Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Miri and the Mighty Mulu

on March 30, 2013

So because I am a smartraveller(.com.au), I heeded the Australian government DFAT’s warnings to ’Do Not Travel’ anywhere in the East of Sabah given the situation with Filipino rebels apparently hiding out in the jungle and the Sabah officials blocking roads and closing areas off, etc. Makes for difficult travel anyway, not to mention it would really ruin your trip to get shot or bombed…

Instead of exploring Sandakan, the sea turtle reserve, the Gomantang caves and diving down in Sipadan, I ended up in Sarawak sooner than I might have otherwise. There was a bus from Kota Kinabalu to Miri, but speaking to another traveller there are about 4 border crossings into and out of Brunei on this bus (see map).

Map-Sarawak

The trip was meant to take 10 hours anyway (so to convert south east Asia time to regular time, probably add 2-4 hours), and only left in the morning at 8am- there was no overnight option. I checked flights and the cost was the same as the bus, but took 50 minutes- DEAL! I love Air Asia! I did have to pay a bit more in the end to add luggage and get an early cab to the airport, but I saved a whole day for about AU$20.

Plane to Miri

So I got into Miri around 9am, and decided since I’d cabbed in to the airport in KK, I should be thrifty and bus into town. Seemed like a good idea, til I had to wait almost an hour for a bus to show up. 5 more minutes and I think I would’ve cracked and got a cab. Which probably wouldn’t have been such a bad thing given my following experience! The bus cost RM2.60 (less than AU$1), and dropped me at the bus station in town.

Miri bus station

By this stage it had started raining. Luckily the bus station was located right next to the Info Centre, as I don’t have a guidebook for this part of my trip. I went in, got a map and some brochures and asked a few questions about visiting the famous Gunung Mulu National Park– a World Heritage famous for its expansive network of caves, unique rock formations and mountains as well as being a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ and having many species of plants and wildlife. Most of the stuff I had read seemed to indicate you needed to book in advance from Miri, and it would be easiest and most economical to book a package, however the guy at the Info Centre told me the complete opposite and said ‘Just do it yourself, just book your flights and book your activities and accommodation through park headquarters when you get there’. Oooook, got it.

the king's chamber- Wind Cave  Wild rhododendrons

Armed with my brochures and map, I hit the streets of Miri to find a guesthouse. Mind you, I was also carrying my big pack, backpack and an umbrella because of the rain, so kind of stood out. On my way out of the Info Centre I managed to drop my umbrella case (cue slow mo bend to the ground with full pack and quick hoist once object retrieved) and then my map (repeat slow mo bend and hoist) before I even got to the street. When I did get to the street I had to cross the road to get to a footpath, and then when I got to the first intersection about a block down, I realised I had gone the wrong direction. About turn, and back to the info centre for take two. This time I went the correct direction. It was so hot and humid because of the rain, even though it was only 10am in the morning, and I could feel the beads of sweat starting to drip down my face. By the time I made it to the guesthouse I’d looked up, I was saturated head to toe from hauling all my gear across town. It took me a good half hour I reckon (including my wayward initial expedition) and the info centre guy had told me 10-15 minutes. Clearly that was if you knew where you were going, didn’t have a lot to carry, were a confident kamikaze road-crosser and didn’t get disconcerted by the sudden disappearance of footpaths and finding yourself walking the line on busy urban roads.

Anyway, I must have looked such a mess, the moment I got up the stairs to reception thinking ‘dear god, please let them have a bed for me!’ and gasped out something along those lines to the man behind the counter, he said ‘Don’t worry, we can do this later! Come with me…’, grabbed me a towel, took me straight to a free dorm and pointed out the shower! Once I was freshened up I went back down to thank Willie and sort out the cash. He was incredibly helpful, and is from Mulu so recommended me a place to stay and gave me the number to book it, and also told me I can sort out bookings at Park HQ when I arrive and find a group. Great!

I spent the day wandering around Miri (much easier now that I was oriented) but there was not a great deal to see. Miri seems to be more of a gateway town to several surrounding national parks, beaches and dive spots. The star attraction is an old oil rig called ‘The Grand Old Lady’ where oil was first struck in Miri, and now they have built up a petroleum museum around it. As fascinating as that sounded, it was a little way out of town and only accessible by cab, so I didn’t go out there. I decided to walk out to see the ‘Miri City Fan’. I have no idea why it is called that, I was semi-expecting a giant statue of a fan of some description but alas, from what I could gather it is just a big park which houses the library and a public swimming pool (closed on Mondays, damn). Quite picturesque though I must say.

Chinese Garden  Islamic Garden

There is an Islamic Garden, a Chinese Garden, a ‘Visual Garden’ (which weirdly appeared to consist of much more pavement than garden) and there was meant to be a musical fountain which sounded like it could quite possibly be the highlight of my day, but unfortunately it was being cleaned when I came by and wasn’t in use. The place was almost completely deserted aside from about 3 maintenance staff and one couple with a small child in the playground. As I left the park I passed a fabulous sign prohibiting ice-skating in the city fan, although I’d salute anyone who actually managed to do that considering I was cracking a sweat standing still in the shade to take a photo of it…

Miri city fan

In the afternoon I tried to book my flights to Mulu and hit my first snag- I need a netcode SMS to put a visa transaction through with Malaysia airlines, but have no phone service! Before I left Melbourne I asked the bank for a token (kind of like a pager thing which generates the codes for you if you need a netcode) but was told it would probably be an inconvenience for me if I only wanted it on the off chance that I needed to make a third-party payment as I would need it for every netbank log in I made. So I didn’t get one as she said if I needed to I could just call the bank and get a half hour exemption which sounded simple enough. So next was a call to the bank and after being on hold for half an hour was told it was a visa thing and had nothing to do with the bank. Awesome, thanks bank lady. So then I phoned Malaysia Airlines to book instead, after another 45 minutes I had finally got flights, but the transaction couldn’t be processed over the phone because my flights were in less than 24 hours so instead I had to pay in person at the airport before 8am. Phew. Next I tried to book my accom- I called the number that Willie gave me and 4 other numbers on the info sheet from the tourist centre, but not one answer! Willie ended up calling his mate for me and got me a room, bless him!

Following on from the wonderful time I had just trying to get to Mulu, organising things once there went along very similar lines. So, from my experience and that of others, here’s some Tips for solo travellers wanting to explore Mulu!

MAS wings to Mulu

1.       FLY! If you want to come in by boat, it is likely to cost you. This used to be the only way in other than hiking the Headhunter’s trail and is meant to be quite scenic, however I met a Swedish guy just after I arrived who had done this and was broke because of it. He ended up having to get cash out in Mulu (not fun, see below) just to pay for food/accom etc, and then couldn’t really afford to do anything much so was leaving after a couple of days. With regular flights now running to Mulu, this path is much less travelled meaning you may end up having to charter boats to take you, and because you are stuck if they don’t take you, they can charge you whatever they like! You have to make several different connections too. The flights only take half an hour, you’re barely up in the air before they are preparing for landing! They run even if the flights are scarcely full- there were 15 people max on my flight there. And even though we didn’t board til after our scheduled departure time, we were only 15 minutes late because getting everyone on and off didn’t take long at all! Mulu airport is great too, only two minutes drive from the park. The highlight was the baggage claim which is literally just a bench where you go up and get your bag!

Mulu baggage claim

2.       If you don’t have unlimited time to hang around and wait for opportunities to come up, PLAN AHEAD if possible! Despite everyone in Miri saying not to worry, Park HQ recommend you book at least 1 month ahead of time! For many travellers this isn’t realistic, but a call or email ahead of your arrival to see what treks/ activities are running when and their availability would help you plan when to schedule your trip. Flights are cheaper if you book in advance too. Could have saved me a hell of a lot of frustration on my first day! I checked into River Lodge and then went straight over to Park HQ to sort out my activities. When I said that I would like to do the Pinnacles trek, they said there are no groups going until Friday, but my flight out was booked for Saturday so that was not an option for me (to change flights you have to go out to the airport, and even then, the office may or may not be open, let alone the extra cost associated). My options were: 1) find some people who wanted to do it with me (and then find a guide to take us as Park HQ apparently had none available), 2) find a guide and fork out to do it by myself (which means paying the equivalent of 3 people which is the usual minimum group size) or 3) not do it and try and do something else for those 3 days. There was not a heap else I wanted to do other than the Pinnacles however (aside from the Headhunter’s Trail or Gunung Mulu summit trek both of which didn’t fit into my timeframe this visit) and the adventure caving you have the same problem of needing a group to do it with.

Batu  Longhouse  the rainforest

3.       COME IN THE PEAK SEASON! The dry(er) season is July-September apparently. I assumed it would be similar to Mt Kinabalu where now (March-April) is the best time for climbing and the park is nice and busy, but that is not the case. It’s relatively quiet at the moment (only 3-4 beds out of 20 were taken in my dorm!!), so there are not a heap of people around and hence it can be difficult/ very expensive/ not possible to do the activities you want to do if you are on your own as mentioned above. I’m assuming there would be more treks running and more people to link up with in peak season. Despite me proactively approaching randoms in the park café, asking the people at my accom and hovering at park HQ to ask newcomers of the latest flight if they want to trek with me, no one was keen. The Park people kept asking me ‘Why you come on your own and don’t bring any friends?’ Way to make me feel like more of a reject loner than I already did! ‘Next time you bring some friend, better for you’… soooo any takers? I’ll be back one day, but will begin by recruit willing participants, so start sending me your expressions of interest 😉 Anyway, all this time spent trying to get on this trek strangely made me more, not less, determined to do it and I made the decision I’d pay up and not have to leave disappointed (I would however have to live on a more frugal allowance for some time after!)

Sunkai Melinau Pitcher plants

4.       Which brings me to the next tip: BRING LOADS OF CASH. More than what you think you’ll need. Mulu is expensive (in relative terms for Malaysia). Accom is about twice the price of the cities, as is food. Water is at least 3 times the price (and boy do you need it!). There are no ATMs in Mulu. Getting cash out is possible, but will cost you. Park HQ apparently sometimes do cash out from credit cards with a 2% surcharge, but they said they didn’t have any cash at HQ (hmmm, don’t know how exactly that works since I did see many people coming and paying for their activities… and did I not just give you 85 ringitts earlier?!). Anyway, once I’d decided to bite the bullet and do the pinnacles on my own, I needed cash as you can’t pay a freelance guide by credit. My only option was to go to Royal Mulu Resort to get money off my credit card for 10% commission plus a 20 ringitt fee, not to mention the cash advance and international transaction fees I’ll get smacked with by the bank! It cost me RM10 for the return trip there and back on top of that!! It turned out it was close enough I could’ve walked except I didn’t have a map so didn’t know where it was. Silly. Maybe add that to the list… get a map…

Butterfly and pagoda flower

5.       BE FRIENDLY! Everyone knows everyone in Mulu, so be nice and people will try to help you out. One of the guys, Macleans, from Park HQ must have seen me come in and out of the office about 16 times that first day and asked me if I was really sure I wanted to do the pinnacles on my own and when I said, ‘Yes! I reeeaaaally want to do it!’ he said he’d help me find a freelance guide. He found a guide and got him to meet me at 7pm in the torrential rain after I came back from visiting some caves, and we locked in a trip leaving the following morning. I handed over a massive wad of cash and hoped he would be there!  My guide’s name was Undi, and he was awesome. When people around town (everyone seemed to know about my dilemma by the evening!) asked me if I found a guide and who it was, they all said ‘Ahhh, Undi, he’s a good guy’ which made me feel better about the large sum of money I had just parted with! I also got chatting to another guide Omar whilst he was singing karaoke in a restaurant I was eating at. Singing along to ‘Sometimes when we touch’, ‘Words’, ‘Always’ and other such corny love ballads reaped its rewards on the trek later when it came to food!

Dragonfly  Centipede

6.       And the reason I was so grateful for bonus food is because MALAYSIAN TINNED SARDINES ARE GROSS! They are the cheapest tinned item in the shop at Mulu for a reason. Don’t do it! I thought I’d have rice and sardines (a la Chester Garcia) as an easy meal, but these sardines are cooked til they are practically solid. The sauce is nice on the rice. But it took me about half an hour to break up the sardines and force them down (my experimental vegan month earlier this year showed me how hungry I’d get if I didn’t eat enough protein!). Luckily I never had to cook my own rice, because Omar gave me his extra (the tour groups get all their meals included cooked by the guides- their curries and stirfrys made my dinners look even more dismal!).

sardines  sardines on rice

I also scored papaya for sweets on my first night and a honey pancake for breakfast on my last day. In addition, some other solo travellers donated me their spare noodles since they were leaving the next day (they felt sorry for me that I had to pay so much for the trek that I had the most povo food ever!). This is not the first time I have attracted food charity. On the Overland Track I became the disposal unit for any extra snacks people had and didn’t want to carry, and in Laos I was given bags of food on 2 separate occasions by 2 separate monks. I must just look hungry all the time…

Ode to Mandy...

7.       So now to the fun part… The Pinnacles! WEAR TRAIL SHOES/RUNNERS, not hiking boots if you want to do the pinnacles. These grip better and have more flexible soles which allow you to feel the terrain which is important for finding your footing and keeping your balance with the climbing. Hiking boots will be a lot more slippery. This is actually more of a clamber than a trek, with an ascent from 50m to 1175m over a distance of just 2.4km! You use your arms as much as your legs in the last parts of the ascent and in most of the descent.

the final 400m!  Up and up

It ended up there were actually 3 private tour groups (all couples) attempting the pinnacles on the same day as me (and for some reason I never found out about any of them until I had already paid Undi… When I said was definitely going alone, all of a sudden people would come forth and say, ‘Oh, but there’s another two going from here…’ Well, that’s nice, but I am already poor now and going on my own… ‘but we thought you find friends at the park office’ Nope, sorry, still a loner! I think it’s a scheme to get more guides more work…)

With Undi half way up  Climbing

Anyway, it ended up not being such a bad thing that I went with my own guide, as 2 out of 3 of those groups didn’t make it to the top (if you don’t make it to 2000m by 11am, you have to go back to camp 5, otherwise you will end up still on the mountain by dark which is not so safe). I would’ve been fuming if I’d had to go through all that rigmaroll to get there and not get to see the pinnacles, even if it was a third of the price. I think Undi knew that, as after the first 45 minutes when we reached the mini pinnacles at 900m (the ‘minicles’ as I liked to call them) he said ‘Mandy, you can have your money back. I don’t think I’m going to make it to the top…’ then grinned at me as I looked around for something to throw at him! However, after another 2 and a half hours of climbing we finally got there!

Made it!  The famous Pinnacles

Coming down was the painful part again. It took about 4 hours going backwards down sharp rocks and lowering myself down foot high drops to lessen the impact on my crippled knees (I think my body hates me for putting it through 2 mountains in two weeks after zero prep!). It was so steep going down forwards was worse- you could clearly see all the stabby bits that might get you if you slipped!  Undi kept trying to encourage me by sniffing the air and saying ‘What’s that Mandy? Oh, I smell the noodles already!’

down we go  Back at camp

I joked if he had a third daughter he could call her Mandy (his other daughters names also start with ‘M’- Murah and Maya) and he said he would give her 3 names- Mandy Noodle Soup! He also quizzed me on random nutrition stuff like ‘What is the most important vitamin?’, ‘what vitamins are good for joints?’ or ‘What vitamins are good for your skin?’… Really testing me Undi! So I gave lots of broad answers like, ‘all of the vitamins and minerals are important’ or ‘eat fish 3x a week’ or ‘green leafy vegetables’…  and finally we were back at camp 5. I had a quick dip in the river just as the rain came in then got into my curry mee to celebrate 🙂

the 'swimming pool' at camp 5 Melinau Gorge

8.       GO AND SEE THE CAVES. There are 4 ‘show caves’ in Mulu which are accessible to everyone with a guide. This is one of the cheaper and easier things to do, and the tours run generally have enough interest to run twice daily. The first day I was there I went to Lang’s Cave, which is smaller than the other caves but has some beautiful rock formations like ‘the jellyfish’, and this other one that reminds me of meringue!

The jellyfish- Lang's Cave  Meringue- Lang's Cave

Next to Lang’s Cave is Deer Cave, the world’s largest cave passage. It is estimated that 2-3 million bats live in there, so was a little whiffy in places with the piles of guano lying around! But it was a pretty awesome, there was a part where you look back at the entrance and it looks like a profile of Abraham Lincoln and another area where the roof had collapsed (known as a ‘doline’, this one was called the Garden of Eden) which was beautiful.

Abe Lincoln  The Garden of Eden

After going inside the cave, you go out to the bat observatory to wait for the bat exodus. After waiting for about 45 minutes the bats started to trickle out in groups for dinner- apparently the bat colony in Deer Cave consume about 15 tonnes of flying insects a night! After a while they started coming in droves and even though watching bats fly out of a cave doesn’t sound that exciting, I’ve never seen anything like it. It was actually incredible to see so many of them streaming across the sky in waves, it just went on and on and on!

Bat exodus Bat exodus

The other two show caves are up river by boat a little way. The first, Wind Cave, has some great rock formations, an amazing area called the King’s Chamber with some massive stalactites and stalagmites, and also some rocks that looked like an old man, an eagle, a camel and mating frogs! Wind Cave also has the helictites which grow sideways, not straight up or down, thought to be because of the wind.

Camel- Wind Cave  old man- wind cave

Eagle= Wind Cave mating frogs- wind cave

Clearwater Cave is the last show cave, it is part of the largest cave network in southeast asia (190km of caves altogether at the last survey) and is the 8th largest in the world. The Clearwater river runs through and there are some pretty massive caverns, as well as these interesting rock formations called ‘phytokarsts’ which look like spikes on the rock and are caused by cyanobacteria- the bacteria produce CO2 which mixed with water dissolves the limestone in the pits where they live leaving the pin shaped spikes. We also saw a plant unique to Mulu which forms as a single leaf hanging from the rock at the entrances. The caves are all different so it is worth checking them all out, I found it really interesting, but take heed of the next tip…

single leaf plant= Clearwater cave  Phytokarsts- Clearwater cave

9.       If you do happen to get yourself out on any activities, BE PREPARED TO GET WET! The first reason is from water. Either from the rain, drips from the trees, or constant drips from the cave rooves… As I was told during a torrential downpour… ‘What do you expect? It is the RAINforest!’ The second is from sweat… if you do any kind movement outdoors at all you are likely to end up soaked from head to toe, it is SO hot and humid in the forest with little breeze or relief until the afternoon rain.  A headband/bandanna/sweatband is a good idea! Nothing dries in a hurry either. The only real way you can get things dry is if you can hang it out in direct sunlight for a period (usually in the morning when it is clear, before the clouds start to roll in) otherwise it will stay in a permanent state of damp because of the humidity. When I got back from the trek, it was sunny and I got ambitious and decided to wash my clothes, but after the handwashing was complete (took me a little while, they needed double washing!) the sun had disappeared and a day later when I had to pack and leave they were still not quite dry dammit! So back to the laundry with them at my next opportunity…

torrential downpour  Ready for the rain!

10.   LEAVE THE MIRROR AT HOME! This is no glamour trip! You will get dirty, smelly, most probably bitten by something. It could be mosquitoes, one of the 70 species of ant native to Mulu, other assorted tropical insects, or if you’re lucky- a leech! You may even have a gecko fall on your head as I did at dinner the first night… his suction pads clearly weren’t in good working order that day. Too bad he didn’t fall in my sardines and attract me a donation of a better meal…

Rainforest  Rainforest

Hiking out from camp 5 on our final day, it was quite wet as it had been raining most of the night. I was wearing leggings but only had ankle socks. Not far out Undi pulled a leech off his leg and showed me and I freaked and tried to tuck my leggings into my shoes and avoid all brushing contact with leaves (very difficult in the jungle!). The tucking didn’t work so well with the whole walking motion, so I was on leech watch every hundred meters, checking my ankles for parasites. I would squeal every time a bit of water or mud hit my ankle, and then breathe a sigh of relief when it was just mud. Undi must have thought I was a complete nut. Anyway, one time leech watch successfully detected a leech- I thought I’d caught it before it bit me and I flicked it off, but it was too quick for me. I made it all the way to the boat pick up without any more leech watch incidents. The boat was late, so we waited about an hour, and when it finally rocked up I noticed a second leech had got me. As I was moaning and deliberating about what to do (thinking maybe i could get some saline from my first aid kit to squirt it with, would that have enough salt?), Undi came and yanked it off my ankle. I thought you weren’t meant to pull them off, but oh well… after that excitement, it was onto the boat, away from leechville and back to HQ.

Sungkai Melinau

On the afternoon I got back, I went for a walk out to the not-so-spectacular Pako Falls (the river was nice and cool for a swim at least after the hot 3km walk to get there), and on my final morning I did the canopy tree top walk, which I was hoping to see some wildlife, but only got to see tree tops (should have known from the name…).
Pako Falls  P1050399

The highlights were definitely the caves and the pinnacles, I was glad to have done the trek even though I am now a pauper. I would definitely come back again to explore some more, but with a bit more time and forward planning, and maybe a friend or two!!

Sunset in Mulu

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3 responses to “Miri and the Mighty Mulu

  1. Keith Hill says:

    what an expedition Mandy!! Hope you can pamper yourself a bit in the next leg of your trip in Singapore and Malaysia. Love, Dad and Mum

  2. Lesley Hill says:

    What an experience Mandy. You have had to battle a bit at times and I guess it has all been a great experience. Glad you were able to get to the Pinnacles. Love Nan and Pop.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  3. undi mamat says:

    helo mandy,it pleasure to walk with you.good luck..good day mate!!

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