Who loves roaming through dark wet jungle caves that are filled with millions of cockroaches, stenchy piles of bat poo and swirling diving birds? Us too! Emmie and I visited the Gomantong Cave in Sabah, Borneo on our way to our Kinabatangan river stay, and it was a super smelly, super fun stop on our journey.
The huge limestone cave in the middle of the jungle is home to thousands of bats and swiftlets - tiny sparrow sizes birds who make their nests on the walls of the cave from their saliva, feathers and mud.
These nests are a highly sought after delicacy by the Chinese community who eat them for medicinal and health reasons. White birds nests are made of 90 percent saliva and sell for a lot of money, while the black birds nests are 50 percent saliva, and sell for a little less.
The nests in this cave are harvested by the Sabah Wildlife Department to ensure the birds are not disturbed. Collections are made before the breeding cycle begins and after the chicks have left the nests. Protecting the ecology of the cave and the swiftlets is taken very seriously and contractors are employed to live in the caves to make sure the nets aren't disturbed. With a number of passages into the caves, people have been known to sneak in to try to take the nests.
We reached the caves after a short walk through the jungle - where we spotted wild orangutans in the parking lot and on the walk through, they were so close, literally in the trees above us. We then reached the huge cave entrance, walking through the contractor huts- a couple are perched high in the mountains to keep an eye out for poachers, and the wild orangutans have been known to sleep in them in bad weather.
Inside the cave is definitely smelly. The bat poo has a distinctive odour - but don't worry you will soon get used to it. You can also break off a few leaves of a tumeric-family tree just outside the entrance and put it to your nose as you walk through…we grabbed a couple of leaves on the way out and the citrus smell was heaven. It’s an eerie sound inside, a kind of metallic hum or buzz or thousands of clicks - as the bats send out their sound to echo of the cave walls - and dull chirps and scuffling sounds from the millions of cockroaches.
A walkway leads around the edge of the cave, the middle looks like there are big rock mounds but don’t be mistaken, this is metres of metres of piled up bat poo. And if you look closer you will see hundred of thousands of cockroaches squirming through it, golden flicks of light bouncing off their shells. At this point I had a bit of a retch but was quickly ready to go again. Cockroaches cover the handrails - but you won’t want to touch the rails anyway because of the bat poo. They are underfoot, they cover certain sections of the wall. They are simply everywhere. It’s a little boys dream.
As we were looking out over the bat poo we saw a tiny bat, a baby that must have fallen from the roof. Before we knew it a huge eagle swooped in and grabbed it in its claws and flew back outside the cave. We’d seen the eagle earlier, sitting a branch staring into the cave and waiting - what incredible eyesight. The eagles wait each evening for the bat exodus and while the bats are flying around outside the cave hunting mosquitos the eagles hunt the bats.
High above, the walls of the cave are lined with swiftlets and their nests. The nests are tiny and dark (another section of cave houses the white nests) and clumped onto the wall. Darker crevices down the back of the cave are home to some of the thousands of bats that live here.
Shards of light shine through holes in the roof of the cave, and the back opens out onto another section, vegetation drips water down onto the cave floor, making it damp and slippery - walk carefully on the boardwalk!
It’s simply brilliant! I have never seen such an awesome little ecosystemwith so much going on, and although it’s a huge gross out with the four million cockroaches it’s super fascinating and a great adventure on your journey between Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and Kingabatangan River.