Bird nest cave, Gomantong.
Had a very exciting day today. We booked a trip through the backpackers to do a river cruise and see the caves where birds nest is harvested for the Chinese market. Our guide, Mr Aji, collected us at 10am at which point we hopped into the Sabah equivalent of Alomodovar's "mambo taxi". Mr Aji appears to have am immense love of leopards, as every spare inch of his car was covered in leopard print (although zebra print triumphed in the back row of seats). He also, when driving, donned leopard print sleeves to cover his arms - we can only assume to keep the sun off! It certainly added to our experience, though!
After driving for a couple of hours through oil palm plantation as far as the eye can see, and getting onto a very rough unmade road, we arrived at the Gomantong Caves.
Elephants crossing the Kinabatangan River.
The caves are within a national park area, but are privately owned, having been in the one family for generations. Hence, the camera fee here is RM30, somewhat higher than the usual RM10 at most government run places. A boardwalk took us through the forest to the caves, coming out at the workers huts which sit at the mouth of the cave and underneath which is all the equipment needed, such as rope ladders, baskets and so on. The cave is quite open, so is not really dark, but the smell is fairly overpowering. You can see the swallows high up in the roof making their nests (the last lot were harvested in June and the next lot are due to be taken in November), and there are also hundreds of bats hanging off the wall, waiting for night to take off. Also plenty of cockroaches and the odd rat, so be aware if you're a bit squeamish! As we were walking along, we came across a tiny, hairless baby bat which must have fallen from high above - the cockroaches were getting ready to move in once we passed, so didn't hang around to watch that.
Elephants crossing Kinabatangan River.
There are some ladders permanently in place, reaching from the floor high up to the cave roof - don't know how they can climb up there, and apparently there are fairly regular falls which result in severe injury and often death. The biggest mystery, however, is - having seen the smelly, dirty conditions in which the birds nests are made (and then being told how they're processed) - why the Chinese ever thought of eating them in the first place!! Can't see it as a good idea, personally!
We then hopped back in the car for a short drive to Sukau
, where we met our boatman for the river cruise. This must have been one of the best experiences of our trip so far. We were incredibly lucky to see a huge herd of elephants crossing the section of river we went up, the Menangol River.
Adult and baby elephants stuck in the mud after crossing the Kinabatangan River.
Another boat told us they'd been crossing for about 2 hours when we arrived, and they kept going for another hour while we were there. We saw adults, adolescents, even small babies, probably less than a year old - must have been about 60 or so that we saw cross. They'd come down on one bank, swim across with their trunks up in the air like snorkel, and then clamber out on the other. The babies were always protected within a group, and then pushed up the muddy bank by their mothers if their little legs couldn't reach. The whole thing was absolutely incredible, and also unusual as the elephants are not seen that often. Also saw the usual macaques, proboscis monkeys and monitor lizards - no crocs this time, however. On the way back, however, we were lucky to see two pied hornbills fly into a tree and sit there for us to look at while they ate the fruit.
Pied Hornbill in a palm tree above the Kinabatangan River.
Saw a male and a female, so lucky in that respect too. All in all, a great day of wildlife spotting.
The drive back to Sandakan
took a good 2 1/2 hours in the dark, so was nice to get home, shower and go to bed. The great thing about this tour was that Mr Aji was pretty knowledgeable about the animals, and got us to the river early as he knew that the other tour groups would be turning up and creating such a noise that we wouldn't see much. As it turned out, they started their trips as we were returning and it was like rush hour on the river - they wouldn't have seen any of the elephants, though, as they were long gone, so would have had to be happy with macaques and proboscis monkeys.