Visiting the caves are quite easy as the caves are located about two hours from Sandakan town by car or van. Tour companies offer various packages to visiting the caves so you can customize your visit or if you rent a car, you can self drive to the caves. On my recent trip here in Dec 2009, I visited the entire Sukau-Kinabatangan area for the rich Eco-Tourism offered here and it was made possible with the assistance of Sabah Tourism.
On arrival at the caves main entrance arch, there was another five minute drive in to the visitor center where you purchase your tickets. Nothing stood out there as there were only two buildings visible. No caves sighted and I asked my nature guide - Ben, "where are the caves?" He simply smiled and told me that we needed to take a small trek inside.
And so our exciting cave journey began. A wooden walkway at the back of the ticket building leads into the rainforest while everything around is covered in greenery and nothing in sight ahead of you. Ben claims that this wooden platform above the rainforest floor was actually one of the initial treks that he created many years ago during his heyday of nature guiding here. Ben also states that the original path was another way from the old ticket office and he used to take his guests through this path as it was more interesting. The time it takes to reach the cave area is about a 5 minute walk along here.
Judging from the walk we had, it was rather interesting with many things pointed out along the way. But on the return back through this walkway, there were more interesting items spotted so read about this further in in article.
Once we reached the clearing to the main cave entrance, there was a small commotion up ahead where a number of guests were excitedly pointing up. Ben then turned around and asked me to hurry up and get to where the action was. Apparently, something rare was sighted.....
It was orange brown from a distance and immediately my camera went into action with maximum zoom. "What kind of monkey was that?" I asked Ben and with a big smile on his face he replied that it was the Maroon Langur or Red Leaf Monkey. He also expressed that I was very lucky to have seen this u at the cave entrance as they rarely come this close. Without hesitation, my camera was snapping away and I got the video out as well since this was indeed a rare sighting.
Red Leaf Monkey, Maroon Langur, Maroon Leaf Monkey or Presbytis rubicunda as they are called and also some other local names which I forgot. Well, for more detailed information you can also read about this unique primate here from the Forestry Department site.
Once inside, you will notice that the wooden walkway goes around the main cave in a circular direction exiting the same way you entered. The caves also measure about 30 meters wide and about 100 meters high.
As you walk along the wooden walkway which is slightly above the cave ground, you will come across a cave stream in the beginning. If you look closely in the water, you will see small crabs which dwell here. Fascinating to know that crabs are available in caves considering that I always thought that crabs belonged to the sea.
Another highlight which I was pre-warned about was the cockroaches that live in the caves. Cockroaches? I smiled, what are a few roaches going to do as I am not afraid of them but when I got it deeper along the walkway, I must have seen thousands of them. On the walkway, the ground and even the handrails of the walkway. I would warn those scared of these things - Do not visit this place if you have a major fear of roaches.
When I walked deeper inside, the shouting of the Birds Nest Harvesters were getting louder. There were two groups doing the harvesting and there must have been about 20 to 30 of them there.
Apparently, the Birds Nest Harvesting here at the Gomantong Caves are regulated by the Wildlife Department to avoid over-exploitation of this. The collection is only done twice a year and licenses are issued to collectors. Each group takes turns to do their harvesting and ant any one time, only two groups are allowed to do so.
As the Birds Nest can fetch up to US$12,500 a kilogram, this dangerous skill involves the gatherer to climb up a hundred meters to the ceiling of the cave using ropes and rattan ladders. I witnessed this amazing feat by one of the climbers while the entire entourage waited down below to help steer the bamboo platform up there.
So if you do visit Gomantong Caves and see the harvesters at work, spend some time to se ehow they do it. It is absolutely amazing to watch them at work and the WWF describes the caves as the best managed edible birds nest in the world too. There are four swift species in Sabah which spawn the white nest (Collocalia Fuciphagus), black nest (Collocalia Maximus), moss-like nest (Collocalia vanikorensis) and white-bellied birds (Collocalia Esulenta). Only the white and black bird nest are edible and have high nutritional and medicinal value.
As we exited the caves and headed back to the main building, we took the rainforest path again and this time, I saw some jungle highways known as Lianas. Branches that twist and grow around trees and from tree to tree. some of them as thick as my thigh too.
At one point on our walk back, Ben stopped and was looking as if he has lost something near one of the trees. I asked Ben and he casually told me that this tree was home to the Borneo Pygmy Squirrel (Exilisciurus concinnus) which is the smallest squirrel in the world. Well, I had to see it to believe him as he had a smile on his face when he mentioned this. Eventually after a few minutes of waiting, the little squirrel appeared and I was absolutely amazed with the size of it.
Another unique critter Ben pointed out to me was the strange snail the size of a gold ball eating away on one of the leaves. The rainforest here has quite a number of insects, reptiles, birds and animals so when you visit Gomantong Caves, be on the lookout for these.
Finally on our way out, Ben pointed up to the hills and I noticed a couple of huts located there. They were guard houses to keep poachers or thieves from entering the caves. How interesting I thought. A security post way up on the hills, this was something new to me.
There are a number of caves in Sabah and if you are into caving and exploring them, check out the forestry department in Sabah Parks. Unless you are interested in nature and how birds nests are harvested, make a visit here. Otherwise it could be an experience worth telling everyone if you had no clue what to expect when you got here.
Best times to visit the caves:
- The Gomantong-Kinabatangan region can be visited all year round, though it is often flooded during the wettest part of the year in December and January.
- The best time to visit the caves are during the Birds Nest Collection during February and August and in the late afternoon till evenings.
- Airasia or Malaysia Airlines flies to Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur and from there, engage a tour company for your cave visit.
- Taxi is available from Sandakan and prices vary according to distances.
- A bus leaves Sandakan town for Sukau at RM17.00 (US$5) per trip. However, you will only be dropped at the junction and from there it is another 6km (3.7 miles) to the cave. Getting back will be another issue so I would avoid this if possible.
- Various tour operators around Sandakan and Sabah offer packages to Gomantong and Kinabatangan so you might want this option instead.
- GPS Coordinates to Gomantong Caves are - 5° 33' 0" North, 118° 6' 0" East
- A general note that the caves are full of Guano (Bat Poo) and it smells.
- To avoid this, use smelling salts or perfume sprayed on a towel or handkerchief.
- Proper covered shoes are recommended as the floor can get slippery. Avoid sandals or open faced shoes and for the fashionable - no high heels please!
- For the photo lovers, cave photography is no easy task. Flashing will not work so you will need a tripod and custom settings to achieve beautiful pictures inside. Check with your camera-pro friends about this.
- MyKad Holders - RM5.00 (Below 18 yrs - RM2.00)
- Others - RM30 (US$10) and below 12 yrs - RM15 (US$5)
- DSLR Camera, Compact Camera, Video Camera - RM10 each (US$3.30)
Gomantong Caves from the Sabah Tourism Website
More information on Gomantong Caves on Wikipedia
View Gomantong Caves, Sandakan Sabah in a larger map
- Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary
- Rainforest Discovery Centre RDC Overview
- Rainforest Discovery Nature Trail RDC Sabah
- Canopy Walk at Rainforest Discovery Centre RDC Sabah
- Agnes Keith House and Museum in Sandakan
- Kinabatangan Sukau River in Saban Borneo
- Kinabatangan River Night Cruise
- Kinabatangan River Morning Cruise
*Pictures were taken with a Nikon D60, Lens: 18-105mm