The following article is a description of what happened during our trip to Mulu for two weeks and from there up to Kinabalu for one week in Autumn 1992.
I have added some short notes in the form of a users guide to Mulu for tourist caving, describing how to get there, what to do and not to do and what to take and not to take.
It is an amazing place to visit and not as impossible as might at first seem; we had a great time and every day provided considerable amusement as you will see.
In early 1992, Andy Dawson announced his forthcoming retirement in July and that he would be setting off around the world via Mulu. It seemed like a good opportunity to join him and see the caves
I talked Sheelagh into going and others expressed some interest. In May, I found that some flights were getting booked up and rang Chris Fry one morning. He was in a meeting when he got a message to ring me urgently and rang rue back about an hour later
"Do you want to go to Mulu?" Five second pause. "I ought to."
So, we were going, and in the event joined by Chris Ranson, a travelling vet, and for some of the time by Alison, his sister, friend of Andy.
The island of Borneo lies across the equator and is divided into Kalimantan, the largest area and part of Indonesia; and three much smaller parts in the north and east, Sarawak, Brurxei and Sabah.
Mulu lies in Sarawak and its mountains and caves were recorded during the last century. The first major caving expedition to Mulu was in 1978 and there have been a number of well publicised follow up trips since. The limestone area lies mainly within the Gunung Mulu National Park which has (so far) escaped the extensive logging industry which is destroying the Sarawak jungle. To put it in perspective
however, the Gunung Mulu National Park is smaller than the Lake District although there are attempts to extend it.
We were told that the corridors of power in the country are riddled with corruption and that there are important persons with responsibility for the environment who also have personal financial interests in the logging industry. The future looks bleak.
The National Park is promoting tourism in the form of show caves, jungle walks and what we recognise as caving and they call ‘adventure caving’.
For visitors, it is necessary to have with you an adventure caving guide plus a National Parks guide all the time that you are caving in Mulu. With the right choice of guides, this is by no means the restriction that it might seem and has definite advantages as you will read later.
Usefully for English cavers, Dave Gill holds the position of Development Officer for the park for the next two years and is a good contact out there.
In the event, Andy and Chris R. travelled out to Singapore earlier and arranged to meet Sheelagh, Chris F. and myself at Miri airport on the Sunday afternoon.
Sheelagh and I had travelled down to Chris F. in Redhill on the Friday evening and so we were able to get the train up to Heathrow in good time for the 12-00 flight to Kuala Lurnpur. On the train we met Chris F. ‘s aunt who seemed curiously well informed about matters speleological and said that she didn’t want to hear about any ‘international incidents’. My black ammo box crammed with 7kg film, flashguns, batteries and slave units failed to pass security and was described by the operator as 'rather dense’. Luckily, he did not enquire too closely about the infra-red slaves which from their size and contents could well be bomb timers.
The flight was slow in loading, the baggage handling being carried out by some particularly useless personnel. As they failed for the third time to line up one of the cargo containers and nearly dropped it 20ft. onto the tarmac, an 8 year old passenger in the departure lounge offered the astute observation ‘I hope the pilots are better than this lot’.
Our fully loaded Malaysian Airlines 747-400 rolled out about half an hour late and to my amazement managed to get airborne before the end of the runway.
The only notable incident on the 11 1/2 hour flight was when Chris F. appeared to be having some trouble with the Thousand Island Dressing, using it to improve the flavour of his genitalia rather than his salad.
Due to various features of our solar system, the rest of Saturday ceased to exist.
We crawled off the aircraft in Kuala Lumpur early on Sunday morning, suffering from a +7 hour time shift and a massive increase in ambient temperature and humidity. Our passports were stamped to note our arrival in Malaysia. The ammo box drew more attention and I said that it contained camera equipment. ‘You see’, said one security woman to another, ‘I told you it was a box camera’. We transferred to a 737 and flew to Kota Kinabalu which is in Sabah and went through more immigration and had the passports stamped. We then walked upstairs to departures and 5 minutes later had our passports stamped yet again to say that we had left Sabah. Security here was more slack, mainly because one of the men had his arm around the other and was thus preoccupied. Ironically, the plane we boarded for Miri was the same one on which we had just come from Kuala Lumpur; the stewardess gave us a very funny look.
At Miri, Andy and Chris R. were waiting the other side of customs as we waited for the baggage to be Unloaded. Problem No. 1 - a distinct lack of baggage. Not surprisingly, no-one had expected anybody to travel to Miri via KK and they had unloaded all the baggage at KK without reading the destination tags. A half-hour inquisition in the airport office revea1ed that the baggage was still in Kota Kinabalu and that it would be sent down with the next flight.
Andy had already made contact with Tropical Adventure (TA), a company specialising amongst other things in adventure caving in Mulu. We were ferried to their office in Miri and struck a good deal for 12 days in Mulu all in with accommodation, food, transport, fees and guides.
That night we stayed at the Fairlane, a 0.5* hotel in Miri, situated on the third floor above the Phoenix Lady Barber Saloon. Apart from one customer in the shop, all the other occupants were female. I noted how friendly they were and waved back. Oddly enough, the whole street and for that matter most of Miri, seemed to have a lot of barber shops; the signs indicating that all of them were run by ladies.
The competition in the hair cutting business in Miri must be intense so I am still wondering why other occupants were female so many of the inhabitants, especially those on leave from the oil rigs, have long hair.
Tropical Adventure delivered the baggage about two hours later by which time we had settled in, tried (unsuccessfully) to repair the toilet and despatched a couple of cockroaches who had inadvertently been double booked in our rooms. The geckos on the ceiling seemed to be doing a good job on the flies so we let them stay.
That evening we ate in the market at a stall where they cooked for you what you pointed at and stuffed ourselves for M$ 2.50 each (about 55p). I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself after many years with Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, a turbocharged variant of the brew from England available mainly in Africa and the Far East. The others, who had not met it before, liked it. This probably had something to do with its massive 8% alcohol content.
Finally, we made one stallholder’s evening by buying 5 boiler suits at M$30 each after beating him down from an opening price of M$36. Very little is bought in this country at the stated price and as is often the case abroad, you must haggle. It is quite fun except when you are in a hurry and need to get somewhere.
We started at 06-00, said farewell to the hotel proprietor who was lying prostrate beside the reception desk on his second can of Heineken of the day, and were ferried by TA minibus 30 minutes to Kuala Baram where the Baram River runs into the sea.
The river is the main route out for the logging industry in this part of Sarawak. Tugs haul huge barges of logs down the Baram and off for transfer to their final destination; many go to Japan. The river is a thick soup of brown mud carried many miles down from the logging camps; from the air the brown mud slick goes miles out to sea before it settles to the bottom.
Breakfast was in the typical jerry built shack by the river and consisted of hard boiled eggs, fried noodles & meat, a disgustingly sweet bright green gunge made with coconut and strange circular, thin, fatty cake objects best described as being like a diaphragm designed for use by Eskimo Nell. After trying them, we concluded that this was probably the best use for them.
Travel upstream is by express boat. At first sight, these boats look vaguely familiar. On second sight they look like aircraft without wings. This is because they basically are.
Recipe:- To Make One Express Boat
Take one defunct aircraft, preferably a DC-3 or similar.
Remove the wings, engines & tail, cutting horizontally around the fuselage beneath the windows.
Take a steel hull and attach to it the upper fuselage.
Remove all the seats and resite them in the hull.
Find the largest diesel engine you can find of not less than 12 cylinders, and mount at the rear.
Attach a propeller + a spare on the roof for when it disintegrates on contact with floating logs.
Fit air conditioning, video and a supply of pidgin-English subtitled Chinese kung-fu movies.
Knock out the front cockpit window, add a seat and provide throttle and rudder controls.
Go (at about 45 mph).
We travelled upstream at high speed, with frequent sudden changes of course to avoid logs which had escaped from the barges and log rafts. 2 hours later at Marudi, the last town of any significance, we had lunch, avoided dubious looking dogs and saw the festering remains of most parts of a pig for sale in the market. Also on offer was a half-asphyxiated turtle, one of Malaysia’s protected species.
From Marudi there was a 3 hour journey further up the Bararn river. The logging camps diminished in number and as this boat was slightly slower and had a flat roof, it was possible to sit up there with some degree of safety. This meant that we could see some of the scenery, avoid having to sit through yet another appalling kung-fu movie and not be frozen by the over enthusiastic air conditioning.
This boat was notable for its lavatory. Positioned adjacent to the engine, it consisted of a toilet bowl mounted rather inconveniently in a plinth at about penis height. It presented a dilemma for the male of the species - whether to risk an up and over technique or to climb on and crouch. With the boat swaying around at high speed, either way held its dangers.
As people returned from the toilet to their seats you could tell which method they had adopted according to the splashes down the front or rear of their trousers. To make things worse, the toilet had no flushing mechanism; instead, there was a water feed to the pan from an inlet below water level maintained at a horrific rate of flow by the forward motion of the boat. It might as well have been a shower.
Entertainment was provided by one of the locals who was sniffing a plastic bag containing some unspecified orange liquid. Its narcotic effects were considerable and he lurched up and down the roof of the boat uttering strange noises in slurred Bahasa and then did his party piece by falling prostrate onto the rear deck.
At Long Terawan, the river diminishes in size and the limit is reached for the express boats. We transferred to a long boat sent down by TA and proceeded upstream. It was equipped with two outboards which was useful because only one ever seemed to work at a time. By now, the mountains of Mulu were visible in the distance; a flight of several hornbills passed overhead. After l 1/2 hours intermittent progress we turned onto the Melinau river and shortly past various riverside buildings up to our destination.
At about 5 p.m. local time, 45 hours after leaving Heathrow, we arrived in Mulu.
We set up in our accommodation, our own 8-bed room with private facilities. In common with all Malaysian toilets, ours was defective. We were lucky to have a conventional pan and not a French croucher, but it did lack a seat and took ages to refill. The sink leaked onto your feet and the water pressure was usually insufficient to drive the shower. The obligatory plastic buckets for washing, showering and assisting particularly large jobs down the pan were provided.
At TS’s lodge, the Benarat Inn, we met with 4 member of Chelsea who were spending their last night in Mulu. As we talked, bats zoomed across the hut catching flies attracted by the fluorescent lights and numerous geckos stalked those flies that had settled. Once in a while, a huge cicada would fly straight into the light and fall stunned onto the floor with a thud. The Chelsea provided dire stories of leeches and the impossibility of our ever being able to reach Sarawak Chamber but seemed to have had a good time.
Breakfast curiously consisted of sausage, egg and baked beans. We guessed, correctly as it turned out, that the locals had discovered from the earlier expeditions that this was what is required by the English for breakfast. We also had heaps of something that was either slightly heated bread or very underdone toast twisted into strange shapes by some huge external pressure that had been applied in transit. Jam came in several forms, linked by the common factor of containing huge amounts of sugar and pectin but little fruit.
We were taken by our TA guide, Paris Wan, upstream by boat to Park Headquarters. Here we registered for the duration and met our Park guide, Bagly Lang. We also met Dave Gill and had a useful chat. It appears that cave exploration whilst adventure caving is strictly prohibited. Should you accidentally stumble into new passage, the guide has found it during a training exercise. This did not prove to be a problem for us.
It was hot, and I decided to experiment with an oversuit that I had taken out to Mulu. It was made from Tyvek, a very strong material and designed for single use wear in paint spray shops. It was just the thing, very light and cool.
Bagly turned out in an immaculate National Parks oversuit that looked as if he had ironed it that morning. We soon discovered that he had a pathological fear of snakes when he saw one on the path. This turned out to be due to an unpleasant incident when he met a cave racer in a tight crawl and his lamp went out on him.
Our first cave was Deer Cave, a short 1k in length but with the biggest cross-section passage in the world. The bat and swiftlet guano heaps were steaming nicely in the morning heat, the surface alive with a carpet of cockroaches and various insects. As we passed across the guano through a low lying section of the show cave there was a concentration of ammonia that made your eyes stream.
While Andy discovered that pre-trip maintenance on carbide lamps is highly recommended, Chris F. found a free-tailed bat in a puddle that had made a poor start to its swimming career and I photographed. Taking the first picture, I bent over and the crutch seam of my Tyvek oversuit was rent asunder. Never mind, it was very warm and the extra ventilation was much appreciated.
The far end of Deer Cave leads out into the jungle and across an area of jungle known as the Garden of Eden. Some distance above can be seen the entrance of Green Cave in the next lump of limestone heading north-east. We went across and up to a nearer cave, Porcupine Cave, where there were some quills spotted although we did not see their previous owner. The trip back across the jungle brought about an extension of the tear in my oversuit and the worry of leeches attaching themselves to my privates but I escaped unscathed.
Next we visited the second show cave adjacent to Deer Cave, Lang’s Cave, which we thought had been named after Bagly. It turned out to be named after his father since it is the custom in these parts for the surname of the father to become the forename of the son.
That evening we returned to the Bat Observatory which is positioned near the exit to Deer Cave so that visitors can see the bats issuing at dusk. The observatory was built 3 1/2 years ago, with dormitories so that you could stay there and also see the swiftlets in the morning. Unfortunately, it was constructed to a poor specification and is no longer habitable, even by local standards.
It started raining about 5 p.m. and the bats failed to materialise, sensibly preferring to stay dry. By this time my the rear of my oversuit had totally disintegrated, as had the elastic on my underwear and much tittering ensued from the Malaysian visitors as I stood up to reveal a fine example of an English bicycle park. One woman looked utterly shocked; it seems that such exposure is uncommon in a those parts and Bagly, still looking immaculate in his National Parks boiler suit seemed pleased to get us off the premises.
The walk back to Park Headquarters was 3k down a plankwalk built through the jungle. As darkness fell, the jungle came to life and by the time we were down, you could hardly carry on a conversation over the various insect noises and animal calls, especially frogs. In the half light, I noted a human skull perched on a limestone shelf which I was told would have belonged to a late member of the Penan tribe who leave their dead where they fall and then move on to another part of the forest.
We travelled back down river in pouring rain, arriving at the Benarat Inn soaking wet. The occupants were treated to the sight of us stripping off and showering in the run-off water from the roof which was both cleaner and about ten times greater in volume than the water available from the shower itself.
The evening concluded with the dumping of my Tyvek suit, a most unsuccessful experiment; and the putting to rest of my faithful caving gruns which had already received a long service medal but which were now suitable only for someone with a waist measurement in excess of 56".
That evening a large boat which became known as the Bismarck deposited a party of about 10 Germans.
Notable amongst them was a fine specimen whom we christened Hermann. Short and stocky, with an overhanging gut that cast a shadow down to his knees, he had a thick neck that merged directly into his head without a chin. The only thing missing was a Prussian army helmet with a spike on it. He went everywhere with his camcorder, even more remarkable in these days of high technology and compact construction for its immense size. In a supporting role was his wife, Brunnhilde, by all accounts an ex-Olympic tree stump pulling medallist.
Perhaps they thought that we looked funny as well.
By river, past Headquarters to Wind Cave, another show cave conveniently adjacent to a landing stage. This is part of the Clearwater/Black Rock cave system which has now been linked to become the 7th longest in the world. We left the show cave and set off on a 5 hour through trip to Clearwater.
After a while, Paris announced in Illusion Passage that it was time for lunch and produced from his tackle bag plates, napkins and forks. He and Bagly then served hot rice, beef in sauce, green beans and fish and aubergine curry. To follow there was fresh pineapple and some orange juice to drink. We were doing all right here.
After more cave of large dimensions we were forced to climb down through a restriction (horror!) and were then technically into Clearwater Cave. We later broke out into the most magnificent river passage I have ever seen (or am ever likely to see). At this point we had to cross and due to the rain, the water level was quite high.
Bagly carried across the tackle bag in which Paris had stowed the carbide, wrapped somewhat feebly in a couple of ancient plastic bags. The inevitable happened; Bagly slipped and the bag temporarily went under. He recovered the situation but lost his cool when the acetylene gas generated within the bag reached his lamp jet and the whole lot blew back. He arrived, shaken, on the far side with a smell of burnt hair. We introduced them at this point to the concept of waterproof plastic containers for carbide and promised to post some out on our return.
The main river passage continued for at least 1k to the show cave, increasing in dimensions as it did so. There were a number of river crossings needed, using fixed ropes to hang onto, with your feet trailing downstream in the current. To let go would not have been clever.
The last crossing was unroped and required setting off well upstream in order to make a landing at the desired point. Chris R. developed a sudden liking for water and spent his time crossing and recrossing while we set up a buoyancy aid in the form of a plastic bag inflated inside a tackle bag for the weak swimmers. Not to be outdone, Paris made the final crossing still smoking and kept his fag out of the water. After we were out, he admitted that he had never before been through at such a high water level.
The Bismarck returned late with a cargo of Germans who had got very wet whilst seeing no bats whatsoever. Feeling sympathetic, we photographed them in the rain as they disembarked.
To Horse Head Cave, off the plank walk leading up to Deer Cave. We were accompanied by Lyn, an inhabitant of Yorkshire now living in Bruriei where her husband, Vaughan is employed in the oil business. They are regular visitors to Mulu when he is on leave and she may soon get a job in the Park. She has caved in South Wales and knows Godre Pentre. Without prompting, she recalled staying there once and remembered an odd tall character with a fetish for playing with the fire. We spent some time trying to think who she meant, but came to no definite conclusion.
Horse Head contained some fine passage and was notable not only for the usual chossy loose Mulu floor but also some amazing honeycomb limestone floor and spikes. Some of these were very thin and there is the possibility of a very nasty leg injury if you slip off one of the spikes or they break under you as they can do. I had my nearest brush so far with some of the cave fauna. On a tricky traverse across a crumbling mud ledge, I plonked my hand down on a rock next to a huntsman spider; this one was (only) about 4" across but they get much bigger and can inflict a nasty nip. After Horse Head we returned to the Bat Observatory since it was a fine evening. The bats performed magnificently, spending about 20 minutes flying out in a spiralling stream. Far above, distant black clouds indicated groups of bats coming out from other caves and entrances. Some Bat Hawks turned up for an easy evening dinner.
Andy and Chris R. returned with Bagly for a further look at Horse Head Cave. The rest of us visited a Penan longhouse. This one was a sordid affair, being built by the government to house some local Penan who by origin are nomadic anyway. Long houses are what they say, with many rooms in a long row, each containing a family. This one had only about 30 rooms but they can reach 60 or more in some cases.
The conditions were not terribly filthy but neither were they brilliant. A small naked child squatted on the balcony, simultaneously dribbling vomit and depositing a pile of white porridgy excrement. An old lady despatched an inquisitive dog with a well aimed blow from her parang (a large jungle knife) and the women produced various tourist souvenirs for sale. The walls were graced with old Coca—Cola advertisements, pictures of Jesus Christ and photographs of the Malaysian Royal Family. We bought the odd item, presented them with some cigarettes and sweets and moved on.
Later, we visited Lagan’s Cave, with some notably large passage. Here again there were many bats, giant cave millipedes over 6" long with huge legs and cave crickets with antennae up to 10" long.
Chris F. was impressed with Lagan’s Cave and on our way back through the jungle asked Paris "Are many of the caves here up to this standard." The answer came back "Mostly."
Today we knew that Paris meant business since he turned up armed with his parang, indicating some serious jungle work. The object of the exercise was to walk from Park Headquarters to Camp 1, cave, stay overnight, visit another cave and then walk back to Headquarters.
We walked along the jungle track to Camp 1 for about 2 hours, going through the usual puddles and quagmires and with an above average number of river crossings. Each of these meant climbing down a wet and muddy bank, wading across and then up again on the other side, remembering to put the bottom of your trouser legs back inside your socks to reduce the rate of leeching.
Camp 1 proved to be a wooden hut in the jungle with an expanse of flat boards for sleeping on, a corrugated iron roof and a cooking area. Imagine our surprise on arrival to find various items of ladies clothing hung out to dry and round the corner a somewhat sheepish looking woman clad only in a hastily grabbed sarong.
We were wearing our boiler suits which were by this time soaked and started to remove them. Andy, being well brung up and having gone to a decent school enquired as to whether she minded our doing this. Suspicions were aroused when she replied that she found the sight of Chris G. in his gruns "quite thrilling". No-one has ever before described this sight in these terms.
Furthermore, she appeared to be up at Camp 1 on her own with her guide and said that she was there for two or three days peace in the jungle. A pity that five cavers and two guides turned up to shatter it.
After another three-course lunch we set off through the jungle for another hour or so to Good Luck Cave. The entrance runs from a gorge into a fine streamway, not too wide but very high, climbing steadily until the first beginnings of Sarawak Chamber.
We can now say conclusively that we have not seen Sarawak Chamber. Despite climbing a near endless boulder heap for some time, we reached a high point where the main bulk of the chamber just begins to really open out. Unless you have with you some extraordinary lighting, the most impressive part of the cave remains the streamway. On the return, our guides took as much trouble to stay out of the water as we took to stay in it.
Returning to the entrance, the tail end of the party increased speed as it heard a series of ominous thuds and suspected a flood pulse. In fact, it was just the afternoon thunderstorm outside. Although it was only 5 p.m., the cloud cover had made the jungle itself nearly dark under the canopy and there was water everywhere.
With fading carbide lamps we stumbled and tripped back to Camp 1 with many paths now submerged in fast flowing water and the main river crossings distinctly sporting.
On our return we found our female companion still scantily clad and taking part in a game of cards with her guide but at curiously close range. Her name was Susie, came from Fulham and reluctantly admitted to being an estate agent. By this time we had formed one common theory as to why she had come to Camp 1 and it had nothing to do with the peace and solitude of the jungle. All good theories have to be proved by test and so when we bedded down, we left one carbide lamp blazing fiercely.
‘Slapper’ Susie immediately demanded that it be extinguished and soon afterwards a well tuned ear could detect the removal of clothing from that direction and some attempts to rouse her guide beside her. Clearly unwilling to perform in front of an audience, and even more so in front of his fellow guides, the unfortunate victim refused and we all went happily to sleep. Except, that was for one sexually frustrated estate agent from Fulham.
We awoke aching and stiff after intermittent sleep on the hard boarded floor of Camp 1. Slapper Susie and her guide were aching and stiff respectively for different reasons but no doubt relieved the symptoms when we left.
On waking, we found that someone was missing - the only sign of Chris Fry was his mosquito net and hat. Concluding that he had been taken by the pygmies during the night, we started to divide the spoils and argue over who should get the extra sausage at breakfast. Unfortunately he appeared from the jungle a little later, having been returned by the pygmies as unpalatable although he claimed only to have gone down to the river for a wash.
After another thrash through jungle we reached Drunken Forest Cave. It has fine formations, many of them at strange angles to the ground, hence the name I suppose.
After yet another two hour jungle walk’ we finally returned to Headquarters around tea time and then back by boat to the Benarat Inn.
Mostly a rest day. A number of the party took a boat ride back down river and then up the Tutoh river as far as some dramatic rapids which prevented further progress. It was also a chance to do some washing although with the level of mud in the river, clothes took on a less sweaty but distinctly brown tinge.
The caving was now over and today saw the start of a three day trip to the Pinnacles and back. Paris loaded up the boat and we set off up to Headquarters. We caught up with the Germans heading upstream in the Bismarck. For some reason, Bagly was riding shotgun but transferred to our boat in midstream with an impressive leap.
Paris announced that because we needed extra supplies for 3 days, we would be taking a porter. At the longhouse we picked up a short but well built Penan called Miri. He came well prepared for 3 days in the jungle with only a rattan bag and sleeping mat and a parang. He wore only a T-shirt and shorts but had feet like a hobbit. Needless to say he moved through the jungle at twice our speed and carrying a huge pack thoughtfully packed by Paris with all the tins and heavy gear.
There was a reasonable amount of water in the river and we went upstream towards the Melinau gorge. We were forced to stop earlier than planned because a very large tree had fallen and blocked the river. A Dutch party coming back from the Pinnacles appeared out of the jungle looking like death warmed up. They caused great amusement to us and several of them were sufficiently weird to be given names, e.g. ‘The Wicked Witch of The West’, ‘She-Man’, and (by Chris F.) ‘I Didn’t Know You Could Get Shirts Like That Any More’.
Their boat had been left the wrong side of the fallen tree and the guides did a fine job emptying it and transporting it overland round the obstacle, rolling it on logs.
I was wearing a brand new pair of boots in a tasteful shade of green and purple which caused an English party who had now turned up after two days jungle walking to call us a ‘coach party’. We wished we could take them caving somewhere.
The rest of the day was taken up with a walk to Camp 5 in the Melinau Gorge, a slightly easier trek than to Camp 1 being mainly on the level. The guides gave us about an hour’s start but soon caught up. Camp 5 is larger than Camp 1 but of similar construction. From it, you can look across the gorge and see Tiger Cave high on the wall opposite; by all accounts a 2-day climb from the cliff base.
We removed the odd leech and settled in as it started to rain. A couple of medical students turned up so Chris R. was kept happy all evening discussing various incomprehensible ailments and swapping vet stories. The numbers were finally made up with the arrival of a pair who had walked through the jungle from Limbang for two days and who were by now very damp. Nick was a shipping agent in Hong Kong and he was accompanied by Victoria, a fine product of the English public school system who was working out there as a nanny to a disgustingly rich family.
A guide from Borneo Overland provided the following guide to leeches, in ascending order of unpleasantness:-
A Brief Guide To Mulu Leeches
- Black (Bog Standard) Leech - Smallest and most common. Can be pulled off easily, especially when full
- Painted Leech - The next most common and a bit larger. Can be pulled off quite easily
- Tiger Leech - Black and yellow striped and even larger. Difficult to pull off even when full
- Black Hairy Water Leech - The bastard of the pack. Big. Doesn’t let go even when it’s full of blood
Leeches hang around (literally) in the jungle and attach themselves to passing mammals. They hang on with the posterior (arse) end, the business end being at the front. Their ability to attach themselves is amazing. Chris F. flicked one off, it landed on my boiler suit and hung on. I then flicked it off towards a wet vertical bit of cave wall and it still managed to attach itself on contact.
They are discerning about where to start sucking blood and will move around a bit to find some softer skin as it is easier for them to penetrate. They can move surprisingly fast but normally attach to the ankles or lower legs. If you immerse yourself in water before they lock on, they move upwards and ultimately appear around your neck.
One enterprising specimen trucking along the boards of Camp 1 looking for a victim found itself in the shadow of Slapper Susie S sarong and after little effort was soon having the time of his life in a very nasty place indeed. They are surprisingly resilient to death. They are not easily squashed unless distended with blood. Cigarette ends make them recoil but not always let go and a lighter or carbide lamp flame only burns you as well. We found that if you cover them with a little sand or fine grit they do not like it and stop moving. They can then be flattened between two stones, using the sand as a grinding paste. As a final gesture to the environment, the remains can then be thrown into the nearest river where the fish immediately detect the smell of blood and pile in to gobble up the corpses. Salt is also effective.
It rained most of the night and continued during the morning. At about 11 a.m. it eased and we told the guides that we were going to go for it. The walk (if you can call it that) to the Pinnacles climbs 1200m in a linear distance of 2400m, i.e. an average gradient of 1 in 2.
It is quite simply a long pull up through the jungle using tree roots where appropriate as handholds and with fixed aids near the top in the form of 14 aluminium ladder sections.
The Pinnacles themselves were not r as large as we had expected from I photographs but were nonetheless impressive. They are very pointed sharp lumps of white limestone about half way up Gunung Api and rise up to 50m out of the jungle floor on a small col. On this occasion they were grey because it was raining, but the clouds cleared enough for a fine view back down the gorge, the Melinau River and in the distance the Mulu airstrip.
The guides put on their ponchos and were eager to leave because of the rain. To those brought up in the U.K., a little bit of warm rain was no problem. We left when Bagly started shivering and told him that where we came from this was quite pleasant. Chris F. commented that it was not too far and that we would ‘soon be home and wet’.
The climb down was only a little faster than the ascent because of the extreme steepness and sore knees were recorded on our return to Camp 5 where we spent a second night.
We saw Slapper Susie’s guide with a new client on the Pinnacles; he appeared to be having trouble walking
We decamped fairly early and set off back to the boat on the Melinau River. The rain had swollen the river to the point where we could not reach the boat without swimming, somewhat awkward with the packs. Paris and Bagly swam off down river and after about half an hour had baled the boat and brought it to us.
Some of the seating planks had floated away in the floods so Paris assaulted a nearby bamboo with his parang and fashioned some replacements. Within a couple of hours we were back at Headquarters to drop Bagly and then on to the Benarat Inn. The river was at least 6ft. higher than previously and the garden had totally flooded. We saw why they build the houses on stilts out there.
For the rest of the day we regrouped and did some packing as we were leaving. But the day was far from over……
We had promised Dave Gill that on our last night we would get up to Headquarters for a chat and possibly the odd beer. Duly armed with a carton of Guinness and a bottle of scotch, we set off with Paris, this time in his own boat since this was not an official part of the tour.
Having eaten up at Headquarters and downed a couple of cans of lager each, we broke out the Guinness. Dave Gill invited us to a slide show he was giving for some local visitors to the park and we went along. He showed pictures of his recent expeditions to China, Vietnam and Irian Jaya, these last being very recent indeed since he only went in August. The locals were highly amused by pictures of penis gourds and the larger they were, the louder the laughs.
Dave finished by announcing that the karaoke machine over in the canteen would now be going and they all piled out at a rate of knots to see it. Everywhere we went, karaoke seemed to have taken over and this was no exception. What was unusual was this particular one. The songs were the usual old rubbish but the accompanying film consisted mainly of lightly clad oriental girls floating on boats through a very interesting tower karst area. Even more bizarre was one number in which two girls were below decks seemingly debating whether or not to go to bed together.
We kept the British end up by providing various renditions; Sheelagh described my duet with Chris R. as ‘terrible’ and Chris F. ‘s ‘Hey Jude’ will never be forgotten. Dave Gill had become quite good at karaoke in the time he had been out there and even seemed to enjoy it.
Unfortunately, while we had been over at the slide show, Paris and Bagly had been putting back the Carlsbergs, continuously. We continued until we had eliminated the last traces of the Guinness while Mr. Gill was doing a fine job on the scotch. Paris claimed to be looking after Bagly who he told us was his cousin and that he had to stop him from drinking too much. He failed.
In his capacity as Development Officer he decided to educate us further by returning from the bog with a 3" long grasshopper, apparently named Geoffrey, which he plonked on the table and proceeded to drag backwards to demonstrate how effective the grip was from its feet. Geoffrey sensibly flew off as soon as he could, crashed straight into a fluorescent light and spent the rest of the evening on the ceiling nursing a headache.
At some time gone 1 a.m. Sheelagh reported that Paris was propping his eyes open and kept falling off his chair and that it might be a good time to go. We presented the remains of the scotch to Dave who asked us to ‘say hello to Blighty’ for him.
It was raining and very dark. We reached the landing stage and found the boat but had lost Paris. After about 10 minutes he appeared and fell into the boat. Chris F. pulled together sufficient surviving brain cells to realise the following:-
i) He was not a good swimmer, even when sober, which he wasn’t
ii) He was in a boat on a river in flood
iii) The man in charge of the boat was close to alcohol induced coma
iv) The boat had no lights
He therefore spent several minutes trying (unsuccessfully) to put on a life jacket. Andy sat up front with a Petzl headtorch under the impression that it might help Paris navigate and Chris R. helpfully decided to stand up and raise the centre of gravity. Paris got the outboard going, turned the boat downstream and then opened the engine to full throttle.
We charged downriver at a high speed so that on the bends, the edge of the boat was only about 1" from the water. Chris F. came round enough to see this and with a cry of ‘Oh shite ! .... Help !!‘ he threw himself backwards into the bottom of the boat and remained in this position for the rest of the journey.
How we got back I don’t know; we were too drunk to be frightened although had every cause to be. In a very short time we reached our landing stage and fell out. I can only conclude that Paris had done this before on more than one occasion.
We said goodbye to the staff at the Benarat Inn and Chris F. thanked them for the extra sausages and beans that we had asked for, and got, at breakfasts. ‘And the eggs’ came the answer; they had clearly been counting carefully. At Headquarters we said goodbye to Bagly and measured his feet since we had decided to send him and Paris some boots from England on our return as they had both been very good indeed to us. We were going to say farewell to Dave but we were told that for some reason he had not yet got up.
Mulu airstrip is 5 minutes upstream from Headquarters and is undergoing considerable development. By the end of 1992 the new terminal will be operational, replacing the open hut used at the moment. We were flying to Miri by Twin Otter, a small 20 seater aircraft and so everything had to be weighed carefully.
The plane was due in at 10-55 but by this time had not appeared. Air traffic control got up from its seat where it had been reading the paper and scanned the sky with a pair of binoculars. Nothing. Several minutes later, the radio crackled and the plane made contact, saying that it was 1/2 hour late.
We finally left before 12 noon and the pilot took us in a long loop up out over the Clearwater River, beside the Melinau Gorge and not far from directly above Camp 5. We could see the Pinnacles from the windows and for the first time had a real feeling for the terrain and size of it. There were several large openings in the cliffs, dolines and interesting depressions in the forest canopy. In the distance we saw the beginnings of the Hidden Valley, the target area for the next expedition. We then turned and traversed huge areas devastated by the logging and half an hour later put down in Miri.
At the airport were scenes of confusion; something was clearly wrong. What was wrong was the Kuala Lumpur control tower which covers a very wide area of Malaysia. Since someone had set fire to it at 5-30 that morning, destroying all the control radar and internal telephone systems in the airport, they were having some trouble.
We had tickets and this seemed to help; our flight to Kota Kinabalu was cancelled and we were told that the later flight at 7-40 p.m. might go. Still, things were not too bad, we were given a green voucher each entitling us to a free lunch. A pity that we had just eaten. A further pity that the lunch on offer was fish head curry; we looked at it, it looked back at us, and we declined.
Chris R. put all the tickets into his hat and asked a passing member of the public to pull one out. Andy’s voucher came out and he was sent to negotiate with the restaurant staff to see what could be bought with the voucher by way of drinks. After some time he returned with 2 colas and a 7—up. This process was repeated until all five vouchers had been exchanged. We were not too successful, especially with the manageress but Chris F. won with four cold drinks and a coffee.
Our names were called over the Tannoy and we found that they had rustled up a Twin Otter from somewhere and were putting on an extra flight to Kota Kinabalu at about 6-45 p.m. In due course we piled into it and sat up front behind the pilots. The co-pilot turned round, ‘Hello’.
‘Hello’, replied Chris R. to the pilot, ‘your first time is it?’
And so we took off for Kota Kinabalu, but that is another story ....
Things To Take To Mulu
- BATTERY CHARGER - Electricity is 240V AC with British 13A sockets so flash batteries can be recharged
- BOILER SUIT - Good for jungle walking and in the caves. Shorts in the caves are not recommended
- BOOTS - WALKING - Lightweight ones, preferably old; they will be soaking wet for the entire duration
- CAMERA - The jungle is wet, really wet. Take a waterproof/sports type if you can get one
- CARBIDE LAMP & HELMET - The hire ones are badly maintained and most of them dont work
- ELASTIC - For leechproofing around the bottom of your boiler suit
- FILM - The jungle is dark. Use at least 200 ASA
- FLASHGUN(S) - Obviously for cave photography, but also for fill-in flash in the jungle
- FOOTWEAR - CAVING - Lightweight boots or even trainers but you will need some grip for the mud. CBs!!
- GUINNESS - Foreign Extra Stout (8% v/v alcohol) from Marudi @ M$ 7 per large bottle. Nectar
- HAMMOCK - Most desirable at Camps I & 5 to avoid backache from sleeping on bare wood floors
- INOCULATIONS - Typhoid, polio, hepatitis A, tetanus and malaria pills
- INSECT REPELLENT - It helps
- IODINE SOLUTION - The medical sort for wounds. It stings like hell but stops cuts going septic
- SHEET SLEEPING BAG - Optional. Your accommodation will probably provide something anyway
- WATER PURIFYING TABLETS - Of whatever sort you prefer. We used iodine again
- WHISKY - For Dave Gill
Things Not To Take To Mulu
- BINOCULARS - A waste of time; you can never see far enough to need them
- CARBIDE - They get it in 50kg drums from Marudi
- FURRY SUIT - IVs too hot for caving in. Useful up Mt. Kinabalu if you’re going on there
- GLOVES - It's too warm
- HAT - If you want one, spend M$ 3 in Miri or Manidi
- JAP B ENCEPHAUTIS JAB - We saw no paddy fields, pigs or monkeys. The probability of infection is very low.
- MOSQUITO NET - We did not have mosquito problems. You can get away without one.
- MOSQUITO COILS - Available locally
- SLEEPING BAG - It's too warm
- WATERPROOFS - It’s easier to get wet; take a folding umbrella for temporary downpours
- WELLIES - Use an old pair of trainers for caving