Monday, 11 October 2010

Gunung Mulu National Park & Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia)

Onwards to Borneo's number one tourist attraction! If you've ever seen television documentaries containing footage of Borneo's bats and caves then the chances are that it's Gunung Mulu National Park, who's access is via a short flight from Miri, or a day-long journey by boat. We opted for the former to maximise our time there.

Being the most popular tourist site gave the park an altogether different vibe to the other national parks we've visited. It's the largest national park with a fantastic variety of trails - but also the most bureaucratic, so in order to visit the caves or walk the 'canopy sky-walk' you have to pay a fee to hire a guide and visit in a small group. However this would turn out to be an invaluable source of information on the flora and fauna along the trails, and the geology of the caves.

The caves in Mulu are fantastic - and like none I have visited before. What strikes you first is the scale of them, with kilometres of pathways linking up the different caves.
Deer cave is an immense chamber and is home to 2-3 million bats, which eat 4-5 tons of flying insects every night. Since the bats take care of most of the mosquitoes we didn't get bitten once!
In the cafeteria one evening we watched a couple of bats circling round and feasting on the moths, mosquitoes and (big) cicadas (!) which were buzzing around the lights.

It rained for 36 hours continuously during our trip, which obviously posed no problem for visiting the caves, but sadly we didn't get to see the millions of bats flying out of the huge cave mouth (like in the TV footage you might have seen).

After Deer Cave our tour took us to Langs Cave, home to some weird and wonderful looking stalactites and stalagmites. Sadly our cameras could not do justice to the sights we saw.

The following day we took a longboat up the river to two further caves: Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave. Since it was raining so hard - and the temperature was relatively cool outside - we didn't feel any if the air currents in Wind Cave (which are caused by a difference in air pressure and temperatures inside and outside the cave), but the guide did show us an interesting mineral formation called 'moon milk', a white, moss-like covering over the limestone, found only in Wind Cave.

The final cave on our itinerary was 'Clearwater Cave', a deep chasm with a fast-flowing river and rapids running through it. The volume of rainfall since we arrived meant that the river was swollen and part of the pathway was flooded so we had to turn back, but it was fascinating to see the limestone cave being sculpted before our very eyes.
When we left the cave it was raining harder than ever so we headed straight back on the longboat and back to our room - no matter how stunning the location it wasn't worth getting soaked again. Instead of walking we enjoyed a few beers in the cafeteria with some fellow travellers...

The rain did finally let up by the following morning so we were able to fit in the 'canopy skywalk' - a rickety series of rope bridges 40 metres high amongst the tree tops - where we were lucky enough to see several hornbills (the state of Sarawak in Borneo calls itself 'the land of the hornbills'). Apparently it's rare to see quite so many, so despite not being massive bird-watchers, we were pretty impressed!

Next up on our itinerary was capital city of the state of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu (fondly known as KK to the locals). Much to Kev's amusement he found and purchased an 'I heart KK' t-shirt (photo to follow!) - to be worn ironically, I hope!

KK is a lovely little seafront town with a nice selection of bars and restaurants looking out to sea.
Just off the coast are the Tunku Abdul Rahman Islands, a national park consisting of five tropical islands of white sandy beaches and dense jungle interior. We caught a speedboat to Manukan Island and spent the day there, enjoying a relaxing day swimming, sunbathing and reading on the beach. After quite a lot of time in the cities and national parks it's nice to have some beach time again.
On the return journey the captain of our boat decided to race another tourist boat back to the harbour - what fun it was leaping (for want of a better word) across the waves. It felt like we actually took off a couple of times! Now I know why they insisted we all wore life jackets.

Despite there being a wealth of bars and restaurants here the absolute best place to eat is at the night market on the waterfront. At the far end are the Filipino barbecue stalls, cheap as chips and selling fish that has been landed that same afternoon. Last night we each enjoyed an enormous tuna steak and rice for just £1.50. Food is traditionally eaten with the hands - chopsticks or cutlery aren't even available - but we took along our sporks as we chickened out and didn't think eating rice with our fingers an easy task (not to mention a bit unhygienic)!

In the night market we also tried durian fruit (if you've not heard of it before it's a large segmented fruit in a spiky shell that smells really bad - a bit like a drain. It's taste is an acquired one: I have heard some liken it to vanilla ice cream but the bit we tried tasted a bit like 'creamy onions'! Yuk - still, at least we gave it a go.

Next we're off to our final national park in Borneo: Kinabalu Park, home to the 4095m high mountain that we've booked to climb. Seeing the peak on the KK skyline is certainly intimidating but we're up for the challenge.

Sarah & Kev xx

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