The next leg of our Borneo adventure took us to some caves; these though were no ordinary run of the mill caves and we were in for a rather unusual experience that would give all of our senses an extreme workout. The caves were the Gomantong Caves.
It takes about an hour from the river lodge to get to the caves, and on the way John, Jane and I were in persuasion overload trying to get both the reluctant Di and Dom to enter the cave. They both flatly refused as they had heard simply too many horror stories – unfortunately all these stories turned out to be true, if not worse!
We arrived at the Gomantong Caves and, after paying the 30 ringgit entry fee and 30 ringgit camera fee, John, Jane and I donned our protective, Bob the Builder Hats, and set off for the caves which was about a 15 minute walk on a wooden walkway through the jungle. The area is an animal reserve and Jonathon stated we could also see orangutans here.
You know you are getting close to the caves when you get your first whiff of the overpowering stench coming from the caves. The truly sad news is – that stench gets worse – a lot @#$$#$#@ worse!!!!!!
As we rounded the bend and got our first glimpse of the cave opening we saw another tourist pointing at the jungle next to the cave and there, in all its glory, was a male orangutan standing on the limb of a tree. The orangutan stood there for ages and he looked just like a big hairy man.
We now had to enter the cave. How can I put this into a context you will understand? I was in the police and smelt some pretty disgusting corpses, I attended some houses that smelt repulsive and on my travels in India and such places some pretty hideous smells were experienced – well on entering the cave I think I found the most repugnant and worst smell of all!!!!!
So why were we there?
The cave is home to a colony of Swiftlet birds.
These birds can navigate in total darkness and they nest in caves. They roost and breed at night – the nests are built entirely from threads of their saliva, which harden when exposed to air. These nests are harvested, you guessed it, for sale in China as the famous delicacy ‘bird’s nest soup’ – Chinese eat everything. The Chinese also believe the birds’ nests have medicinal powers of healing and well-being. There are two types of nest; the white nest and the black nest. The white nest is the best and most sought after, which is found at Gomantong Cave, sells for US$4000 per kilo. The poorer quality black nest, also found at Gomantong Cave, sells for ‘only’ US$1000 per kilo, yep big business.
It is not the Swiftlets that stink though, it is of course the tens of thousands (no exaggeration here) of bats, and their crap, that call the caves home that stinks.
You enter the cave on a wooden walkway, holding your nose of course and trying so hard not to gag. The smell gets, not only into your nose, but also your mouth – you taste its vileness. The cavern is massive and that alone is a spectacle to see, the sun shines through openings in the cave ceiling giving an almost biblical feel to the moment.
Once you force your legs to walk deeper into the cave you commence an uphill section of the walkway, your first thought is to grab the handrail, DON’T!!!!!!! The handrail is alive with movement as cockroaches scurry about and of course the handrail is full of bat crap.
You soon realise it not only the handrail that is moving, the mound in the middle of the cave, the walls next to you, the walkway you are standing on, is alive with millions of cockroaches. As you walk you realise what that crunching sound is.
The walkway is slippery from the bat guano and the squashed cockroaches so take care walking and DON’T grab the handrail!!!!!
The walkway weaves around the cavern and exits on the other side of the cave where you entered. In the middle of this walkway, is a huge mound, the mound is Guano (bat crap) and there are cockroaches feeding on the bat crap. The bats then feed on the cockroaches and crap more bat crap, which is then fed on by more cockroaches, who are eaten by the bats ……………, the wonderful, almost cannibalistic, circle of life.
So you decide to look up so you are not looking at the cockroaches you, not only are walking on, but are surrounding you and what do you see ………………, bats of course, millions and millions of bats, the cave ceiling is thick with them. This is why you have the ‘Bob the Builder’ work mans’ hat on, not to protect you from hitting your head against the cave, but to protect your head from falling bat poo!
Then our guide tells you to take care as the cave is also home to poisonous millipedes. He then points out the said poisonous millipede and it looks like no other millipede you have ever seen before, it looks like a character from the ‘Alien’ movie or the ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’. The millipede we saw was eating a spider – so there are spiders too.
Next to the glorious royal ‘Mound of Bat Shit’ there was a small trickle of water and unbelievably in this water were crabs (fortunately, not the giant man-eating crabs, just the normal size cockroach eating ones).
In a small hut in the middle of all this bat filth, sits a guard, who has just won my vote for the ‘World’s Worst Job’ EVERRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What sort of Essential Qualifications were needed to apply for this job?? The guy just sat in his little hut, with his feet on a chair, as if he did not have a care in the world – how could his day possibly get any worse, he was at rock bottom!
Okay, so let’s get this straight. We were standing in a large hole, in the worst smelling place in the world, surrounded above by millions of bats, to the side there was the largest pile of shit in the world, all around us were millions of cockroaches, poisonous millipedes, crabs, and we did this to look at small nests made of bird spit that the Chinese eat!!! I am truly amazed Di and Dom chose NOT to experience this – what is wrong with those two ladies – John, Jane and I paid to do this as we knew no experience was EVER going to be this bad again!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This was the worst moment of our lives and we LOVED IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Yes, we saw the Swiftlet bird’s nests too.
After saying all of this, the Chinese will eat these bird’s nests – how they get the stench out of the bird’s nest for sale in the supermarket is simply beyond me or perhaps that is all part of the attraction.
Apparently, it is a truly mesmerising experience to see the bats leave the cave at sunset. The area is home to many birds that lay in wait of this mass exodus and feed on the swarming bats.
On leaving the cave I was hoping for instant nasal relief, unfortunately it took five minutes of walking before the air cleared enough to be able to sample air remotely close to being considered fresh. To be honest the cave’s odour seemed to cling to us until we showered. I also had to give my shoes a damn good cleaning before stepping into the van. I guess Gomantong Cave is not for everyone but I can say it was ‘different’ and very interesting. Would I go in a second time? Probably not! Di and Dom were not upset they had missed out on this exhilarating, once in a lifetime experience.
It was now back into the van and a return to the Sabah Hotel in Sandakan for us for an overnight stay. Dom, Jane and John were heading to the airport to fly to Kota Kinabalu. There Jane would fly back to England and we would meet up with Dom and John in a few days. Goodbye Jane we will miss you. I loved my adventure in Sabah and I would recommend Borneo Dream if you are contemplating a similar adventure experience.
Di and I caught the bus the next morning back to Kota Kinabalu. This time on the six hour trip I found myself reflecting on the ‘Death March’ the POW’s made through this area all those years ago. In Kota Kinabalu we stayed four nights at the Ming Garden Hotel for AUD$75 per night. The Ming Garden is predominantly patronised by Chinese tourists, like 98%. This meant the morning buffet breakfast was a survival of the fittest. When I saw my children in Cambodia over the Christmas period they asked me for some words of wisdom from my travels. What I told them was very apt to our current situation, “If you want to live, never get in between a Chinese Tourist and a free buffet”. On the first morning I contravened this rule and I had two fingers placed on bread and put on a plate, Satay Sauce poured on my calf to marinate it and my ears were measured for the toaster – the Chinese eat everything!!!
Di and I celebrated our 400th day of travel with a few Kilkenny Ales and a couple of cocktails at the Shamrock Irish Bar. The time has just flown past.
The next day we met up with John and Dom again and took the ferry from Jessleton Ferry Terminal out to Sapi Island. The fare was 23 Ringgits (AUD$8) and takes about 15 minutes. There are other islands like Manukan and Mamutik nearby and you can buy an island hopping ticket for a little more.
We hired snorkel gear once on the island and managed to find a spot in the shade on a table and chairs. We had to buy a few beers and soft drinks to sit there. The island of Sapi was absolutely packed with people when we arrived at 11am. However, most of these people come to Sapi first, have lunch and then move on to another island. This turned out to be the case when we were there as by 1pm about 75% of the people had gone.
The snorkelling is in a roped off area where boats cannot enter. The water is not that deep, but both Di and I were surprised at the clarity of the water, the coral and the multitude of marine life. It turned out to be a nice little experience.
A few more beers after snorkelling and we set off back to Kota Kinabalu by 4pm.The last ferry is about 5pm so we avoided the prospect of that being crowded.
Overall, Sapi is a worthwhile day trip.
For our final night in Kota Kinabalu we again met up with John and Dom this time at the Sunset Bar. The Sunset Bar is part of the Shangri-la Tanjung Resort in Kota Kinabalu. The bar is situated at the far end of the resort and it is nearly on its own island. We needed to pay an entry fee of 50 Ringgits each (AUD$17) but the entry fee also included one cocktail each. This of course is designed to stop sunset junkies from getting their sunset fix without spending any cash in the bar.
I must admit the bars location was very beautiful and it was relaxing sipping on a cocktail as the sun slowly slid over the horizon. The company with John and Dom was again great. This seemed to be a wonderful ending to our time in Borneo and I am convinced when our travels are over we will look back on Borneo as one of the highlights – you simply must experience Borneo.
John and Dom had somehow managed to book themselves on the same flight we were on to Manila. There are simply no ferry services to Manila and with good reason, typhoons are common and fierce in the area and then there is the ever growing threat of piracy in some parts of the Philippines.
We now entered our 16th country of the journey, The Philippines.
Let the adventure continue………..