sign in a cave in Laos

26 December 2007

Langkawi's Bat Cave, Gua Kelawar - BT

Gateway to natural treasures

Excuse me, where can I find Batman?: Perhaps in Langkawi's bat cave (top, right). However, the writer only found a sizeable colony of bats (above). If you're not into these flying mammals, drop by the floating fish farm (bottom, right) to see some marine life like spitting fish and horseshoe crabs. Pictures: Liz Price

Sunday, December 23, 2007

THERE are many caves in Malaysia that have the name Bat Cave or Gua Kelawar. Some still have bats in residency, others don't.

The one on Langkawi does. As our boat headed up a tributary of the Kilim River, we could see a wooden boardwalk running alongside a cliff face and disappearing into a cave entrance.

This was our destination, Gua Kelawar.

We stepped out of the boat onto the wooden jetty and walked to the shelter to read the information board which would tell us about the cave.

The cave is only accessible by boat and is surrounded by mangrove swamps. The cave is actually a tunnel through the hill, and despite the large numbers of human visitors, is still home to a sizeable colony of bats.

As soon as we entered the cave, we could hear the squeaks of the bats and the rustle of their wings. As far as I could see, the bats were all insect eating bats.

Contrary to popular belief, bats are not blind, and the fruit eating bats have quite large eyes. The insect bats have tiny eyes and navigate using echolocation.

Bats leave the cave at night to feed. The fruit eating bats are beneficial to man as they pollinate trees and crops such as banana and durian.

The insect eating bats are also useful as they keep the insect population under control. If one bat eats 10g of insects every night, you can imagine how many kilogrammes a few thousand bats will eat. And some caves do contain thousands of bats.

The population in Gua Kelawar wasn't so big, and according to the locals there are less now than in previous years. Maybe the human visitors have taken their toll after all and the bats have moved to other quieter caves.

Bats support the entire food chain in caves. As they are the only animals which go out to feed, it is their droppings or guano, which falls on the floor and indirectly feeds all the creatures in the caves.

Tiny bugs and small insects feed on the guano and these in turn are fed upon by larger animals such as crickets, spiders, whip spiders, scorpions, cockroaches, and maybe small mammals and amphibians.

There were actually few insects visible in this cave. However, I did see a forest gecko on the boardwalk inside the cave. It had lost its tail, but a new one was just starting to grow. I wondered if this gecko normally leaves the cave to feed or if there is enough food inside.

The cave was actually quite dry although I could see it would get wet in the rainy season. The boardwalk means visitors don't have to step into the mud or the guano on the floor. The locals used to collect the guano for fertiliser, but in caves which are protected, this practice has been stopped as it upsets the cave's ecosystem.

As all visitors are accompanied by a guide as part of a tour group, I was pleased to see most guides told the visitors not to smoke or make any noise inside the cave. Also it is important not to shine the torchlight directly onto the bats as they are sensitive to light.

The cave contains a few stalactites and stalagmites. The limestone rock forming the cave is actually some of the oldest in the country, from the Silurian period, and is about 400 million years old.

We walked through the cave and followed the boardwalk back to the boat, to continue our trip down the Kilim River. We passed many limestone cliffs with stalactites hanging down from the vertical walls. With a variety of boats moored in the river, it was quite a scenic site.

Our next destination was the floating fish farm nestled against a high cliff.

The farm is basically a series of "tanks" separated by netting and plastic, with a wooden platform and a boardwalk made of planks, all seated on top of oil drums to keep it afloat.

At the first tank, the owner demonstrated the spitting fish. He placed a piece of bread on the platform and the fish accurately spat a mouthful of bubbles at the bread, which is their way of catching insects.

Other tanks contained brown reef stingrays, and a variety of large and small fish. One tank had several horseshoe or king crabs (belankas) and large oysters, and some large eels which were hiding in plastic drainpipes.

On the way back we saw lots of eagles circling overhead. The Red Eagle has become the symbol of Langkawi and has a large statue in the town.

There are various types of eagles here but the Brahminy kites seem to be the most prevalent, they are chestnut brown in colour, with white on the head and breast.

The White-bellied Sea Eagle is the largest of the local species and generally flies higher.

Many tour guides feed the eagles with chicken meat. The circling birds have learnt that tourist boats mean food and swoop down with their sharp talons fully extended to pick the pieces of meat nimbly off the water surface.

However this practice should not be encouraged as it could change the feeding habits of the birds and ultimately affect their lifestyle. The Brunei Times

Gomantong Caves in Sabah - The Brunei Times

Gomantong bat caves awash in guano

Bat waste: A visitor standing on a millenary mountain of guano in Gomantong (Bottom). It is estimated that between 600,000 and two million bats live in the cave. With each bat eating its own body weight in insects each night, this results in several tonnes of insects being consumed per night. Pictures: Liz Price

Sunday, December 2, 2007

IN FRONT of me was a high mountain of bat guano, made famous by the world famous naturalist, David Attenborough in one of his TV documentaries. This mountain of waste deposit has been formed over the years by the caves inhabitants, the wrinkle-lipped bats. It is estimated that between 600,000 and two million of these flying mammals live in the cave. Each night they leave the cave to feed, and with each bat eating its own body weight in insects each night, this results in several tonnes of insects being consumed per night. No need for chemical insecticides here.

The bats share their dark home with cave swiftlets, and it is these birds which have made the caves famous, due to the harvesting of their nests. The Gomantong Caves have long been known for their birds' nests. Birds' nests, a Chinese delicacy, have been sought for centuries in various caves not merely in North Borneo but in Sarawak and other parts of South-East Asia as well. The greatest single source for these birds' nests has remained the Gomantong Caves. The caves are 32km south of Sandakan, near to the Kinabatangan River on the east coast of Sabah.

There are two main caves, Simud Putih and Simud Hitam. The names refer to the principal types of edible birds' nests produced in each cave, white and black respectively. These limestone caves are about 65 million years old. Although the caves have been known for centuries as a source of birds' nests, the date of discovery of the caves is not really known.

The birds' nest trade probably started around the early 15th century. The Chinese admiral Cheng Ho, a Muslim, commanded a great fleet and supposedly visited Sabah on route to the Philippines in 1406. Around the same time, according to Idahan folklore, an Arab missionary Machdom, known as Alawlia (holy man), came to Sabah's east coast with a trading vessel in 1408. Following this visit, local people began to trade in birds' nests. The Chinese bought the nests and trade flourished. Nests were often exchanged for glass beads, brass, gold and iron, textiles, Chinese stone wares and porcelains.

With the arrival of the first Muslim missionaries, many people converted to Islam. But many resisted, and the east coast caves were important places for spirit activity as burial places for the pagan people. Cave burials took place and the locals treasured the caves as their ancestral burial grounds. In the small, isolated caves not containing edible nests, these customs survived into this century. Unfortunately, few caves with burial remains survived undisturbed over the centuries. In the caves economically important for nests, the hardwood coffins, ceramic and earthenware jars and pots became debris over the years, as well as being removed by the casual visitor. In Gomantong nest collectors built villages right over ancient burial grounds. As people became Muslims, they gave up their pagan customs.

!Gomantong Caves were investigated by J H Allard of the China Borneo Company in 1889 for phosphate deposits as a source of fertiliser. The caves were mapped in 1930. Today access to the caves is considerably easier than in the early days, when in 1887 the journey was described as "a long tramp through dense jungle". Today a road leads right to the park headquarters and from there a short walk of just a few minutes brings you to Gomantong hill. Much of the virgin jungle has been replaced by secondary jungle, oil palm and cocoa plantations. But the tall menggaris trees have been left as they are said to be homes for spirits, and are also nesting places for honey bees.

!In front of the main entrance to Simud Hitam are the buildings used by the bird nest collectors. The harvesting of nests is strictly controlled and limited to twice a year by licensed collectors. A boardwalk leads into the large gaping entrance to the cave and all around is the twitter of swiftest as they go about their daily lives. The boardwalk follows the cave walls and in the centre of the chamber is thousands of years of accumulated guano.

!Looking closely at the guano I could see it was alive with a whole collection of invertebrates. There were cockroaches, beetles and lots of other insects, all playing a role in the cave's food chain. The cockroaches had made the cave walls their home and in some places, sections of the walls were absolutely covered with them.

!Occasionally we were able to get a close up view of a swiftlet which was lying on the handrail or floor. The birds which inhabit the caves and make the edible nests are swiftlets of the Collocalia family, locally called layang layang because of their constant movement. The black and white nests are made by different types of swiftlet. The white nests are made purely of saliva, and are much more valuable and costly than the black nests which have feathers in them. The saliva is produced from a tough, glutinous, translucent substance secreted by the salivary glands.

!Most of the swiftlets build their nests high up on the cave walls. The nests look like half a saucer, about three inches long, one and a half inches wide and about half an inch deep. They are firm but springy to the touch. The bigger and thicker they are, the better. As they get old, they become drier and tighten and increase in value.

Collection has been carried out for centuries. The right to collect from certain areas in the cave is based on hereditary rights which are still practiced today. Both black and white nests are found in the dark corners of caves, but the black nests are in areas where light penetrates, generally in immense lofty caverns. White nests are found in truly dark crevices, in low roofed caves.

To reach the nests, rotan ladders with hardwood rungs are hung from the ceiling, held tautly to belian wood. Surplus lengths of rope are coiled up at the bottom. At the top of the ladder, the man ties himself to the bamboo and rotan loops fixed to the ladder. His candle is fixed to a bamboo pole. Nests are scraped from the wall and put into a basket hung on the ladder. During collection numerous small birds and eggs fall. Today bamboo ladders are also used. In some places the roof may be up to 90m high. Although I didn't actually see any men working as it was out of season, it was quite scary just looking at these ladders and thinking how the men work so high above the floor without any safety line.

!At the back of the main chamber is a large hole open to the sky which let in a lot of daylight. Simud Putih cave is located high above this entrance.

Leaving the boardwalk I detoured to see Attenborough's guano mountain. I climbed a rocky slope made slippery by the guano, careful not to tread on dying swiftlets and bats which were floundering around on the floor. As the slope leveled out I looked up and there it was, a mountain of guano, maybe 30m high, reaching up in front of me. I felt quite humbled having seen it for myself, something most people would only see on television. As I looked around, listening to the sounds of the bats and swiftlets and dropping water, I felt so small standing in this immense dark chamber. Gomantong Caves is a truly spectacular place.The Brunei Times

15 December 2007

Tin mining relics

Tin mining is one of Malaysia's oldest and most successful industries. In the 1600's, this industry was beginning to thrive in Kedah, Perak and Selangor. In the heyday of tin mining in the mid 19th century Perak was one of the most active areas. There was an increased demand for tin by Chinese and Europeans and at the same time, extensive and rich deposits of tin were found in Perak and Selangor. With the arrival of labour from China and influx of capital, the tin industry rapidly expanded to become the largest in the world. More than 3000 Chinese arrived annually to work the mines. Tin was also mined from some caves, especially in Perlis.
Today very few mines are working and most of the artefacts are lost. There are only about 3 dredges left.

1960s postcard

dredge seen from air approaching KLIA in Selangor -

Many of these pictures are old photos that I have scanned so the quality is not good (and I haven't bothered to play around with any photoshop type software), but they are here for the record.

Ipoh museum display -

 gravel pump used in New Lahat mine
trolley used in 1925

The next few photos were taken at New Lahat mine in Perak in 1997 -

 buckets of ore

 the kitchen

"pig basket" strainer, now abandoned

 palong, a series of sluices

a "pig basket" in this revolving steel drum the gravel is broken into small pieces -

Open cast pit of New Lahat mines

tin mine workers -
Tin mine Perak
 Tin mine Ulu Selangor
Merapoh Mine near Kpg Kepayang in Perak, 1997 -

jets of water under pressure break up the tin-bearing soil

the extraction area where jets of water under pressure are shot at the sides of the mine to break up the tin-bearing soil

the muddy mixture collects in a pool, called a sump

controlling the water monitor

from the sump the slurry is pumped up to the palong -
the slurry
channels leading to the sluices (above),
overview of the channels and sluices -

gravel containing the tin

For more recent photos taken on the Perak dredge see tin dredge in Perak.

© Liz Price
No reproduction without permission