sign in a cave in Laos

11 November 2007

Cave Hunting in Sumatra - wildasia
Amidst the rice fields and Minangkabau villages of West Sumatra a little-known limestone range provides more adventurous spelunkers with a unique caving experience. LIZ PRICE joins an expedition to the humble town of Lintau Buo and experiences bird's nest collection up close.

Cave Hunting in Sumatra

Amidst the rice fields and Minangkabau villages of West Sumatra a little-known limestone range provides more adventurous spelunkers with a unique caving experience. LIZ PRICE joins an expedition to the humble town of Lintau Buo and experiences bird's nest collection up close.

[published on WildAsia 8 Aug 2003]

"Hello mister". "Dari mana, mahu pergi mana?" These were the greetings we got every time we walked anywhere in West Sumatra. It is customary of the Minang people to greet each other as they pass by, so we were greeted accordingly. And being foreigners meant we were even more of prey to the local people. It became a standing joke each morning and evening as we walked to breakfast and dinner, as they knew perfectly well where we were going, but they would still ask, and then laugh. Sometimes they would even answer their questions themselves. At least they are happy people.

We were a group of mat salleh and went to this non-tourist area of West Sumatra to look for caves. This spelaeological expedition was from France, and I was the only English person in the group. Despite the bad press reports Indonesia has been receiving recently, this part of Sumatra is certainly very safe and we encountered no problems at all. We were made all the more welcome as they seldom see foreigners in the small town of Lintau Buo, situated south of Batu Sangkar and Payakumbuh.

The French team has been going regularly to Sumatra throughout the 1990's. This was my first expedition there and many of the locals looked and me at said "baru sampai" as they knew I was a new face on the team. They really made us feel welcome. The Minangkabau people are Muslims whose traditional homeland is the highlands of west-central Sumatra, from where they have spread out to other parts of Sumatra. And of course they are also found in Negri Sembilan, which is the centre of the Minangkabau in Malaysia. In Sumatra they are also called Orang Padang after their provincial capital. They have a matrilineal system whereby inheritance passes through the female rather than the male line. They take their name from the unique architecture of their buildings where the roof sweeps up at each end like buffalo horns or 'minangkabau'.

We rented one such building for the duration of the expedition. It was an old wooden house with a horned roof, in fact it had three sets of horns. It was a fine old building. Nowadays throughout the village people are constructing new modern houses, but they don't destroy the old ones, they just build around them. Many of the houses have ponds at the back, fed by small streams. These are a place for washing, and soon the expedition members were a familiar site as we washed our dirty clothes after a hard days caving.

To get to the caves we used the public oplets (small minibuses) or else hired a van and driver if we wanted to go off the beaten track. We were soon a familiar sight as we trekked up the road to the bus terminal laden with our bags. The locals were often commenting on how we walked everywhere, whereas they themselves would go by motorbike. The oplets were quite a tight fit for the larger sized Europeans, with knees and legs crushed by the seat in front and no room at all to stretch out. Our bags invariably went on the roof.

The limestone hills around Lintau form one large range, which provides quite a scenic backdrop to the picturesque rice paddies and rustic buildings. We often had to trek long distances to the caves, sometimes crossing rivers on route. It was interesting to see that the paddy fields are irrigated by a series of bamboo water pipes, and the river is lifted to these pipes by means of paddle wheels made of bamboo and rottan.

Many of the caves are fine, river caves, with huge passages and beautiful stalagmites and stalactites. And the caves are long, one was 7km in length, another was 5km, another 4km. Many are home to the sarang burung, the collection of which is big business. Unlike the birds' nests in East Malaysia which are high quality white or black nests, the Sumatran ones seemed mossier. But nevertheless is a big industry looking after and collecting the nests. Therefor in order to enter many of the caves we had to get permission, either from the police or else from the Koperasi which manages the caves. Quite often we would be accompanied by guides who wanted to ensure that we wouldn't steal the nests. There wasn't much chance of that, when we saw the flimsy bamboo poles and the rickety wooden ladders the collectors climb in order to reach the nests. It was terrifying. These locals are fearless, they often cave barefoot and climbing these poles is like a Sunday stroll to them. In one cave we came across four wooden ladders which were each about 8-10m high. We climbed these with little problem, although everyone was rather scared. We then entered a huge chamber, and in front of us a ladder disappeared down into a black nothingness. It turned out to be 70m deep! It was a wooden ladder held in place by two ropes on either side, and when one of our members pulled on one rope, it broke. Most of us chickened out at that point, although three of our team went down using their specialised caving ropes. The two nest collectors meanwhile climbed down the rotting wooden ladder - I guess it's a common feat for them.

Most of the birds nests are situated high up in the roof of the caves, and we often heard but seldom saw the swiftlets as they flew back, navigating in the total darkness by emitting a series of high pitched clicks. They have only one main predator in the cave apart from man. And surprisingly enough, this is not the cave snake which is often found in caves, here in West Sumatra I only saw one cave racer during the whole expedition. This predator is the huge egg-eating cricket, (a cavernicole Rhaphidophora). It a large and robust and the adults predate swiftlet eggs and young chicks. It climbs the walls in order to reach the nests. However this cricket has one predator that I know of, as I saw one hapless one being eaten by a large huntsmen spider. Needless to say this was also rather big - arachnophobes beware!

I only had one unexpected close encounter with the fauna, and that was when I was standing thigh deep in water holding the end of a surveying tape. I felt something brush my bare leg and assumed it was the end of my belt, but when I looked down, there was a snake curling around my leg. I surprised myself at how fast I could move through deep water to get away. Normally I don't mind snakes in caves, as the cave racer is harmless, but this snake wasn't a racer, and I didn't stay to find out what it actually was!

During our three weeks in the field we were able to explore and survey several fine caves, but once again ran out of time before we could finish everything. Locals often told us of caves they knew about, and which may connect to other caves, some we got a chance to look at, but others will have to wait for a future trip - we shall return!

© Liz Price

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