The next rally destination was Brunei. However we in common with many others felt the cost, which was almost $500US and covered clearing in/out, temporary yacht club membership and a couple of dinners was beyond our budget even more so when all the activities on offer were also pricey meaning we could blow in 10 days more than a month’s cruising budget. The skipper and the first mate umm’d and ah’d then decided to go because we’d be able to meet up with Sean, a friend from Bahrain YC who now lived and worked in Kuala Bullit (KB). Then the local organiser told us we couldn’t vary the schedule to stay a little longer in KB and we discovered several other crews were planning a few days away at Gunung Mulu National Park. That decided us as this year’s birthday treat from the skipper to the first mate was a jungle trip of some sort. So Mulu it was, flights, rooms, ground transport and tours were booked mostly by Lane from Mai Tai who proved a natural at coordinating us all.
A dozen of us (the crews of six boats; Aussies, Kiwi’s, Americans and Brits plus our resident Irishman) climbed into a minibus on Friday morning for the short trip to the airport and a half hour flight in a propeller plane into the interior. Below the brown river snaked through the flat landscape of oil palms creating textbook oxbow lakes. Gradually tarmac roads vanished giving way to sandy tracks that wound their way over the hills. Then the land rose up in steep limestone cliffs, the plane dropped down onto a rough runway, the adventure in the jungle had begun.
It was just five minutes by minibus to the National Park HQ and a short walk over a wooden suspension bridge. The staff welcomed us warmly and fairly efficiently confirmed our tour bookings as well as checking us into our rooms. Our Forest Lodge room had a verandah, a king sized bed and a modern bathroom with a large shower area. It was a comfy place to call home for the next few days.
After an excellent lunch in the park café (we found the food to be wonderful during our stay) the troops reconvened for our first guided walk to the Deer and Lang Caves, 3 km away along a jungle boardwalk. The latter was visited first and we all were rapidly realising that tomorrow our legs would be sore after all the steps up and down both to reach the caves and to move about inside them. The Lang Cave is amazingly beautiful with incredible formations and colours whilst the Deer Cave, home to 2-3 million bats is at over 2 km long and 174m high the world’s largest cave passage open to the public. This is just one of the natural wonders packed into this World Heritage Site.
The highlight of our afternoon though was the bat exodus as the sun started to set. For more than an hour we slumped on the wooden benches watching the sky as swirl after swirl of bats danced in circles or spirals like smoke before heading off to feed. What could top that?
The next morning a dozen sleepy sailors gathered early for a boat trip to our next cave. The river level was so low our long boats could barely scrape through, at times the guy at the front had to punt or paddle us forward against the current as the outboard hadn’t enough depth to operate in. At least we didn’t have to get out and carry our boat as we saw others doing later. After a quick stop at a Penan village to visit the handicraft market where Kevin tried his hand at a blowpipe it was on to the Clearwater and Wind Caves and yet more steps – 200 of them in the first instance then a lot, lot more inside! The Clearwater Caves are vast with over 200km of passages discovered so far, our tour took us through just a few of those. The walkways were well lit and our guide knowledgeable. The river that carved this system out still runs through the cave and we crossed it several times high up on wooden bridges.
After a late lunch we deserved our lazy afternoon and a doze in preparation for the evening’s activity, a nightwalk. This was fun with our lovely guide Imran from the previous day leading the way we wandered around half the Botany Loop with torches at the ready spotting enormous stick insects, spiders, teeny frogs that only occur here in the park, snails, lizards and even a sleeping bird! With our lights out we sat in on a bench and simply listened to the jungle noises, magic! Imran’s enthusiasm was infectious and we learnt a lot too.
Sunday morning Kevin, myself and Vicky collected the key for the skytower at 6am hoping to see as well as hear the dawn chorus. It was a bit of a disappointing hour after our bug extravaganza the night before but we did manage to spot a pigmy squirrel, just a few centimetres long from head to tail tip, a tri-coloured squirrel much bigger but also the world’s only multi-coloured squirrel and a sleepy Goshawk performing his morning toilette on a distant branch perking up his feathers and stretching his wings. Then on the way back, we came across two large, fat black ’chickens’ with a pale tail; we later discovered these were most likely crested fireback pheasants.
After breakfast the group convened for our last organised tour, the skywalk. This perilous set of rope bridges connects a series of trees high up over the jungle floor. Its long and not for those without a head for heights. The bridges swing wildly with their permitted load of two people at a time and with only four people on any one of the joining platforms at once, the party was quickly spread along the length of the walkways. Very little wildlife was to be seen mid-morning but the walk gave us a unique view of the trees and plants. Again our guide, Peter was knowledgeable and friendly.
Once back down on the ground the group split with some of us heading off to the Paku Waterfall for a swim and the rest back to their rooms and lunch. The waterfall wasn’t spectacular as it hadn’t rained recently but the cold river swim was very welcome. The six of us were the only ones there so it was quiet and secluded. Once back at the park HQ we signed ourselves off the board to say we had returned safely. Michael and Mel then tried to work out what they were going to do with some extra days as their desired trip to the Pinnacles was fully booked months ago. Eventually they settled on a boat and trek to camp 5 at the foot of the Pinnacles Trail where they would spend two nights.
The next morning was our last so after breakfast most of us headed out to revisit the Botany Loop in daylight. It rained, oh boy did it rain, we were soaked to the skin needing a change of clothes by the time we got back but it was all part of the fun. Waiting for lunchtime to come around we watched as Michael and Mel boarded their longboat in the by now even heavier rain for their 90 minute boat ride to be followed by a 8km hike through the jungle and congratulated ourselves on not deciding to extend our stay. All too soon it was time to fly out back to Miri and our boats. Tired, a little stiff and sore of limb but with wonderful memories of a very special park.