite from the intense humidity and heat of Mulu.
You can also find spectacularly large trees, whose flat, wide roots dwarf us mere humans.
The Park is home to the world’s longest canopy walkway, where you can traverse the rainforest on swinging wooden plank bridges at 30-40 meters high. From here, you see canopy life from the perspective of a bird.
Don’t forget to stop and look at the smaller detail in the Park – the insect life. The wooden handrails on the boardwalk paths are a highway for the weird and wonderful insect life of Gunung Mulu. Lanky red centipedes run the length of the handrail like public buses, they are so plentiful they become the norm. Fancy caterpillars with feathered heads, the limousines of the insect world, bustle along. A firey-orange spade-headed worm/snake slides on by. A mouse-eared, snowball-like insect-of-paradise (my name for it) prances along like the prince of Mulu.
Giant black butterflies with phosphorescent blue-green splodges flutter by. On the concrete trails, watch out for the giant snails.
Our one regret is not doing the multi-day Pinnacles hike. We read that the hike is very difficult and dangerous, which made us doubt whether we could do it. Once we spent a few days in the Park, we spoke to many people who completed the hike and said it wasn’t that difficult, and we would have likely been fine.
Gunung Mulu National Park has one of the largest and most spectacular cave networks in the world, including Sarawak Chamber, the largest known enclosed space on Earth, at 2000 feet long, 1400 feet wide and almost 500 feet tall (National Geographic 2019).
On our first trip, we took a boat down the river to see Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave. The boat ride is itself worth the trip, where you pass by some villages and local people living their lives beside the river. On the way, you stop by a Penan village for a handicrafts market.
As the name suggests, the Clearwater Cave has a large river running through the middle of it. The water bursts through a small opening in the cave and the river emerges. You can take a refreshing dip here after hiking through the caves before the boat trip back to the Park.
Inside the caves you catch a glimpse of the weird animals of the cave world, including giant cave centipedes which look like lobsters, and cave spiders, not to mention millions (no exaggeration) of bats.
Between 4 and 6pm at the entrance to Deer Cave, you can watch the spectacular bat exodus as 2 million bats exit the cave. Once they start, the bats stream out of the cave in dragon-like batches. We were told that because there are so many bats, there are fewer mosquitoes than there would otherwise be, which seemed to be true (although still bring your repellent).
We took the long route to Deer Cave via the Kenyan Loop trail. We didn’t see anyone else on this hike, it was just us and the wilderness.
The entrance to the enormous Deer Cave is almost 500 feet high. When you step inside, it reminds me of a cathedral at dusk, the roof of which is lined with millions of bats and switflets. The ground and air is thick with guano (bat poo) (locals are no longer able to collect guano inside the cave, raising questions about the impacts of national parks and green enclosures on Indigenous communities). Deer Cave is named so because local people used to hunt deer at this cave, which were attracted there by the salt in the guano.
Deer Cave stretches for almost two miles. After walking for about half an hour, an opening emerges and rays of light beam onto the ‘Garden of Eden’, a hidden green valley and waterfall enclosed by limestone cliffs. This was created when part of the cave collapsed a long time ago. Imagine – before this, Deer Cave was much larger than it is in its current state.
Lang Cave is the funky cave, due to its unique formations of stalagmites and stalactites that look like jellyfish or melting ice cream. Although lesser known, Lang Cave was one of my favourites due to its unique formations.
Adventure Caving refers to caving in the Park that requires specialised equipment, such as ropes and a harness, and some experience caving or climbing. For our adventure caving, we took a boat down the river for 20 minutes to reach Racer Cave, a smaller cave known for it’s variety of creepy crawlies that dwell within. Once we strapped on our harnesses, helmets and head torches we set off into the cave. With no metal boardwalks to show us the way, our skilled guide led us through tight squeezes and over obstacles, making use of fixed ropes for the steeper sections.
As we progressed our guide pointed out many of the critters that call this cave home, including racer snakes, the animal that gives the cave its name. The snakes were curled up in some tight crevasses in the roof, where the cave narrows to only a few meter wide. The guide explained that the snakes wait here for swiftlets to fly through the narrow section before striking them in mid flight when one gets too close.
Other weird animals of the cave world include giant cave centipedes which look like lobsters, cave spiders and peculiar white crabs, which are endemic to Gunung Mulu National Park. They have evolved to have no eyes, not that they are needed as they spend their entire lives in darkness.
We stayed at Mulu Backpackers, a homestay run by the friendly Helen. It is about a 20 minute walk from the Park. Conveniently it is a 5 minute walk from little Mulu airport, so you can walk to the homestay as soon as you land. There is no noise from the airport in the evenings as Mulu only has a few flights per day. Mulu Backbackers is a comfortable budget option, with large rooms and a laid-back atmosphere. The river runs past the back of the homestay, and you can take a morning dip in there and wave to the occasional passing longboat. The bathrooms are basic with hose-showers, and plenty of visitors from hand-sized moths, centipedes and other insects, but nothing too treacherous.
The only feasible option to reach the Park is to take a small ATR-72 flight to Mulu airport from Kota Kinabalu, Miri or Kuching with MASwings. In the area surrounding the Park, river transport seems to be as common as road transport for the locals.
Gunung Mulu Cafe inside the Park has a range of tasty and healthy Malaysian and non-Malaysian food options, although it is more expensive that outside the Park. We had a great meal of fresh fish and curry at ‘Good Luck Mulu Cave-fe’. You can’t miss this restaurant which is just outside the Park’s entrance, with a billboard displaying its name and the motto “up the mountain and down the beer”. A few houses down, Sweetwater Restaurant and Bar also does a cheap and tasty fried rice or fried noodles. Bring some snacks to the Park from the city, as there are not many options once you get out here.