Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Mulu Anecdote

From Claubert & Gildia's Big Journey

Mulu National Park

Our last excursion in Sarawak was to the Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There, we thought the biggest cave system in the world and the climb to unusual limestone formations would provide some relaxation. Alas, the place turned out to be extremely commercialized, and dishonest. More like a funfair where every ride has to be paid for than a natural reserve. It was virtually impossible to get anywhere without a guide.

Around the headquarters, all ways to the show caves were concrete paths with hand-railings. To see the caves, one had to join a tour (for a modest fee). Quite understandable given the many visitors and the need to make sure they don't touch and damage the stalactites and stalagmites. 4 appropriately lighted so-called show-caves could be reached this way. So we complied and followed the flow of tourists in shorts.

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At dawn, like everyone, we watched the swarms of bats snaking out of the deer cave from the viewing sitting area. Other caves could be visited as part of "adventure caving" activities -meaning one might have to crawl at some places and perhaps get a bit wet- for quite exhorbitant fees. We decided to drop this.

Instead, we went for the pinnacles which had to be reached from Camp-5, a 1.5 hours boat trip up river and a 3 hours walk. The headquarters lied to us that their was no path there, and that the expensive boat had to be hired. We later found out the boatmen had demonstrated for the park to send them tourists. The park agreed, and organised the boat bookings taking a commission in the process. As we also had to reserve a place to stay at Camp-5 and book a mandatory guide for the pinnacles, we had no other choice than to comply with "park regulations" and joined a group of 5 to share the costs.

On the way, our guide made his usual speech about wildlife, that unfortunately was not visible at this season because it was not fruit season. But we knew there was no more wildlife in Mulu.

30 years ago, the place was full of animals. Then the park was created, and the area around the park has since been logged. The destruction of the forest deprived the local Penan of their livelihood. As compensation, they were relocated in settlements and allowed to hunt in the park... But the park was to small and hunting quickly eradicated the last surviving big animals. Now, one can only see a few lizards, pigmy squirrels, and maybe, if very lucky, a wild pig. The Penan have been turned into an attraction: they wait uneasily behind the stalls of the "traditional handicraft market" for tourists to buy their wares.

The 3 hours climb up the pinnacles was fun. The path was clearly marked and having a guide proved just a security measure for the park. The last hour was steep: the way had ladders and ropes to help get to the viewing point.

Then, we went back down to Camp-5, and returned the following day to the headquarters to catch a flight back to Miri. At the headquarters, we saw the unusual activity of locals wearing new "orang ulu" hats. The Chief Minister of Sarawak, whose family happens to own the park and the nearby 5-stars resort, paid a visit to the park to inaugurate the canopy walk. We saw him leave in his big offroad jeep, talking in his handphone without taking notice of the locals lined at the side of the road sheepishly waving at him in pseudo-traditional attire.

Later, we heard of an even more disturbing story: the blackout on the Berawan culture in Mulu. In the summer of 1993, they protested against the company operating the park, who took their land without proper compensation not only to build the park headquarters, but also a 5-stars resort with plans for a golf course. The airport, built to bring visitors to the park, also encroaches on their land. The peaceful Berawan blockade was broken by the army, who detained and ill-treated the suspected leaders.

Since then, "Berawan" is a taboo word in Mulu park: the guides feign to ignore the origin of the burial caves near the paths (when not wrongly attributing them to Penan or Kayan), the mention of the Berawan chief who opened the way up the Mulu mountain has been erased from the new brochure, and, worse, Berawan freelance guides bringing their customers are given a hard time by the park management (headed by an Australian couple) who often lie to them that accomodation is full or quotas for the pinnacle have been reached.

Today, we wouldn't bother going back there anymore.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I came across this blog post through RPK Malaysia Today site. I am a Bidayuh but am resident in KL. The time has come for Sarawakians to rise and take over power from the family of "malay pretenders" who has raped Sawawak for sooo long. And sarawak and sabah obediently delivered AAB his so called majority mandate. Sarawakians wake up, why are we Sarawakians sucking up to BN threats and propaganda for so long. Get rid of JABU the yes, ass kisser, and all the so called native leaders who got no balls or whose balls are in Taibs pockets!