Gomantong caves and Sukau (October 14 - 16, 2001 )


Johor Bahru
Kota Kinabalu
Lahad Datu/ Danum
Sandakan/ Sepilok
Gomantong/ Sukau
Selingan & Liberan Is.
Mt Kinabalu
Kuala Lumpur

New Zealand

At 9:00AM, we were waiting at the Labuk Bed and Breakfast for the bus to show up. We expected to join a big bus and be a part of one of those large tour groups that we have always avoided. Much to our surprise, a Toyota Landcruiser taxi showed up with Dion, our personal guide who would be with us for the next 5 nights and 6 days. We were very surprised and impressed. Things were off to a good start.

After a 2.5 hour drive, our first stop was the Gomantong Caves. This is one of the areas where they harvest Swiftlet nests for Bird's Nest Soup. The bird nests themselves add no taste to the soup - they are valued by Chinese solely for medicinal properties.   

Bird's nests are big business. They are harvested twice a year at times that will not adversely affect the birds. Bidders pay for an exclusive license to harvest one cave for one harvest. The license fee for the cave we saw was in the range of 300,000 RM (about $125,000!). However, the bird's nests gathered can be worth millions of dollars. Teams of 70 people work under the licensee for a number of weeks to gather nests. 

Bird's nest soup!

This picture shows a piece of black bird's nest that is worth about 25RM ($10). The nests are bird's saliva - white nests (pure saliva) are more valuable than black nests (saliva and feathers mixed together). Prices range from 2500 to 4500RM/kg ($1000 to $1750/kg). 

Tourists are allowed at all times of the year in Gomantong - even when they are harvesting. We saw it at a quiet time, but there were still 4 people living inside the caves to guard the existing nests from poachers. 

When harvesting, teams of workers erect a large bamboo crane. One person, the 'Collector',  gets at the end of the gantry and collects nests by hand. The rest of the team hoist and swivel the crane so that the Collector can reach all parts of the cave. The cave is huge, reaching 90m high and probably the same deep.

The cave smelled quite strongly of ammonia from all the guano laying in the base of the cave. People collect the guano from other caves as a fertilizer, but this cave is infested with cockroaches and rats so it is left to pile up. Tourists get to walk around the perimeter of the cave on a raised boardwalk. It was very interesting but Chloe stayed outside after she saw the cockroaches. 

As an added bonus, we saw 3 orang-utans along the path to the cave. Apparently Sepilok releases 'graduates' of their program to the forests around Gomantong, so sightings are not unusual. 

After getting back into the taxi, we went to Sukau on the Sungai Kinabatangan (Kinabatangan River, Sabah's longest river - you'll get better saying it with practice). We saw a number of water monitors and monkeys as we drove down the dirt road.

The Sukau River Lodge is owned by Wildlife Expeditions. It is a few minutes by boat from Sukau, and we arrived in time for lunch. They gave us two chalets. The kids took over one while Sarah and I got the other - or at least it started that way. After seeing the various snakes on this trip, we all played musical beds until the girls were comfortable enough to sleep. 

Our first activity was a boat trip up the Menanggol River. The river is about 10m wide and leads directly into the Kinabatangan at the lodge. It was probably the highlight of the our whole time in Borneo.



Water Monitor

After spending the day in the forest, monkeys return to trees near the river to spend the night. Unlike Danum Valley, where wildlife proved somewhat elusive, the wildlife here is 'in your face' as they travel right beside the river. In some spots we were probably within 10 feet of the monkeys and even closer to the snakes. We saw lots of long tail and pigtailed macaques, and lots of proboscis monkeys. This long tail macaque (with a peculiar eye) jumped into the water just after this picture and swam across the river in front of the boat. 

The proboscis monkeys were the best to watch - not just for how they look (huge noses and fat bellies), or how they sound (a very nasal bleat), but their jumps were incredible and sometimes hilarious. It seemed to be a 'male thing' - the bigger the male, the bigger the jump, and the less thought put into planning where they would land. They would launch themselves off in the general direction of another tree and grab branches after falling 20 feet or so. The females would make more cautious jumps while the babies held on to them. 

Not only did we see an orang-utan, and monkeys, but birds (eagles, hawks, hornbills, and a host of small birds), snakes (a wagler's pit viper, and a yellow ringed cat snake), water monitors, and a small crocodile. The third picture is a very full monitor lizard basking in the sun. 

We went on a nature walk at night but did not see much - some sleeping birds and an elephant footprint in the mud. Asian elephants roam wild in Sabah - they were thought to have been brought here for logging a century or two ago, but have returned to the wild when logging was mechanized.

The next day, we took a boat ride and got out to hike near Ox-bow lake.  We saw lots of bird life, a crocodile, monitors, and an orang-utan off in the distance. In the afternoon we went down the Kinabatangan for a little bit and then back to the Mennangol River again where we saw a small reticulated python and the same cast of characters that we saw the previous day. For a good picture of a python, see the Mt Kinabalu page  

We saw some fascinating behaviour exhibited by the proboscis monkeys. They live in one of two groups - a harem group with a lead male and all his wives and kids; or a bachelor group of juvenile males who have been kicked out of a harem group when they are seen as a threat by the lead male.  We came across a bachelor group that had a lone mum and son in the middle of it. Dion, our guide, figured that the mum and son used to be part of a harem group, but the dominant male kicked out the young son. Rather than desert her son, the mum left the harem too. We watched them for some time. The mum and son would eat and then move to another tree. All the males in the bachelor group would follow keeping their respective distance from the female. If any one male got too close, then the other males would kick up a fuss until it backed off.  

I am not sure I'll ever enjoy a zoo again - other than to reminisce how it was to see these animals in their natural environment.

We left the next morning to go to Selingan Island to see the Green Turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. We rode to the jetty in another Landcruiser taxi with an amazing 972,000 km on the odometer - except the odometer was broken so who knows how much farther it had really gone.

Take the boat to Selignan.