By Karen Bong
FEELING anxious, we carefully stepped into the knee-deep river with crystal clear cold water and trekked our way to the cave entrance. At this hour when twilight gives way to nightfall, the unseen crickets began their chirping serenades as frogs hidden along the banks joined in with deep croaks.
Equipped with headlights, we climbed into the canoe and began the journey into absolute darkness. It was pitch dark inside that we could barely see a thing. As we moved forward and deeper into the water-filled cave, the eerie silence and unusual emptiness engulfed us.
All we could hear were the serene lullaby of water cradling our ride, swiftlets and bats chirping in the distance upon sensing our presence and perhaps our own breathing keeping pace with our heartbeat.
Nervous but thrilled with eyes wide open, we caught glimpses of the mysterious beauty of the limestone formation and caverns as we paddled slowly, gently and carefully maybe through 500 metres to one kilometre in pitch darkness with only the brilliance of our headlights to show the way.
The water was incredibly clear, making it easy to see marine life including fish streaking through the water, but it was difficult to tell how deep it ran. At one point in the journey underground, we had to bend almost double to make it past low hanging rocks.
It was quite a welcome to the lower Turtle Cave of Gunung Buda.
Located in Ulu Medalam in the Limbang Division of Sarawak, Gunung Buda was gazetted in 2001 as a national park sprawling over 6,235 hectares, encompassing the Mulu Formation and the Gunung Buda limestone massif, which is part of the Melinau Limestone Formation.
The name Gunung Buda, which means “white mountain” in the Penan language, refers to the striking white cliffs and pearl-coloured pinnacle karst which rises 963 metres above the dense jungle floor and stands directly north of Gunung Mulu National Park.
This outstanding region of lowland tropical rainforest has a surprisingly large number of fantastic caves including the longest and deepest caves in Southeast Asia.
Gunung Buda is well known to cavers and cave scientists from as far as the United Kingdom and the United States, with various teams making several expeditions between 1978 and 2000 to explore, investigate, survey, map, photograph and research the area.
Collectively, more than 22 caves including the underwater Turtle Cave were discovered during these expeditions which surveyed and mapped out more than 60 kilometres of cave passages beneath Gunung Buda.
According to American cavers, the rainforests of Gunung Buda and nearby Mulu hosts a rich diversity of life including at least 300 species of birds, numerous primates, more than 2,500 species of trees, 60 species of snakes and numerous other lifeforms.
The landscape comprise a variety of forest types including limestone forest, lowland dipterocarp forest, heath forest (kerangas) and upland dipterocarp forest.
An adventure to Gunung Buda
This outback adventure will take you far beyond the beaten path into the rugged and lesser-known territory of Sarawak because Gunung Buda is yet to be opened to the public, visitors or travelers.
This is a perfect trip to escape from the bustling crowds and the glare of city lights, giving you a great chance to digitally disconnect as there is no telecom network access in the area, and also to unwind amongst nature and the wilderness as you sleep out under the stars in the clear night sky.
In order to visit the mountain and caves, which are being developed into an iconic tourist destination, it is best to engage a local professional guide with vast experience and knowledge of the dense forest and unmarked jungle trails to show you the way.
Licensed and experienced tour guide Larry Siga, who is of Tabun ethnicity, guided the D-Drift Team on this two-day-one-night trip in early July.
The trail to the underwater Turtle Cave, one of the more accessible among the 22 caves beneath Gunung Buda, is a straight forward trek for nine kilometres, taking roughly three to four hours depending on one’s pace.
It is not a walk in the park but it is not as physically demanding as hiking or mountain climbing. All you need to enjoy and conquer this trek is basic fitness, a light day pack, ‘Adidas kampung’ and determination as park guide and porters will carry the heavy essentials like food and water as well as the inflatable kayak.
The route, which includes significant changes in terrain, involves a steep descent, crossing the Adpa Assam (‘Adpa’ means ‘river’ in the Tabun language) on a fallen log bridge, as well as some muddy trails.
The starting point of the Sungai Assam trail is about 90km from Limbang town and takes about three hours to reach by four-wheel-drive with a stop at the Kuala Medalam Longhouse Homestay.
The leisurely 50km drive from Limbang town to the homestay initially winds through decent rural roads, passing Batu Danau before the ride gets a little bumpy over fairly rough and unkept gravel and rocky roads on the rugged Medamit terrain.
To get to the starting point from the homestay requires another 38km ride over unpaved dirt roads on mountainous terrain that adds to the time of the trip.
But along the way, the outskirts offer glimpses of the remote beauty of vast greenery, plantations, farmland, small villages, mountain ranges, murky rivers and cultural heritage which have left their fingerprints over the land.
Arriving at the trailhead, we had our packed lunch prepared by Larry and then checked our gear before hitting the trail which starts with a steep descent deep into the jungle.
We traversed the thick foliage of an almost virgin jungle boasting a wide biodiversity of vegetation with few obstacles to reach the base camp site. Trees with dense, wide spreading branches formed canopies that provided cooling shade and protected us from the sunlight and rain.
Along the way, we spotted countless priceless Belian (iron wood) trees standing proud with their majestic slender trunks tall, straight and strong, on this mountain.
According to Larry, they have been spared from logging for almost 30 years as Belian is a protected species and loggers need a special licence to harvest them.
There’s always something to catch the eye — insects, bugs and crawlies with some foreign to and bigger in size compared to those found in cities, wildlife like wild boars, wild fruits and flowers, delicate mushrooms, and colourful bits of moss and groundcover. Every spot on the trail had its own beauty, and all one needs to do is just slow down enough to take it all in.
Oh, beware of the leeches though especially on the muddy trail and damp vegetation. There is no way to avoid them completely as the creepy little bloodsuckers can work their way through socks so it will be worth it to get leech-safe socks or alternatively use football socks.
After about two hours or so, we arrived at our base camp a.k.a jungle hotel where we spent the night sleeping on hammock-style beds made of flour sacks under a wood-frame canopy pitched among tall trees.
We sat for a quick bite to regain some strength, left our bags and only took along the necessities like bottled waters and headlights before we continued trekking for another hour to get to the lower Turtle Cave.
Upon reaching, two guide assistants quickly worked to inflate the 14kg canoe with an air pump which took some 30 minutes and while they were at it, some of us took a dip in the small stream to cool off.
It was already dark when the canoe was ready. Divided into two teams, we took turns to explore the underwater lower Turtle Cave. We spent a good 30 minutes inside to see as much as we could while fighting our nyctophobia (fear of darkness).
There is also the upper Turtle Cave, which is reachable and was definitely worth exploring but we did not have the luxury of time as nightfall set in, making any attempt to its entrance, which was 15 feet above the floor, almost futile.
After everything was set and packed, we moved with speed and no longer bothered with leeches or other jungle dangers, to return to the base camp where dinner cooked in bamboo was ready and served.
After a long day trekking with all that sweat and dirt, there was nothing more delightful than a bath in the river, even if it was cold, to soothe our souls and tired muscles before snuggling in bed and finding rest as nature lulled us to sleep with its lullaby. — DayakDaily
The first of a two-part series on Gunung Buda. Read Part 2 here: https://dayakdaily.com/gunung-buda-sacred-ground-of-the-tabun-part-2/