Friday was largely swallowed by bureaucracy – even though we’re still in Malaysia, we’ve crossed into Sarawak, requiring immigration and passport checks, which took a lot of taxi rides and waiting around, trying to get it all sorted – plus a journey in a large truck that drove us into town. But eventually (albeit 10 hours later!) we finally started our journey up the Tutoh River on the ‘express boat’ which roared off into the gathering dark, dodging floating logs and treating us to a gorgeous sunset with lush jungle racing past on both sides. Marudi is about three hours up the river, where we stopped for the night in the local hotel – which is definitely not on the Michelin list. We slept three to a room – and that’s not counting the cockroaches…
Sunrise saw us back on the boat for another six hours, before swapping to narrow motorised pirogues for another two as the river shallows and narrows. So it’s a long journey, although you can fly in just half an hour – but then you’d miss the half the adventure, and a glimpse of life along the river. Gunung Mulu, as the park is known in Malaysia, was proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 2005 and it boasts the largest cave passage in the world, and the largest chamber – the Sarawak Chamber is 600 by 800 metres, and 100 metres high. Deer Cave was our first stop after arriving at Mulu in the afternoon: a 40-minute walk through the jungle brought us to a huge cave opening, which is famous for the three million bats that live inside it. At about 6 pm they’re supposed to swarm out to go out eating for the night – but that night they seemed to be afraid of the rain (they don’t call it a rainforest for nothing). We walked back in the dark, listening to a jungle orchestra of frogs, birds, bats and other nightlife tuning up for the evening chorus. But the best part of this adventure came the next morning. We set off after 8 am for the 3.8 km walk to Clearwater Cave – with 425 steep steps on extremely damp and slippery boardwalks. At the entrance we donned Petzl helmets and headlamps so that we could disappear into the darkness – it was a lovely feeling to walk beyond the railings where the average tourists must stop and turn back.
We spent the next five hours slipping, slithering, squeezing and scrambling through this immense cave system – 150 km of majestic chambers and galleries of stalactites and stalagmites, connected at times by extraordinarily narrow passages, so skinny we couldn’t bend a knee; you had to inch through head or feet first like a snake. At other tricky parts we relied on ropes to help us across. We covered almost five kilometres of the system. “But in terms of physical effort, five kilometres underground is like 30 kilometres above ground,” said Phillippe Bence, our cave guide. We were constantly drenched and muddy – it felt like a real journey into the centre of the Earth, complete with bats, spiders, swiftlets and even snakes. At one point we slid through a crack in the rock that was the width of a forearm, from wrist to elbow. “I was feeling a bit claustrophobic at the first narrow passage, sliding between two slabs of rock. But it was ok, everyone was helping each other, and Phillippe was there for us, giving good advice, and that was important,” said Eugénie, Guillaume, 18, of France.
“It was a little bit scary,” added Rodrigo Steinman, 16, of Brazil. “It was a challenge, you had to work it through in your mind.” Eventually we came to a clear, strong-flowing river in a chamber hung with huge stalactite chandeliers. We followed it for the last 1.5 km to the end of the trail. “We were so hot, the cool water was like Christmas for your body,” said Eugénie. The river led us out of the cave system and back out into the daylight, grubby from head to toe and quite tired, but exhilarated by an incredible experience none of us had had before. “We wanted to give the Young Explorers a chance to explore something new, a brilliant opportunity in one of the world’s most amazing caves,” said Mike. “They handled it well – they kept moving and all helped each other. I think the group has bonded even closer.” Another long boat journey, overnight at a guesthouse at Long Terawan, brought us very happily back to ‘Hotel Pangaea’ – home of showers, dry clothes and Cathy’s excellent cooking. There is such as thing as too much nasi goring.