Gunung Mulu National Park

Trip Start Dec 29, 2007
Trip End Dec 12, 2008

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sunday 20th July

We got up early, put our big backpacks into storage at the guesthouse, and headed off to Miri airport with what we hoped would be enough food and dry clothing for three days of jungle trekking.  The flight to Mulu was only 30 minutes long but it's the only way to get there.  In case anybody is wondering, I will be carbon-offsetting all my flights when I get home!

Once we reached Gunung Mulu National Park we headed to the Park Headquarters to register.  A guide is compulsory for the caves and the longer walks, so Rikke and I teamed up with 8 other backpackers to keep the cost of the tour down.  We booked a short tour of two of the park's four 'show caves' for this afternoon, and then we'll set off for our longer trek to the Pinnacles (our reason for coming to Gunung Mulu) tomorrow morning.  We didn't have any accommodation booked but we managed to find room in a cheap homestay; Rikke and I are sharing a room with Steven, from Ireland, who we met at the guesthouse in Miri last night.

In the afternoon we set off in the pouring rain with a huge tour group to see two of the park's caves, Deer Cave and Lang Cave.  The caves were admittedly spectacular, but I couldn't help but feel that, like so many tourist attractions, they have just crossed that fine line between accessibility and over-commercialisation (I don't think that's actually the word I'm looking for but you can probably figure out what I mean).  The novelty of trailing along boardwalks, with spotlights showing me which parts of the cave I should be finding interesting, soon wore off and it reminded me of an equally forgettable school trip some years ago.

We spent the evening at the park's cafe (for once the laksa didn't have fish in it... yum!) with Stephen and Andrea, and English girl who we shared a dorm with last night, who caught the afternoon flight to Miri today and is booked on the same tour as us to the Pinnacles.

Monday 21st July

Today the ten of us who are going to the Pinnacles together set off on the first part of our trip.  We took a longboat along the river, stopping off at a local craft market and two more caves along the way, before arriving at Kuala Litut in the early afternoon.  For this part of the trip I was travelling with an Austrian couple, Marcus and Martina, and a Swiss couple, Helena and I can't remember his name.  My friends were in a different boat but I was happy to get to know the other members of our group.  They did speak to me in English if I initiated the conversation, but all of the general chat along the way was in German so I couldn't help but feel a bit excluded.  We joined up with another tour group for the long and boring cave tour though, so I spent that time chatting to a British expat who lives in Spain and is here for work.  Yes that's right, work.  In my next life I'm going to be a conference organiser.

From Kuala Litut (this part of the walk is unguided) we walked an easy 8.8km through the rainforest to Camp 5, arriving just before the rain started.  It usually seems to start raining mid-afternoon here.  After all the impenetrable German conversation (including some that was quite clearly about me) I was really pleased to reach camp and join Rikke, Steven and Andrea, as well as the other two members of our tour group who I hadn't yet met, Nic and Caroline, also from England.  I was also pleased that they had saved me a sleeping mat so we had one of the large open-air sleeping areas to ourselves.

A few minutes after arriving at camp, I noticed - with a certain amount of pride, I must admit - that I had been bitten by my first (and probably not last) leech.  It was a brown leech, which are the smaller ones with a painless bite, so that was OK, but those little suckers sure know how to thin the blood!  It took a good 20 minutes to stem the bleeding but it didn't hurt at any point.

We had instant noodles for dinner and were pleased to find that Alex and Gina, our friends who we hiked in Bako National Park with, were also here having done the Pinnacles today.  It was great to see them again, they're such a lovely couple, although their state of complete exhaustion is filling me with dread as to what tomorrow holds!

It took me a long time to get to sleep.  I lay there in the semi-darkness watching various insects flitting about above me.  I became quite mesmerised watching a firefly, but then along came a bat and suddenly the little light went out.  Eventually I managed to get some sleep.

Tuesday 22nd July

This morning we rose early and were relieved to find that the heavy rain of last night had stopped - otherwise our trek up to the Pinnacles would have been called off.  We had a hearty breakfast of biscuits (it was that or instant noodles...) and then set off.  The Pinnacles are halfway up a mountain, and are at 1175 metres, which isn't the greatest of altitudes, but the difficulty is that you climb to that height within a distance of 2.4km, so the trail is relentlessly steep.

The first hour was by far the hardest for me, and - probably in part due to my completely inadequate breakfast - I felt quite shaky and nauseous and for a while doubted my own ability to complete the challenge I had set myself.  This was when the group mentality started to make a vital difference, and the lighthearted jokes and encouragement that passed between us really kept me going, even when I was too tired to participate and could only listen as I walked.  I have always valued my own strength of mind over any other trait, but this trip is teaching me that sometimes it's OK to rely on other people.

The second hour was easier - the terrain was the same, a steep climb up wet, slippery tree roots and limestone rocks, but by this time I think I was starting to settle into it, and the lightheadedness had passed.  Then, the ladders started.  When I say ladders, what I mean is that some of the huge, near-vertical slabs of limestone had ladders to help us up them.  Others had ropes and footholes, with narrow metal girders bridging the deep, gaping holes in between the rocks.  Having had a minor freak-out halfway up the local climbing wall during my one and only attempt at rock-climbing, this was a challenge in itself for me, but one that I enjoyed facing.  It there was ever a need for proof that hypnotherapy for phobias can work, this is it.

We spent about an hour climbing in this way, and then reached the viewpoint overlooking the huge limestone formations that are the Pinnacles.  I promptly staggered to the nearest rock to collapse for a while, before dragging myself to the edge to admire the spectacular view.  It was stunning but I will always remember today for the journey, not the view.

We had taken Alex and Gina's advice and brought cans of coke with us for a much needed energy-rush before facing the descent back to Camp 5.  The climb down takes most groups (ours included) longer than the ascent.  The steepest part, with the ladders and ropes, was actually the easiest part because the challenge of finding a 'safe' (in the loosest sense of the word...) route down made it interesting.  The rest of the descent, however, was more of a mental challenge as opposed to the physical challenge of climbing up.  Exhaustion was kicking in and we were losing our motivation, having already reached our goal of getting to the top.  It was so hard to maintain the concentration needed not to slip on the wet leaves covering the rocks and tree roots that we climbed down, and I felt like my legs would collapse underneath me at any moment.  Each hundred metres seemed impossibly long, but we made it.  I was too exhausted to chat by the end, and marvelled at how Caroline and Nic managed to keep us all laughing on the way down despite being as tired and fed up as the rest of us.  I really am so glad to have shared this experience with the friends I have made here.

Wednesday 23rd July

We bullied our aching bodies into rising early and keeping up a good pace for the walk back to Kuala Litut, as we had arranged for longboats to collect us shortly after 9am in order to get to the airport on time.  On the way I was subjected to my second leech attack; this one was a tiger leech, and as the name implies they are bigger and all-round more impressive than the brown leeches, with stripes and everything.  Their bites apparently can hurt, but fortunately I caught him (yes, I give them genders and personalities) just as he was trying to find a way into my trousers.  Rikke, Steven and I, along with the English guy I met in the caves yesterday, took a flight back to Miri and headed back to Minda Guesthouse.

After a delightfully long shower we went to a cafe for a well-earned slice of chocolate cake.  Now we're just relaxing at the hostel and using the internet there, and I don't see us summoning up the energy to go very far tonight unless it's for a massage.

Thursday 24th July

Today Rikke and I were still feeling a bit stiff after our Pinnacles ordeal so we had a lazy day in Miri.  We cafe-hopped lots, and went to see the Dark Knight at the cinema, which was really good.
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abi1982 on

Well done!
Well done you!! Sounds like bloody hard work! Reading it I think I would have had a minor freak out of my own on the way down. Sounds amazing though and a great experience. xxx

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