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The Pinnacles at Mulu National Park

Wayne Tarman Offers A Brief Run Down On The Pinnacles Summit Trek

© Wayne Tarman
The Pinnacles at Mulu National Park are a collection of 45 metre high, limestone needles that cling to the side of Gunung Api (Fire Mountain). They form a forest of silver-grey stone encircled by thick green vegetation. A trekking trail leads to a small viewpoint overlooking the Pinnacles and the 'Pinnacles Summit Trek' is one of most popular treks in the park. The view of the Pinnacles is truly spectacular and a just reward for those who opt for what is a tough and challenging mountain climb.

Gunung Api was only conquered in 1978 which gives an indication of how tough the climb is. The first group to scale Gunung Api had to deal with the combination of steep gradients and thick, almost impenetrable jungle vegetation. They also had to deal with the heat and humidity of the Borneo jungle. To top it all the expedition members had to carry enough drinking water for the whole trip as there are limited sources of water on Api. Thankfully, these pioneers hacked a path out of the jungle and found a way up. Today's trekkers follows the route discovered by these pioneers, just 20 years ago.

The trek requires a reasonable level of fitness as parts of the trail are very steep. It is usually done as 3 day/2 night trip although it is possible to opt for a 2 day/1 night trip if you are in good physical condition. The first leg of the journey - a pleasant 1-2 hour boat ride along the Melinau River from the Park HQ to Kuala Berar - is followed by a 7.8 kilometre jungle trek to Camp 5. This trek is fairly easy as the terrain is flat and the trail well worn. Most people manage it in 2-3 hours, slightly more if they stop to admire the rainforest scenery. Camp 5 serves as a base camp for the following days hike to the Pinnacles.

Camp 5 used to offer very basic facilities but in the middle of 1997 the National Parks Department opened a new hostel block complete with washroom and kitchen facilities. The camp is situated on the banks of the Melinau River and after the trek from Long Berar there is really only one thing to do - go for a swim in the crystal clear waters. The river is fast flowing, especially in mid stream. If you prefer to take it easy and have a sedate paddle then head for the dip pools close to the bank, just upriver from the camp area.

The first day's journey to Camp 5 serves as a warm up. The serious hiking starts the following morning. You can fix your departure time with your guide. Some people opt to leave before sunrise whilst others take it easy and leave at 7 or 8 am or even later. The general rule of hiking and hill climbing in Asia applies - the earlier you leave the better. That why you are able to make good progress when the temperature is relatively low and the humidity is still at a bearable level.

I set off with my guide just before 5 am after a quick breakfast of coffee, toast and eggs. It was still dark so torches were essentially for the first 45 minutes or so before the sun started to slowly emerge. The trail from Camp 5 to the viewpoint is 2.4 kilometres long but rises some 1,200 metres. The first section passes through lowland dipterocarp and is a piece of cake compared to what lies ahead. The trees get thinner and thinner the higher you go as the thin soil can only support pole-like trees rather than the thick jungle vegetation of the lower slopes. The trail itself is littered with limestone debris - stones, rocks and even chunks of pointed stone that look like mini-pinnacles. This takes its toil on your feet. Thick-soled walking boots are essential.

At an elevation of approximately 800 metres the trail climbs steeply and you enter the slippery green world of the moss forest. Damp green moss covers everything - plants, trees and rocks. This is where the trail gets tough. It is near vertical in parts and you have to make use of rope sections and use a series of aluminium ladders to haul your way up. At the side of the trail, tucked away in nooks and crannies and hanging from branches, insectivorous pitcher plants thrive in this eerie green and damp world. Orchids and rhododendrons are also found at the higher elevations and may be seen by lucky trekkers if they don't have their heads down and mind focused on the climb.

When you finally reach the viewpoint, a small rocky outcrop comprising a number of pinnacles, boulders and sparse vegetation, your effort is rewarded by a spectacular view of the Pinnacles. The sloped section of Gunung Api which has been eroded by the elements giving rise to a forest of silver-grey stone, is situated just metres away. If you reach the top before 8 or 9 am your generally have a totally clear view of the Pinnacles. After that wispy clouds appear and sweep in and out, briefly obscuring then revealing the view.

The time it takes to reach the viewpoint depends on your level of physical fitness. Some of the park guides can complete the climb in less than one and half hours. If you are fit you should be able to get to the top in 2-3 hours. Determined but less experienced trekkers of average fitness generally take 4-5 hours. Most people spend an hour or so at the top, taking photos, resting and having a bite to eat before beginning the descent. The descent may take slightly longer than the climb. As a rough guide the return trip should take 5 hours or so if you're fit and between 6 and 10 hours if you're not in shape. Its worth noting that a sizeable number of people actually don't make it to the top.

As for me, I took two hours and 15 minutes to reach top. As I started at 5 am it was not too hot and this enabled me to make steady progress. I also wanted to reach the top before the clouds and mist sweep in. Like many people, I found the descent more difficult than the ascent. For a start it was starting to get hot and humid and I seemed to get tired very quickly. I also frequently lost my grip on the limestone debris. It took me two and half hours to come down but I think I over did it. By the time I reached the bottom I had 'rubber legs' and was beginning to lose by balance and bounce all over the place. My muscles ached for the whole of the next week. A minor trade off for the pleasure and sense of achievement that I felt whilst peering down at the famous Pinnacles of Mulu National Park.

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