“ The Gomantong Caves in north eastern Borneo. „
When I read that awful book I reviewed on here a while back called 'Bumbling Through Borneo' one of the places the 'hero' visited was the 'Gomantang Caves . I knew that this was on our list of things we were going to do when we were in Sabah so I was interested to read about it in there. It was nothing like his description.
The Gomantang caves are part of a limestone outcrop in the district of Kinabatangan, about 1½ hour overland drive from Sandakan, or 30 minutes from Sukau.. It is the largest cave and the most important source of the prized Chinese edible birds' nest in Sabah. It is also described as "the best managed edible birds' nest cave in the world" by World Wildlife Fund, WWF.
These caves are #10 on the list of Lonely Planet Magazine's best-kept travel secrets and was one of the many places visited by Simon Reeve when he presented of 'Explore' or the 'Tropic of Capricorn' documentary programme.
Cave Opening hours:
Mon - Thu 8:00 am - 12:30 pm 2:00 pm - 4:30 pm
Sat - Sun 8:00 am - 12:30 pm 2:00 pm - 4:30 pm
Fri 8:00 am - 11:30 am 2:00 pm - 4:30 pm
Our visit took place one afternoon while we were staying at the Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge in Sukau. I was more than a little apprehensive as our guide had told us to wear good sturdy walking boots and long sleeved shirts as well as long trousers. We were also told to bring plenty of water as it was a bit of a walk to the caves from the carpark. He then greeted us with 'Bob the Builder' style hard hats to wear as well.
We drove to the caves in a four wheel drive and it was around a half an hour's drive away. We were the only car in the car park and so we got out and organised ourselves with water and other necessary equipment. We were told that if we wanted to take photos in the cave we would have to pay a camera fee so we only took the SLR as my point and shoot would be useless anyway.
So kitted up in our gear and boiling hot we set off along the wooden walkway towards the caves. On the way we passed through jungle type vegetation with some very old trees and our guide told us that sometimes the macaques walk along the walkway and block our path but we didn't see any on the day we went. The caves are part of a totally protected forest reserve covering a huge 3,297 hectares. This reserve area is home to a wide variety of birds, including serpent eagles, kingfishers, bluebirds and leafbirds. It is also possible to spot orang- utans, hornbills and the red leaf monkeys and butterflies. W. were really lucky and did manage to see two read leaf monkeys which look a little like small orang- utans.
After passing through the jungle are we came to a very small group of houses and this is where the guards of the cave live and all the bird nesting equipment is stored. Huge long ladders and lengths of rope all needed to scale up to collect the famous bird's nests needed for 'Bird Nest Soup' the Chinese delicacy.
The actual Gomantang Caves are a huge rock cathedral-sized refuge for thousands of swifts and bats. There is a wooden boardwalk s around the sides of the Simud Htam Cave main chamber. This sounds very simple really uou just walk along a board walk around a large cave. Well let me tell you it was far from simple and not exactly a pleasant experience. The cave is packed with birds and bats and these poo everywhere. The board walk is slippery with water and bird and bat poo. The handrails are covered in it too and the board walk is not flat either. You have to walk with extreme care to avoid ending up on your bum in the bird yuk. I did hold the yukky handrail a few times as I thought rather a dirty hand than the embarrassment of landing on my back in all the sh...t. The smell was indescribable, it absolutely stank. If you have ever visted a chicken farm then that is the same sort of smell. To make it even more fun after the first few yards it is also dark so you are trying to hold a torch, trying to stay upright and also listen intently to what the guide was telling you about the bird's nest harvesting.
If you dare to take your eyes off the board walk and look up to the walls of the cave you can see the birds' nest on the cave's walls and roof. There were a few places were the cave roof was open to the sky and that let in a fair bit of light so that this was where we stopped to look around at the bird's nests.
Amazingly there were two or three wooden constructions with tents inside them and people actuallylived there. These guards were paid to protect the caves from nest thieves and lived inside the cave throughout the year. Apparently David Attenborough also stayed the night in the cave whilst shooting film for one of the documentaries he made.
The board walk going around the cave was built over the mountains of guano in the cave. No kidding there were mountains of the stuff. I asked whether they exported this for fertilser but apparently it is left undisturbed as nature balance itself and the caves are protected as they are. Our guide left the board walk and stood on the mountain of bird and bat droppings and invited us to join him but I found the board walk disgusting enough and declined.
As we walked along the board walk in the darkness you could hear a crunching sound with each step. When you looked down you could see the board walk was alive with cockroaches and other crawling beasties. At times when I held the handrail my hand felt a creepy crawly too.
Harvesting of Birds' Nest
The harvesting of the bird's nests takes place only twice a year and only by licensed collectors . This is regulated by the Department of Wildlife to ensure that swiftlets are given enough time to make new nests, lay their eggs and hatch them. The harvest times are between February and April and then again in July to September. This harvesting has been going on for centuries and they are sold in trade with China
Harvesting is a very dangerous operation. The harvesters use ladders made of bamboo, ropes and very long specially designed poles. We were not told how many of these people are killed in the process but health and safety would have a fit.
The Birds' Nests
The Gomantong cave is divided into 2 sections, which is known as Simud Hitam Cave and Simud Putih Cave, and several smaller caves. The different caves have different types of nests, black nests and white nests. The white ones are the highly valuable and more prized ones. The cave visitors are allowed in is where the less valuable "black nests" are gathered. This cave is regarded as more easily accessible , the ceiling is 90 metres high so I am quite sure I would not be climbing up a bamboo ladder 90 metres above wooden board walks and a huge pile of bird poo. The more valuable "white nests" which are apparently made from pure bird's saliva, are found in the less accessible Simud Puteh Cave where visitors are not invited and these are harvested only in February.
The reason people go to these amazing lengths to harvest and guard these nests is that the best quality "white nests" are so highly prized such that it can fetch up to US$4000 per kilogram, while the "black nests" can fetch around US$2000 per kilogram after the nest are cleaned .
Would I recommend a visit?
Well it was certainly a very different experience and I couldn't wait to wash my hands when we came out. Luckily there was a toilet in the car park. We were also lucky in that no one else was in the cave when we were there. I can imagine if you are in a large group the board walk could get very slippery and you would have to go at the pace of the slowest person. There were steps to climbwhich were also wooden and covered in sh...t and cockroaches and this is when I decided to hold the hand rail and I really didn't want to fall in all that gunk.
The smell was foul, and our visit of about 15 to 20 minutes was quite long enough. I can't say it was entirely enjoyable and the caves are not attractive in any way. It is however a unique natural habitat and I am very pleased to have seen it as until you have actually walked around and smelled the smell you really cannot comprehend how powerfully awful it was. I really salute David Attenborough and his crew for staying a whole night in there filming. I couldn't have stood it.
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