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Splendour of Mulu's caves

By KATHERINE KUAN

IS IT a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a bat show! Tiny black dots forming circles or curves appeared from the Deer Cave entrance, moved upwards and then disappeared from view. I was captivated by the spectacular stunt, performed by millions of bats – such unique unison by bats that are blind!  

My husband and I were in Mulu National Park in Sarawak. We saw the bat show on the first evening of our three-day holiday. Like Mt Huangshan in China, Mulu National Park is listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural and Natural Heritage. It is a favourite holiday destination for Europeans because of the virgin rainforests and natural caves. 

As seniors, we were interested to see the four caves open to the public called The Deer, Lang, Clearwater and Wind Caves. Day one starts with an afternoon visit to the Lang and Deer Caves (lights are switched on from 2pm to 4.30 pm). This culminates in the bat show. Day two is a morning boat ride to the Clearwater and Wind Caves, which are lit from 10am to 12.30pm.

Deer Cave

Millions of bats streaming out of the Deer Cave. The unbroken line of bats sometimes goes on for up to half an hour at a time.

Our holiday started when we took a Malaysia Airlines Twin-Otter plane from Miri to Mulu. On the plane, I strained my eyes to look for the famous Pinnacles on Mount Api but they were hidden by clouds. The challenging trek up to see the Pinnacles – 45m high, razor-sharp limestone spikes – would take six hours, so I wanted to see it from the air without having to suffer.   

In Mulu, we checked into the Royal Mulu Resort. A bellboy escorted us to our room with our luggage on his quaint trishaw. Seeing the trishaw brought back memories of the 1950s when it was a common mode of transport. 

At 2pm, we began our journey to the Lang Cave. Equipped with torchlights and good walking shoes, we walked along the senior-friendly three-km plank way that had handrails on either side. At every km, there was a rest hut, so seniors could take a breather at the three huts along the way. The plank way was about a metre above the ground, so there was little chance of stepping on slithery or slimy creatures!  

I found the walk invigorating – the rainforest provided some shade in the afternoon heat. Trees were clearly labelled with scientific and common names and our guide Khalid, pointed out some wild plants (salak, rattan, petai, ginger and orchids) along the way. 

A German, Lenz, 63, was very happy as he walked along with us. “I like the sounds and smells of the jungle. I want to see the rainforest before it disappears,” he said.  

After 45 minutes, we arrived at Lang’s Cave, named after Lang who first brought speleologists to the cave in 1978. I was enthralled by the beautiful limestone formations within the cave. Stunning stalactites and stalagmites, superb rock curtains and splendid helictites captured my heart. “I hope this will not be spoilt by commercialism,” were my first thoughts. 

We took many pictures of the intricate formations. Lim, a former government retiree, commented: “These limestone structures are the most beautiful ones I have ever seen, even more beautiful than the Quilin caves in China. And it is here in Malaysia. We need not travel far to enjoy natural beauty – it lies within our own country!” 

Inside the caves were sturdy steps of cement or plank with handrails that enable visitors to move with ease. Although there were spotlights to highlight special rock formations, our torchlights were indispensable for lighting our own paths as we walked along. 

After that breathtaking scene, we proceeded to the Deer Cave nearby – an area where deer used to shelter. It is the world’s largest cave passage, measuring 100m-120m in width, 120m in height and two km in length. I was overwhelmed by its size. I felt like a little ant in a large home.   

Deer Cave is home to many species of bats which fly out looking for food in the evening. I could make out heaps of bat guano on the cave floor. “What lies beneath the heaps are insects such as earwigs which feed on them,” informed Khalid.  

I held on to my hat in case some of the dangling bats from above decided to give us a sample of their guano! “Bats are either insect or fruit eaters. As they fly out, swiftlets (which produce bird’s nest) rush in to take their place,” continued Khalid. “Bats help to control pests on crops around the vicinity of the caves. They get rid of insects like mosquitoes. Each bat can eat 10gms of insects or fruits – just imagine how much a million bats can eat!” No wonder there were no mosquitoes in the Deer Cave!  

I managed to get some photos of other highlights of the cave, like the profile of the American president Abraham Lincoln at the entrance and the Garden of Eden where Lang rested when he got lost.

Clearwater Cave

A section of the Clearwater Cave. At over 100km in length, it is the longest cave in South-East Asia and is the seventh longest in the world.

After an exhausting excursion to the two caves, we arrived at the bat observatory at 5pm. At about 6pm, when the bats took to flight, we cheered with much excitement and tried in vain to capture that ephemeral moment on film. The bats’ remarkable ritual is not found in any other part of the world.  

There were about 50 of us in the bat observatory. Visitors came from all parts of the globe – England, Holland, Germany, France, Belgium, and Scotland and nearer home from New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Japan and South Korea.  

Everyone was happy to witness this much-awaited event. 

“A magnificent show!” exclaimed Dr Ian, a senior Scotsman.  

After the show, we walked back to the resort by the same plank way.  

At dinner time, visitors sang the praises of the two caves. John, an English senior, said: “The two caves are fantastic. I’m coming back with my family for a longer visit next year.” 

“The caves are incredible and the bat-show is truly superb!” echoed Johnny, 56, a retiree from Kuala Lumpur.  

Pat, 80, a widower, said, “The plank walk is no problem for me. I would encourage more seniors to come and see for themselves these wonders of nature.” He had learned about Mulu Caves from a television programme in Australia. 

The caves attracted Malaysian royalty too for the Raja and Permaisuri Agong visited the Deer and Lang Caves recently.  

Next morning, we went by motorboat to two other caves. On the way, we detoured to a Penan settlement. There, many tourists were delighted to see a different way of life – longhouses and souvenir handicrafts by the villagers.  

An hour later, we arrived at the riverbank leading to the caves. After a tiring walk uphill, we had to climb another 200 steps! However, that climb was worthwhile. On entering the Wind Cave, a continuous cool breeze blew from within. After the gruelling climb, the breeze was like a natural air-conditioner, and was refreshing. 

Within the Wind Cave was The King’s Chamber. Here, an enchanting array of stalactites and stalagmites of various shapes and sizes resembling a King’s throne kept us spellbound. Shutterbugs started clicking again, trying to capture beauty from all angles. I was amazed by the wonders of nature – such beautiful works of art took millions of years to form! We had fun trying to interpret some formations that resembled human figures or animals.  

A Singaporean senior, Mary, was full of admiration. She said, “This cave is awesome – simply breathtaking! Malaysia has a great abundance of natural wonders.”

Mulu Caves

One of the many cavernous caves of Gunung Mulu.

The next cave nearby was the Clearwater Cave. At over 100km in length, it is the longest cave in South-East Asia and is the seventh longest in the world. Within this cave were two smaller caves.  

We first walked along the Lady’s Cave to see cave features like flowstone, phytokarst (sharp needles of limestone) and curtains.  

Then we visited the Underground Cave where a river passed through – the sound of running water was pleasing to the ears. “This cave leads to the largest cave chamber in the world, the ‘Sarawak Chamber’ which can accommodate 40 Jumbo Jet aircraft,” said Khalid. However, that chamber is not open to the public yet. 

Besides cave formations, I found some interesting vegetation growing on exposed stalactites. A unique plant called single-leaf plant grew on stalactites which were 30m high at the mouth of the Clearwater Cave.  

After the tour, we had a picnic lunch near a crystal clear pool which was filled by water that flowed out of the Clearwater Cave. Many of us could not resist a refreshing dip in the cool pool. 

“This is the best swimming pool in the world,” said a Belgium nature-enthusiast.  

The last day was a leisure day. Besides a souvenir shop, excellent photographs on the caves were on display at the Resort Lounge. A caption below the photographs caught my eye. It read: Mulu Caves – the Eighth Wonder of the World. 

Mulu Caves’ attractions lie in their unspoiled and well-preserved natural formations. Besides the caves, some tourists enjoy the unique fauna and flora, while others go for adventure caving or mountain-trekking. However, seniors will find the four show caves and the bats’ display an enriching experience.

Source: The Star

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