For visitors who take the time and trouble to explore it, Sarawak’s northern interior often ends up being the most memorable part of their stay. Some of the wildest, most untouched parts of Sarawak are interspersed, sometimes in close proximity, with badly degraded patches, thus putting everything you may have read about the state’s environmental problems into sharp relief. The timber industry has been systematically logging here since the 1960s, with tracts of land already under oil palm or being cleared to grow it, yet the rugged terrain still offers fabulous trekking – something most visitors only experience at Gunung Mulu National Park, with its limestone Pinnacles and extensive caves.
As central Sarawak has the Rejang, so the north has its major river system, the Batang Baram. There the resemblance ends, for only the lowest part of the Baram – from Marudi, 50km southeast of Miri, to the river mouth at Kuala Baram near the Brunei border – has anything like a proper boat service, and that stretch is any case devoid of sights. Further upriver, the days of being able to just turn up and find a longboat and someone who can pilot it have long since gone. Much travel is therefore by small aircraft or 4WD, using the spider’s web of logging roads, which adds to the outback feel. Anyone wanting to get off the beaten track will most likely have to talk to the Miri tour operators, who have contacts with boatmen and drivers and can arrange accommodation in towns with hardly any formal places to stay. That said, it is possible to visit remote Penan settlements in the upper Baram using a homestay programme, though this doesn’t come cheap.
Mulu aside, the highlight is the lush Kelabit Highlands, accessible by air, where the pleasant climate is ideal for long treks in the rainforest. Of much lesser significance unless you’re an avid birdwatcher is Loagan Bunut National Park, some distance off the Miri–Bintulu road and difficult to visit independently.Read More
Gunung Mulu National Park
Gunung Mulu National Park
GUNUNG MULU, Sarawak’s premier national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is named after the 2376m mountain at its heart. Modern explorers have been coming here since Spenser St John in the 1850s, who didn’t reach the summit of Gunung Mulu but wrote inspiringly about the region in Life in the Forests of the Far East. A more successful bid in 1932 saw Edward Shackleton, son of the Antarctic explorer, get to the top during a research trip organized by Tom Harrisson.
The park’s best-known feature, however, is atop another mountain, Gunung Api – the dozens of fifty-metre-high razor-sharp limestone spikes known as the Pinnacles. It is to catch sight of them – a three-day trek, there and back, from the park offices – and of the park’s incredible network of caves, that visitors stream into Mulu (as the park is generally known) year-round. The park contains the largest limestone cave system in the world, formed when surface water eroded vast amounts of material, dividing the limestone belt that runs southwest–northeast across the middle of the park into separate mountains as well as carving cave passages within. Most people see some or all four of the dramatic show caves, though other caves are accessible on adventure packages and yet more are still being explored (wmulucaves.org).
Attractions aside, Mulu is a national park like no other in Sarawak, for the simple reason that it has been privatized. While the Sarawak Forestry Corporation remains in overall charge, most things to do with tourism, including the accommodation, is now run by Borsarmulu, the firm that owns the Royal Mulu Resort a few kilometres away. Now Mulu feels more Singapore than Sarawak: tours are timetabled and formatted, and you can explore few parts of the park unaccompanied. The tours are certainly well run, the guides are better communicators than at any other Sarawak park, and close supervision has helped prevent the poaching of valuable plants – but if it were possible to make the jungle somehow corporate, this is it. The only way to avoid taking the tours is by having your own registered guide, which enables you to book boat charter and accommodation on the trails separately, though this only makes sense if you are in a group.
The show caves – Clearwater, Wind, Lang’s and Deer – are a must, though the interest can begin to wane if you see all four. If you’re doing a Pinnacles trek, the cost will usually include a tour of the Clearwater and Wind caves. If not, and you don’t want to spend ages underground, opt for the Lang’s and Deer caves – the last is the most impressive of the lot – then hang around for the incredible “changing of the guard”, when the bats leave Deer Cave at sunset. Tours of these caves fill up quickly, so book as soon as your plans are fixed. It’s also possible to do tours of Lagang Cave, where obscure cave-dwelling fauna is the highlight, plus more challenging caving trips.
Five million years ago, the splatter of raindrops gradually dissolved Gunung Api’s limestone and carved out the Pinnacles – fifty-metre-high shards, as sharp as samurai swords – from a solid block of rock. Erosion is still continuing and the entire region is pockmarked with deep shafts penetrating far into the heart of the mountain: one third of Gunung Api has already been washed away, and in another ten million years it might all be gone.
The chance to view the Pinnacles draws many visitors to Mulu, and the trek offers exactly that, by heading not to the Pinnacles but to a ridge across the way from where you can take everything in. It’s a three-day, two-night hike, but only the ascent of the steep final ridge and the awkward descent are genuinely demanding; you will ache afterwards in places that may never have ached before. That said, if you’re reasonably fit and suitably equipped, you should cope fine, and the guides put safety first and make allowances as appropriate for the slower members of their group. With whomever you arrange the trek, book or make enquiries at least a week in advance; base camp, Camp 5, sleeps fifty people, so there’s a firm ceiling on the number of climbers per day. The park itself charges RM325 for the trek, including accommodation but no food; tour operators offer similar packages, as well as the Headhunters’ Trail north of the Pinnacles.
The route to the summit of Gunung Mulu (2376m) was first discovered in the 1920s by Tama Nilong, a Berawan rhinoceros-hunter. Earlier explorers had failed to find a way around the huge surrounding cliffs, but Nilong followed rhinoceros tracks along the southwest ridge trail, and thus enabled Lord Shackleton to become the first mountaineer to reach the summit in 1932. It’s still an arduous climb, a 48km round trip that usually takes four days. Few visitors attempt it, but with enough notice, the park office can usually arrange it for groups of three or more. Expect to pay around RM400 per person, including accommodation and a guide, though you’ll have to bring provisions and sleeping bags; a porter costs around RM100 extra.
Day 1, for most groups, is usually spent heading to Camp 3 roughly midway along the route, passing Camp 1 en route (there is no Camp 2). The trek takes you from the limestone belt that most tourists associate with Mulu into sandstone terrain that dominates the southeast of the park. On day 2 you spend the night 1800m up at Camp 4. Most climbers set off well before dawn on day 3 for the hard ninety-minute trek to the summit, if possible arriving there at sunrise. Big clumps of pitcher plants dot the final stretch, though it’s easy to miss them as by this point you are hauling yourself up by ropes onto the cold, windswept, craggy peak. From here, the view is exhilarating, looking down on Gunung Api and, on a clear day, far across the forest to Brunei Bay. Once again you spend the night at Camp 4. Day 4 is a very full day as the aim is to get right back to the park HQ by nightfall.
Loagan Bunut National Park
Loagan Bunut National Park
Loagan Bunut National Park, best visited on an overnight trip, is a good spot for the dedicated birdwatcher, boasting stork-billed kingfishers and hornbills among many other species. Many live around the park’s lake, Tasik Bunut, tucked away on the upper reaches of the Teru River, a tributary of the Tinjar, which in turn flows into the Baram. During prolonged dry spells, when the lake level drops drastically, a peculiar form of fishing, which the local Berawan people call selambau, is carried out. Just before the lake dries out, fishermen use giant spoon-shaped wooden frames to scoop up any fish that haven’t escaped down the lake’s two watercourses.
For birds, these dry times are a perfect time to feed too, and in May and June the surrounding peat-swamp forest supports breeding colonies of such species as darters, egrets and bitterns. Initially the lake can appear huge, its edges hard to detect as the sunlight is often hazy; however, it’s only around 500m wide and 1km long. Small cabins built on rafts house Berawan fishermen, while around them lies an intricate network of fishing plots, with underwater nets and lines tied to stakes pushed into the lake bed. The best times to drift by boat across the lake are early morning and dusk, when the birds are at their most active.
- The Kelabit Highlands
- The Ulu Baram
One entertaining aspect of travel in the northern interior is the chance to fly on Twin Otters, 19-seater propeller planes. More formally known as the de Havilland DHC-6, the Twin Otter can turn on the proverbial dime and take off from a standing start in around ten seconds, making it ideally suited to the tiny airfields hereabouts. As such, the plane forms the backbone of the Rural Air Services operated by Malaysia Airlines subsidiary MASwings, mostly out of Miri (though it’s not used for Mulu, where the airport can take larger aircraft).
As the Twin Otter isn’t pressurized – you can see daylight around the door rim – it doesn’t fly above 3000m, and affords great views of the north’s mountain ranges. That MASwings’ Twin Otters are 30 years old and slightly shabby (though perfectly serviceable) only adds to the experience; the cabin will be fan-cooled and the cockpit door may well be open, letting you see what the pilots are up to.
On a practical note, passengers sit where they like, and luggage is limited to ten kilos per person (you may well have to weigh yourself at check-in so staff know the laden weight of the plane). At some airfields, departing passengers are slapped with a “service fee” of RM10–15 atop the taxes included in ticket prices. Levied by the small private concerns that run the airfields, these fees appear to be condoned by the authorities. Finally, while flights are seldom cancelled except in very gusty or stormy weather, note that the planes get booked solid during public and school holidays and over Christmas and New Year, when you may have to reserve weeks in advance.