skull Leech check please skull
skull Gunung Mulu - Pinnacles skull

Wading Upriver

July 14

After breakfast and storing most of our stuff we got in a wooden long boat for a ride up river to some more caves which were on our way to the Pinnacles Hike. Clearwater Cave & Cave of the Winds were nice and the views in, around and out of them amazing. The sky lights in the tops of caves are always my favourite part and pictures don’t do the colors justice but I’ve included one. Clearwater cave is named for the crystal clear river that flows through the 150km of cave passages in this system.

Getting back in the boat for the journey further up river we were told the water was low so be prepared to get out often and help pull the boat up the shallow parts. We all changed shoes.

The river and the caves.

Jungle on the hike in, I love these trees

I’m not sure who knows what the Pinnacles are but maybe I should stop to explain. To be honest I had planned the trip to Mulu to see the bats and James reading about the area found the Pinnacles tour and added it on, anyone surprised he added a 2.4km each way, 10 hour hike half of which is straight UP to the itinerary? So like I said it’s a challenging climb through a forest of razor-sharp limestone peaks clustered 45 meters above the rain forest, that the park describes as a high risk adventure and is rated a 10 on difficulty level, compared to 7 for Mount Kinabalu . It is not for the weak of heart, out of shape or scaredy cats – where clearly I am all three. But I am stubborn enough to do pretty much anything I set my mind to…so I found myself wading in knee deep water pushing a long boat up a river stream to torture myself. (James’ Note: The boatmen pushed, we just had to walk. Susan pretended to help so she could use the boat as support while she walked)

Crossing the river on the hike to camp 5

We got dropped off 8.8 km from Camp 5 where we would be based and, after some smarter people (not me) changed shoes, started the thankfully level and beautiful hike. Ahhhh leeches, my old friends. The group (5 of us, 3 Canadians, 2 Americans) had only known each other for a few short days but once the first leech took hold we got much more comfortable with each other and every 10 minutes or so or if we walked through a wet part, would stop and ask for the almost stranger to take a good look at our back from top to bottom looking for the little buggers. We also encouraged the person directly behind to stare at our butts, legs and feet for the duration of the walk. While you are at it can you look down my shirt at the back? The tiny guys had us all, guys included, a bit creeped out. I had heard that the leader got the most and the one at the back more than the ones in the middle, James took the lead…eeeewwww. The walk took about 3 hours and was beautiful, a nice warm up for tomorrow. (James’ Note: I did not “take” the lead, I was volunteered for it by Susan. The only leech that really got me on the way was on my finger as I was positioning a leaf to take a picture of the leech. It turns out leeches can move surprisingly fast when they want to.)

At camp we did a leech check and I found my first. EKE! It was a small one curled up in my sandal; remember I didn’t change back into shoes? James, always my hero, ran over to get it off and flicked it a bunch of times. I thought he was missing it and was yelping at the pain. Nope, that little bugger was in good. I had felt a funny pinching for about an hour but thought it was my sandals, I’d never walked so long in them while wet. It finally sprang loose and I oozed a bit of blood. Most blood sucking animals have an anti-coagulant they inject while sucking, but I was good, it dried up quite quickly. All in all we had five leeches in total, me one, James 2 (but one was his own fault) and David and Sophie had one each. Not bad I guess.

Camp 5

Camp 5 is a base point for the trek to the pinnacles, a rest spot for people doing the head hunters trail and if you want; just a spot to spend a night or two completely surrounded by jungle, steps from a clear, clean river and completely unplugged. It was basic but beautiful.

Leech free and settled in, we plunked down at a picnic table to play cards. They got dealt, and we even went over the rules but we ended up talking and laughing instead. Again we lucked out and got a great group. Camp 5 supplies nothing but an open air bunk house, some picnic tables and a cooking area so we brought in our food for the three days. Our plan was pasta and sauce, our old standby, and it was a great treat after so many days of junk food and/or rice. During dinner one of the funniest things I have ever witnessed happened. We were all chatting away when a gecko, chubby and brown, fell from the ceiling and landed on David’s fork, which was in his pasta bowl, upright and staring at him. David jumped and sort of yelled, I, beside him, dove under James arm (for protection?) and everyone else kinda froze. (James’ Note: I didn’t freeze, there just wasn’t much to be done about a gecko in someone’s dinner.) When we figured it out we all burst out laughing and the poor little guy ran off. I laughed so hard I cried. David cut that bit out and bravely continued to eat.

After supper we talked with John our guide and decided we’d start at about 6 am. There were time check points and we wanted to make sure we (me) would make them. The check points were for safety, if you didn’t make the check points then you might be descending in the dark which is not advisable. They also figure if you can’t reach the check points in time then you are not fit enough and should turn back, hmmmm…I was a little worried. We finally crawled into bed and tried to sleep despite our fears.

Waiting my turn, James' Note: About 37 seconds into the hike up

July 15

5:50 the alarms started to go off. UGH! As most of you know, I am NOT a morning person and getting up at this god awful hour to hike UP seemed really really silly. “sigh” We had our warm oatmeal and coffee/tea and brushed our teeth….then met up with everyone else and John. I swear it still looked dark out to me. Wasn’t it dangerous to do this in the dark? The first 100m was fairly easy, although John practically skipped through it, and we were making good time. Lol Then the wall! At about 200 m was our first rope part where we had to hang on to the rope and pull ourselves up, toes trying to find grip holes in the wet slimy rocks. It seriously got tough and I was huffing and puffing as I pulled myself up rope parts, climbing on hands and feet over rocks, giant tree roots and eventually pinnacle points. It was one of the most amazing hikes I’ve done. At the check point (9:45 am, 1500 m) also called turn around point, we (me with James patiently following) were averaging 8.5 minutes per 100m (gotta love being married to a math geek) and the guide said that the average was 7-10 minutes but up to 12 minutes is fine. Wow! I amazed myself; I was the slowest but not to the point where I’d be sent back.

Chosing my slimy foot and hand holds

Wait a minute….didn’t I secretly want that? Giggle giggle 1500-1900m were by far the hardest going up. My calves were screaming at me and I felt like my heart was going to explode. I am embarrassingly out of shape! At this point I’d like to ask for advice from my fit friends – any core building exercises I can do, preferable standing up, in the confines of small hotel rooms? I promise to do them every night, and will force James to do them too; he did an awful lot of huffing and puffing too. (James’ Note: All of my huffing and most my puffing can be attributed to the fact that I was carrying all the food and water for both of us along with an excessive amount of camera gear, compared to Susan who was carrying at most a Kleenex in her pocket. It should also be mentioned that in the 2400 m hike, it gains 1200 m of elevation, with every step a choice between wet, slimy and slick tree root or wet, slimy and slick rock).

What waits you on a missed step

About the 2000m mark it got much easier for me, well except I had a few long legged stretches and I think I may have grown a few inches in doing so, when the trail switched to mostly rope climbs and ladders. They were slippery and a bit scary – ya know with the jagged pinnacles waiting for you if you fell – but I’m not really afraid of heights and it didn’t take great endurance. I knew I had made it when Erin, 2 ladders in front of me, let out a happy scream. She was quite vocal but the last dozen or so exclamations sounded like the little voice in my head that was anything but happy. A short walk through dense jungle and the mountain opened up to us. It was cloudy but we could see the outline of the pinnacles. No worries, I thought, we have great luck with weather, and sure enough a few minutes later the clouds cleared revealing a most breath taking sight. I again cannot explain it in words. I’ll send post cards and post pics….it was something I’d never seen before. The pinnacles are formed when water gets into tiny cracks in the limestone and slowly over time erode it away, leaving pointy pinnacles. Over time I guess the mountain will erode until they will no longer be here, or (said with a smile) not be such a hike getting too. We actually had the conversation as to why such an amazing place hasn’t got a gondola yet, in time unfortunately.

Proof that we actually made it to the top.
The pinnacles..the pictures don't do them justice.

Killer Shrew

We sat for lunch, well the other four did. A very bold type of squirrel lived at the top of the mountain and was looking for food. They reminded of chubby rats and I perched on the top “picture pinnacle” eating an apple (that I was supposed to share with James) and shrieking every time one looked at me. Yes, I know, completely irrational, and why am I admitting it? Because if not it will show up in a James note. I took a few peeks at the pinnacle while watching out for the killer squirrels (James Note: adorable fat bottomed shrews…Susan should have felt a kinship) before we headed back down. Now is when it actually got rough.

Reversing down the mountain.

If up was challenging, down was pure hell. Not exaggerating I did 90% of it backwards on hands and feet. Most of us did. How we didn’t get bit by bugs and snakes and creepy crawlers as we grabbed for branches and trees and hand holds is beyond me. We did end up with bruised and scraped knees, elbows, shins, hands; that we all had about a half dozen of, and David got a deep red mark from a bug he likely squished (the guide said). It rained twice going down which only added to the danger. It took about 4 hours to get up and 5 to get down. The last rope part, and a fairly steep one, I was exhausted and, with David as witness, I slipped off the rocks and, still clinging to the rope, bounced face first into them and somehow jammed my left knee while wedging it between two rocks. I was fine but had a nice big goose egg. I was so done, if only I actually was. Again the last 100m were flat and I nearly wept to be walking up right again.

Back at camp we waded into the cold river to soak our sore bits and chug water, except for Sophie who had got down an hour earlier and had already soaked, dried and changed. We giggled and laughed and rehashed the hike. I must admit we were all pretty proud of ourselves.

We made it!

At dinner John sat for a bit and we drilled him with questions, questions I think we didn’t really want answers to the night before. According to him we beat all the odds. According to him 2 in 10 turn back and almost daily they have broken/sprained/hurt ankles and wrists. We were only five and all were fine, well sore, but fine. It was pretty amazing thinking we were the only 6 on the whole mountain today. John says an average day is 5-15 hikers, with groups as large as 20. I am soooo happy we were only five!

James had left for bed first and when I went for my tooth brush he asked me if he felt feverish. He was burning up. We only had aleve so I found some Tylenol and checked with John to make sure it wasn’t a clear sign of a bug bite or something similar. No, he told us. So we all figured it was malaria, well except James who thought we were all nuts. Any bets?

Happy and sore we climbed into our beds and soon were sound asleep.

Pitcher Plant

July 16

We had decided to have a leisurely breakfast and enjoy the peace and quiet of Camp 5 and thought we’d leave around 8 am. At 8:20, still sipping tea/coffee we decided we might be a bit late. At one point James pulled me aside. Remember when I asked you about my fever last night? He asked. Yeah…well I guess he was almost asleep and felt a “splat” on his head and wiped something away, something sticky. Leeches feel sticky. So he sat up and saw it was a leech – that fell from the INSIDE of the bunk house. He, of course took a picture then wondered why it landed on his head inside the bunk house. Leeches are attracted to heat so he felt his big noggin, yep, on fire. He didn’t want to say anything last night, I had a mosquito net but no one else had brought one. Could you have slept with that information? We told everyone what happened and it was a good thing he kept it to himself.

Finally packed and ready to go we had taken about two steps when Erin decided to do one more trip to the bathroom, the thought of leeches on my private bits kept me from peeing in the jungle so it was a good idea, and while she was gone James spotted a cool lizard walking on his hind legs. He followed it off the path and started taking pictures. A second later he was doing this crazy man fling your foot and screech like a girl “take my camera take my camera take my camera take my camera” song. We all stood frozen. David was the first to take action when we figured out it was something wrong with his feet, or maybe James yelled fire ants, and called him over while turning on the foot tap. I tried as hard as I could to get his camera unstrapped form his flailing body. He had been bit about 10 or 20 times on both feet by fire ants. He rinsed his feet while we watched the bites swell up. It looked and sounded painful. For James to react like that it must have been.

James’ Lengthy Note: Susan uses the term “take action” pretty loosely. As helpful as telling me I should rinse my feet is, what I clearly needed was someone to take my camera as I kept mentioning, loudly and repeatedly. They are called fire ants because it feels like you are being burnt each time they bite. They also apparently swarm you a bit, which you can’t feel too much, and then all start biting at once. So as the biting starts and I realize they are even under my foot between my sandal, I really could have used the extra hand to get my shoes undone and the ants off.

The extra leechy hike back

The second attempt at leaving was successful and it was a nice relaxing walk back to the boat. Well except for those nasty leeches. We all got them this time and Sophie got 2 or 3 really bad and bloody ones on her feet and I’m sure she is more than happy that David was brave enough to pull them off. I’m not sure what we would have done if we were all girls, Sophie did not seem at all squeamish, neither did Erin for that matter, and they both were not only freaked out by them but were not touching them if they didn’t have to! Relieved we jumped into the boat for a very quick trip down the river. It is beautiful, green, relatively untouched and I still couldn’t get enough.

At park headquarters, in a surprisingly gentle rain, we checked in for our last night and went to drop our stuff off. James came in behind me and as I turned….yup…more leeches. Sick of them yet? We are. Two or three had somehow gotten into his feet on the boat ride. His poor fire ant bitten feet were dripping with blood from about 3 or 4 spots and, upon closer inspection, still had a stinger in one. He got cleaned up before coming to lunch but they continued to bleed for quite some time.

Typical creepy leech, and what it did to James' feet. Also the little (smaller than a grain of rice) treat it left in his foot, although I guess that's what you get for just ripping them off.

After lunch we decided to go watch the bats one more time but a few minutes later it started to rain. We decided to hold off a bit but it continued to rain for most of the night. No big deal, we sat again and laughed and chatted with our Pinnacle group. We were all a bit sore (I was a lot!) and tired so called it an early night…….I went to bed feeling very satisfied with myself.

Side note: sleeping in a hostel with someone who has a nightmare at 5 am which has him screaming out loud in a foreign language can be a little unnerving. Just saying. (James’ Note: I think we know how to scream “leeches” in german now)

Enjoying our last night in Malaysian Borneo

July 17

I woke a few times to the rustling of people getting up early to go off for hikes but managed to doze until about 8:30 when I woke – stretched – and nearly cried. OMG! I carefully turned my neck; yes even it hurt, to see James reading in bed. He smiled and asked if I was ready for breakfast, only if you carry me. I somehow managed to roll over, I was the last one to get up and I wondered how the others had actually done it. I somehow did and waddled down to breakfast. Thankfully the others were honest and admitted they too were sore.

We had an afternoon flight so we packed up, read, blogged a bit and hung everything to dry. I had hand cleaned some undies the night before even though nothing that had got wet since we got here had even come close to drying (but you have to love my optimism) and hung them in the sun to dry, the rare 15 minutes we had of full sun, along with the very smelly clothes from our hikes. If I an infinite amount of time I’d add a few days to just hang around the park, do a few more hikes and watch the bats again. What a great place for nature lovers!

Finally we caught our cab to the airport and boarded our slightly late half full plane. Taking off we caught one last glimpse of the mountains, partially covered in cloud, and despite the leech & fire ant scars, bumps and bruises and sore muscles…I was sad to go.

Back in Kuching we checked into our hostel where we’d left our extra baggage while we were in Mulu, it was a bit nicer, and more expensive, than the last one but they did free baggage storage and we felt safe leaving it. We asked about getting our hiking clothes washed before the next morning but most places line dry, so we ended up hanging our smelly, damp clothes around our room….then very quickly got out of it. Gross! Gross! Gross! We got a quick bite to eat, had one last stroll along the river front and hung out in the roof top bar of our hostel – it had a great view of the fort and castle across the river.

This is our last night in Malaysia, Borneo. Not including Semporna, but including Brunei….we spent 21 amazing days enjoying Sabah and Sarawak. It was the nature activities – animals, plants, scenery and yes, even birds that were the highlights, but even the cities were small, friendly and enjoyable. Now that I’ve been I can’t believe I hadn’t yet and anyone interested please feel free to email for more information. I’d have to say it would make a great family vacation.

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