I’m standing in the dark in the Gomantong Caves. The smell is almost overwhelming. My nose begins to itch and my eyes water. It’s almost choking me. I want to vomit. ”Our cat’s litter tray never smelled THIS bad, ” I think to myself. This is a thousand times worse!
Another ‘something’ flutters past my face in the dark. I shudder in fear. I pray that echolocation is a perfect science. “But the shadows are moving”, I think to myself. A rat runs past my feet the dim light of my phone torch. I’m startled and put my hand on the rickety handrail to steady myself.
But the handrail is moving. Oh my God, something is moving under my palm. “Oh no…” I cry silently inside my head as I stifle a scream. It’s alive. Or rather, hundreds of cockroaches on the rail are alive and moving…Aaargh!
Of all the things to do in Sabah, a visit to Gomantong Caves is one you’ll most likely never forget.
The Gomantong Caves are a 19 cave system in the largest limestone crop in Sabah, Gomantong Hill to be precise.
Controlled by the State government and Wildlife Department, they are set in a large protected Borneo tropical rainforest in Lower Kinabatangan.
These ‘guano’ caves date back hundreds of years.
But they were first mapped in 1930, then more extensively by modern day technology only in the last 5 years or so.
There are two main caves, Simud Hitam or the ‘Black Cave’ which is easily accessible and open to the public, and Simud Putih, the ‘White Cave’ which requires cave climbing experience.
The public notoriety of the existence of these phenomenal guano caves probably began in the 1960’s.
Sir David Attenborough visited the Black Gomantong cave as a young man in his 40’s during his early film career.
Then more recently at 88, he was hoisted into the rafters of the cave with drone and infrared cameras to film part of his awe-inspiring Sky Channel ‘Conquest of the Skies 3D’ documentary.
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Gomantong Black Cave
I’m standing deep in the dark, acrid-smelling Gomantong Black Cave.
Outside is a classical hot and humid Sandakan Borneo but in here you wouldn’t know it.
The cave has a much more welcoming cool temperature.
Millions of varieties of echolocating bats call this eery but awe-inspiring place home.
The Black cave bats are mostly wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bats.
Roosting in the top of this towering 95m high cave, they leave around 5.15 to 6.15 pm each day through its brightly lit openings.
Not just through the main front entrance but with exits midway and also via the large exit at the back.
This dusk exodus for hunting food is a particular favourite of tourists and photographers alike.
Gomantong Caves Bat Poo And Pee
However, as a consequence of the bats there is bat poo (guano), and pee, everywhere. Take care looking up, that’s for sure!
In fact, the whole floor of the cave is indeed, guano.
There is a 3 to 4m high pile of it in the centre of the cavern, bordered thank God by the boardwalk built in 2001. Phew!
If you focus on the guano, however, it has a slight golden glistening glow. Shine your torch on it and you see it actually moving. What the?
Yes, courtesy of millions of cockroaches and dung beetles, the guano is being broken up and processed by this 24 hr a day – 7 days a week, busy community.
“Vincent Price and Boris Karloff have NOTHING on this place” I brood silently. I start to take larger strides to walk that little bit faster.
Wearing shorts and open-toed flip-flops was NOT a good idea.
“Curse that tour guide of ours with his strong Malay accent. I bet I missed the bit about wearing covered in shoes…” I whisper softly.
Bird’s Nest Swiftlets in Gomantong Caves
The economy of the caves does not only depend on bats and their eco-tourism. Swiftlets or swallows also call Gomantong Cave their home. But these are very special swallows.
For centuries Chinese have been eating swallow nest soup as a delicacy and status symbol.
This ancient tradition actually began trading way back in 500AD. And the Gomantong Caves have two species of swiftlets.
The Black cave has predominantly ‘black nest’ swiftlets whose nests are made up of a mixture of bird saliva and feathers.
The White cave swiftlets create a pure saliva nest, so it is cleaner and more valued.
Anyone For Swallow Nest Soup?
So what does the popularity of swallow nest soup mean to bird’s nest soup price?
Well, the bird’s nests price per kilo ranges from RM4000 to RM7000 (approx. AUD$2300).
I certainly prefer my soup to come hot, spicy and tasty.
Rubbery, tasteless and non-nutritious ‘bird spit’ soup doesn’t exactly do it for me. Neither does shark fin soup.
It never ceases to amaze what some traditional cultures place great value on – tasteless bird spit, cartilage, and keratin horn, mmm, the mind boggles…
Harvesting the nests is strictly controlled by government permits and local employees are all licensed, to protect and preserve this economy.
It occurs in February-April when the swiftlets have not yet laid their eggs.
Then later in July-Sept is the second harvest once the young swiftlets have left the nests.
The harvest itself is no mean feat. Using 90m long rickety rattan ladders, bamboo poles, ropes and wall hooks (some many decades old), it’s quite the challenge.
But one that the locals love doing, as well as onsite security with guards needed to protect this investment all year round.
Gomantong Caves Wildlife
Whilst the cave has its own micro-environment of bats, swiftlets, roaches, dung beetles, rats and a few ‘house’ snakes, the surrounding forest is also abundant with wildlife.
On the five-minute exterior boardwalk to the entrance of the cave, you may be lucky to see a wild orangutan (we did).
Other apes and monkeys too, as well as abundant birds.
Bat hawks actively hunt the swiftlets as they leave the cave, as well as noisy hornbills, serpent eagles and colourful kingfishers can easily be spotted.
How to get to Gomantong Caves
Access is via a paved road 35km from Kota Kinabatangan town and 110km from Sandakan. Take a public or tour bus or hire a car. There is a small Visitor Exhibition Centre with public toilets. Entrance for a non-local adult is RM30 (AUD $10) with a camera fee of RM30 (smartphones exempt).
The outdoor boardwalk takes you through the tropical Borneo rainforest to the Cave entrance.
Here it extends as an indoor boardwalk allowing you to comfortably walk clockwise around the whole of the inside of the Black cave.
What To Take To Gomantong Caves
Our DSLR cameras struggled with the low light environment (we didn’t have time for a tripod) but our iPhone7 and SamsungNote8 did exceptionally well consider the circumstances.
Wear covered-in shoes (NOT your Sunday best unless you want to spend a few hours cleaning off pee and poo from the boardwalk), cool clothing and protective (supplied) helmets as occasional rock fall has been known.
Bring a bright torch too, one with a diffuser as well as search beam ability if possible.
We spent an hour or so here due to bus tour constraints, but we could easily have spent much longer. Mind you, the smell does begin to get to you.
But every time I tried to pick up my pace to head to the exit, I had to stop to take yet another photo. This renown Sandakan Borneo attraction is unbelievable.
I know I will probably never get a chance to come back, but these memories will last a lifetime.
More caves around the world:
- Dambulla Cave Temple in Sri Lanka
- Ajanta Ellora Caves in India
- Kelly Hills Caves in South Australia
- Capricorn Caves in Central Queensland