The road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
Bilbo Baggins’ ditty on the lure of travel somehow seems to be the most appropriate “walking song” to me while trekking through the rainforest in the Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, Borneo. The crude paths, the towering trees and the play of sunlight on the forest floor cannot but call to mind J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
Lord of the trail: (from top) Traversing the Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak involves braving rivers full of snakes; shaky rope bridges;; and a squadron of bats swarms out of Sarawak’s Deer Cave. Photographs by Ayeshea Perera / Mint
And while the sprawling vistas of New Zealand were possibly more cinematically suited to the filming of Peter Jackson’s epic movies, this 130-million-year-old rainforest might just really have seen hobbits and elves journeying through, heading perhaps to the nearby Gunung Api (which, strangely enough, translates to “fire mountain” in Malay) to destroy a certain ring.
Such flights of imagination also help to distract us from the fact that we’ve been walking for nearly 8km, along a path infamous for its thriving population of leeches. We are on our way to Camp 5, so named because it was the fifth base camp used by the Royal Geographic Society, which initially mapped the region. Before we started walking, though, we’d had to survive a 45-minute boat ride. Many of those minutes were actually spent negotiating the very slippery riverbed on foot, as the water was too shallow for the boat to navigate.
After that experience, the trek doesn’t prove very difficult at all, though we have to walk along shaky rope bridges, watch out for fallen tree trunks and constantly keep our eyes fixed on the ground to avoid tripping over tree roots.
Camp 5 is a congregation point for outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom are here to see the Pinnacles, razor-sharp limestone points jutting out of the roof of the forest. The viewing includes clambering up 2.5km of the impossibly steep Gunung Api—the feat is advisable only for those with a high degree of physical fitness, and even then only with a guide. The climb to see the Pinnacles is considered the high point (no pun intended) of the outing.
The next day, we have an option to stay behind and nurse our aching muscles, make our way back or tackle the Headhunters Trail. Of course, we make the toughest choice: An 11.5km path that meanders through the jungle to a river, where a boat waits to take us to a traditional tribal longhouse for the night. The sheer joy of jumping into a river after such a long walk is indescribable. But it’s short-lived, since we spend the next 4 hours in a little banana-shaped boat.
Notwithstanding the primitive modes of transportation, the tribal longhouse is pleasantly supplied with all the essential amenities, such as electricity, showers, cold beer and the deceptively smooth home-brewed rice wine.
To our minds, we have quite earned it. After all, not only had we walked 20-odd km, we’d also explored bat-infested caves over the last few days.
It had begun innocuously enough. “Hurry, hurry,” our guide had rushed us down the 4km footpath, afraid that it would soon be too dark for us to see anything. The path ended at Deer Cave, the largest cave passage known to man at 150m wide, 120m high and apparently capable of accommodating 20 Boeing 747s. There are walkways and railings around the cave, allowing visitors to see the interiors without causing too much damage to themselves or the cave.
Yet, as we walked around in the dimly lit cave, looking at the stalagmites, stalactites and other rock formations in almost reverent silence, there was a very real apprehension of encountering some unpleasant cave monster like Shelob, the arachnid that paralyzed Frodo Baggins in the second book of The Lord of the Rings.
The horror, when it did come, however, was not perched on eight legs or even, truly speaking, an evil thing at all. Shepherded out of the caverns at sundown to “watch millions of bats fly out of Deer Cave”, we imagined clouds of bats swooping out of the dark interiors. What we saw, instead, was something much more militaristic and well-organized: Hundreds upon hundreds of small squadron-style flocks flying out one group at a time. Each swarm would await its turn at the mouth of the cave, circle a few times to gather momentum and numbers, and then fly out in a huge mob as the next group took its place.
We sat for a while at the mouth of the cave, watching open-mouthed as swarm after swarm took off for the night. But if you thought that experience would put us off caves forever, you couldn’t be more wrong. Within days, we were back in the Clearwater and Wind Caves, connected by a river purported to be one of the largest—and possibly the largest—subterranean rivers in the world. The ground-level Wind Cave is considered historically significant, as it was used for burials 1,500-3,000 years ago. Located at a higher level, Clearwater Cave is much more precarious because, in addition to the possibility of slipping, there is also a very real chance of falling into the rushing waters below.
With so much time spent underground, I had to forfeit the Canopy Skywalk, touted to be the world’s longest walk over tree-tops. I’d always imagined it to be akin to having a bird’s-eye view over Rivendell or Lothlórien, the two elven cities of Middle-earth. Maybe next time.
Trip Planner / Malaysia
Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
Apply for a visa at the Malaysian high commission at 50-M, Satya Marg, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi-110021. Visas cost Rs750. Log on to www.kln.gov.my/perwakilan/newdelhi for details. Fly Malaysian Airlines to Kuala Lumpur from Delhi (Rs21,000 upwards for economy return), Mumbai (Rs20,000 upwards) and Bangalore (Rs16,000 upwards). Malaysian Airlines has a strong domestic network that will fly you to Kuching and Miri in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Kuala Lumpur-Kuching flights start from 94 Malaysian ringgits (around Rs1,300); Kuala Lumpur-Miri connections begin at 94 ringgits. From Kuching or Miri, catch another flight to Mulu for 390 ringgits or 550 ringgits upwards, respectively.
Sarawak is a great destination for adventure buffs. The Sarawak forestry department, www.sarawakforestry.com, allows you to make bookings to visit all of the parks that come under its purview. There are also a number of independent tour operators, accessible both online and on the ground. We used a Miri-based outfitter called Tropical Adventure Travels and Tours (fax: 085414503). A four-day adventure cost us arirnogugnitds 500 per person: It included a guide, meals and boats to take us to the starting point of the trek and to and from the tribal longhouse. Visit www.e-borneo.com and www.sarawaktourism.com to shop for travel packages and multiple options. The Malaysia tourism website for India (www.malaysiajao.com) also has a reliable listing of tour operators.
Irnin Sgagritaswriankg, gdiotsr mitories cost 37 a night; room prices start from 100-174 a night. The Royal Mulu Resort (www.royalmuluresort.com) offers up-class lodging for uripnwggairtdss r ionfg 1g9it7s f or a single room and 650 for a double room.
What to bring: A lot of your own supplies, including first-aid and dry food, besides, of course, your personal effects.