– visited June 2015 –
Gunung Mulu National Park
Fate brought me to Gunung Mulu National Park. Bad research led me try to take a non-existent ferry from Brunei and the only option to leave on that day was the bus to Miri in Malaysia’s Sarawak state. Before I entered the bus, I made sure to book the flights to Gunung Mulu. The National Park lies deep inside the mountains and planes are the only way to get there.
Gunung Mulu is famous for its caves. It is the most studied tropical karst area in the world, it has 295 kilometres of explored caves that house millions of bats and swiftlets. The Sarawak Chamber is one of the largest known cave chambers in the world (700 metres long, 400 metres wide and 70 metres high). Deer Cave is the largest cave passage (120 m x 150m) in the world and Clearwater Cave is the longest cave system in Southeast Asia (224 km so far).
Due to its isolation only about 25,000 visitors come to this wonderful park every year. The National Park is professionally run and access is tightly regulated; caves can only be visited on guided tours and there is a multitude of them spanning all aspects. Spots for the highlights like Deer or Clearwater Cave are easy to come by but other popular things are more difficult.
Deer Cave is home to 12 species of bats and in the evening, they start to stream out in a long meandering ribbon. It goes on and on, chairs have been built to relax while looking up into the sky. People start to leave before the flow of bats stops.
I would love to go on one of the caving adventures going into rugged caves with difficult access but spots for those are hard to get. You also have to take easier caving tours first before you are on the level to go for the interesting stuff. I book the tour to Fastlane Cave instead, the lady at the office tells me it is not very popular but she very much recommends it. Access would be easy but we would need our own lamps, the group would be limited to six people. I end up in a randomly formed group of biologists. There is the resident bat researcher, a guy researching ticks that feed of swiftlets (some are endemic here) and his son and there are two doctoral students in biology. The guide is very knowledgeable and still manages to impress this group. We stand in front of some plants and he asks if someone can find the fern. People look around and conclude that there is no fern. He grabs one of the plants, turns the leaves around and all the biologists exclaim. “Oh, it’s a fern.”
It is amazing how much life exists in a damp, dark cave. There are bats and there are the swiftlets. The guano they produce fires the cave ecosystem. Spiders, cave crickets, white crabs, ticks and there are snakes. The moment the guide tells me about the possibility of a snake I am fully alert. I do think that I deserve a birthday present. The snakes can climb the sheer walls, no clue how. They hunt for swiftlets and bats. Towards the end of our tour, suddenly there is one but soon disappearing into a crack as our lights turn towards it. I booked a guided night walk. Only two other people show up, perfect! The number of interesting insects we see is insane. Nature is wonderful.
The airport is tiny, there are only a few turboprop planes a day. The baggage retrieval area is essentially just a low counter on which the bags are deposited. There are few people, the departure area seems near empty, only six people sit at the gate. A stewardess turns up: “Well, as everybody has checked-in and we are ready, we might just leave a bit early.” Seven people start walking towards the plane.
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre was the first official orangutan rehabilitation project for rescued orangutans from logging sites, plantations, illegal hunting or for apes that were being kept as pets. The orphaned orangutans are trained to survive again in the wild and are released as soon as they are ready. There is a nursery with baby orangutans but the main point of interest is the feeding platform where orangutans gather twice a day. The centre is not fenced so the orangutans are free to leave (and come) at their own will. Apes that have grown up in captivity, lack the skills for independent survival and need to be given the chance to gradually adapt to a live in the wild. For me, the centre is a great opportunity to come up close to these magnificent animals, our close relatives, but as always, these centres also attract criticism. To maximize the income for the centre you have to be attractive for visitors (that means allowing people access to the apes), but for the rehabilitation of the animals it would be best to have as few people as possible. But without visitors where does the money come from? And honestly, if you have come into contact with these wonderful animals, it is hard to let them go.
Orangutans spend very little time on the ground, most of their life takes place in trees, so the feeding happens on a raised platform. A guardian gives out coconuts and bananas to individual apes. The smaller orangutans have trouble opening the coconuts. One smashes the nut repeatedly against the tree, he knows it will crack but he just can’t make it happen. The guardian gestures towards him and after some hesitation, the orangutan gives the coconut back. The guardian takes it, smashes the nut against the tree and gives it back cracked open. In Malay, “hutan” means forest and “orang” means people. Orangutans are thereby called “people of the forest”. As I leave the platform along the walkway, I see an orangutan sitting on the railing. It does not disappear but rather starts to approach. On one hand I enjoy coming so close to this fellow animal but on the other, this is a bit too close, it is a wild animal after all. Of course, I do not have any food with me but I have my camera bag which might make the ape think I have. He just runs past me.
The Rainforest Discovery Centre combines a canopy walkway and a watchtower with some trails through the rainforest. I am disappointed as I see nearly no animals. Some faraway birds, nothing more. The trees are beautiful though, rising up high into the sky. It is late afternoon; animal activity is often higher towards dusk as it becomes cooler and nocturnal animals start their day. As a downside, there is less light for photography the lower the sun goes. I walk back on a small path because I think I missed out on that especially big tree. I find it. Nature is unpredictable but that gives it the magic to create special moments. Without any effort, without any sound but with a lot of beauty and grace a small animal glides from one tree to another. I am mesmerized, did I just see a flying squirrel in action? It took just a few second, I was just there at the right place in the right time. If I had just looked the other way, I would not have noticed anything.
In the hostel I meet Alex. He is Australian, works in nature conservation and sometimes as a tour guide and he loves animals. I promise to be there at 5:30 in the morning to go birding with him. I am not a morning person, not at all. We have a wonderful walk finding many birds around the gardens of Sepilok.
Next to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. Did I ever tell you that I love bears? And that I haven’t had many chances to see them so far? Sun Bears are the smallest members of the bear family. They get their name from the characteristic orange to cream coloured chest patch that stands out from their jet-black fur. They are cute. They handle coconuts better than the orangutans. A bit of effort with their teeth, some claw action and the coconut is stripped of its hull. They are surprisingly good to use their hands (oh yes, I mean their front paws). Another bite and the nut is open. Celebrating this achievement, the bear lies on its back, takes the nut into its hands and joyfully drinks. When it is empty, they use the claws to open it further and get to the meat. Sun bears are good climbers and spend some of their time in the trees, often relaxing there. Their tongue is exceptionally long, 20 – 25 centimetres, and used to extract insects or honey. One of them is nice enough to show it to me.
The Kinabatangan is the biggest river in Malaysia’s Sabah state. The forest along the river is noted for its high biodiversity and some has been protected as the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary is under threat. Logging has been going on for a long time and the monocultures of palm oil plantations seem unstoppable all over Borneo.
I stay at a small riverside lodge and we take tours in the morning and evening. Proboscis Monkeys are an obvious draw, one of the largest monkey species in Asia they fully live up to their second name: long-nosed monkey. They look amazing but are usually very high-up in the trees. Lines and ropes have been fixed over the smaller side arms of the Kinabatangan. Orangutans do not swim. The forest that exists today is secondary forest which is not as high as the primary forest once was. The tallest trees of the primary forest touched over the river providing the apes with a bridge. The ropes are an attempt to allow that movement. Unfortunately, we see no orangutans in the wild. Instead we see hornbills, other birds, several snakes, a small crocodile, a monitor lizard, elephant footprints, owls and a flying lemur hanging in a tree. We also see the enemy; oil palms have been planted right next to the village.
Sandakan was an important port in colonial times and is an important port today. I take a day to explore the town. Most of the coastline of Eastern Sabah is currently under a dusk to dawn curfew to prevent incursions and attacks by extremists from the southern Philippines.