A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to be able to visit Gunung Mulu National Park in Malaysia. Although I’m a keen walker, rock climber, and caver, it was my first visit to true tropical rainforest and I couldn’t recommend it more. Not only is the scenery truly spectacular- massive limestone knife edges rise straight out of lush green forest- and the wildlife fascinating, real efforts towards ethical eco tourism are being made at Mulu.
The caves are a big drawcard for visitors. The scale is grand and the world’s largest cave isn’t far away. Walkways and guardrails have been installed to keep wanderers safe from harm in the more accessible areas, and the guides well-informed and speak excellent English. They’re also local, reflecting the cave resort’s social policy. There are both casual and strenuous activities on offer. You can either take a gentle walk to the mouth of Deer Cave at sunset to see masses of bats spiralling into the sky or have a guided adventure inside Clearwater Cave, one of the longest cave systems in the world and one that is still partially unexplored.
Most cave tours I’ve taken (and I’ve taken a few, in Asia, Europe, and Australia) involve walking, or maybe a little wading or scrambling at most, but at Mulu you can include a boat journey on the river, a swim in clear blue water, or a walk in a piece of rainforest so pretty it’s nicknamed ‘Garden of Eden’.
Even the most dedicated caver must admit that bats aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the rainforest has a lot more to offer. There are so many species here that only a fraction of the birds, reptiles, and insects have been classified by scientists. You’ll certainly hear monkeys even if you only catch a glimpse in the treetops. There are spectacular hornbills, vivid blue and green lizards, and tiny pygmy squirrels in the trees. Gunung Mulu is a feast of animal life. I even got a tantalising hint of a wild otter in the Garden of Eden- a wet footprint that could only have been made moments before we arrived.
Butterflies are everywhere and like everyone else I wasted hours trying to get the perfect photograph of a huge iridescent green species (the Rajah Brooke Birdwing). No doubt this provides an endless stream of amusement for the workers, but a kindly National Park ranger showed me the way to get the perfect butterfly shot. Wait til it rains, then stake out a puddle on a concrete path. Before long the butterflies will come down to take a drink and spread their wings.
There are plenty of boardwalk trails where visitors can roam at will. Stay on them and there’s no chance of getting lost, and it’s well worth taking that advice to heart as the density of forest makes it very hard to navigate. You can also take a rainforest canopy walk to get you high where the birds and monkeys tend to hang out or have a boat ride on the Melanang River.
There is only one way for visitors to get to Mulu and that’s by light aircraft. There is a choice of accommodation though. I stayed at Park HQ, which provided some much needed luxury after a long, sweaty day caving and walking. I can wholly recommend their cool showers, perfect linen, and shady verandahs, from which you can watch the fireflies in the evening.
Although vegetarian cuisine isn’t a high priority on the menu at Mulu restaurants, the chef at Park HQ was kind enough to keep the spicy shrimp paste that forms the basis of so much Malaysian food out of my meals. Try the fried rice with shaved rainforest ginger and be sure not to miss the breakfast pancakes served with tiny local limes.
Visiting Gunung Mulu National Park is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being impressed by the scale of the forests, the cliffs and caves, the rivers, or by the incredibly rich and varied animal life.
Jess Spate lives in Cardiff and edits Outdoor Equipment Online, a price comparison website for outdoor gear, and also works for Appalachian Outdoors. She visited Gunung Mulu with her father, also a caver and wildlife enthusiast.