Mulu National Park, nature’s gift to the world

The spectacular Pinnacles of the Gunung Api, which literally means "Fire Mountain" came into sight as Captain Daniel Sprenger and his co-pilot from Vision Air effortlessly swerved the aircraft towards the summit at 1,200 metres altitude.

As the 19-seater Dornier 228 aircraft nears the Gunung Mulu National Park in Miri division, the passengers' attention is captivated by the awesome natural beauty unravelling before their eyes.

"Look to the right," shouted Sprenger from the cockpit as he enthusiastically pointed to the world's most beguiling limestone landscape amidst the lush rainforest.

In clear weather the pinnacles stand out like hugh white knives against hardy trees that manage to gain a foothold in narrow crevices but become dark grey on the windward side when they are wet.

Along the way, one can see the Melinau Gorge and even spot a few settlements of the Penans and other Orang Ulu tribes.

Like its closest neighbour Sabah, which also boasts of a World Heritage Site in the Kinabalu Park, Sarawak is home to the world famous Mulu caves housing the world's largest underground chambers and passages.

In fact as one of the only 138 listed natural heritage properties in the world, Mulu is described by UNESCO as the most studied tropical karst area of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.

People have been experiencing the wonders of Mulu for many years as the 52,864-hectare park's established show caves such as the Deer Cave, Lang Cave, Clearwater and Wind Cave allow visitors to enjoy an interpretative tour of the caves.

But while visitors are lured to the unique cave system and diverse biodiversity, they do so with four-star comfort.

Located by the banks of the Melinau River near the park and adding a touch of luxury to the jungle is the four-star Royal Mulu Resort, built entirely on stilts three metres off the ground for protection against rising waters.

As one approaches the resort from the river after alighting from the Mulu airstrip, one is greeted by the ethnic longhouse-styled dwellings, linked by a series of wooden walkways which made for a pleasant stroll, especially in the evening.

Royal Mulu Resort Communications and Marketing Director January Kohli said apart from adventure, Mulu is actually great for light recreation and "unwinding" from the hustle and bustle of city life.

"It is a common misconception that Royal Mulu Resort is only a backpackers' lodge … we are in fact an aw
ard-winning property with Resort amenities," she told Bernama.

The 188-room resort is managed by the Rihga Royal Hotels, an exclusive Japanese hotel chain with operations in the United States, Australia and Japan.

She said the resort, which expects its occupancy rate to grow by between 20 and 40 percent from only 15 percent at present, has bagged quite a number of awards in the past years to boost its confidence.

It is the winner of the Tourism Malaysia's Best Natural Tourism Award and "Excellence in Hotel Services 2000" apart from being named the Hotel of the Year 2000 Sarawak Hornbill Tourism Awards.

Air Vision, a private aerial tour operator which provides an alternative to Malaysia Airlines services to Mulu from Miri and Kota Kinabalu, is a big help in getting guests from Sabah and Brunei, she said.

Access to the park by air, she said, was now easier than ever, compared to the three hours' express boat ride from Marudi.

She was optimistic that the resort would face a boom next year despite people generally having a phobia for flying following the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. "We are not as much affected as expected," she added.

As such she said the resort's future planning would involve incentive tours to bring in big companies for some specialised programmes like training, seminar and retreats besides family holidays.

At the moment, 25 to 30 percent of its total business come from Malaysians while Western Europeans, foreign expatriates living in Brunei, Japanese, Taiwanese and Singaporeans comprised the remaining guests who stay an average of one to two nights on a tour series of the region.

Kohli, 27, a Canadian, who has worked for the resort for almost three years, is definitely familiar with national parks since the Banff National Park near her home town of Calgary in Alberta is also a World Heritage Site.

"Only when we come here do we realise how lucky we are," she said, obviously referring to the park which is well-equipped with facilities and other infrastructure.

"Mulu is an exceptional park, it has everything for everybody…it is one of our big push," she added.

Philip Lawing, 39, who is of Berawan and Tering descent, two Orang Ulu sub-tribes living in the Mulu vicinity, said he has been providing guiding services in the caves, kayaking, rock climbing, nature hike to guests to encourage them to stay longer.

As the lead guide/naturalist with Royal Mulu Adventure Tour, a tour company specialising in adventure, he knows the surrounding environment like a book.

Having started off as a warden with the park for 11 years, he admitted modestly to "know a little bit about plants".

"I can easily survive in the jungle for one month on the condition that I have a knife to make traps for animals and fire … I can go for wild vegetables, bamboo shoots, ferns, no problems," he said as he identified each species of trees along the three-km plankwalk to the Deer Cave.

He said the "pelai" softwood, for example, is used by the Orang Ulu to make the "sape", a stringed-musical instrument.

Sticks from the "kayu hujan panas" tree (or goniothalamus specie) are commonly used by the local Malays to ward off wild animals or snakes because of the odour emitted but the Penans used the leaves to cure diarrhea, he said.

Park warden Suleiman Jamahari said apart from cave expeditions, one of the world'
;s natural wonders could be enjoyed at the bat observatory.

On a good evening some 1.8 million wrinkle-lipped bats stream out of the Deer Cave in long twisting cloud to hunt for insects and it is the most popular attraction, he said.

To date Mulu is known to contain 1,500 species of flowering plants including 170 species of orchids and 10 species of pitcher plants as well as thousands of fungi, mosses and ferns.

The fauna diversity is equally impressive with 67 mammal species, 262 bird species, 74 frog species, 47 fish species, 281 butterfly species and 458 ant species. – Bernama