I could have used a better night’s sleep, but I’m not the only one whose body clock is not cooperating. We have an early buffet breakfast at the hotel and then transfer to Miri airport where our baggage and we ourselves are weighed, ready for the short hop to Mulu. It seems that we have comfortably exceeded our weight allowance, and there is a RM17 excess per person to pay (about £2.80).
A 19-seater Hornbill Skyways Dornier 228-200 carries us up and away over green rain forest. A chocolate brown river snakes away into the distant haze. At first the terrain is quite flat – trees, rivers, and ox-bow lakes. We pass above a small town, and then the trees become more dense and the contours come to resemble a ruffled blanket. The logging tracks finally peter out and then it is unbroken canopy.
We approach big hills, vertical limestone crags exposed here and there on their flanks, and get our first view of the limestone pinnacles as we fly down a narrow and curving valley on our final approach to the airstrip at Mulu. We seem to almost brush the trees as we snake down to the runway.
Mulu is a small resort village deep in the jungle. A mini bus takes us in two loads down the only road to the place where we will be staying. Just across the Melinau River is the very up-market Royal Mulu Resort with its raised walkways and swimming pool, but we are not complaining – we have all to ourselves a beautiful wooden stilt-house divided into double rooms facing out onto a veranda. Outside are pleasant gardens and a couple more houses similar to ours let to other groups. Just across the way is the dining room. It is already swelteringly hot, and the first priority is to get down to the river for a cooling swim. It is very refreshing, although not altogether as clean as I might have expected.
After lunch we take a longboat up the Melinau River into the Mulu National Park. We begin with a gentle 3 km board walk into the jungle, and see various millipedes, a praying mantis, and hairy caterpillars (which Chris warns us not to touch). He also introduces us to the ubiquitous rattan, or “wait a minute” plant, so called because that’s what you say when you get entangled in its clutches. It is sticky-hot and I’m feeling very jet-lagged.
We reach Deer Water Cave, a small hole in the rock at the head of a dried up stream, a modest prelude to the main attractions to come. A short distance further on is Deer Cave. The entrance towers above us, a gaping hole in the cliff face. But first we look into Lang’s cave, which has some impressive stalagmites and stalactites.
Back at Deer Cave, the bats are just beginning to wake up and start flying around above us. Looking back towards the entrance, we see the famous silhouette profile of Abraham Lincoln, and then hurry back to watch the spectacle of millions of bats leaving the cave to hunt insects at night.
A thin continuous plume of bats is emerging from the cave mouth. Just below the entrance, there is a swirling swarm of them, and then spilling upwards over the lip of the cave a column forms and snakes out into the dusk sky above us. A couple of bat hawks circle nearby looking for easy pickings.
Back at the bat observatory, a short distance from the cave mouth, we have an even better view. The plume continues to stream out of the cave, corkscrewing across the sky and disappearing beyond the trees behind us. After about forty-five minutes the stream abruptly stops, only to restart a few minutes later, but this time like a dragon’s head, rearing up higher into the sky. This plume is short-lived, but is followed by another, and then another. These ones (a different species) fly higher and the stream bifurcates. It is an awesome spectacle.
On the dot of six o’clock, as we return to the park entrance along the board walk, a sound almost like a distant factory siren starts up. Chris explains that this is the sound of the six o’clock cicada, and for years local people have used it to tell them when they had reached the end of the working day.
We arrive back at the lodge after dark. Our room is very hot, so to try to cool things down a little I open all the windows to let a draught blow through before turning on the light.