Sunday, February 15, 2015

Mulu’s fantastical and fascinating features


LIMESTONE landscapes or karst scenery have fascinated me throughout my life probably because, as a boy, I was used to seeing greyish granitic moorlands in West Cornwall in the United Kingdom. My first exposure to limestone scenery was on a school geography-geology field trip to the Mendip Hills in Somerset (now only 60km from my home) to view a gorge, bare rock faces and visit a cave system.

Subsequently, I have visited this Carboniferous limestone hill mass on many occasions with my students to study Cheddar Gorge, Wookey Hole caves and the views beyond, over the lowlands of Somerset, from the plateau areas high above.

At Oxford University, I had the great privilege of attending a weekly tutorial given by one the world’s experts in karst (limestone) geomorphology Dr Marjorie Sweeting. Sitting on the floor of her study, I pored over maps of her native Yorkshire’s temperate limestone scenery and she enthusiastically recalled her most recent research into tropical limestone features in Cuba.

Little did I know then that, 10 years later, well into her 60s, Marjorie Sweeting would be a leading scientist on a Royal Geographical Expedition (RGS) to explore the Mulu massif. That scientific expedition, for 15 months in 1977 to 1978, led by Robin Hanbury-Tenison and consisting of 120 scientists from all over the world and of various disciplines – professional mountaineers, botanists, ecologists, geomorphologists, hydrologists, speleologists and zoologists – with their findings focussed the wider world on the glorious gems of a ‘little known’ area of Borneo.

‘Little known’ does not do the Penan, Berawan and Murut people full justice for they had lived in this area for centuries. Without their expertise and guidance, this expedition would never have been brought to the eyes of the world. Subsequently Mulu has never looked back, yet its cultural and geological histories are firmly rooted in the past.

In 1971, there were only four National Parks in Malaysia – Taman Negara and Templar in Peninsular Malaysia; as well as Kinabalu and Bako in East Malaysia. Twenty-nine years later the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) Conference in Cairns, Australia declared Gunung Mulu National Park and Mount Kinabalu National Park as World Heritage Sites.

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