Day 4 in Mulu: Clearwater and the Penan tribe

Clearwater cave system is one of the longest of the world, measuring around 220Km with many still unexplored. Reaching and entering the cave is already an adventure and we knew we could not miss it when traveled to Mulu, in Borneo. Clearwater cave system is totally crossed by the Sungai Melinau river, a very mighty river more than 10 metres wide inside the cave.

Sungai Melinau river. Towards Clearwater!

Before reaching the caves by boat, we stopped at the Penan tribe village where we could learn about their way of living and also buy some handycrafts directly to them. They still live in longhouses. A longhouse is a community house, usually very long, where all or most of the tribe lives. There is only one kitchen for all, one bathroom, and all the tribe sleeps in the same area. Tens of people can live at the same time in a longhouse. In this village on the shore of the river some longhouses were as long as a football field.

Penan child playing with a small boat

The Penan were a nomad tribe till very late, but in modern times, the government has forced them to live in bigger communities to make them have access to public school, tap water and other public services. What, from our perspective, should be all benefits for the Penan, have made them a sad tribe. They are not happy about this because, in fact, their ancestral knowledge of the jungle allowed them to have better food, water and resources. The children are learning maths and English but loosing the knowledge about the jungle, the medical properties of every plant, the characteristics of every different wood, etc.

Longhouses in the Penan tribe

The risks they are facing are similar to those we found when visited the Himba tribe in Namibia. When being part of the modern world and getting the “benefits” of the globalization, they also loose their past and knowledge. As explained in previous posts about Mulu, there is probably no better reading than the book “Finding Eden, an elegy and a testimony of the folly of greed“, written by the adventurer and explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison, in order to understand Mulu and the Penan.

Dídac playing with a blowgun

In this book, a part from explaining the different exploring expeditions through Mulu leaded by Robin, it is also explained the beginning of this forced contact between the peaceful Penan and the modern society: the Malaysian government and big logging corporations that want to extract the wood from Penan forests. The friendship between Robin and Nyapun, a nomad Penan guy, shows how the world has developed in such a remote place of the planet Earth.

Humble Penan houses

As a final comment about the Penan tribe and this incredible book that accompanied us throughout all the travel through the island of Borneo, I copy what Wade Davis, an explorer-in-residence of National Geographic, summarized:

Throughout the traditional homeland of the Penan, one of the most extraordinary nomadic cultures in the world, a unique way of life has been assaulted in a single generation. In this elegant memoire Robin-Hanbury-Tenison reveals the world of the Penan… It is at once an elegy and a testimony to the folly of greed, and a reminder of just what is at stake in the struggle to protect the remaining tropical rainforests of the world.

Lady cave entrance

Before reaching Clearwater we stopped in two smaller caves: the Wind cave and the Lady cave. The first one has spectacular stalagmites and stalactites and also ceiling holes that allows the cave to create strong wind currents through the different corridors. The second one has an incredible worm-tube like entrance and a fantastic viewpoint to a massive cavern within the cave. From that viewpoint you can spot a small hole and a rope hanging from it which connects the Lady cave with the Clearwater cave, our next stop.

Clearwater main entrance

Clearwater entrance is massive and home of some unique and protected plants that only grow here. After descending many metres and when the sun light was already no visible, we reached the lowest part of the cave where a bridge crosses from one side of the river to the other. There is where I took the photo at the top of this post. The water has created beautiful rounded erosion features on the walls of the cave, which are slightly iluminated.

Where the river comes out of the cave

In Clearwater you can do many adventure activities, some lasting several hours, body-rafting inside the cave, climbing, … but also just walking through the wooden platforms. There are plenty of ways of enjoying this place. Once outside you can see the point where the river leaves the cave and reaches the surface. In the above photo, can you see the dark water just below the trees? My finger is pointing to that. That is a big hole where the cold water comes from the bottom.

Swimming towards the birth of the Sungai river

I could not wait to jump into the water and swim towards the birth of Sungai Melinau river. It was again a fantastic experience to swim alone in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by small fish and feeling the cold waters coming from the Clearwater cave.

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