There are times in Kuala Lumpur when the rush hour traffic plays havoc with your digestive system even before you’ve reached the restaurant. But head over to Sarawak (pronounced sa-Ra-wa) which occupies the south western portion of the island of Borneo, and life takes on a different pace. It is a “Land of Superlatives” with the world’s largest flower (the Rafflesia), the world’s largest cave passage (Deer Cave) and the longest cave in South east Asia ( Clearwater Cave).

Sarawak, may be known as headhunting territory and conjure up images of ‘me Tarzan, you Jane’, but there’s a strange twist in this scenario. In 1841, the debonair, Indian born James Brooke, the first of the three White Rajahs, was ceremoniously proclaimed Rajah and Governor of Sarawak by the Rajah of Brunei, after quelling an uprising. In the land of headhunting, jungles and tribal communities, Brooke created the state of Sarawak and a dynasty which was to last for a century. Brooke also acquired the respect of the indigenous Dayaks, as well as the Malays and the Chinese.

Across the South China Sea, 600 kilometres from West Malaysia, Sarawak could be a stage set for romantic and exotic movies. From the twin otter airplane operated by Malaysia Airlines, the thickness and vastness of the jungle below is, without doubt, an awesome sight. The 19-seat plane is filled with anticipating tourists craning their neck for a better view below of the rain forest and a winding Baram River, Malaysia’s longest river. It looks like a brownish ribbon weaving through green velvet. More difficult than getting a window seat, is getting a reservation for the 35 minute trip from Miri to Mulu. Plans must be made weeks ahead.

We’re heading to Gunung Mulu National Park with a only a small overnight bag since 10 kilos is the maximum allowed each passenger. Our other luggage awaits us in Miri, where we’ll return in a few days. Opened in 1985, this national park covers 130,580 acres and 150 miles of caves dating back 30 million years. Professional cavers are still discovering more caves.

In the midst of this tropical rain forest is a most unexpected oasis. The Royal Mulu Resort, where we check our small bags, has an amazing aviary which sits in the centre of the large modern property, a prelude of the colourful birds we are about to see..

Jo, from the Iban tribe, is expecting us at the riverside and ready to navigate the 15 metre longboat-taxi on the Melinau River to the caves in Gunung Mulu National Park. He maneuvers this singular means of transportation which the expertise of an Indy driver.

We head up stream between limestone cliffs to The Cave of Winds, the first of four caves we’ll visit. The birds and cicadas create sounds that make you forget the horn honking and congestion of any big city. As the sun beats down with the humidity up in the high 30c, the longboat’s small motor conks out. We wait patiently for Jo to get it started, which he does after managing to steer the boat under a canopy of the leafy Kasai and Red fruit trees.

The Cave of Winds, in the humid atmosphere, happily lives up to its name as we feel a soft breeze. Inside, the golden rock shapes of the stalactites and stalagmites are large and sculptural and it’s not until we arrive at the Sultan’s Chamber that the monumentality is even more obvious and impressive. It’s crammed with nature’s imposing limestone by-products.

The slippery steps and slimy handrails are disregarded when the full impact of the cave’s age hits you. The Cave of Winds goes back 6 million years.

Cave two. The Clearwater Cave tests even the most athletic person. The gentle longboat ride which moors at a small jungle pool, doesn’t prepare us for the vigorous visit. After climbing 200 stairs to reach the entrance, there are areas inside that are low and narrow making navigating a challenge. I feel like a female Indiana Jones as I use my flashlight and head down more slick steps to an area called Lady’s Cave, which features a fifty metre deep water hole. A few braver than myself, swim through the icy 5 kilometre underground passage which ends at the nearby swimming area in the Melinau where I wait with the other timid travellers. We less adventuresome travellers having retraced our steps, take time to recuperate from this Herculean traipse as we wait for our fellow journeymen. After the needed rest and having the beautiful green and black Raja Brooke’s Birdwing butterfly identified for us, we’re back in the long boat and head down stream for 20 minutes to a well deserved lunch at the National Park Headquarters.

At the Malaysian lunch , we learn that this area with no less than 10 types of forests, has created 8,000 species of plants and more than 20,000 animal species. It’s a quick course in behavior therapy for anyone with phobias for creepy, crawly insects.

Perhaps we are being too ambitious, but when asked if we want to go back to the resort or see the final two caves, we vote for the latter.

Lang’s Cave is comparatively small but has some interesting smooth limestone formations, one with curtain-life effects and others with coral-like helictites.

James, our guide, is quiet as we head towards Deer Cave. He doesn’t tell us immediately that the entrance is three kilometres from where the Ironwood Belian boardwalk begins. However, during this wearying hike, he points out various flora and fauna, a distraction and proof that he is an encyclopedia of jungle and cave information.

Deer Cave is unique and boasts of the world’s largest cave entrance. This vast space could hold London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral five times over. Within these walls are over 6 million bats (12 different species) which, toward dusk, leave for their nocturnal hunt for food. One of the rare features in Deer Cave, is a formation that has an eerie resemblance to Abe Lincoln’s profile.

Our group becomes the cause of amusement to the other tourists as we’re handed surgical masks and plastic gloves. Only when we’re in the cave do we realize how lucky we are and become the envy of those who giggled. The droppings or guano of the bats emit an overpowering stench. In addition, scorpions and other insects cling to the handrails which are there to keep us upright since some of the pathways are damp and slippery. The gloves protect against painful, possibly lethal, poisonous bites from lurking insects. Darkness provides James with another venue for his expertise. He picks up a small worm, rubs it in his hand suddenly it illuminates-a glow worm. Further into the cave at the Garden of Eden, is a crevice in the ceiling with a constant shower. This is Adam’s Shower which cascades down so gracefully.

When we leave the cave, we decide to wait to see one of the marvels of nature. The flight of the bats. The sky blackens as they take flight into the jungle to forage for insects and fruits. They swarm to form a line as they follow their leader. The sky is now black with bats. Darkness is descending and there’s still the 3 kilometre walk back. A few of us are beginning to ache. This time the trek takes twice as long. When we gather that evening for dinner, surprisingly no one complains. These limestone pinnacles, the rain forest’s dampness, the magnificent flora and fauna, makes us realize that thankfully, Borneo is still Borneo.

How to get to Mulu. Malaysia Airlines has flights from Miri to Mulu at affordable prices.

What to Wear. For jungle visits, loose, lightweight pants for both men and women, not shorts, are the best choice. Emphasis should be placed on conformable but sturdy walking/hiking shoes. Insect repellant, a raincoat or poncho and a flashlight and sun hat are must haves.

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