Sunday, January 30, 2011

Gomantong Cave: My Own Personal Cave of Horrors

Throughout my trip I have put up with a lot. I was chased by evil goats across a field when I had a stomach flu that nearly killed me. I went cage diving with great white sharks. I had a spider the size of my fist fall down my shirt. I was threatened by a pedicab driver in a back alley in Beijing. However, these experiences pale in comparison to my journey into Gomantong Cave deep in the jungles of Borneo or as I have dubbed it: my own personal hell. A nature documentary producer for BBC James Brickell lovingly refers to the cave as the “unhappiest place on earth.” Some locals call it “the cave of horrors.”
The cave is home to millions of swiftlet birds that build birds nests out of their spit, which are harvested and made into a Chinese delicacy known as birds nest soup. The swiftlet birds were being threatened by the mass collection of the bird’s nests because people were collecting the nests while there were still eggs or chicks inside the nests and killing the birds. The Malaysian government passed a law to regulate the collection so now this cave is one of the only legal places in the world to collect the bird’s nests. There are two harvests a year when it is safe to collect the black and white nests and they are so valuable that a family could retire after one successful harvest. The workers protect the cave when they are not harvesting to make sure no one illegally steals the nests. It is a very dangerous job and it is easy to fall to your death or fall prey to one of the many other creepy crawlies in the cave.
Those other creepy crawlies inside the cave is what led me to naming this cave my own personal hell. The swiftlets are not the only species that calls this cave home. Millions of bats and cockroaches can also be found here along with snakes, rats, scorpions, and the Giant Scutigera Centipede, which many locals have dubbed the King of Hell. Luckily I didn’t see any snakes, rats, or scorpions, but I saw more bats and cockroaches than I would ever care to see and I caught a glimpse on the cave wall of the dreaded centipede. There is a wooden walkway built around the edges of the cave for people to walk on, but it is heavy with a thick layer of bat guano that in some parts reached mid calf level. It was so slippery and instinct was to grab the rail for support, but it was also so heavily covered in bat guano and cockroaches that I really had no interest in touching it. It kind of puts in to perspective seeing one cockroach in my apartment in New York and freaking out versus seeing millions slithering up the walls, rails and even (to my horror) my legs. I wanted to move quickly, but I had to walk slow or else I would slip and do a face plant into the layer of bat poop and who knows what other creatures could be hiding in there. The stench of ammonia from the droppings is so strong it felt like it would never leave my body and in fact if you stay in the cave for too long you have to wear a special breathing apparatus because the ammonia can cause a fungus to grow in your lungs leaving you coughing up blood and with very long exposures can even kill you. The cave has no shortage of things that can kill you, the scariest being the dreaded centipede. This skeletal Tim Burton-esque creature is one of the more deadly centipedes and can grow to the size of a small dog. Apparently one bite lands you in the hospital or and in some cases is deadly.

About halfway through the cave I had a bit of a panic attack and thought about turning back, but I said to myself: you will never come back in here- finish this! And I did! And I am glad I never have to go back!

Friday, January 28, 2011

On the Kinabatangan River: Part 3

While staying on the river a night safari is a must-do. A night river safari is very different than a night walk, which I talked about doing back at Sepilok. The river safari is out on the same small boats you go out on during the day and you can view nocturnal animals like crocodiles, snakes and sleeping kingfishers. If you are interested in seeing some of the nocturnal mammals like the big-eyed Western Tarsier you have to go on a walk at a place like Sepilok, but on the river you get to see the crocs. The guides will spot the crocs by spotting just the red glint in their eye reflecting off the flashlight beam. It reminded me of being back in South Africa when I would walk down to my hut at African Dawn at night with only my flashlight illuminating my path and I would sometimes see hundreds of eyes from zebras and antelopes staring at me, but nothing else because it was too dark. I’m glad I was in the boat this time- I don’t think I would want to walk around knowing those red spots are crocodile eyes!
Another activity that I recommend doing sometime during a trip to Borneo is a jungle walk. I was afraid of doing the jungle walk because I had heard horror stories of spiders the size of my dog and spitting cobras and leeches, but it wasn’t so bad- it was actually pretty fun. We were actually a little disappointed on our walk because we didn’t see any leeches or snakes. We were very prepared with our leech socks and rubber boots, but we didn’t need them. Correction- we didn’t need the leech socks, the rubber boots (which you can borrow from the lodge) were a MUST! On our jungle walk we waded through mud up past our knees at some points. We trekked through the jungle from the river to an ox-bow lake in the jungle, which sometimes can be great spots for wildlife, but all we saw were a few birds. But like I often say it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey and the journey was a ton of muddy fun!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On the Kinabatangan River: Part 2

The birds of Borneo are absolutely gorgeous and many of them are endemic to the area and with increased deforestation their habitat and therefore their survival is in serious jeopardy so I wanted to dedicate a whole post just to these beauties so enjoy!
Next up: Part three of the jungle adventure including night boat trips and a jungle trek.

Monday, January 24, 2011

On the Kinabatangan River: Part 1

As I mentioned earlier, the wild Borneo I had envisioned doesn’t really exist anymore, but the wildest area I visited was the Bilit Rainforest Lodge on the Kinabatangan River. The river is a hotbed for wildlife and many indigenous and endangered animals can be found along the river bed like the proboscis monkey, orangutans, crocodiles, hornbills, and even the pygmy elephant (which unfortunately I did not get to see). If you are an avid wildlife fanatic and want to see all the animals Borneo has to offer you really need to stay there and trek in the jungle for weeks maybe even months on end. However, most tourists do not have that kind of time so some may be lucky enough to see a pygmy elephant or a wild orangutan, but as I’ve said a million times before, these are wild animals so it is luck of the draw. Of course there are certain factors that make it more likely to spot wildlife, one of them being a great and cooperative guide. My dad and I certainly did not have that. Our guide from Amazing Borneo was not only uninformed about the local wildlife, but he was lazy and did not want to take us out and was combative when we asked about trying to see certain animals. The Lodge we stayed at on the river is owned by the company Amazing Borneo and it is a perfectly nice lodge, but I would not recommend booking with their agency.
The lodge is situated right at the edge of the Kinabatangan River and can only be reached by boat. From Sandakan you drive into the jungle then get on a boat for a short trip down to the lodge. At the lodge you can view some local wildlife like the macaque monkeys and many interesting birds. The highlight of the trip is the boat safari down the river in search of wildlife. The lodge does not provide a guide on the boat, your guide is through the company you booked with, which was unfortunate for us because our guide was terrible, but the wildlife is spectacular. You can take two boats a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon in search of birds, monkeys, elephants, monitor lizards and crocodiles. The river is very interesting and you can see other villages and lodges along the riverbanks. At some points you can see the palm oil plantations coming almost right up to the water creating roadblocks of isolation for the animals as they can not live in the palm trees. To help rectify the situation the government has put up rope bridges high above the river for the orangutans and proboscis monkeys to use to cross the river. The monkeys can swim, but with dangerous and hungry crocodiles in the water it is a perilous journey.  Enjoy below my favorite images from along the river.  There are so many bird pictures that I've decided to dedicate a whole post to the birds of the Kinabatangan River so stay tuned for that next!
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