Mulu | In the Jungle of Borneo

Since first visiting Sarawak over a decade ago, I often daydreamed about returning for a trip to Gunung Mulu National Park. Being able to share the experience with Tara and Andy (currently 4 years old) made the eventual pilgrimage that much sweeter. Located deep in the jungles of Borneo, the park’s list of superlatives is lengthy – including having the largest known cave chamber in the world. The views and experiences that awaited were well worth the extensive efforts and planning to get here. After a quick flight from Kota Kinabalu, we made our way into the National Park. The Park itself is only accessible by boat or on foot via a suspension bridge – which Andy dubbed the “sky bridge” and never ceased to tire of running across whether rain or shine.

The park HQ is very nicely done, complete with scenic boardwalks leading everywhere. Mulu’s guides and staff were also incredibly helpful and friendly, and took quite a shining to the novelty of an American child wandering around everywhere for a couple weeks. We opted to stay at one of the bungalows – equipped with a king bed and a single bed (perfect for our family of 3), as well as a private bathroom and the all-important A/C (it’s HOT here!). Having coffee on the bungalow porch and watching the birds was an incredible way to start every morning. It was also the perfect venue for enjoying the numerous stunning sunsets and storms while teaching Andy how to play card games like “go fish” and “crazy 8’s” (although he already cheats as much as his mother). The only sounds at night from the bungalows were from a near-deafening chorus of frogs!

Side note on the storms- if the guides tell you to shelter in place when a storm rolls through, heed their advice. On our first night at the park, an entire family was crushed by a tree fall requiring an airlift to a hospital after ignoring such warnings. The thunder and lightning from that storm were more intense than any we could remember, with strong enough rain for us to shower in!

The 1 km botanical loop trail is a great way to get an initial feel for the park, which we frequented for short walks – especially at night. Many strange plants and critters can be easily seen along the path, most of which we found along the path’s handrails. Tara could hardly make it 10 feet before spotting a new cool mushroom – her new obsession after watching “Fantastic Fungi” on Netlfix last month. And by grabbing a key from security, one can even access a huge wildlife observation tower with views above the thick jungle canopy. This green vine snake on the way home after sunset from up there was a nice surprise.

For an even better view above the canopy, the park created the SkyWalk. This 400+ meter series of suspension bridges traverses several rivers and thick flora below via multiple viewing platforms. We had to go separately since they don’t let kids up there, which made sense once we experienced how wobbly it was up there.

The Park’s main draw, Deer Cave, did not disappoint at all. As with all caves here, it can only be accessed by guided tour – and begins with a brief tour through Lang Cave (a 9km round trip from Park HQ on raised boardwalk most of the way). The low-hanging entry to Lang quickly opens up to amazing calcite formations like these “jellyfish”, and a welcome reprieve from the sweltering heat outside.

But nothing could have prepared us for the entry into Deer Cave, listed as the largest cave passage in the world – with the initial chamber large enough to hold 40 Boeing 747s! The resident bat population clinging to the ceiling (some 3+ million strong) was barely even visible from the distant floor below. Pictures can hardly do justice to the scale of this place but it’s truly massive and utterly spectacular.

But the star of the show has to be the bats! On a hot clear day with no rain, they all stream out just before sunset in search of mosquitoes (thanks y’all!) flying in intricate patterns to confuse predatory birds waiting for a snack. Being from Austin Texas, it takes a lot of bats to blow our proverbial dress up, but these guys had us showing full trou. Andy, being the socialite he is, quickly found a new bestie – a kiddo from Kuala Lumpur named Daniel. As they shared endless bags of cookies and chips together, we also got to know their entire family and wound up spending the whole night together. Traveling with kids no doubt has its challenges, but watching two young boys from very different cultures bond over bat sightings is pretty special. The viewing area for the bats is a perfectly placed lounging pew-type amphitheater (pro tip: they serve snacks for 6 ringgit if you’ve got a bored kid!)

Numerous other cave tours exist throughout the park – some requiring advanced caving experience. As we were traveling with a toddler, Clearwater Cave was the best option after Deer Cave. As with Deer Cave, the hiking part took us through a dense dipterocarp forests (and tons of stairs – Andy was a trooper!) to caves with skylights reminiscent of Jurassic Park. This tour begins with a longboat navigating upstream through the rapids- the breeze along the ride alone was worth the trip. Pretty impressive the way these drivers weave around boulders in whitewater without destroying the outboard motor.

At Clearwater Cave, another seemingly small cave entrance led to an intricate subterranean waterway that allows swimming on the more advanced tours – sadly which we were not on. But even our basic tour allowed time for a spring water swim at the mouth of the cave – which was as cold as Barton Springs where we live back in Austin.

One day we opted for an unguided hike devoid of any other humans to Paku Waterfall – an 8 km round trip from Park HQ. Swimming here involved tiny fish nibbling at our feet, clear water rushing down a karst cliff, and lots of forest creature spotting en route. We were also lucky enough to see a well-camouflaged green pit viper, pygmy squirrels, iridescent Birdwing butterflies, and this giant stick insect that refused to let go of my face near HQ!

On one of our last days, we wanted to just be lazy and enjoy the views – so booked a sunset cruise via longboat. This wound up being one of the highlights of the trip! Our luck with weather continued here, as we were treated to a double rainbow as the sun set behind us. We later did a kayak trip from Park HQ that was pretty tame and covered the same river stretch but less of it – so not really worth it (but the upstream rapids near Clearwater Cave would make for a thrilling experience if they ever offer that!).

And when some of our tours got rained out, a simple stroll across the suspension bridge at the Park entry led to equally impressive landscape views – and sunsets that will be hard to top!

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  • CidneyeJuly 10, 2023 - 12:31 pm

    Incredible adventures for you 3!  Keep the stories coming! Travel safe! Love y’all ReplyCancel

    • tara@tarawelchphotography.comJuly 23, 2023 - 3:54 am

      back at ya! we’re still figuring out how to do all this website stuff, glad you enjoyed what we could muster so far! brunei post coming manana hopefully. sounds like you had a great italian trip!ReplyCancel

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