May 7th, 2015
I wake up to my last day in Gunung Mulu National Park, the early dawn chatting of the fishing group from Kuala Lumpur on one side of the hall, the young female backpacker still prone on her mattress ahead of me. The only mission I have set out for the day involves a trek to the far end of the boardwalk in the direction of the Deer Cave amphitheatre.
I sit at the breakfast table with the Indo-Danish waif who has just completed her medical studies in Denmark, and now is off on a celebratory multi-month journey through Southeast Asia. I see new and familiar faces walking down the road towards the park entrance, people staying either at the budget hostels scattered through the bush or the ones next to the Marriott hotel.
She leaves for the Canopy Walk, and I write until the laptop battery is dead, wash some more shirts (a never-ending cycle), then am off on my own adventure to the Kenyalan trail. The staff at the park headquarters gives me a full credit for the rained-out night walk the other day – if they hadn’t, I probably would have decided to spend the evening at the Marriott.
The woman in the shop is kind enough to give me her pen, which I follow up with an overpriced laksa in the attached restaurant, although let’s face it, the ambiance here is unbeatable. It occurs to me that while they may not have wifi at the moment, they do have electricity, which means I could also use my laptop here during the day.
Sweat pours profusely off my body, the humidity evidently quite high today. As much as the appeal of Gunung Mulu may be the technical caving and mountain treks, I would happily demonstrate my hiking prowess in significantly colder climates, as the heat and humidity brings me to me to my knees even at a standstill.
At least walking ever-so-slowly reduces the impact of the punishing heat and humidity, which will have made its mark on my soaked and reeking body later in the day.
The Kenyalan loop begins toward the end of the trail to the Deer Cave, and although I have walked on this trail a number of times now, I make a point of walking very slowly, patiently scouring the boardwalk, railings, surrounding vegetation and tree trunks for any unusual patterns or movements.
Any animals or insects would typically remain immobilized and be in a camouflaged state, never mind the complex tapestry of green and brown that makes it difficult to discern much of anything.
The variety of leaf sizes, shapes and formations is staggering, added to which are the different tree species, with or without buttress roots, covered in mosses and every manner of liana.
Nevertheless, my patience pays off to some degree, however modestly, although the sheer experience of being here is most rewarding.
The play of light and shadow on the shallow and muddy creeks provides another interesting visual effect, one much easier to capture than the swirling butterflies in a kaleidoscope of colours that never seem to remain still long enough to capture photographically.
There are large emerald-on-black species, what look vaguely like monarchs, small ones with different solid tones of orange on the inside and outside of their wings, as well as black-and-white and small solid lemon yellow ones. Perched over the frothy pools of water are exotic dragonflies, red ones alternating with metallic blue, with small pairs of fins riding over the virtually transparent wings and barely visible filigree veins.
I take close up shots of leaf clusters, unique in their shapes, ribbing and veining. I could provide technical descriptions of the manifold leaf structures, but what would be the point – the technical nomenclature is fairly obscure.
Scanning the forest slowly and somewhat methodically, I occasionally make out orchid flowers, frail, elusive, and colourful – but they are definitely here, hidden amongst the masses of leaves. Creeping lianas snake surreptitiously across the bulky trunks of the diptherocarps that anchor the forest.
Fat skinks scurry ahead of me on the boardwalk, running to stay ahead, then nose diving into the underlying vegetation when their attempt at escape seems too frustrated. Wild banana flowers abound, as well as hefty intertwined lianas, angelica-like fronds, and oval-shaped palm leaves whose spiked narrow leaves emanate in linear rows from either side of a central rib.
Small bulbs, composed of myriad tiny red nodules emanate from the branches of one plant, small red berries from the branches of another.
The narrow trunks of the rattan plant splay outwards, the spines heavily studded with threatening spikes, one very good reason to not carelessly bushwack in the tropics. Not just once, but on several occasions I discover stick insects prone against the wooden planks of the boardwalk, the splayed legs, arms and antennae drawn together in tight defensive formation.
Another intriguing discovery in the park is the variety of exotic mushrooms appearing in strange shapes and colours, perched at odd angle from branches , twigs, logs, the ground, and even leaves, reddish-brown clover-shaped, pale white colours running down trunks. Their amorphous black disks lie flattened against logs, one edge curled slightly upwards to reveal a traditional mushroom structure. Light brown disks hang leaf-like from another branch in spiral formation, while thick chocolate disks lie attached stolidly to another trunk, edged in cream yellow.
At the temporary bridge, what looks like the foliage of a giant orchid conceals a brilliant red millipede – and the word on the street is stay away and don’t touch! Incidentally I see a tiny brown frog perched on another leaf – what luck!
One of the heavy ribs of the man-sized buttress roots bears patterns of deep scratches, a park warden later suggesting that they are probably caused by a pangolin, a creature which I would probably have zero chance of seeing (except if I was a poacher). The texture of the buttress roots as they interplay with creeping vines provides never-ending visual fascination.
The Kenyalan trail itself seems somewhat wilder, not that I have seen anyone on the trail to begin with. As much as the main boardwalks are swept clean, Kenyalan has a wilder feeling, and the Dead End extension of the trail is entirely untended, and as the name suggests, ending in a dead end where a tree that collapsed on the boardwalk has not yet been cleared away.
Interestingly, just as next to no one comes down here, the somewhat unfamiliar sounds of wildlife now seem much closer. I continue walking slowly and scouring the area around the boardwalk, trying to be as quiet as possible, and then I hear it, a loud crash in the bushes not far from where I stand. I remain immobile, eventually continuing walking again, momentarily hearing another solitary breaking of undergrowth, then nothing again.
The warden later confirms that it was probably a wild pig. High-pitched cries and grunts resonate from above me, a momentary bounce visible on one of the uppermost branches in the canopy, then nothing. Eventually I can see them, a small troop of macaques or langurs, one running down one branch, another swinging between branches, then sitting still, a spiral of leaves drifting downwards in the aftermath.
They are barely visible from the ground, but nevertheless I saw them, so that is definitely a coup. The big problem with wildlife viewing now is apparently the fact that the fruit the animals prefer to eat is not available until July and August when a lot more wildlife will be visible – as well as overwhelming hordes of tourists.
I am accosted at the entrance of the park cafeteria by one of the Malay fishing group staying in the Mulu Resort, who apologizes profusely for the fact that he smoked the cigarettes that I had left behind – except that he hadn’t known that Frank actually left those cigarettes on the terrace for someone to smoke, so there really was no issue.
The man is currently on a posting to Mulu as air traffic controller, probably not the most difficult job, a temporary assignment away from his permanent posting in Kuching. He would like to take the opportunity to do as much as possible while here, although given that he will be coming here on a regular basis over a period of years, the appeal of the place could wear thin. Nonetheless, he sees the beauty of the place, and no, western Malaysia can’t compare for a moment with northern Borneo. But then Malaysia is a very diverse country.
Inside, Jen has reappeared with the cohorts she had completed the Pinnacles trek with, having done the actual trek up the mountain and back in a single day, making me wonder if I shouldn’t have made the effort to do the same. And yet I am completely soaked and reeking with sweat without having done much more than just trudge along some boardwalks for a few hours – the idea of climbing up a vertical face, then clambering down very steep mountain passages while deluded from heat and dehydration does not sound very appealing to me.
Jen is somewhat cold today, but then she is from Calgary, and for that matter probably upset at the NDP landslide in the recent election. I on the other hand am elated at the very good carafe of plunger coffee, which stimulates me to sweat even more while writing a compelling narrative describing the day’s adventures in my journal. I repeatedly check the time to make sure I don’t miss the night walk, but also wish that I was secretly in a very chilly AC room.
The night walk party this evening consists of three Germans from Essen of a vaguely hipster provenance, who later on in the walk turn out to be very warm, in addition to a somewhat curt young English couple and their Italian female friend – as well as myself.
Despite the distant rumblings in the sky, we are spared any mention of rain until the very end of the trek, when a few droplets fall from the sky, but no more. Unlike the brief journey into the darkened forest two days ago, this evening offers a stunning array of nocturnal denizens, however freakish they may be, a definitive extravaganza of exotic species summarizing the adventures of the prior days’ treks.
Even though the young local guide manages to spot a lot of the insects and other creatures we encounter, the German trio actually comes up with a lot of our sightings also. They cleverly scan the vegetation, trees and vines with their spotlights, which they graciously use to create a simulacra of arc lighting on every subject, in turn allowing us to take decent photos. The guide himself is also compliant with his powerful flashlight, unlike the older guide two days ago, who seemed to point his flashlight elsewhere seemingly every time I was about to get a shot of something.
The mottled whooping frog calling to a prospective mate is probably in the same position it may have been two days ago, except that today it is easier to get a clear shot of the creature. The bizarre black worm with a light white speckling and black and white mottled hammerhead is there again today, arguably one of the most bizarre terrestrial beings I have ever seen, with the exception of all other insects and like creatures we see tonight.
The cockroach perched in the leaves should in theory be nothing exceptional – except that it is huge in size. The huntsman spider the guide spots on the trunk is positively gigantic, never a good thing when it comes to arachnids, the body size inflated with a huge egg sack.
Walking sticks come in various shapes and sizes, and the ones we see tonight just seem to be getting larger and larger, the three sets of spindly legs and lengthy antennae rotating in slow motion against the identically-coloured branch. Small spiny red and black caterpillars help themselves to the delights of a fresh vine suckling, while pale yellow millipedes writhe further along on the same tree trunk.
The banister that runs the length of the boardwalk is the easiest place to spot strange and wonderful nocturnal creatures. The huge stick insect moving along the top of the railing in slow motion heralds from some surreal horror movie, and seems utterly oblivious to the cordon of ants scurrying below. Its strangely contorted body moves at glacial speed. It can’t fly, but no predator will try attacking its carapace covered in sharp spines.
Many of the bizarre creatures we see in coupled formation, a touching taste of intimacy in this surreal world, the female clinging immobilized to the body of the much larger male.
Oversized grasshoppers and catiryadids don’t escape our probing flashlights, the latter responsible for the strange flute-like sonorities and metallic droning the forest is humming with. The nadir of comfort would have to be the some 8” long pale orange and brown caterpillar with huge spindly legs clambering slowly over a leaf, the guide assuring us that this creature is decidedly poisonous.
We have little incentive to step off the boardwalk into the thick leaf litter that may conceal unknown horrors.
The women in the German group moan and gasp in fright, at once fascinated and simultaneously horrified by the strange and wonderful creatures being paraded through the darkness before us. Fortunately, the pretty colourful salamanders and geckos we occasionally spot are far more comforting. In fact, the guide even spots a cute fluffy little bird perched on a branch, although for some reason it doesn’t move as we shine our lines on it and take photos with flash.
An emerald and blue grasshopper hangs on to a delicate branch as the spiraled carapace of a huge brown snail sits immobilized on a tree, its exaggerated size again its most impressive feature. A tiny yellow frog sits on a leaf, its brilliant lemon form jumping moments later into the shrubbery, not to return. And lastly, a monstrous green stick insect hangs precariously from a leaf, its spindly green body a confusing blend of limbs jutting off in different directions.
At the conclusion of the hike, we find the kitchen at the Good Luck Cafe’ is closed, which means there is nowhere to eat at the end of the night walk, although as the owner points out to me, most people on the night walks eat prior to the night walk and not after. No matter, I still have a baggie of chips left, and perhaps the rum will placate my stomach also.
A fat brown toad covered in unsightly warts lumbers across the patio at the Mulu River resort. No one answers my knocking on the office door. An older couple approaches and lets me into the building, as they are staying in one of the few individual rooms.
They are currently looking for a safe place to establish some roots on their boat-based lifestyle, discussing the pros and cons of various regions, the U.S. simply being too expensive, although costs are also escalating in Central America. She continues that endemic corruption means that nothing is certain, and yachties could be coerced into locking themselves into a port, only to be tricked out of much more money once they have become committed.
Being few in numbers, relatively helpless, and with boats worth a lot of money, yachties are easy targets for criminals, which is why most boat-borne travelers stick to the Caribbean and the South Pacific. She believes the Marianas may be a great place to anchor, deferring on American Samoa with a grimace – ‘aren’t they all 300 pounds?’
But in the South Pacific you are far from anywhere, and when the appeal of remote beaches, palm trees and coral reefs abates, there is really little else to do – except to weather the prospect of facing violent storms on the long journey to either side of the Pacific.