Adventure in Sarawak, Malaysia (Part 2/3: Challenging Pinnacles Hike, Mulu)

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The Pinnacles hike overview

(details in website: click here)

The Pinnacles are a group of razor-sharp limestone formations found on Gunung Api (aka. Mount Api). Formed by centuries of water eroding the unique limestone formations in the area, these spikes can reach 40-50metres in height. The view is dramatic and breathtaking.

The Pinnacles, Mulu @2015
The Pinnacles, Mulu @2015

The 3days 2nights hike to view The Pinnacles is one of the most popular hikes of the Mulu National Park. However, it must be cautioned that the hike is extremely challenging and dangerous; with numerous instances of near vertical climb. Children below 16years old are not suitable for the hike and there must be mental preparation that not all hikers will be able to complete the climb.

Cost of hike is RM400. Includes:

  • Long boat ride to/from start point of 9km hike to Camp 5
  • 2-night stay at Camp 5 (basic shelter with cooking and toilets/shower facilities)
    • No meals provided. Hikers need to bring own food for the 3days 2nights.
    • Boiled water is available (free) at Camp 5.
  • Guided hike to view Pinnacles
Long boat ride @2015
Long boat ride @2015

A comprehensive list of the things to bring are listed in the website (link). In addition, since bedding is not provided, I’ll recommend bringing a sleeping bag.

 

Day 1 brief:

From Park HQ, long-boat ride to visit Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave (extra fee for caves). After which the long-boat will travel upstream for 45minutes to drop-off the hikers at the start of the 9km trail to Camp 5. Hikers will self-attempt the 9km hike. Free and easy at Camp 5 thereafter.

6km mark at trail to Camp 5 @2015
6km mark at trail to Camp 5 @2015
Camp 5 @2015
Camp 5 @2015

 

Day 2 brief:

Early morning start to guided hike to view Pinnacles. Expect full day hike.

Overnight at Camp 5.

Typical terrain, climb to view Pinnacles @2015
Typical terrain, climb to view Pinnacles @2015

Day 3 brief:

9km hike back to the pickup point for the long boats.

Long boats fetch hikers back to Park HQ.

End.

 

My Day 1 (getting to Camp 5)

Started the day with a good breakfast at the park’s Cafe. Before leaving the cafe, we bought some packed sandwiches for the day’s lunch.

The night before, we had set aside personal belongings that we do not need on the 3days hike. We stored these items at the luggage store just beside the HQ office.

As instructed, we gathered at the HQ office at 9.15pm to begin our adventure proper. A guide was waiting for us by the time we reach. There was a group of 10+ visitors including SH and myself. It turns out that only 4 of us from the group would be going to Camp 5 while the rest are only doing a cave tour day trip and returning to the HQ thereafter.

The itinerary for the morning would be to take the long boats to a Penan (local tribe) Handicraft Market in Batu Bungan, followed by a trip to the Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave. After the caves, the day trip visitors would take their return boat ride to HQ while the rest of us (on the Pinnacles trip) would be taking the boat further upstream to start our hike to Camp 5.

After the briefing, we were all ushered to the jetty (next to HQ office) where we don our life-jackets before boarding our long boats.

 

View from Batu Bungan @2015
View from Batu Bungan @2015

Penan Handicraft Market

The boat trip to Batu Bungan is short and nothing worth elaborating. Once at Batu Bungan, we were ushered off the boat and brought to the nearby Penan Handicraft Market.

Batu Bungan appears to be another regular Malaysian kampung (aka. village) complete with attap houses with satellite TV receivers; nothing traditional to me.

The small handicraft market consist of a long shed with a few rows of stalls (manned by local ladies) selling some traditional handicrafts which don’t interest me. The entrance to the market does have some write-up boards that explains the history of the tribe, which I found rather interesting.

After 30minutes, we boarded the long boats to continue our journey.

 

Wind Cave

A short distance upstream, we arrived at a small jetty. After climbing a short flight of stairs, we reached the entrance for our first cave; Wind Cave.

Wind Cave, Mulu National Park @2015
Wind Cave, Mulu National Park @2015
Wind Cave, Mulu National Park @2015
Wind Cave, Mulu National Park @2015

Wind Cave got its name as it has a very narrow passage in its system that produces a breeze effect as air moves through the narrow gap. After a short introduction, the guide led us into the cave.

A limestone cave formed over million of years, the views are spectacular. The lighting in the cave brings out its beauty and the silence in the cave adds to its ancient and mysterious feel. Definitely a great photographic opportunity!

Wind Cave, Mulu National Park @2015
Wind Cave, Mulu National Park @2015
Wind Cave, Mulu National Park @2015
Wind Cave, Mulu National Park @2015

Limestone caves being dark and moist in nature, it’s important to watch your steps (the platforms are slippery) and move slowly. Visitors are not allowed to touch the formations as contamination from human contact would damage it.

Wind Cave, Mulu National Park @2015
Wind Cave, Mulu National Park @2015

The tour took ~45minutes. During the tour, the guide stopped at certain sections to explain the sights. At the end of the Wind Cave tour, we arrived at the same entrance which we started off from.

The guide then led us back to the jetty where there’s another wooden pathway leading to Clearwater Cave.

Wooden pathway to Clearwater Cave @2015
Wooden pathway to Clearwater Cave @2015

After walking 5minutes, we came to a picnic area just before the entrance of Clearwater Cave. The picnic area comes complete with picnic benches, shelters, toilets, jetty and even a swimming area, which looks inviting!

Swimming spot at Clearwater Cave entrance @2015
Swimming spot at Clearwater Cave entrance @2015

This picnic area is the place where the group would be given time to relax and have our lunch after our tour of the Clearwater Cave. For now, we’ll have to climb ~200 steps up a cliff to reach the entrance of Clearwater Cave.

 

Clearwater Cave

The Clearwater Cave system is considered the largest interconnected cave system in the world by volume, and the 8th longest cave in the world (as of 2014, source). In fact, Wind Cave is the southern-most entrance of the Clearwater Cave system.

There’s a subterranean river flowing in the cave, which makes it more interesting compared to Wind Cave. However, visitors are not allowed to venture into the river as this is not an adventure caving tour.

Clearwater Cave subterranean river @2015
Clearwater Cave subterranean river @2015

The wooden pathways, stairs and bridges in the cave make it a very enjoyable visit.

Clearwater Cave @2015
Clearwater Cave @2015
Clearwater Cave @2015
Clearwater Cave @2015

The tour of Clearwater Cave took 30minutes, after which the guide led us back to the picnic area.

For those in the group not taking the Pinnacles hike, they will spend their subsequent time having lunch and enjoying a leisure swim in the river.

For those of us who are doing the Pinnacles hike, the guide will leave us at this point. We’ll need to have a quick lunch as the long-boat needs to send us to the start of the hiking trail (to Camp 5) as early as possible. I frown upon the idea of not having the chance to swim in the river.

 

 

Longboat ride to the starting point of 9km trail to Camp 5

The long-boat ride from the picnic area of Clearwater Cave to the starting point of the 9km trail to Camp 5 would take 45minutes.

We were forewarned that for this part of the river (beyond Clearwater Cave), passengers might need to disembark from the long boats at certain sections to help push it as the water level might be too low.

In anticipation of this, the official website goes as far as advising all hikers to wear a pair of covered rubber shoes for the boat ride as the rocks in the riverbed can be slippery and sharp. I took this advice seriously and wore a pair of aqua shoes.

How many times the long-boat will get stuck depends very much on luck, and it seems we’re not about to get much of it today. Just a mere 5minutes after we left Clearwater Cave, we were told by the boat captain to disembark and help push the boat.

Our boat went on to get stuck for a couple more times, including twice when the captain advised us to walk further upstream on the riverside, while he and his helper pushed the boat upstream. My pair of aqua shoes really does come in useful in these situations.

Passengers disembarked from longboat @2015
Passengers disembarked from longboat @2015

After 45minutes of the boat ride and laborious pushing, we finally arrived at the start of the 9km trail to Camp 5.

Start of 9km trail to Camp 5 @2015
Start of 9km trail to Camp 5 @2015

Initially, I was expecting to disembark at a jetty. As it turns out, there was no jetty. The long-boats simply “docked” at the riverside.

There’s a small mud bank by the river (~2metres high), which you have to climb onto to reach the start of the trail (signposted).

 

9km trail to Camp 5

Before starting the hike, we found a dry spot on the ground and change into our dry socks and hiking shoes. It’s not a good idea to be walking 9km, carrying >15kg of backpack in a pair of wet socks/shoes.

Prior to arriving in Mulu, we’ve heard horror stories of leeches in these parts of the national park. As such, I wore a pair of long hiking pants with blousing straps that prevents leeches from climbing up my socks. In addition, I wore a pair of arm sleeves to protect my arms.

I must have looked rather absurd, but the thought of leeches freak me out more.

1km mark of trail to Camp 5 @2015
1km mark of trail to Camp 5 @2015
Typical terrain of trail to Camp 5 @2015
Typical terrain of trail to Camp 5 @2015

The 9km trail to Camp 5 is mostly flat and easy terrain, with 2 suspension bridge and numerous smaller wooden plank bridges along the way.

Rain seems to be a common occurrence during late afternoons in Mulu, as such, be prepared to have waterproof jackets/backpacks and/or raincoat.

 

Tips on leeches:

The 9km trail has 2 suspension bridges. The first suspension bridge (smaller of the 2) is located at the 1km mark. The second and larger suspension bridge is located at the midpoint (~4.5km) of the trail (aka Midpoint bridge).

From my observation, leeches are typically found in the section of the 9km trail between the Midpoint bridge and Camp 5. Meaning that if you’re walking to Camp 5, the leeches are only found after you’ve crossed the Midpoint bridge.

The reason seems to be that the forest between Midpoint bridge and Camp 5 is mainly of muddy grounds, which leeches tend to breed.

Midpoint suspension bridge @2015
Midpoint suspension bridge @2015
Midpoint suspension bridge @2015
Midpoint suspension bridge @2015

Most hikers take 2-3hours to complete the trail. However, SH and I took 3.5hours due to our slow pace. By the time we reach Camp 5, it was close to 5 pm and we seemed to be the last of all hikers to reach.

 

Arrival at Camp 5 @2015
Arrival at Camp 5 @2015

Camp 5

Camp 5 is a basic forest shelter. It has a number of basic dorms (only sleeping mats; no bedding), dinning area, equipped kitchen and shower/toilet (obviously no water heater). Swimming is possible in the river in front of the camp, though I did not have the chance to give it a try.

Mosquito nets are available for rental at RM10 per piece per night.

Interestingly, there is canned drinks and beer available for sale in the kitchen. These are non-chilled (there’s no fridge) and the prices are double of what you’ll pay at the park HQ.

View around Camp 5 @2015
View around Camp 5 @2015
Camp 5, dinning area @2015
Camp 5, dinning area @2015

Once we reach Camp 5, our Pinnacle guide was already waiting for us. We were told to take a rest and prepare our dinner, after which there would be a briefing later in the night. SH and I promptly proceed to rest.

It was only at this point that I realized I had fallen victim to 2 fat leeches on my right hand. After frantically removing them via rubbing them against wooden pillars of the shelter, I realized that the bleeding would not stop.

Leeches inject anticoagulants into their prey so that the blood flow doesn’t stop. As such, even after forcibly removing the pests, my bleeding continued. It is a rather disturbing sight to see blood flowing non-stop from the wound. The flow only stopped after an hour, much to my relieve.

After dinner, we proceed for the briefing. The guide informed us the start time for the next day (6 am) and what to expect for the climb.

 

Pinnacle climbing guide @2015
Pinnacle climbing guide @2015

Climb Overview/notes

  • Leave camp at 6 am. Easy walk for the first 200m. The climb will start to become difficult soon after.
  • 1hr after leaving camp: Reach Mini Pinnacles (altitude 400m)
  • 1hr 45min after leaving camp: Reach halfway point. Place 1 full water bottle here for the return trip. (altitude 600m)
  • 3.5hrs after leaving camp: Reach the first of 16 ladders (altitude 1km). 1hr more to reach viewing area.
  • Once at viewing area (altitude 1.2km), rest for 30-45mins (inclusive of lunch). After which return descend via the same route.
  • Shoes with flexible rubber soles are most desirable as the terrain is full of sharp and slippery rocks. The flexible soles allow the wearer’s feet to better grip the sharp edges of the rocks.
  • Minimum 2 bottles of 1.5 liters of water are required. Bring energy bars or other food as required.

After the briefing, we proceed to call it a day.

 

My Day 2 (actual climb)

Day 2 started off early at 5 am. We had a simple breakfast before gathering in front of the camp at 6 am. By the time we left, it was 6.15am and bright enough to walk through the forest without having to use a torchlight.

 

6.15am

The first 200m was easy on flat terrain. However within 5 minutes, we were walking uphill.

The first real challenge came after just 10 minutes; we came to a near vertical rock wall and had to pull ourselves up using ropes anchored into the wall. This would be the only vertical rock wall we have to overcome until we reach the ladders (at altitude 1km).

After the rock wall, the rest of the terrain is constant ~30-45degree climbs. It is “hands and feet” climbing most of the way, for the next 2-3 hours!

The Pinnacle climb @2015
The Pinnacle climb @2015

The initial climb was very demanding. I was sweating and panting so much within the first 30 minutes I seriously doubt if I would be able to continue much longer. The devil in me starts to question what have I gotten myself into!

Luckily, it turns out that as we climb higher, the panting reduced and the climbing was slightly more tolerable. The guide commented that as we climbed higher, there’s more fresh air circulation which helps to reduce the panting and make the ascent easier.

 

~7.15am

After an hour, we finally reach the first major checkpoint of the climb; the Mini Pinnacles (altitude 400m). There was no time for much rest, we were already behind time.

At this stage, I was already amongst the slowest hiker in my group, and we’re only a quarter of the way!

Mini Pinnacles @2015
Mini Pinnacles @2015

The climb to reach the halfway point (altitude 600m) would take another torturous hour from the Mini Pinnacles.

 

~8.15am

Once at the halfway point, we had a short rest and everyone left a full water bottle (1.5litres) here for the return journey. The climb to the next milestone (the ladders) would be another agonizing hour.

 

~9.30am

Finally reached the first of the 16 ladders at 9.30am. The first ladder though near vertical, seemed easy to climb. However, the subsequent ladders would prove to be more challenging and the path between the ladders would take a bit of acrobatic skill to overcome.

I noted that there was no harness or other safety features for the climb. If one loses his/her concentration and slips, it would be a plunge down to the bottom of the particular ladder. The dangers didn’t set into me during the climb, but thinking back, it is clear that the climb definitely has a strong element of danger. Little wonder that the park website makes it known clearly that this climb is not suitable for children below age 16.

Reach first ladder at 9.30am @2015
Reach the first ladder at 9.30am @2015
First of the 16 ladders @2015
First of the 16 ladders @2015
~10.30am

I was fortunate to be able to ascent all 16 ladders in 1 hour and reach the viewing area at ~10.30am. What relieve!

The guide informed me that I have ~45minutes to rest and have my lunch. Having tortured myself for 4hours to reach the viewing area, lunch is the last thing on my mind; priority is to snap some photos before the clouds fog up the magnificent view.

Situated directly in front of the viewing area (which essentially is just a small open patch of rocks) is The Pinnacles. It is approximately 200-300metres in front of the viewing area, on the opposite side of the mountain. The view is impressive while the silence of the mountain and the slow-moving clouds add another mysterious dimension to the imposing landscape.

After happily snapping away for ~15minutes, I settled down for my lunch and much-needed rest.

 

The Pinnacles, Mulu @2015
The Pinnacles, Mulu @2015

 

The Pinnacles, Mulu @2015
The Pinnacles, Mulu @2015
The Pinnacles, Mulu @2015
The Pinnacles, Mulu @2015
~11.30am

By the time I started the descend, it was ~11.30am. I would later understand from the guides that it’s considered late to start descending at 11.30am as the descend was considered more time-consuming than the ascend.

I was pleasantly surprised to complete descending the 16 ladders in 1hour. However, barely 1hour after leaving the ladders, it started to sink in that I’m in for really rough descend.

It was really tough negotiating the sharp and slippery rocks on the trail; every step that I take have to be carefully assessed and it didn’t help that I’m a rather clumsy person. I was slipping and falling over so often that at some point, I wondered if I’ll actually arrive back in Camp in one piece!

To make matters worse, it started raining in the last quarter of the descend. Moving on sharp and slippery rocks in dry weather is bad, imagine doing it in the rain.

 

 

Back at Camp 5 (~6 pm)

By the time I reached Camp 5, it’s already 6 pm and the sky was starting to turn dark. I was the second last hiker to reach camp; most of the other hikers returned at ~3 pm. I was extremely relieved to reach camp before darkness and without much mishap; though the multiple bruises on my legs and back are the testimony of the “treacherous” hike.

After a brief rest and thorough shower, it was back to preparation for dinner before retiring early for the night.

 

 

Day 3 (return to Park HQ)

Day 3 was a much-relaxed affair.

After having breakfast and packing up, it’s the return hike of 9km back to the spot where the long-boats dropped us off 2 days earlier. The agreement with the boat captain was to meet 11 am at the same spot.

Having rained heavily the previous night, the river swelled and we’re lucky to have the return boat trip without having the boat stuck in the river.

Once back in Park HQ, we were in “recovery mode”; washing all the soiled clothing/equipment and lazing around for the rest of the day.

 

Return to Kuching

The next morning was spent packing up and lazing around till our flight in the early afternoon.

For transfer back to the Mulu airport, we approached one of the restaurants outside the main entrance of the Park. The rates were again RM5 per pax for the 2minutes return trip to the airport.

 

 

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Travel Blogger

Someone with a passion for travelling. I love travelling for the experiences and adventures it presents. It gives me the peace, freedom and excitement that few other activities could offer. Balukoo Travel Blog is started to chronicle all the travel experiences/tips that I had gathered. Hope that it will inspire our readers to explore the world. It's a beautiful world out there!