Shaping The Limestone

by Audrey Lim, Sep 27, 2001 | Destinations: Malaysia / Sarawak

After having written so many travel pieces for ThingsAsian and some other publications, I have yet to touch on a spot at East Malaysia just yet. I have always viewed the east side of Malaysia a little differently from where I am at the west. Perhaps it is the prospect of having to "cross the ocean" before reaching to the other side of the country leads to me neglecting it as an important destination for tourists or visitors. How wrong I am in this aspect!

East Malaysia always seemed to me like a world of its own; a place with an entirely different culture, lifestyle and economic ventures. The people lead quiet and peaceful lives, and the land? Mostly green and refreshing (unlike my home here in Kuala Lumpur). East Malaysia is also steep in history and age, and some of the lands are like uncut diamonds, waiting to be discovered. Not surprisingly, well-known CBS program, Survivor, chose East Malaysia (Pulau Tiga, located 6 miles/10 kilometers offshore of the island of Borneo, to the northeast of the country of Brunei) as the very first spot for a survivor series.

Divided into two states, namely Sabah and Sarawak, East Malaysia is home to many interesting travel destinations. Allow me to touch on a remarkable and very famous "limestone-filled" location in Sarawak. Gunung Mulu National Park is Sarawak's premier national park and definitely the largest conservation area. The spot is located deep in the rainforest.

Visitors to the place are a lot luckier these days as the route is covered by commercial flights. Before 1992, to get to Gunung Mulu, visitors must plan a full-day trip from Marudi that is located along the Baram, Tutoh and Melinau rivers. Mulu is a hotspot for many explorers and scientists. The place currently featured 20,000 animal species and 3,500 plant species. Beautiful gushing clear rivers and high-altitude vegetation heavily characterize the surrounding rainforest in the park. Three mountains with eroded features shaggily dot the skyline. There is also a fifty-meter high razor-sharp limestone spikes called the pinnacles. And of course, resting here is the world's largest limestone cave system! Most parts of it are still undiscovered to date. If you are up to it, then you have got to try out two very famous hiking routes that will lead you to the pinnacles on Gunung Api or to the summit of Gunung Mulu. Daunting though the task may seemed, yet all have claimed that the effort was worth every drop of sweat put into it for the view that greet you at the end of the journey is breathtaking and totally awesome! Here, you will see fantastic views of the rainforest that goes as far back as the eye can see - stretching all the way to the neighboring country, Brunei.

On past vacations, I have encountered several limestone landscapes but most of the façade have been altered by glaciations that took place over the past 2 million years. Mulu is by far older than any of these as the region was formed well over twenty million years ago. The landscape was shaped and heavily weathered by rainfall, rivers, and also high temperatures, but never once had it been touched by ice! How were the caves molded then, you asked? The ancient caves were structured by running water that goes deep into the mountains. When I used the term "ancient", it is exactly so as the oldest cave was formed some five million years ago. Even the youngest of the pack came about fifty thousand years ago. The overwhelming landscape formed by the surface water running down the slopes of Mulu has caused a great amount of erosion. In turn, the landscape was shaped and the caves on the insides were carved. Over the long period of time, these great chunks of limestone slowly separated and became a mountain of its own.

Documented explorers came about some time in the 1850s with Spenser St. John amongst the first. He never made it to the summit of Gunung Mulu although he wrote an interesting book about it. South Pole explorer Lord Shackleton was more successful in 1932. He managed to complete his goals with a successful ascent up Gunung Mulu.

The area was turned into a protected national park when the Royal Geographic Society put forward a strong case in the year 1976. Based on their studies and research with regards to the flora, fauna, caves, rivers and tourist potential, the park was official opened to tourists in 1985. Tens of thousands of people visit the national park each year. The exploration grounds are about 250 kilometers although there is still more than half of the land that remained unexplored and undiscovered just yet. Development is slowly threatening the livelihood of the place but we can only hope that this piece of nature remained unspoilt for many generations to come!