The Gomantong Cave made me scream like a big girl’s blouse. Set deep in the heart of the steamy jungles of Borneo, the dank cave system is home to millions of bats, cockroaches, rats and hideous crabs. Individually, each of these horrific creatures makes my skin crawl; collectively it’s a real-life Fear Factor. The adventure was part of Terra Incognito’s outstanding ecotour of Borneo that involved not only creepy caves, but also elephants, monkeys, crocodiles and orangutan sightings.
The cave is basically nature’s real-life haunted house. (But without the local high school drama club trying to scare you while wearing Freddy Krueger masks.) Regardless, the Gomantong Cave was one of the most mind-blowing and intriguing grottos I’ve ever encountered.
For centuries, the caves have been renowned for their valuable swiftlet nests, which are harvested for expensive bird’s nest soup. The workers literally put their lives on the line by climbing to the 90-foot roof of the cave using only a network of rattan ladders, ropes and bamboo poles, and collect the nests.
It gets better: In the darkened cave, workers have to excavate via candlelight otherwise all the crawling, slimy creatures would descend upon them like a bad suit. (Ewwww.) So you can imagine that those who do the harvesting are pretty tough, badass dudes that you wouldn’t want to mess with.
The birds’ nest collecting has been done since around 500 AD. The risky nature of the work has made the commodity a pricey one. Two pounds of birds’ nest sells for around 4,000 Malaysian ringgits. The soup goes for roughly $30-40 a bowl. That must be some damn good soup. And these Malaysian toughs will do anything to protect it. Making my way through the thick jungle, I’m about to meet them.
For my adventurous jungle excursion into Gomantang Cave, I’m slightly unprepared. First of all, my flashlight is still in its original Ace Hardware packaging. Like all great explorers (Howard Carter, Ernest Shackleton, Stanley and Livingstone), I keep it as such in case the flashlight goes unused; allowing easy return-a-bility to Ace Hardware.
Bounding across an Indiana Jones-style rickety bridge through a stretch of thick jungle that looks like the opening shot of a sequel to Anaconda 3D (featuring an Ice Cube cameo, of course), our group of intrepid explorers are wearing long sleeves and pants due to the leeches that inhabit the leaves of plants. (Blood sucking when attached to skin follows.) A viper is draped around a tree. The poisonous snake’s green color enables it to pass for a leaf.
“If you look at the other side it says, Made in China,” jokes Minchu, our beloved jungle guide. Deeper into the brush, it becomes one of those it’s-quiet-but-a-little-too-quiet moments as huge, crazy-assed trees surround us. (That’s exactly what Scientist calls them.) Strange prehistoric noises emit from the nether regions of the jungle. Are we about to have some serious Jurassic Park action?
With mild-panicked concern I ask Minchu: “What are we hearing?”
“Rooster!” he replies.
“A wild rooster?” I question. (Wondering if the beast is the size of a monster truck.) “No.” Minchu replies. “Just a rooster.”
Mildly disappointing. Entering a clearing, we are now faced with the mysterious beast they call the Gomantong Cave. Cast into the side of a large hill, the locale could pass for the opening of the movie King Kong. Dirty junkyard dogs roam the premises. In the back are pens of roosters and a ring for the big weekly cockfighting match. Shanty shacks made of corrugated metal are built into the side of the hills to house men who lie in hammocks and stand guard over the cave during harvest time.
In the main compound, hardened Malaysian gangster-types wearing gold chains and adorned with large back tattoos lay shirtless in hammocks or mill about as Malaysian pop music plays from their hut.
“Some of them are part-time workers,” says Minchu. He then whispers, “They are kind of criminals.”
At the entrance of the Gomantong Cave, a foreboding noose hangs from a tree.
It’s not hard to imagine the type of justice that would come down if these hardened workers caught someone trying to poach their valuable swiftlet nests that they risked their lives to harvest—I’m sure machetes would be involved.
“They sacrifice a goat at the entrance of the cave before harvest for good luck,” Minchu says, pointing to the cave’s opening that looks like a sinister demon’s mouth; a smooth, rocky surface is used as the alter for said goat sacrifice.
On a narrow wooden path, we hesitantly enter the creepy cave. Inside, I’m transported directly into the deep, dark recesses of all childhood nightmares. The large cave is littered with cockroaches and loudly chirping bats. Giant rats and crabs scurry about the floor. Surprisingly, the cave has the worst smell known to humanity and, given the terrifying surroundings, I’m on the verge of contributing one more horrible smell to the mix. Something dank, humid and steamy, much like the cave itself.
“What’s that sulfur smell?” I ask.
“It from the bat droppings.”
This would be the worst place to be high. Some type of Blair Witch pile of wood lays dead-center in the cave.
If you slip on the narrow wooden path, don’t worry about falling into the pit of vermin—you can always safely grab that handrail littered with shit and cockroaches.
The loud, incessant bat chirping increases in tempo. Good thing I bought my new Ace Hardware flashlight—it allows closer examination of the abundance of brown cockroaches that scurry up the side of the cave. Several times I scream like a girl. The roaches look worse than wallpaper in an hourly rented hotel room. Something falls on me. Is it a stream of rain or a steady stream of cockroaches? I dare not open my mouth. If I keep screaming like a little girl it’s really not going to look good. Add gigantic, slimy centipedes to the mix. (When’s dinner?) Brown liquid loudly slaps against my open notebook.
The worst accommodations known to humanity are set up inside Gomantong’s house of horrors. A lone sleeping area with a hammock rests in the cave’s far corner amongst the steady sea of cockroaches and rats with air that makes you almost vomit blood.
“Someone sleeps there for security so no one steals the swiftlet’s nests,” Minchu explains. I look again at the accommodations. Happy screaming nightmares.
A burst of refreshment when we finally emerge outside. Our group is covered in various colored liquid. A baby monkey and orangutan that swing from the trees cleanse the palate. A hornbill flies overhead and makes a sound like laughing.
Minchu goes over to the shirtless, tattooed gangsters and trades them some cigarettes so we can look at one of the swiftlet’s white birds nest. It’s small, fragile and white—this is what these hardened men risk their lives for.
At 5:30 pm, a steady stream of bats start flowing from the top of Gomantong Cave and into the night sky. Two million of them. Like an erupting bat volcano or bursting, dark popcorn machine from the top of a mountain—it keeps coming. A large falcon chases the bats with dinner on its mind. Roosters cackle from the cockfighting pits. One of the junkyard dogs gobbles down a fallen swiftlet bird. Something flies close to my head. Bats eat the mosquitoes. Falcons eat the bats. Dogs eat the swiftlets. The hardened gangsters eat the poachers. The cockroaches make me scream. The Gomantong Cave is one big, crazy food chain in action.
Check out more of Terra Incognito’s ecotours on their website. And see more photos from Gomantong Cave below.