Batman and Catwoman in Borneo…

It was a quick hop across from Singapore to Kuching, the largest town in Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo. It’s a bit separate from the rest of Malaysia and has its own Immigration Service, so people from the rest of Malaysia even need a passport to get in! Sarawak was also the seat of the White Rajahs, the Brooke family, who founded and reigned over Sarawak until 1946 when control of the territory was transferred to the British crown in 1946 following the Japanese occupation during WWII. All of northern Borneo (including Brunei) had been a British protectorate since 1888.

During their rein the area of Sarawak extended across the north of Borneo to Miri, which had previously been part of Brunei. Sarawak is also the only region of Malaysia which has a larger Christian population than Muslim. For our stay here Gav found the Quiik Cat hostel. We opted for a pick up and were greeted at the airport by the driver, who turned out to be our host, Akiew. So with our stuff in the car we were whisked off to Kuching! We didn’t go straight to the guesthouse though…. He wanted to take us to try the famous Sarawak Laksa! Unfortunately the place he wanted to take us was closed (it was Sunday) so we drove around taking in a few of the sites and trying to find somewhere to eat. He quite kindly treated us to lunch which we really were not expecting!

There is actually loads to do in Kuching and the surrounding areas, however as we were only here for three days and I was still recovering, we decided to take it easy and just have a wander around.

Our first evening we went out looking for fruit, Akiew offered to take us to the local market, which was out past the airport so miles away! We also picked up his friend who was visiting Kuching and was wanting to go out of a drive.  We picked up a few bits and he got us a durian to try. It is a bit out of season now but Gav finally got his wish to try some, I have to say I am not a fan, especially of the aftertaste which lingers for hours.

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The following morning once we appeared from our room, Akiew asked did we want to grab some of the local Laksa….

Then we went for a wander.

Tried the local Layer cake- the colour comes from the fruit used to make the cakes, green was pandan, blue was blueberry, etc. The cheaper ones are made with margarine, the more expensive with butter. I can confirm that they were all delicious, trying to choose what ones to get was very difficult!

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So much layer cake, so little time (and money) The really colourful ones at the bottom are the margerine ones, the ones at the very top are butter. They last for a week or so once made. I’ll confess ours did not last that long…
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..and were our rations for the next stop, Mulu. The top was Evergreen (Pandan) the centre was Pokadot (blueberry and biscuit) both were margarine which I am not a fan of normally but they were cheaper than the butter and due to the fruit flavour I couldn’t taste the difference. The bottom was chocolate chip. This was our favourite (and made from butter).

After three hot but lazy days in Kuching and now well stocked up on cakes, it was time to head into the Jungle. The next stop was Guning Mulu National Park– recommended by Will and Beth (who we had an unexpected but fantastic time with in Vang Vieng). Located almost on the border with Brunei and is so remote it cannot be reached by road. Either 8 hours by boat or a short prop-plane ride with Malaysian Airways owned MAS Wings-30 mins from Miri or 3 hours from Kuching. We quite like flying with these guys, they are cheap (and include 20 kg of baggage), you get a drink and on flights over 1 hour you get a sandwich there is no choice of drink (we have had juice, soy milk (yuk! But Gav likes it) or Milo (chocolate drink)) or sandwich but we like “free stuff” on planes. It makes us feel appreciated!

You can also hike to it apparently using the old headhunter trails.. it sounds like it should probably be only for Bear Grylls types but when you read what it entails it sounds not too bad but you never know!

We had chosen our home for our five days in Mulu based almost solely on Trip Advisor reviews, the interestingly named Mulu Village. Interestingly named as it was almost the furthest place from the park, with the exception of the fancy Marriot next door and it was quite expensive (98 RM/$23/£15 with breakfast). The place did have an interesting history though. The guy who runs it, James gave us the back story- his father was the village chief and when the British Geographical Society landed for their expedition into the jungle from the river they were required to ask the chief for permission to build a base camp. The chief agreed and allowed them to build on the site that then became Mulu Village. With the exception of the park (and I think the Marriot) all of the accommodation have generators for electricity which are only on at certain times (usually for a few hours in the morning and evening). In Mulu village it was scheduled to be on from 7-8 am and from 6/7-11 pm. The water pump was also on this generator so you could only shower, use the tap and flush the toilet during these times. Otherwise there was a bucket you could fill to use in the interim.

Mulu Village.                                          (The river is just behind me)
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First dinner in Mulu- wild boar ribs and sweet and sour fish. The fish was really nice, the ribs were not so good. But….
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…the vegetable was ferns- local ferns, not had that before. Tasted like spinach.

We arrived and were met by a pickup (which we hadn’t requested), a tiny little lady in a tiny, tiny little car (This is the only car here, she is taxi and courier for everyone for supplies coming from the airport). Every review of accommodation in Mulu said we could walk but obviously our host had organised it so we took it thinking maybe it was included, it wasn’t. It was 5 RM each ($1.25/ £0.78), not much I grant you but still an additional charge we hadn’t expected. It was also during this trip that it dawned on us how far away it was from the park, about 2 km. Not one person had mentioned this quite important fact (I have now rectified this with my review). James did provide bikes, but alas they had seen better days. My one had a dodgy brake so you couldn’t freewheel and had to pedal constantly, plus one peddle was a bit wonky so pushing down at a weird angle. Still got me there. Poor Gav’s bike had a bent front wheel so was easy to turn one way but a nightmare to turn the other. The other bike on offer was worse so he stuck with the first one.

So why visit Mulu?

Well it has caves (lots of them and more being found every year)-some fine examples of show caves- which we went to-and also a range of adventure caving (spelunking or potholing basically) we had signed up for some but then thought it was a bit pricy for 2 hrs (160 RM/$40/£25). So cancelled that.

Easily accessible rainforest and wetland forest ranging in difficulty from easy (you can do it with small children and a pushchair) to difficult (requiring ropes, guides and safety gear). One of the main hikes here is to a place called the Pinnacles, an area that looks like grey needles appearing out of the canopy, it takes 3 days to do it.

Animals (bats as the easiest to see) and insects (you can see these guys all over the place). They have one of the largest bat colonys in the world there with numberous types of bats all living side by side.

When we arrived, the weather was glorious! Hot sunshine, cloudless sky, birds singing, the whole shebang. Within an hour it started to rain. A short shower which stopped to draw breath before unleashing a biblical style deluge. We took this as an opportunity to settle in and once it had eased off to the odd spit we booted it up the road to the park to check-in. We had pre-booked everything (highly recommended in either season as things book up quickly in high season or don’t run if there is not enough numbers in low season so best to plan ahead by contacting the park). As usual we were in low season so it wasn’t too busy.

We arrived on the 18th November and our plan was as follows:

18th Evening: Night walk (see some nocturnal beasties)

19th AM: Wind and Clearwater Caves (show caves) PM: Fast Lane Cave.

20th (full day): Garden of Eden

21st AM: canopy walk

22nd: Free day (we had planned to go for a bit of a hike in the park).

23rd: Flight out to Miri.

After checking in we headed back to Mulu Village to rest up a bit and get ready for the night walk. The rain got heavier and heavier as we cycled back and literally the second we arrived back the deluge returned. There was no night walk for us that night (we learned later that it did run but also the rain was less intense in the park than where we were), they allowed us to reschedule with no penalty (for the 21st). That evening with the rain pelting down, we got dinner in the only local restaurant there was near us.

The following morning we needed to be at the park for 8.30 for an 8.45 departure. To cut a long and rather boring story short the generator didn’t go on in time, breakfast was delayed (and not worth waiting for but we did much to our disappointment), after a lightning fast shower each, James was knocking at the door telling us with a laugh we needed to leave and moments later we were tearing it up the road, dripping with sweat in the early morning heat and managed to get to the park office with 5 minutes to spare and meet our guide (Aishling) for the Wind and Clearwater caves. It was a big group (around 16 people, two boats) which is generally my idea of a nightmare, I like no more than 8 people in a group, after that I think it gets a bit unmanageable but that might be just me. So off we sped upstream with a quick stop off at a local tribe, where they had a little craft market. We picked up some very reasonably priced keyrings here, there was other cool weaved items and other local bits for sale too. The caves were show caves, so all about formations, the Wind cave was so called as you could feel a breeze through it, and the Clearwater cave was named after the river of clear water that flows through it. They are part of the largest cave systems in the world which is still not completely mapped.

They were nice to see but the large group size annoyed me a bit plus it felt a bit sanitised but it does protect the cave from the hazards of careless tourists who have a tendency to destroy things. You can also do a private tour but of course this is more expensive. Anyway when we got out of the caves you could go for a dip in the rather fast flowing river from the Clearwater Cave, I did and it was very refreshing (read cold) and then it was back to the park for a quick lunch before our next tour the Fast Lane.

Again a trip down the river, short hike and we were in the cave. You can also do a small adventure caving taster there too but that for some reason isn’t advertised. Our guide (who’s name escapes me) wasn’t really interested in showing us too much and seemed more intent on getting us through the cave as fast as possible but we managed to spot plenty by ourselves with the occasional thing from him so overall it was quite enjoyable.

The next morning it was time for the Garden of Eden. This is a forest that can only be reached by going through the Deer Cave, It was once part of the cave itself which would have made it the largest Cave in the world but the roof collapsed to form the Garden so quite a special place.  We met our guide, Peter, and the rest of our group- Morgan and Euan- funnily enough I recognised them from the previous day when they were on the morning tour with us. Peter told us what the tour would entail (as the brochures were distinctly lacking in information)- we would walk the 3km to the Deer cave (all raised platforms so easy but a bit slippy), walk through the cave which is home to over 4 million bats and a couple of 100,000 swiftlets, go off the paved track and do some light bouldering across guano covered rocks, cross a river that would be up to our neck, hike through a forest and swim in a waterfall pool before coming back. Were we all ok with that? Yes, mostly because we all thought he was making a joke about the water up to our neck- in the end it was up to Gav’s neck, so over my head and I had to swim both crossings. Sometimes the tour is cancelled in rainy season due to rapid rises in water levels and could be called off before we got to the Garden, we all decided to take the risk and off we headed to the Deer Cave chatting away. Both guys were sciencey types (a particle physicist and a chemical engineer) and had some great stories for us (including a tale of a survival course in the jungles of French Guiana-it is not on our to do list!). Also, Morgan seemed to have attracted all the leeches so another jungle trek leech free! Hurrah (for me anyway)!

That evening we finished off with a trip to the Langs cave and then, soaked to the skin we sat and watched the bat exodus. The previous days had heavy rain so the bats had not come out and were starving, they put on quite a spectacle. We even managed to spot what we think is a bat hawk but maybe some of my bird spotting friends can confirm if that’s what it is!

On our way back to the park, Morgan and Euan treated us to their own nightwalk, between this and another one we did ourselves later in the week we managed to spot loads of cool things and as a result ended up cancelling the nightwalk and saving ourselves the 20 RM ($5/£3) each. We had dinner in the Park restaurant with them that night and stayed so long that the staff locked up and left us to it, we were still soaking wet from the trip but we didn’t mind. The ride back in the dark was fun after a few drinks, umbrella and torch in one hand and the other trying to steer…

(The new wordpress photo uploader is preventing me from adding links- so the lantern bug we saw in Thailand and caterpillar in Sumatra)

The following morning was the canopy walk with Christian as our guide, he was quite fun but you don’t see much in the canopy much to our surprise. Afterwards we had a wander around the botanical garden walk.

There was also a bird hide here but every single time we planned to go there it lashed rain so we didn’t manage it.

There were so many cool things to see in Mulu but alas one critter alluded the camera- the pygmy squirrel, we saw a few but they are like bullets and three trees away by the time you manage to get the camera pointed in their direction.

On our final day, the free day we had planned to go for a hike but we felt lazy and needed to dry out our clothes and shoes to fly the following day (we were on the 20 kg limit on both bags). It was just as well we did. Across the road was a viewing point, so we wandered up to that, on the way up we noticed that the water level for the river looked a bit high, but it was raining so didn’t think much of it and off we went.

When we got back down the water level had increased by quite a bit, it was then that we noticed that the river was flowing in the opposite direction to what it should have been, and quite fast too- we reckon about 1.5m/min. So we chilled out on the terrace of our room, reading the local paper Borneo Times (as it was a few days after the horrific attacks in Paris, the first 8 pages were almost all about terrorist activity and raids and all sorts of horrible things), also someone who had been abducted in Sabah had just been beheaded by Sulu pirates in the Philippines, it was grim reading, so watching the river flow while drinking tea seemed a more wholesome thing to do.

So we watched the water flow in under the house next door…

….behind us and then..

..across the path and then under us.

All the while James was saying it was fine but Gav could see the terror on his face. The place had flooded twice in recent years and knowing this and seeing his reaction Gav wanted to move. So we started to pack up, almost everything was dry but our Gortex hiking shoes (never again will I buy these-they are useless for tropical hiking and a complete nightmare to dry out). A German couple who were also staying there arrived back from their morning activity in the park, very bemused at their surroundings. The water level had risen so much that almost the whole site was flooded, we paid up and left. Climbing down from the end platform-the water level was above Gav’s knees and at my thighs, way deeper than it looked and we made our escape to nearer the park via the tiny lady and her tiny car again and found new digs at A.A Mulu Homestay, run by this really laid back old guy, with 24 hour water and minutes from the park for 60 RM/$14/£9 (no breakfast) a night. Wished we had moved earlier in the week to there.

For days afterwards we did wonder what happened in Mulu Village, were they ok? Did the rooms flood? A few weeks later we met a German guy who was due to visit Mulu but his accommodation was cancelled due to flooding. Yep it was Mulu Village.

Anyway we had a great time in Mulu and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants a bit of jungle albeit sometimes a bit on the safe side. They do look after you well there though.

Next stop the only sultanate in SE Asia… Brunei.


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