Wednesday, 25 November 2015

                          Caving In

The mouth of the cave

Battling the blistering heat, we set out to explore the Gomantong Caves in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo (cave in Malaysian is interestingly “Gua”!). These massive caves, known for their limestone formations, are also situated in orangutan territory. Prior to entering the caves, we are cautioned about the various fauna residing within. Discovered by the Chinese in the 13th century, the caves are best known for the presence of swiftlets and their invaluable nests. The nests are key ingredients in a delicacy, the Chinese Bird Nest Soup. 

There are traditionally two types of swiftlet nests, the less expensive black nest and the more expensive white nest. The tradition of nest collecting has been handed down generations and is said to require great skill and technique, the climbers scaling up to 90m to reach out to the nests! The nests are considered to have superior nutritional values and it is therefore no surprise that this delicacy is one of the most expensive foods across the world. The harvest happens twice a year and the process is overseen by the Wildlife Department.

Swiftlets in the Simud Hitam

Helmetted, at the entrance
Walking to the gua

A walk through a miniature rainforest leads us to the caves. Shrouded by a magnificent canopy of trees, the sunlight barely touching the forest floor, the chirp of the birds perched high up in the trees accompanies us to the gaping mouth of the cave.

A blue and yellow broadbill sits still

The Gomantong Caves consist of the Simud Hitam or “black cave” where the black nests exist and the Simud Putih, or “white caves” where the white nests exist. The Simud Hitam is open to the public and it is suggested that a visitor to the cave is entirely shrouded from head to foot, lest there be a trace of prized bird poop on his person! The entry to the grandiose cave makes us gasp in awe. A grand limestone chamber with brilliant beams of sunlight funneling out in the cave, a small moving mountain of wrinkled-lip bat guano blocking the nearly perfect view, and oh, the indescribable stench of various forms of excreta, beckons us to more wonder within. We venture further inside, along a boardwalk, the “plonk plonk plonk” of dripping water ricocheting off the walls. A crab scuttles by, flexing his pincers, and our guide points to a wondrous looking multi-pede, the giant-like long-legged centipede, known for its venomous bite.

Sun beams cutting through the darkness

Towards the middle of the cave is a huge vacant chamber, open to the skies, more sunlight seeping into the caves. We now arrive at the most exhilarating assault that the cave has to throw at us, the cockroach infested half of the cave. As we sight the dripping water and the skittering sea of roaches, we reach out to the handrails of the boardwalk to prevent ourselves from slipping, the reality hitting us that the glorious blended potion of roach, bat, swift and insect excreta coats the railings as well! As I steady myself to take a picture of the million cockroaches lining the walls and floors of the cave, dreading a potential crunch with every step, a hand reaches out and grabs my wrist, and before I know it, I’m out in the open, breathing pristine pure air, leaving behind the curious mix of prehistoric marvel and utter disgust.