February - 2019

USA caver Mark Jones was invited to join the expedition after Hugh & Matt had made his acquaintance during a visit to the Mammoth Cave System in Kentucky in 2016. Whilst in Mulu, Mark kept a detailed diary which provides a fascinating insight into a first experience of caving in Mulu. It’s something all Mulu explorers have experienced but never put into writing. Follow Mark’s journey into some of the most wonderful caves on earth.

Back during the 2016 July Cave Research Foundation (C.R.F.) Mammoth Cave Expedition I met two British cavers, Matt Kirby and Hugh St.Lawrence.  We hit it off during the week being assigned to several of the same trips in the park.  During our discussions they said that they have done quite a bit of expedition work in Borneo over the past forty years in Gunung Mulu National Park.  They talked at length about the fantastic caves as well as the other aspects of the island.  I casually mentioned that if they ever had an opening for one of their trips that I’d sure like to have an opportunity to go.  Fast forward to the fall of 2017 when I get an e-mail from Matt asking if I would be interested in participating in an upcoming expedition!  It didn’t take long to respond with an enthusiastic “yes”.  For the next two months they kept me informed about the trip with updates and recommendations.  Soon the framework developed for the January 2018 Mulu Caves Expedition under the auspices of the Mulu Cave Project .  Our team would consist of six Brits (Ben Kent, Matt Kirby, Frank Pearson, Hugh St. Lawrence, Nick Williams, Dick Willis), myself as well as Rambli Ahmad of the Sarawak Forestry Department and Veno Enar, our fixer.  Andy Eavis of the Union of International Speleology would be in the park during our stay with a group from the Singapore Zoo to do research for a multi-million dollar cave replica.

My adventure began on January 8th at 10:30 a.m. at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport with a fourteen hour flight on All Nippon Airways to Tokyo.  From there it was an additional eight hours on ANA to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.  The trip would extend over the International Date Line so I picked up another thirteen hours on the flight.  Needless to say I was very tired when I arrived in Kuala Lumpur at 12:30 a.m. on the 10th.  Luckily I had another sixteen hours until the flight over to Miri on Borneo so I checked into the Sama Sama Hotel for a fitful night’s rest.  At 9:00 a.m. I met up with Frank and spent the next eight hours in the airport waiting for the rest of the team.  During this time we solved many world problems, unfortunately we didn’t write them down.  Nick and Ben soon appeared and took an early flight over to Borneo.  It wasn’t until after 4:00 p.m. that Dick, Hugh and Matt joined us for the two hour flight to Miri.  Everything went off like clockwork and we arrived at the Dynasty Hotel by 9:00 p.m.   A quick meal of satay (a sort of shish kabob) at a local establishment and we were ready for bed.

January 11, 2018

The day started with breakfast at a local eatery before Veno took Dick, Ben and me to the Hypermarket to do the grocery shopping.  A two week expedition for seven people takes a lot of food and supplies so we grabbed three shopping carts to transport all of the goods.  I was amazed at the variety of foodstuffs available and not available.  Not surprisingly much of the food originated in the nearby Pacific Rim area but items from the E.U. and the U.S.A. were also for sale.  The cost of shipping made buying the U.S. goods out of the range of most consumers in Malaysia – dried cranberries for $15/pound, a box of cereal for $10, etc.  The entire grocery bill totalled out at 2,241.20 RM ($600 US).  Everything was boxed up for Veno to deliver to the airport to be transported by airfreight to Mulu.  The remainder of the day was spent doing some personal shopping and making plans.

January 12, 2018

A 9:30 a.m. flight had us up and about at seven to check out of the Dynasty Hotel in downtown Miri.  Check-in was a breeze and we sailed through security to the departure lounge where Andy and Rambli were already there with the delegation from Singapore.  When we were called we hustled down a long corridor and down to the tarmac and onto a turboprop.  It would only be a half hour trip so it wasn’t quite as formal of a boarding as the other flights.  Our stewardess had us seated and we were soon ascending over acres of palm plantations that looked strangely like rows of cornfields in the Midwest.  Much of the rainforest in Sarawak has been timbered resulting in ugly scars on the hillside while across the border in Brunei swaths of primary rainforests still remain.  Low-lying clouds obscured much of the scenery and resulted in the captain waving off on the landing for another go-around.  This attempt was also foiled so we headed back to Miri to await better conditions.  With hopes of a later flight we sat down in the departure lounge for a quick snack and soon we were harkened back to the tarmac.  The crew had been changed and once again we were back in the air.  Our steward was a very animated fellow who was confident that the pilot, a local flyer, would have no issue with delivering us to Mulu.  Indeed we were on the ground in no time and grabbing our luggage and boxes of food to load in a truck that whisked us down the road to the roundabout at the entrance to the park.

Arrival in Mulu

After unloading gear at our chalet (a modern two-bedroom bungalow) and having lunch at the Mulu Café we stopped by the research centre where we sorted out equipment needed for our expedition.  By three o’clock two teams had plans for the day – Hugh, Frank and Ben would nip on up to Moonmilk Cave to investigate a nearby entrance lead and survey the passage while Matt would initiate me to Mulu with a hike up to Deer Cave.  Dick and Nick would stay behind to prepare equipment for later in the expedition.

Deer Cave, a popular attraction in Gunung Mulu National Park with the general public, is a four kilometre hike on a wooden boardwalk from the park headquarters.  The boardwalk is elevated a meter over the swamp giving a good vantage point into the dense mass of greenery.  Insects abounded as well as a fair number of skinks and even a chameleon.  After crossing the Melinau Paku (a river) we immediately arrived at the base of the limestone mountains.  Further up the trail we detoured up a steep staircase a hundred meters to see Stone Horse Cave.  As often happens, this cave was discovered by chance rather than on purpose.  A cool breeze emanating from the fifteen-meter diameter entrance wafted down the valley prompting a curious visitor to inquire about its source.  When an intrepid climber pushed up the nearly-vertical slope he was rewarded with this hidden gem.   We only popped under the dripline for a quick peek, but it extends for quite a ways.

Returning to the main boardwalk we ambled up past Deer Water Cave, a flood resurgence for Deer Cave that does not humanly connect.  Winding along the trail we eventually reach a clearing with seating for the evening bat flights.  Several people were milling about waiting for the show.  The awe-inspiring southern entrance is in a sheer limestone mountain that abruptly rises out of the jungle.  Actually there are two jaw-dropping entrances separated by a significant pillar, the upper entrance on the right and the stream level off to the left.  As we grew closer the first cave swifts darted around navigating by loud clicks.   This form of echolocation serves them well in the massive caverns on the island.  Under the dripline we were surprised to find a red postal box to mail postcards.  Unfortunately we weren’t aware of this service so I couldn’t send a postcard from this cave.  (I have sent postcards from the Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.)  Hiking along the stream it became obvious I was in for a treat.  The width of the passage is more than the length of 99% of the Iowa caves on record.  The dimensions of the caves in Mulu are irrelevant when compared with nearly every other cave I’ve had the pleasure to explore.  Suffice it to say that the leads here are often time borehole with no end in sight.

Shining our lights into the water we spooked several small carp that quickly swam away.  The unmistakable odour of guano wafted in the breeze and soon we were climbing an impressive slope covered in guano.   The pile was alive with cockroaches that scurried under our headlamps beam.  Flies of all sorts swarmed to the light resulting in my ingestion of same.  Matt pointed out a feature from a balcony looking back at the upper entrance that was a perfect profile of the 16th president of the United States.  I normally would poo poo such a claim but it was indeed an uncanny likeness of Abraham Lincoln.  For the next several hundred meters we followed the undulating boardwalk past vast guano piles to an overlook of the northern entrance five hundred meters away.  With plenty of time we decided to scramble down the slope to follow the stream up to that entrance.  Once again we were traveling among huge guano deposits that offended my senses.  It was here that we spotted the biggest earwig I’d ever seen.  Normally these parasites cling to the seldom-seen naked bat (Cheiromeles torquatus) but occasionally they fall to the ground and attempt to get back up the ceiling.  Often times you don’t know they’re present until you feel them climbing up your neck.  Thankfully this was the only one that we noticed.  To make the journey more entertaining the floor was covered in sizable breakdown blocks in the stream that we had to weave through.  As we approached the daylight the Garden of Eden, a limestone bowl several hectares in area, beckoned to hearty explorers.  The park offers day trips to this natural wonder for the more adventurous visitors.  We finished at a cobble-strewn beach a hundred meters wide at the edge of the water.  All of the stories about Deer Cave can’t describe the enormity of the passage in one of the world’s largest caves.  Can a cave be too big?  That’s for somewhere else to decide, I’ll just remember this as my first cave of 2018!

On the return trip we heard the roar of the rain falling indicating that the bats wouldn’t be flying and that we’d be slogging four kilometres back to park headquarters.  That’s the price you pay for caving

in Borneo.

January 13, 2018

Cave of the Winds

The second day of the Mulu Cave Project began with a nice breakfast at the Mulu Café before loading our gear in a longboat for a four-kilometre journey upstream.  Since the rain hadn’t stopped since yesterday afternoon the Sungai Melinau was running very high and very brown.  The longboat is just what the name implies – a seven meter long boat that is wide enough for one person that can accommodate up to eight adults.  After a brief safety lecture (Don’t fall in.) we donned our life vests and were off.  We passed the Penan settlement of Batu Bungan in addition to several scattered buildings on the left while the Gunung Mulu National Park was on the right.  The Penan people were an indigenous tribe of nomads that wandered the area until the park was created.  Since then they have lived along the banks of the river and working in the park.  Many of the park personnel and guides were Penan.  Above Batu Bungan the river hugs the base of the limestone cliffs adding to the already spectacular scenery.  We whisked by the river-level entrance to Cave of the Winds and soon were pulling up to the jetty for the Cave of the Winds trail.  Waving farewell to our boatman we hiked up the boardwalk to the upper entrance of Cave of the Winds.

First longboat trip heading up to Cave of the Winds

For today’s objectives we split into two groups of three – Hugh, Matt and Frank would be setting permanent stations and erecting two anemometers while Ben, Dick and I would be using the Disto-X to establish a line plot of the cave.  Once the particulars were sorted out we were off to the races.  Dick set stations, Ben recorded data with a PDA and I would be shooting the Disto-X.  Using a Bluetooth connection Ben was able to sync the two devices and download the three readings from each station for greater accuracy and efficiency.  From the dripline we followed the tourist trail to the King’s Chamber being careful to avoid the magnetism of the railing.  There were many nice formations along the route but a fifty-meter high skylight before the King’s Chamber was the most impressive to that point.  At the beginning of the King’s Chamber we detoured off the balcony to start of the Adventure Caving experience in The Not Before Time passage.  The size and scale of the passage is simply indescribable so I won’t even try.  Suffice it to say that often times the walls and ceiling were at the limits of our lights.  For the next four hundred meters we were scrambling up and down boulder slopes using an occasional handline until reaching a balcony ledge on the left.  We stayed at this level (Overtime Passage) for another four hundred meters passing many formations that reminded me of the grotesqueries on Isla de Mona in Puerto Rico.  A surprising breakdown slope actually forced us to remove our packs and wiggle up into the Illusion Passage.  I was not prepared to be overwhelmed when I popped into this massive room – a hundred meters floor to ceiling, wall to wall!  Off to the right was the gigantic Babel Room with kilometres of cave beyond.  After a lunch break we turned left and crossed an expansive breakdown field for the next four hundred meters on the way to Wan Way Street. This entire section was decorated with a dense forest of the most interesting columns and totem poles I’ve had the pleasure to see.  With time running out we tied off the survey and retraced our steps to the jetty.

Arriving a bit early for the boat Matt, Hugh, Ben, Frank and I hiked three hundred meters on the catwalk above the Sungai Melanau over to Clearwater Cave.  In spite of its name the recent precipitation had Clearwater Branch running deep and dirty out of the spring entrance.  We ascended the nearly two hundred steps to the top of backslope entrance to Clearwater Cave.  An equal number of steps descended on the other side so Frank and I opted to stay up top while the others nipped on down to reconnoitre the water level for tomorrow’s trip.  We returned to the dock at 5:30 p.m. to find our boatman ready to depart so we hopped on board for the fifteen minute ride back to park headquarters.  We dined at the Mulu Café that evening to celebrate Frank’s birthday with ice cream and big plans for the morning.

January 14, 2018

Clearwater Cave

The past few years I’ve been celebrating my birthday caving with Cave Research Foundation (C.R.F.) in Missouri but for my 58th birthday I would be breaking that streak since I was with the Mulu Cave Project in Gunung Mulu National Park on the island of Borneo.  The day’s objective was to continue the line survey from the Clearwater entrance and connect to yesterday’s survey and collect the anemometers as well as putting in some additional permanent stations.  After a late breakfast we packed up our gear and met the longboat at the dock at 10:30 a.m.   Once again we’d be going upstream but today we would be dropped off at the Clearwater Cave jetty.  The river was running a bit clearer and lower with an occasional boulder or gravel bar visible.  In no time we were deposited at the dock with a return trip scheduled for 5:00 p.m.

Scaling two hundred steps we topped the rise where I marvelled at the floral-covered stalactites stretching over a hundred meters wide.  Over the years I’ve seen untold algae-coated stalactites at entrances but never this much greenery.  Of course this is one of the most expansive entrances I’ve ever encountered.  Today Ben and Hugh would be surveying the line plot while Matt, Frank and I would be sinking permanent stations and route finding.  We dropped back down the stairs to stream level in what has now become “standard” passage in the park.  By standard I mean from twenty to forty meter diameter borehole with significant balconies scattered along the walls with an impressive skylight thrown in for good measure.  A swath of interesting phytokarst on the wall had been formed by the sunlight focused through the entrance opening in the twilight zone.  The new twist was that we would be weaving in and out of a respectable river in flood for several hundred meters.   Over the years the water has scoured the bedrock razor sharp forcing us to move cautiously.  Handlines were set along the route in several places making it safer on some of the trickier terrain.  At the first water crossing the river was running chest deep which didn’t bode well for the next crossing.  When we reached the Balcony Series it was obvious that it would be unwise to attempt fording the river since the water was running both deep and swift.

A route through the Balcony Series to connect with yesterday’s survey was indicated on the map but alas after ninety minutes of fruitless searching we were stymied.  The most amazing aspect of these balconies was the deep conglomerated river cobble far above the streambed below.  Regrouping we decided to abandon from this direction and hike back out and to retrieve the anemometers from the Cave of the Winds entrance.  Ben and Frank volunteered to pick up the equipment while Matt and Hugh would show me the King’s Chamber.  This roundabout at the end of the tourist trail circles around a photogenic collection of grotesqueries and totem poles along with some nice stalactites.  It was only a short while before Ben and Frank rejoined us for the trip back to the dock.  We met our longboat at 5:00 p.m. and were ferried back to park headquarters to clean gear and shower.  Once again we dined at the Mulu Café followed by birthday ice cream.  What a wonderful way to spend your birthday!

January 15, 2018

Canopy Walkway

Rambli Ahmad of the Sarawak Forestry Department took the time to give a small group a guided tour of the  canopy walk in Gunung Mulu National Park.  This four hundred meter loop starts at a wooden tower and runs from tree to tree in a series of suspension bridges.  We had a nice morning  to wander but very few creatures were stirring.  The view from ten meters up gave a great vantage point of the jungle below.  Signage provided good information about the trees and some of the wildlife found inn the park.  We spent ninety minutes enjoying the casual pace of the tour.

Deer Cave

Having missed the evening bat flight earlier in the trip I took the opportunity to hike back out to Deer Cave in Gunung Mulu National Park accompanied by Rambli and Dick.  A lively discussion made the four-kilometer boardwalk hike go quickly.  We arrived at the viewing are at 5:00 p.m. as the sun began setting behind the mountains.  Half an hour later the first few of over two million bats appeared as “wisps of smoke” against the blue sky much to the appreciation of the thirty people below.  Small clusters of bats, perhaps five hundred to several thousand, trickled out building up for the grand finale of a stream of untold bats.  We weren’t the only ones interested in the spectacle as two bat-hawks weaved through the throngs of wrinkled-lipped bat (Chaerephon plicata) to snatch a meal.  Certainly this rivals the bat flight at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

January 16, 2018

Cave of the Winds

Gunung Mulu National Park

The plans for the next three days was to push deep into the Clearwater Cave system to establish a base at the Scumring camp and explore and survey in the Red Dwarf Chamber before leaving through the Clearwater entrance.  The return trip would be dependent on the water level in two days as high water would preclude exiting through Clearwater.  Each of us would be lugging eleven to fifteen kilo packs filled with personal gear, food, vertical gear and anemometers.  Rambli Ahmad, Ben Kent, Matt Kirby, Frank Pearson, Hugh St. Lawrence, Dick Willis and myself arrived at the longboat at 9:30 a.m. for the fifteen minute ride up to the Cave of the Winds landing where we disembarked for the short hike up the boardwalk to the entrance.  Having visited the cave twice in the past few days we were well-acquainted with the boardwalk out to the King’s Chamber.

From here we followed the Adventure Caving trail through The Not Before Time Passage, Overtime Passage, Illusion Passage and Wan Way Street.  A huge breakdown pile appears to be the end of the line but back in 1989 a group of British cavers spent two days poking around this chamber before finding a squeeze along the left wall that slalomed down twenty seven meters to join Clearwater Cave.   It took us quite some time to pass packs down through the Connection Choke to the rope ladder at the very bottom and the beginning of King Seth’s Maze.  When this passage was discovered a British cave biologist was chased by a particularly aggressive cave racer snake and so was named after a snake character from a comic book (AD2000) of that era.  Soon we were in the undulating mud mounds of Hyperspace Bypass and on through Infinite Improbability Drive.

Above the Snow Slopes with Rambli

I’d soldiered along quite nicely until this point but the extensive boulder fields sapped my energy rather quickly.  The most frustrating aspect of caving in Mulu is the fact that we’re often in gigantic passage but are relegated to caroming among never-ending mountains of rock. Thirty meter diameter passage isn’t any better than a Missouri bellycrawl if you have fight for every step.  Needle-sharp rocks tore at our boots, slick mud slopes challenged our footfalls and loose scree disappeared underfoot.  Another downside is the fact that it takes so much energy to deviate off-trail to investigate any lead.  Even on Isla de Mona I never sweated as much as in the caves of Mulu.  With a mean temperature of 23.7 Celsius and a 100% humidity I was drenched from head to foot whenever on the move.  At this point I was questioning the sanity of these British cavers.  Slogging away for the next hour we eventually reached Junction Cavern.  This is a significant point where one can choose to exit through the Cave of the Winds entrance, Clearwater entrance or take Revival Passage out to the Snake Track entrance.  In this area was an impressive flowstone mound perched on a five-meter high rimstone terrace covered in a thick, brown mud.  We picked up the Revival Passage on the way to the Volcano Series where we negotiated up the largest breakdown slope of boulders that I’ve ever seen in a cave.  At over a hundred meters high and at an acute angle it seemed to take forever to ascend.  Thankfully we were almost to our objective of Scumring camp.

Just fifteen minutes around a corner was the unusual mudflat of Scumring where we’d be based out of for the next couple days.  The room itself was forty meters long by ten meters wide with a twenty meter ceiling.  Off to the right a trickle of water dribbled down a flowstone wall into a two-meter deep pit 10 meters long by 2.5 meters wide that disappeared down a small drain.  During heavy rains the pool overflows leaving a bathtub ring of debris, hence the name.  Everyone staked out a site for their sleeping bag and personal space with a common kitchen area in the middle.  Cave swifts darted about overhead constantly chirping their presence.  These birds use a form of echolocation to navigate through the caves often building nests far from any entrance as is the case here.  An evening meal of ramen noodles and tuna was taken at 8:00 p.m. before people began drifting off to sleep.  After three kilometers of energy-draining caving it didn’t take me long to fall fast asleep.

January 17, 2018

Clearwater Cave

Gunung Mulu National Park

Camp began to stir at 8:00 a.m. with a hot meal cooked up before heading out to the objectives.  Dick would be staying in camp, Frank and Hugh were going to continue some exploration from 2017, while Rambli, Ben, Matt and I would be pushing on toward the Red Dwarf Chamber.  From Scumring we ascended a handline ten meters to the aptly Snow Slopes.  Actually the huge white mounds were not snow but fluffy piles of cave swift guano.  The soft slope reminded me of the gypsum crystal floor in the Talcum Passage in Carlsbad Caverns.  From the massive mounds it’s obvious the cave swifts have been utilizing this passage for many centuries.  Eventually we got to a vertical climb that we were belayed up to access the upper levels.  Very few formations were noted in the Snow Slopes but that all changed now.  A nice variety of columns, drapery, stalactites and stalagmites pulsated down the passage until we scramble up a hundred meter breakdown slope into Armistice Passage.  Words cannot describe the length and breadth of the boulder field from this balcony overlook.  It took an hour to navigate through the jumble of rock littering the floor.  The boulder fields continued for another two hundred meters to the “Y” Frontier.  The story goes that to drop a thirty meter pit fifteen meters in diameter sections of rope formed a “Y” for the climb down to the Cairn Farm.  Currently this is the only known route to this portion of the cave.  Standing there on the lip of the pit it is unthinkable the amount of planning, hauling, rigging and de-rigging just to check this one lead.  More boulder field lay ahead until we reached the Road To Hell.  For the life of me I can’t understand why it was given that name because it was the most decorated part of the cave that I’ve seen.   According to Matt there has only been one other group to this part of the cave on the discovery and survey trip in 1989.  Stalactites, stalagmites, columns, totem poles, drapery, helictites, gypsum needles, popcorn, soda straws, flowstone, pool crystals and more were everywhere in a rainbow of colours.  The beauty in this area certainly puts it in a league of its own.  I opted out of dropping down a handline to the Red Dwarf Chamber while the others forged on to look for leads.  I spent the time photographing some of the fabulous formations surrounding me.  An hour later they returned with news that no new discoveries were made.  We retraced our steps back to Scumring for a well-deserved meal after a three kilometre roundtrip.  The rest of the party was already in camp with hot water on the stove for drinks and dinner.

Camping beside the rising floodwaters at Scumring

Following a quick cleanup I was off to bed with high hopes of exiting through the Clearwater entrance rather than hefting our packs back up through the Connection Choke on the way to the Cave of the Winds entrance.  I was soundly asleep when I saw the lights of the others waving around a substantial pool that an hour before was empty.  Removing my ear plugs I heard a waterfall rumbling that had replaced the tinkling dribble.  Evidently a substantial rainstorm had set in giving us a rare view of the Scumring pool overflowing.  Numerous photos were taken of this impressive event.  Unfortunately we had to move our bedding and kitchen to avoid being drowned.  Matt and I challenged the water by remaining at a lower, muddy level while the others took to higher, rocky ground.  In hindsight we made the right choice since the water crested just shy of our sleeping bags while the others endured the rocky ground under the cave swift nests (and their droppings).

January 18, 2018

Clearwater Cave

Gunung Mulu National Park

After the deluge the previous evening it was obvious that the Clearwater entrance would not be an option and the Connection Choke would be too taxing so it was decided to use the Snake Track entrance.  Although an unfamiliar route it would be substantially easier than wrestling packs through squeezes.  But the drawback was the fact that there would be a three-kilometre trek through the jungle back to the Sungai Melinau to meet the longboat.  We broke down the Scumring camp at 9:00 a.m. and were on our way out by 10:00 a.m.  It was a slow and tedious process descending the steep hundred meter boulder slope to the Revival Passage.  Unlike the boulder-strewn Infinite Improbability Drive we were strolling down a relatively easy muddy floor for much of the way in Revival Passage.

Arrival back at the Melinau after a long, hard trip

Not that we didn’t have plenty of climbing and scrambling but it all seemed a bit too easy until we reached the Edge of the World.  A very steep scree slope forced us to move singularly down the incline to the Snake Track Passage.  After fifty-two hours underground I was getting entrance fever and ready to get back to the bungalow at park headquarter.  Up ahead Matt spotted a shaft of light high above from a skylight indicating that we were close.  Unfortunately no one had been in this area for quite some time and the final hundred meters to the entrance was well disguised.  Finally Hugh was able to find the pinch and we were out into the jungle.

Since Rambli had a park radio we called to inform them of our plans and scurried down to the floodplain below.  By this time I had figured the hardest work was behind us but how wrong I was.  It seemed like we walked forever in a in hot, humid green maze of spiky rattan and fetid undergrowth over slick swampy ground being pursued by all sorts of biting bugs.  I’d run out of water but the others shared what they had left to keep me going.  At one point I felt a little like Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. By the time we reached the river I was completely spent and collapsed on the bank.  I drank the last of Matt’s Tang before washing up in the water.  About this time Ben announced that he had a leech which caused me to scan my body for the same.  I didn’t see any of these parasites so felt pretty smug.  Luckily a passing longboat notified our boat where we were and soon we were onboard.  Just before docking at park headquarters I discover I was dripping blood from my shin, a sure sign of leech activity.  I didn’t feel a thing.  When I got back to the bungalow I found another leech had just detached from my other shin!  I quickly dispatched him but still bled for another half hour.  Dang these guys are stealthy!  This was an epic trip in every sense of the word.  Thankfully tomorrow we’ll be preparing for the week at Camp 5 so I’ll have a chance to recuperate.

January 19, 2018

Gunung Mulu National Park

A day of rest was in order to prepare for our second week in Gunung Mulu National Park at Camp 5.  I caught up on trip reports and photo editing before stuffing my packs for the seven days upriver.  Veno had the porters carry the food and bulky supplies up ahead to be waiting at Camp 5.  There’s a lot of preplanning that goes into an expedition of this type and over the past forty years the Brits have refined their trips to be more efficient with their time and talent.

January 20, 2018

Gunung Mulu National Park

Breakfast at the Mulu Café was followed by a final check of our gear before handing off the bags to our porters.  Besides the obvious benefit of not having to carry a heavy load by using porters we were supporting the local economy and providing them with a good cardiovascular workout.  The day before they had lugged our food and other staples up in preparation for our week in the bush.  Six healthy young Penan men grabbed our packs and set off for the longboats for the sixteen kilometre journey up the Sungai Melinau to the trailhead to Camp 5.  Veno Enar, Ben Kent, Matt Kirby, Frank Pearson, Hugh St.Lawrence and me jumped in one boat while the porters with our gear piled into a second craft.  As we were heading upstream several boats were returning with tourists from their two-day adventure to the Pinnacles.  More about that later.  Our boat beached on a steep mudbank where we disembarked and Veno hopped into the other longboat.  Veno’s knowledge of the river allowed him to push deeper into the jungle where they’d catch up to us with our gear.  Immediately we were immersed in the rainforest on a well-worn but basic trail for the next nine kilometres.  A pace that would impress an Olympic sprinter was set as we covered ground at quick clip.  Most of the trail was covered in rounded river cobble, tree roots, decaying leaves and a thin soil.  Occasionally wooden planks were laid in some of the muddier sections.  I was very smug in the fact that I was wearing my rubber knee boots as we hustled through this swampy ground.  Two suspended cable bridges spanned the river where fording could be dangerous during high water.  I was flagging by the sixth kilometre but managed to keep the others in sight.  Every time I saw a beam of sunlight in a break in the canopy I was convinced we were at Camp 5 but eventually I was resign to the fact that we’d never arrive.  Finally a building popped into view and I knew that I wouldn’t have to survive on my wits.  (Like THAT could happen!)  A time check with Frank’s 30 ringgit ($10) Rolex revealed that we zipped through at an amazing three kilometres per hour!  That’s comparable to a saunter in the city but slightly more difficult in the jungle.  Unfortunately unlike a saunter in the city we were easy prey for the leeches and horseflies that pestered us throughout our trek.  Ben was the most popular with the parasites today while I picked up just one leech on my wrist.  I am still at a loss as to how they can attach without so much as a tingle.  In fact if it wasn’t for the blood gushing from the wound I wouldn’t even know that my corpuscles had been stolen.

The Royal Geographical Society conducted the largest scientific expedition to leave the U.K. in a fifteen-month period in 1977-78 establishing a series of camps in Gunung Mulu National Park with Camp 5 being one of them.  From that time it has grown and now consists of a main building with sleeping facilities, kitchen, dining room and bathrooms, a gazebo and a maintenance shed.  Camp 5 serves as the basecamp for those visiting the exquisite limestone formations that are the Pinnacles.  Considered by United Nations Environmental and Science Committee Organization (U.N.E.S.C.O.) to be a World Heritage Area of outstanding scenic value this is a popular attraction for the more adventuresome visitors to the park.  People hike in the first day and stay the night at Camp 5.  Climbers must leave early in the morning for the nine hour, fourteen hundred meters ascent with the final four hundred meters up eighteen ladders.  Not for the faint of heart.  But those who brave the climb are rewarded with a spectacular view of this eerie landscape.  Knives of limestone jut up thirty meters with few options of navigating through the maze.  The return trip has you back at Camp 5 by mid-afternoon for a second evening before trekking nine kilometres back down the trail to meet a longboat.

The accommodations in each of five bedrooms consisted of raised platforms with ten to twenty sleeping mats in a ¾ high walled room.  The open-air at the eaves allowed good ventilation but poor protection from bugs.   Once I’d rested a bit I set up my sleeping bag and mosquito netting in Room 5 along with the rest of the party.  Gear was unpacked and the remainder of the day was spent around camp with tales of past expeditions being bantered about.  Across the river in a sheer limestone cliff one can easily see Hole in the Moon Cave, Lower Tiger and Upper Tiger which are all connected.  Frank regaled us in the story of climbing above Hole in the Moon Cave, rigging, dropping down thirty meters to the entrance and then continuing down another three hundred meters to the forest floor!  Similar stories flowed for much of the afternoon into the evening.

While sitting around Veno brought over some fruit that was in season – rambutan and durian.  Of the two I can declare that rambutan is better.  In fact my love of this tropical fruit earned me the nickname of “The King of The Rambutan.”

King of the Rambutans

Related to lychee this fruit grows on a medium-sized tree and is about the size of an apricot with a hull similar in appearance to a cocklebur.  This delicious fruit has the texture of Gummi Bears with a mellow flavour of melon/grape.  To access the fruit you twist the soft hull and bit into the soft flesh being careful to not crack the pit.

On the other hand the durian grows on large trees and is a grapefruit-sized seed pod covered in sharp spikes surrounding walnut-sized seeds.  A thick white inedible coating encompasses a gooey layer of slime around the seeds.  The slime has a texture of pudding and is eaten off the seed.  With most people it is a love/hate relationship, either you love it or hate it.  I was indifferent to it but many of the locals can’t get enough of it.  The real issue is the stench that it can emit.  To give an indication of its dreadful smell it is banned from the Singapore Rapid Mass Transit and the hotels on Borneo prohibit it on their premises.  According to an article in Smithsonian.com it inhibits the liver from breaking down alcohol so it is wise not to imbibe if you eat this fruit.  Another issue is the fact that when they fall to the ground they reach terminal velocity and could impale the unsuspecting just like a medieval mace.

Mark at Camp 5 with the Benarat cliffs behind

Since we’d be staying around Camp 5 for a week Veno had arranged a chef for our benefit and comfort.   I can heartily endorse having a chef at all expedition and am going to insist that we institute this immediately in the U.S.  Following a fine meal in the dining area we retired to our room where I collapsed under my mosquito netting for a good night’s sleep.  Whiterock Cave awaits us tomorrow.

January 21, 2018

Whiterock Cave

Gunung Mulu National Park

Steve, our chef for the week, had crepes and eggs prepared at 8:00 a.m. for our dining pleasure.  At 9:30 a.m. our bags were packed and Veno led us four kilometres and one hour back down the trail to a footpath off toward the limestone escarpment.  Bushwhacking for the next two kilometres through dense undergrowth he deftly wove a path across the swampy ground to the base of the climb.  Here Veno departed for Camp 5 while we continued up the slope.  The weathering of the hillside had resulted in gnarly, sharp, nasty limestone that ripped at flesh and tore at our clothing.  Adding to this was the rotting vegetation that camouflaged these dangers.  Up, up, up for the next 115 meters rising high above the floodplain below.  Frank zigzagged up to the nominally ten meter opening of the Midnight Entrance to Whiterock Cave of the Clearwater System.  An hour had passed since leaving the main trail.  This is a very special cave to Matt since he and Richard Chambers discovered this cave back in 2003.  At over a hundred kilometres it is currently the longest component of the Clearwater System.  The first objective was reached when Hugh deployed the anemometer in a passage choke to monitor wind data for the next four days.  This area is well-visited by the cave racer snakes that pluck the cave swifts out of the air as they negotiate through the constriction deeper into the cave to nest.  The only detectable breeze we found in the cave was here.  The next several hundred meters we scrambled over mountains of ceiling breakdown in expansive chambers.

Climbing down a flowstone mound we continued down to the Keel Passage, so named for the numerous draperies resembling boat keels poking down from the ceiling.

Mark with keel-shaped formations in Keel Passage, Whiterock Cave

While Frank did some photography work the rest of us settled down to grab a bit to eat.  About this time I noticed a large bloodstain on my pants indicating that I had been had by a leech.  When I removed my boots an engorged leech plopped out, rather than dispatch him I left him to fend for itself in the dark recesses of the cave.  Ben also found a few small ones crawling around his ankles but Matt had six of the little buggers around the top of his socks.  In spite of all my precautions I was still attacked but take a bit of comfort in the fact that it wasn’t as bad as others.

Further down the line the Zebra Ramp, a sixty meter slope down to the Lower Entrance, beckoned to those brave enough make the climb.  We stayed in the upper level for several hundred more meters traversing over undulating mudslopes past the Up and Running Junction and into Africa.  On a map this section of cave roughly resembles said continent hence the name.  It was here that the formations blossomed into the Crown of Thorns.  The ceiling exploded with a profusion of helictites, stalactites and drapery of exquisite beauty.  Many photographs were taken in this area.  Deeper into Africa we passed numerous flowstone mounds and massive columns before reaching a small waterfall cascading down manganese-coated flowstone.  We went a short distance beyond here to reconnoitre a campsite for later in the week.  On the rebound we detoured down the Daydream Believer Junction and another several hundred meters in huge passage over dissolving flowstone and piles of breakdown to Daydream Believer Passage.  This huge chamber is dominated by beautiful totem pole columns and towering stalagmite mounds.

Ben set a nice pace for the exit out with hopes of spotting a cave racer perched on a ledge at the constriction.  No snakes were found until Frank spotted two of them on rock outcroppings in the twilight zone.  Several photos were snapped before they became irritated and we moved on.  This was a nice four hours introduction to Whiterock Cave.

The descent required less energy but proved more dangerous than the climb.  Back in the floodplain Ben led us down the footpath and directly to the main trail with little fanfare.  By this time I was wiped out and my feet were aching so the four kilometres to Camp 5 proved to be a challenge.  When I finally stumbled into the clearing it was with considerable relief that I sat down in the Melinau to cool down.  In one day we’d trekked thirteen kilometres of jungle trails plus another couple of kilometres in the cave.  Revived after fifteen minutes I took a long, cold shower before joining the others around the dining table for a fine meal.  Veno brought everyone over a warm Tiger Asian lager and we celebrated the day.  Ten minutes later I was fast asleep.

January 22, 2018

Gunung Mulu National Park

Thankfully we took the day off to recuperate from yesterday’s trip.  I spent the day writing trip reports and editing photos while taking it easy and nursing my sore feet.

January 23, 2018

Whiterock Cave

Gunung Mulu National Park

While Matt stayed in camp to nurse a nasty gash Ben, Hugh, Frank and I headed back to Whiterock Cave to give Ben and myself another peek at the cave and further orientate ourselves to this section of Clearwater Cave.  Our plan was to set up camp in the Africa Passage and make a loop through the Ancestor Passage and return via Daydream Believer Passage.  Our packs were quite a bit heavier with camping gear than two days ago but we scooted right down the Camp 5 Trail.  Four kilometres later we cut off toward the limestone bluff crossing two kilometres of swamp.  The ascent hadn’t become any easier and I was winded by the time I’d reached the Midnight Entrance.  When we passed the anemometer tripod the small pressure/humidity sensor had been dislodged indicating that either a swift had hit it avoiding being eaten by a cave racer or a cave racer had slithered up to await and eat a swift.  We replaced it back on the tripod before moving on.  Ben made a beeline for the Keel Passage followed by the Zebra Ramp, the Crown of Thorns, beyond the small waterfall and into the Africa Camp.  Our campsite wasn’t much to speak of, a fairly level, muddy floor just wide enough to stretch out a bedroll and enough room for the stove. Certainly not as spacious as Scumring in Clearwater Cave last week but there was very little chance that we’d be flooded out here.

Once gear was unloaded we struck off to the south deeper into Africa.  Once again it is hard to describe passage so big other than to focus on the immediate area.  With massive shattered ceiling breakdown covering the floor that wasn’t too difficult.  In places the rock was coated in thick layers of popcorn or calcite needles leaning in the direction of the wind flow.  Soon the floor changed into a never-ending cobble expanse.  The stones range from pebbles to soccer ball sized loosely cemented together.  Since we were in an upper level this rock would have been deposited well-before any of the lower cave was formed.  In several spots drains had formed deep pits revealing the true depth of the cobble.  At over ten meters thick the cobble was laid down by a river that must have been truly magnificent.  When we reached a steep slope that spanned the width we rigged a rope for a handline to descend the frail cobble wall.  No sooner than we’d gotten to the bottom than we were scaling back up the other side.

Continuing on for several hundred meters at ceiling level we eventually reached Propeller Camp.  This is an important site during push trips into the unknown northern reaches of the cave.  A quick inventory of supplies was taken before climbing up and around a scree slope that we promptly climbed down into the Ancestor Passage.  Delicate calcite crystals decorated much of the breakdown in this area.  Hugging the left wall we slowly zigzagged down to a narrow canyon with clusters of stalactites dotting the walls.  Looking closely I discovered to my surprise that they were being deposited on the same cobbly conglomerate floor that we’d been walking on.  Further down the line a ramp split up into the darkness.  Hugh and Ben decided to survey this area while Frank and I opted to sit tight and discuss rock-n-roll.  An hour later we were back on our way.  Almost immediately the floor dropped off steeply down a rocky chute.  Obviously this is a conduit for the water down to lower levels.  At the top of the chute an interesting narrow three-meter tall column caught my eye.  It looks like a soda straw that has been cut vertically leaving just a thin outer layer.  On the opposite wall were a series of mud/flowstone clusters that stair stepped up the wall with each “step” smaller than the last.  The wonders never end in Mulu.

Dropping the chute we were up and down steep, undulating flowstone/breakdown slopes coated in a broccoli-shaped flowstone with no end in sight when the passage finally mellowed out.  Ahead Hugh pointed out the most amazing biological find and the passage name – a calcite-coated monkey skeleton!  I was flabbergasted to even think that a potentially distant relative was here a very long time ago.  In a few minutes we’d reached an impressive seven-meter column called Long Tall Sally.  This is an important landmark at the intersection of the Ancestor Passage and Daydream Believer Passage.  Turning right we entered the surreal world of Daydream Believer.  Although I really can’t do justice in words I will make a feeble attempt.  A fifty meter wide, twenty meter high tube with an intermittent sandy floor covering massive breakdown extends for over a thousand of meters.  Formations were randomly scattered throughout but nothing truly spectacular until we reached the forest of columns and totem poles that we’d seen on our first visit.  We’d just completed a 2.2 kilometre loop in one of the grandest cave in the world in five hours.  Within fifteen minutes we were back at the Africa Camp having a spot of tea along with ramen noodles and tuna.  Reflecting on the day I realized that the 226 kilometres (140 miles) of surveyed cave passages of the Clearwater System is more than all of the known caves in Iowa!

January 24, 2018

Whiterock Cave

Gunung Mulu National Park

I got a respectable sleep at the Africa Camp and although mighty sore ready to have some breakfast before ambling out the Midnight Entrance.  Another ramen and tuna meal was on the menu along with a drink and some snacks.  The first objective was to tie in a survey near camp.  The survey team consisted of Hugh, Ben and Frank while I dawdled along with my camera to photograph some of the formations.  A flock of cave swifts chattered away in a nearby chamber as the survey began.   At one point Ben found a solitary bat low on the ceiling so I rushed over to snap its picture.  This long-eared fellow was of blocky build and an interesting face.  When we get back to park HQ I’ll ask Rambli about the identity of this little guy.  On the way out Hugh and Ben dropped down to a mid-level passage to record two hundred fifty meters of new survey with going passage.  Meanwhile Frank and I went up to the Crown of Thorns Ceiling where I got some additional pictures.  We regrouped at 2:00 p.m. for a nice saunter to the entrance passing by the anemometer where once again the pressure/humidity sensor had fallen off the tripod.  Approaching the entrance I realized that during this expedition I had travelled twenty-five kilometres of the system seeing sixteen kilometres of passages but had crawled less than fifty meters!

A break was taken at the entrance followed by the 115 meter climb down to the floodplain.  An afternoon shower had increased the sportiness of the descent as well as the two kilometre slog across the swamp.  Back on the Camp 5 Trail I set a slower pace for the hike to camp arriving fifteen minutes after the others.  I immediately jumped into the river to rinse the mud off the gear and knock the grime and sweat from my clothes.  A long, cool shower rejuvenated my spirits followed by a tasty hot meal that nourished my body.  Around dusk a drenching rain set in that pounded on the tin roof and raised the river over a meter in two hours.  Hugh had left his boots on the beach and it was too late by that time.  The Melinau raged a dirty brown all night long.

Writing up the diary at Camp 5

January 25, 2018

Gunung Mulu National Park

By morning the river had dropped back down and was clearing up by the time we’d finished breakfast.  I spent the day recuperating from the previous two days of caving and hiking by lounging around, writing trip reports and engaging in idle conversation with the rest of the party.  During the afternoon Dave the Lizard made an appearance and stayed for a photo shoot.  We celebrated Ben’s 24th birthday at Camp 5 that evening with a tepid Tiger Asian lager.  Life is very good.

January 26, 2018

Gunung Mulu National Park

Rather than go a third time to the Midnight Entrance of Whiterock Cave with the others to do a bit of surveying, photography and collect the anemometer I opted to stay alone in camp for the day.  I whiled away the time relaxing and writing trip reports.  An afternoon deluge soaked the intrepid cavers on their hike back to camp but hadn’t damped their spirits.  Another evening of fellowship was spent with yarns of caving exploits while analyzing pictures, survey and data.

January 27, 2018

Gunung Mulu National Park

Most of the day was spent preparing for the trek back down the Camp 5 trail on Sunday.  I did take some time in the midmorning to wander upstream to cross the river at a suspension bridge and follow the Headhunter’s Trail for a couple kilometres.  A blast of hot air hit me as I broke out from under the canopy to the helipad.  Without the buffering of the trees the canyon floor heats up quickly.  This was a reminder that the tropical rainforests serve an important function in temperature moderation.  Back under the canopy the sickening-sweet aroma of the day was durian permeated the air indicating that the guides had been feasting on the gooey treat(?).  I was going to make the Lubang Cina loop but the trail was underwater so I simply retraced my steps back to Camp 5.

In the afternoon Hugh and Ben trekked up to No Country For Old Men Cave to retrieve the anemometer and investigate a cool breeze dropping down from the hillside.  Meanwhile Matt would be doing his best to monitor them with the drone flying from the helipad.  It should be noted that the helipad is a clearing that has a slab of concrete large enough to accommodate a small helicopter for dire emergencies.  Frank and I would be safely absconded under the awning of the Camp 5 cantina watching Matt operate the drone across the Melinau.  The heavy canopy prevented Matt from finding the others but he was able to fine-tune his drone flying along the Benarat cliffs.  That evening we talked at length with a group of three Netherlander hikers who were going to the Pinnacles tomorrow.

January 28, 2018

Gunung Mulu National Park

With our gear all packed up for the porters I decided to amble ahead of the group to set my own pace for the nine kilometre walk back to meet the longboats.  For the next two hours I enjoyed the sights and sounds while sauntering through the rainforest.  At the first bridge I thought that it would be just a short distance to the second bridge but I think that the trail expanded during our stay.  Finally I reached the bridge and knew that it was only one more kilometre to the boats.  It wasn’t until the last four hundred meters that Ben caught up to me.  The others soon arrived although Hugh was slowed down by wellies that were chaffing his feet.  He lost his surly attitude once the boats arrived and we were on board.  As we moved downstream it occurred to me that the sixteen kilometres to park headquarters was comparable to the same distance that I’d seen underground during the expedition.  Wow!

Dick and Nick had cold Tiger Asian lagers waiting for us at the bungalow after which a hot shower felt mighty nice.  Gear was sorted and inventoried that afternoon before a small soiree with Hein and Andia Gerstner.  Hein is he manager of the Borsa Mulu company which operates the commercial side of the park.  Two hours later we excused ourselves for a farewell barbeque with Rambli and some of the staff.  What a way to cap off an expedition!

January 29, 2018

While Frank and Ben remained in the park an additional day the rest of the troops loaded up their duffle bags and headed to the airport.  It was a quick flight back to Miri where we were once again lodged at the Dynasty Hotel.  The remainder of the day was spent wandering the streets followed by a wonderful Chinese dinner with Dave and Liz Clucas.  The evening was spent discussing a variety of topics.

January 30, 2018

The expedition was reunited for one last time when Frank and Ben arrived at the airport in the late morning.  With our flight from Miri to Kuala Lumpur delayed an hour we checked in our baggage and spent the last couple hours on Borneo relaxing at Dave and Liz’s home before grabbing a bite to eat. The gang separated when Hugh, Matt, Dick, Frank and I boarded the plane in the early afternoon while Nick and Ben hung around for an evening flight.  We arrived in Kuala Lumpur in mid-afternoon where we spent six hours in caver fellowship before Hugh, Matt and Dick departed for their 1:00 a.m. boarding.  There were no rooms to be had at the hotel so Frank and I claimed a long bench where we spread out for the next six hours.

Saying cheerio at KL International Airport

January 31, 2018

At 5:00 a.m. I was the first in line at the All Nippon Airways check-in and soon had my luggage tagged and boarding pass in hand.  I bid a fond farewell to Frank and headed to the international terminal.  Everything went like clockwork and after a short layover in Tokyo and another ten hours I was back at O’Hare Field in Chicago, the end of a most memorable trip.