Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Bats and more: an astonishing array of wildlife greets visitors to Borneo’s Gunung Mulu

The low, steady rumbling roar sounded like a storm was blowing in. But when I looked up, I saw only sunlight piercing the dense jungle canopy. A few minutes later, however, the source of the sound became apparent in a nearby clearing: I stood in awe as a continuous stream of bats flowed across the sky, moving together as if choreographed.

It is estimated that two million of the flying mammals live in Deer Cave at Gunung Mulu National Park on the island of Borneo. The late afternoon exodus can last for over an hour, and is just one of many natural wonders to find in this off-the-beaten trail, tropical paradise.

I am on a scientific expedition to study the biological diversity of Mulu, in my role as assistant curator of mammalogy with the Royal Ontario Museum, but any adventurous tourist can explore this United Nations World Heritage Site. Mulu is known for its 50-million-year-old geological history that has left mountainous peaks rising more than two kilometres above the surrounding forest and extensive cave systems carved out by underground rivers.

My local guide Veno’s father used to harvest and sell bat droppings as fertilizer, and the guano still forms huge mounds beside a flight of wooden stairs built in the cave for tourists. Many of the tour guides at Mulu are from his Berawan group of the Orang Ulu — “people from up river.”

They will take visitors just about anywhere in the park including trekking to the 2,400-metre summit or hiking on the headhunter trail. In previous generations, Orang Ulu warriors used this route for raids on their enemies and would bring back heads as symbols of their bravery. “It was the old custom of survival,” said Veno, who now works with the Penan — another group of Orang Ulu who are most familiar with this mountainous region.

Tourists can hire a guide for $135 per person to take them on the challenging four-day and three-night roundtrip summit hike of 50 kilometres. Unless you are super fit, I recommend splitting the cost of hiring a porter, who will carry food and other supplies for four people for an extra $120.

The trek to the summit starts with an easy morning hike to Camp 1 at the base of the mountain. If there have been recent rains, the trail will be muddy and there are several stream crossings of various depths depending on the weather. Bring footwear that can get wet such as water-resistant hiking boots, rubber boots or high-tech aquatic shoes. It will be a matter of personal preference and how much you want to pack for the trip. Be prepared to get a leech or two, but they are more gross than harmful.