top of page
  • Writer's picturefromelsewhere

Discovering all the 'Small Things' at Mulu National Park

It doesn't take long in Mulu World Heritage Area, Borneo, to realise those 'small' things aren't so small after all.

(Video: Sounds of Mulu)

Flying into Mulu you know you are coming to someplace special. Intermittent breaks in the clouds revealed we were over virgin forest. No palm plantations as far as the eye could see. We were forced to circle around until the low cloud lifted enough for us to land. The delay only gave an air of the exotic and some trepidation because yesterday's flight had been turned back to Miri. Finally, our Milo drinks were collected, the sape music stopped, the flaps whirred into action and we were going in for a landing.

Gunung Mulu National Park is over 52,000 hectares of floodplains, mountain pinnacles and limestone gorges. Representative of the earth's historic and ongoing ecological and biological processes it is considered to have such outstanding beauty and conservation value that it received World Heritage listing in 2000.

You don't see the big animals in Mulu. This far from the coast there aren't any mangrove dwelling proboscis monkeys or crocs. There are plenty of animals here but as they have a lot of palm-free forest they tend to steer clear of humans. I guess that's the downside of having no plantations nearby - the animals aren't forced into our camera viewfinders. What you will see and hear though are all the small things: the hundreds of species of birds and insects that make the sound of the jungle. And it sounds incredible here, surreal, almost as if you're in one of those wildlife documentaries.

It doesn't take long in Mulu to realise those "small" things aren't so small after all. Cicadas the size of your hand; praying mantis much, much larger than you're hand; and enormous spiders are some of the insects and invertebrates that run their moss and leaf-covered superhighway trails. Many of the walks have boardwalks above the forest floor leaving the insects less vulnerable to foot traffic and humans less vulnerable to creepy crawlies.

A Walk in the Dark

I'm not going to concede it's a 'girl thing' but creepy crawlies kind of creep me out so as our little group wait in the dark for the rain to stop and our tour to start I'm reconsidering my choice to go on a night walk in the jungle.

You don't actually need a guide to do the walk, but it enhances the experience when there's someone who knows where to look and what you're looking at. Our guide, a Penan local, has lived all his life in this forest and can tell an insect, bird or frog by its call and pinpoint its position in the darkness.

If insect-ology is your thing then Mulu, home to 20,000 species of them, is the place to be and after dark is the time to go out and see them. The nocturnal creatures who are dormant in the day are out at night feeding, building, mating. And there are things I've never seen before, like the Lantern Bug with its bright orange scooped proboscis and iridescent wings and which starts life as what can be best described as an ant carrying a feather. I'm in awe of this crazy beautiful creature but there are also many I wish I didn't know were lurking in the woods. Our guide grasps the shoulder of the tall guy in the group, nimbly managing to avoid his collision with a poisonous centipede on an overhanging branch. While we gawk at the centipede we are as much in of the insect as we are of how the guide spotted it in the dark like that.

The Bat Cave

Mulu is famous for its bat exodus - where thousands of bats soar from a cave entrance on their nightly hunt for food. For some reason, bats don't like the rain so as Ellie and I settle in to watch the show under hovering storm clouds we're not sure we'll see anything at all. Our eyes are set on the limestone ridge in front. The hills around here are filled with cavernous caves and this one, misleadingly called "Deer Cave", is full of bats. Luckily you don't need to set foot in the guano lined cave to see the nightly exodus. As dusk falls, and we're about to give up hope of seeing Mulu's famed phenomena, a dark swirling cloud spirals from a hole in the top of the ridge. Its followed by another, then another, cyclone-like they drift upwards and away in formation before they disperse.

Walking back to the lodge in the dark bats flit across our path in their blind hunt for insects. They are tiny things, as small as sparrows, darting between trees and vines and us. It's really quite magical.

A Trip Up River

Despite there being an airport and a collection of guesthouses, the closest thing to an actual 'village' at Mulu is the Penan settlement upriver.

The Penan are a Borneo ethnic group who are traditionally nomadic forest dwellers. They are the last of Malaysian Borneo's tribes to take up permanent settlements and for this group it was forced upon them when Mulu was declared a National Park. As compensation for reduced access to the park, houses and a school were built for the Penan who were also offered jobs in the park. The Penan still retain hunting rights in the park, albeit limited for the sake of conservation.

Further up the Melinau River are some of Mulu's famous 'show' caves with their limestone formations and subterranean crystal streams. When we arrive a group of adventurers are climbing into their harnesses for a traverse that will see them inching their way through crevices and abseiling down a dark abyss. I signed up instead, with my new found friends, for the less arduous clamber through the picturesque caverns.

Even in the relative cool of the caves, its still a hot and sticky day so were happy when we're able to drop into the cool green river for a swim under the jungle canopy before our boat ride home.

In the Trees

Mulu's tree canopy walk is one of the world's longest. It's a beautiful trail in the treetops that gives a different perspective of the forest and particularly its bird life. But it isn't the only way to be up amongst the leaves. There are several hides and a 30m bird watching tower where you can sit and watch for hornbills or just listen to the forest.

It feels incredibly relaxing here...except for that enormous red ant crawling down my camera lens towards me.

Chillin' in the Cafe

The accommodation at Mulu is a mix of private bungalows and dormitory-style guesthouse each hidden down secured jungle paths, not far from each other but out of site. I chose the dorm and, walking into it on the first day of check-in, it felt a bit like I was on an adult version of a school camp. The massive verandah-fronted cabin was basic but clean and neat with single beds rather than bunks, which always adds a bit of adult sophistication to hostel life. It was easy to meet and plan trips with the others, everyone excitedly talking about the activities they wanted to do, or had signed up for already, the treks and adventures. There are so many activities here your morning afternoon and evening can be all planned out at the information office when you arrive and you just turn up on time without having to give it much more thought than that.

Mulu National Park is a place for doing things. For getting out there and being active and observant in nature. But in between the guided activities or DIY forest walks and birdwatching, most people lounge around the cafe snacking and chatting. Large, spacious and relaxing, it's surrounded by jungle and overhangs a forest creek keeping you firmly in the midst of things. And even here the clatter of cutlery and chat is subdued by the cacophony of Mulu's permanent residents.

Mulu World Heritage Area, Malaysia

GO: There is no other way to access Mulu Park than by air. MASwings' 18 seater aircraft fly in only twice a day, if the weather allows, from Kuching and Miri.

STAY: As accommodation is limited to the Park, the Marriott and a couple of local owned guesthouses it's recommended you book your accommodation before your flight.

DO: To avoid missing out on the fun stuff in peak time book activities in advance through the park's website before you arrive though openings will be advised on the parks notice board - great news for singles. Guided Activities range from M$25 nightwalk to M$200 multiday treks. There are a number of free unguided walks also.




Recent Posts

bottom of page