Friday, 22 November 2013

The "road" to Mulu

Who said "it's not the destination, it’s the journey”? That sounds like a nice philosophy if you’re into zen and all that mystical stuff. Personally, I think it’s a cop-out, a sorry excuse made up to console oneself when the destination turned out to be one huge, disappointing mistake.
Give me a good journey AND a good destination any time. Give me a trip to Mulu, and give it to me the old-fashioned way, of course.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, that’s the renowned Gunung Mulu National Park in the north-eastern corner of Sarawak, famed for its superlative caves – world’s largest cave chamber, South-East Asia’s longest cave passage, longest cave system, etc.
Twenty years on, memories of my first visit, and what felt like an epic journey then, are still vivid.
From the seaside town of Kuala Baram, about 25km from Miri, I had to take a pre-dawn express boat journey to the small riverside town Marudi, three hours away.
Change over to an open top longboat for another three-hour ride to an even smaller riverside town, Long Lama, where another transfer is required, to an even smaller longboat for the last stretch up the calm Melinau river.
Waiting for the Long Lama ferry.
Today, Mulu has become one of Sarawak’s most popular tourist destinations, thanks to regular flights that deliver visitors almost to the doorsteps of the first-class Royal Mulu Resort and another dozen or so lodgings clustered on the banks of the pristine Melinau river.
When the opportunity to revisit Mulu came up in April 2006, it was the destination that got me excited first.
Then came the offer I couldn’t refuse – it was a Ford Lanun Darat expedition so the trip would not be made either in progressively diminishing boats or Twin Otter aircraft. Instead, we would drive there in a convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles.
For most of the journey, the Ford Ranger pick-ups and Everest SUVs would travel on a well-used trail from Miri to Long Bedian, a remote settlement of the Kayan tribe.
Just how remote is it? Well, it’s about 125km from Miri, and the natives have e-Bedian (check out and lots of satellite dishes.
And, when the convoy of 25 or so vehicles finally rolled up at the longhouse after a long, hard and dusty journey, the native women whipped out their snazzy camera phones to snap pictures of the visitors from afar!
The drive to get there had been a gruelling ordeal of dust, bone-jarring bumps and monstrous hills with steep climbs and descents like roller coasters.
The dust was so thick in places that visibility was down to a couple of metres.
For city slickers, there was one thing worse than driving virtually blind – knowing that we were sharing the trails with monster 80-tonne logging trucks that dwarf most of the semi-trailers on peninsular highways.
The long drive to Long Bedian and our overnight rest stop at the nearby Tenyok Rimba community resort had taken the best part of an entire day, and sapped all of our energy.
The locals put on a warm welcome, complete with dancing girls and traditional music but most of us were simply too tired to party for long.
But, as I was to discover the next day, that was the easy part. Next stop, Mulu!
A quick look at the topographic map and a consultation with my trusty GPS showed the objective was less than 50km away. But, that’s in a straight line, and nothing goes anywhere in a straight line in this part of the world.
It turned out to be four-and-a-bit hours of traversing some of the steepest slopes and, at one stretch of around seven kilometres, definitely the bumpiest bit of dirt and stone trail I’ve ever driven across.
There was the added pressure of a deadline. We absolutely had to reach that dot on the map by 1.30pm or else we wouldn’t have enough time to make the last stretch into the national park and still have enough time to return to our camp before nightfall.
Jury-rigged bridges made from a couple of logs, hastily cleared landslides, dizzying heights of hills and plunging depths of valleys were all par for the course, which ended abruptly at the river.
With barely minutes to spare, we had made the rendezvous. There, patiently waiting for us were the boatmen who would ferry us on the final leg of the journey into the national park.
Unfortunately, the tight schedule meant we could not explore the wonders of Mulu at a leisurely pace.
After a short boat ride through a sudden yet typical thunderstorm, we climbed 200 steps up to the gaping mouth of the magnificent Clearwater Cave, South-East Asia’s longest cave passage with over a hundred kilometres surveyed.
Descending deep into the chasm on wobbly legs, I realised that every step downward meant yet another upward step that must be taken on the return trip, and all these steps would lead to the 200 steps back down to the river. So much for “the journey, not the destination”.
Still, there was just enough time for a refreshing dip in the crystal clear lagoon fed by the underwater river flowing out of the cave before heading off for a quick lunch and then back to the vehicles for the long, bumpy drive back to Tenyok Rimba.
More bumps, more dust and mud, many more hours of arduous driving lay ahead before we returned to “civilisation” but when our tyres finally met bitumen, I felt I could say that Lanun Darat #28 had been a tough but enjoyable journey to and from a great destination.
Worms grow big in the highlands!