The Cave and the River

Michael tells us we’re going to stop at a cave between Sandakan and our next stay, the Myne Resort on the Kinabatangan River.  The cave, Gomantong, is where we’ll find swiftlets’ nests.  He explains that the nests represent a multi-million dollar industry.  We’re unimpressed at the idea of going into a cave, and maybe a little irritated at interrupting the trip for something so mundane.  Birds in a cave—who cares? 

We stop at the visitors’ center before making the trek to the cave.  Here Michael cups a nest in the palms of his hands and tells us that the nest is made of swiftlet saliva.  Each nest holds two eggs.  The nest is harvested and cleaned and sold for twenty-five hundred dollars a kilo.  It’s been used in Chinese cooking—mainly in soup—for four hundred years, and is thought to have health benefits such as relief of asthma, aiding digestion, and improving focus.  (Want sharper concentration?  Eat bird spit.)

The mouth of the cave is huge and inviting.  Foliage frames the shadowy portal, a picturesque grotto carved into a green hillside.  It’s miserably hot out here in the humidity and scorching sun.  It’ll be cool inside.  People exit wearing hardhats, and this stirs a bit of anxiety—why were they issued head-coverings and we weren’t?  The wooden bridge that leads to the cave crosses over shiny nasty sludge.  We enter a massive chamber that soars to a height of about six stories and extends back about a hundred and thirty meters. 

The smell hits.  Bats and birds.  Nasty.  Both creatures are swooping and fluttering high overhead.  With one hand I cover my nose, breathing shallowly.  With the other I cover my head to block the droppings that are visibly raining down.  Imagine the worst thing you’ve ever smelled and multiply it by a thousand.  According to Michael the guano in the middle of the cave is two meters deep.  The handrail, placed thoughtfully because the walkway is slippery, is crawling with two-inch cockroaches.  Don’t touch the rail!  Oh, and look, cockroaches are under our feet too—keep your feet moving or they’ll crawl up your leg!  And they’re all over the walls of the cave.  And the golden glittery movement atop the huge pile of guano?—cockroaches.  

Michael walks us along, talking as though bacteria isn’t rushing in every time he opens his mouth.  He points out rope systems and ladder placement, explaining the harvesting of the nests.  He tells us that the walls of the cave are divided into allotments belonging to families and are passed from generation to generation.  Because the sections are valuable, the family must guard them from interlopers—it’d be easy to sneak a hand over a boundary and grab a nest.  And that is why the owners of the allotments stay nearby, dwelling in shacks on the hillside just outside the cave.  One man is so paranoid that he has built his own little nest in a protected nook of the cave.  We look in and see a counter, a bed, a radio, a lamp.  A little boy is cuddled against his father as they sit on the bed and gaze at us as we pass by.  This is the man’s life.  This is his child’s life.  What good is the money he makes from the birds’ nests if he lives like this? 

We trek back to the SUV.  The drive to the Myne Resort is half an hour.  The place we’ll stay for the next two nights is lovely.  Overlooking the broad Kinabatangan River, the elevated deck offers a breathtaking view of green rain forest and silver water.  Oh, and also, there’s wine, a pleasant robust cab that’ll do me just fine. 

This stay is all about the wildlife to be seen from the river.  Three cruises are scheduled—two in the evening and one in the morning.  It’s hot.  Sunscreen, hats, and drinking water are strongly advised.  I have an excessive love of being carried along in boats—scooting over the water, bouncing along the waves, the clean breeze whipping at my face—being on the water is conducive to clear-thinking and relaxation; it makes me feel one hundred percent content.  So I’m happy to go searching through the area—but I’d be equally happy not to see a single one of the creatures that everybody else seems so keen to spot.  There’s a list of what we’re looking for—orangutans, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, crocodiles, monitors, macaques, snakes, and lots of birds.

We find them all.  But it’s not like we’re all alone out here looking.  When the pygmy elephants are sighted all the guides along the river communicate the location of the herd and by the time we get there thirty other boats point toward the shore, each filled with up to twenty-four people with their cameras to their faces.  In our boat it’s just David, Leanne, and me—along with Michael and the river pilot.  I had a picture in my head of elephants the size of dogs.  Silly me.  They’re called pygmies because they’re smaller than their African and Indian cousins—but only slightly.  They’re still pretty big.  There are babies with massive ears and tourists exclaim over how cute they are.  According to Michael, such a successful sighting is rare.  But honestly, we sit and watch the beasts chew for over an hour.  They look at us and we look at them.  We’re here for so long that people have lowered their cameras.  There are simply no more pictures to take.  Yet we remain.  The sun is beating on us.  Let’s move on already. 

The morning trip is the best.  We turn into a calm tributary.  No other boats coast through here.  We get up close to a group of macaques, witnessing an intense and dangerous battle for territory.  Lots of screaming and trembling of leaves.  A couple of young males are pushed from high up in a tree.  We find birds, lots of birds, which is a rewarding challenge.  Flashes of blue and red and yellow swish by the boat, flit through green branches, hop about on the ground.  We see a hooded pitta, which Michael tells us is a five-year bird, meaning even if you’re an avid bird-watcher, you’re lucky to sight one every five years.  There are loads of different types of hornbills and eagles and kingfishers (the giant one looks clownish with its exaggerated coloring).  When the pilot turns the boat’s motor off the jungle noises take over—birds shrieking and flapping, monkeys shouting and leaping, insects droning on and on. 

After two days on the Kinabatangan River we’re delivered back to the airport in Sandakan, where we catch a flight to KL, then to Singapore.  My little dog, Trip, is thrilled when we roll our luggage through the door of the flat.  He pulls all his toys from their basket, presenting them proudly.  He wags all over.

 People who harvest the nests stay nearby to protect their property.

People who harvest the nests stay nearby to protect their property.

 Michael and I approaching the cave.  

Michael and I approaching the cave.  

 A lovely cave full of guano and cockroaches.

A lovely cave full of guano and cockroaches.

 A swiftlet sitting on its nest.  

A swiftlet sitting on its nest.  

 Lots of fat cockroaches.  

Lots of fat cockroaches.  

 A young pygmy elephant

A young pygmy elephant

 The macaque looks sad, but I honestly don't think there's a lot going on in his head.  

The macaque looks sad, but I honestly don't think there's a lot going on in his head.  

 Knowing we'd be leaving the area soon, the monitor was kind enough to strike a pose.  

Knowing we'd be leaving the area soon, the monitor was kind enough to strike a pose.