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18 July 2008

Caving by raft, Kelantan - WildAsia

Caving By Raft In Ulu Kelantan

Go rafting in Ulu Kelantan to explore Malaysia's best archaeological cave sites along Sungai Nenggiri. Follow LIZ PRICE as she tumbles on white water to tell the history of Gua Cha and Gua Peraling.

[published WildAsia 7 June 2002]

Sungai Nenggiri in Ulu Kelantan offers exciting white water rafting in spectacular scenery, plus the chance to visit sites lived and worked in by former, ancient inhabitants. The river originates in the south west corner of Kelantan, then flows up to Bertam collecting several inlet rivers along the way. It joins the Sg.Galas, which is turn flows into the Sg.Kelantan before reaching the sea at Kota Bharu. Some of Malaysia's richest archaeological caves are to be found along the river: Gua Cha, Gua Chawan and Gua Jaya. These caves are archaeologically important as unlike other caves throughout the Peninsula, they have been undisturbed by guano collectors. One reason for the lack of disturbance is there are no roads to the caves. So what better way to explore them than as part of a white water rafting trip?

Getting there

I went along with Khersonese Expeditions, who pioneered the Nenggiri. From Gua Musang it is about 30km to Kuala Betis, and the put in point is 16km beyond Kuala Betis, and conveniently close to Gua Cha, which is on the left bank of the Nenggiri. This area is accessible by four wheel drive. The tar road from town turns into a muddy logging track, which is made worse by the procession of trucks taking out logs from the forest. And the first sight of the river is a wide brown ribbon snaking through the greenness of the surrounding forest. Nowadays the river is constantly a rich brown colour and is very silty, proof of all the logging which is taking place in the area. During the journey downstream, on several occasions cleared scars can be seen on the banks as a result from the logging which is taking place. And the once white limestone hills are now stained a brown colour at water level.

Gua Cha

Gua Cha in Ulu Kelantan is situated near Kuala Betis and can be reached by a logging track as mentioned above. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in Peninsula Malaysia, due to the number of complete well preserved human burials, the abundance and variety of animal remains and cultural objects. Gua Cha is the largest rock shelter along the Sg.Nenggiri valley, and has been inhabited since 9000 years ago. Do note however, that Gua Cha can be visited before starting out down river.

The site was first investigated by Noone in 1935, then P.D.R.Williams-Hunt briefly visited in 1951. G. de G. Sieveking made the first serious excavations in 1954, followed by Adi Haji Taha in 1979. H.D.Noone only partially excavated the site, and it was G. de G. Sieveking who made the important discoveries. Noone was working at the Perak Museum, and doing research on the Temiar Orang Asli. In the ten days he spent digging, he found stone tools and flakes, pottery and human remains. He recognised the different Hoabinhian and Neolithic layers, the lowest layers (i.e. the oldest) containing the Hoabinhian tools. The term Hoabinhian refers to the pebble and flake tool industry, which was in southeast Asia from 12000-5000 years BP. Neolithic, or New Stone Age, is characterised by polished adzes and axes, and pottery. The Hoabinhians were hunters and gatherers, whereas the Neolithic people were more agricultural bound.

Williams-Hunt was Director of Museums, and although he excavated Gua Cha in 1951, no full report was published. Apart from tools, flakes and pottery, he found a human skeleton laid under limestone slabs. Unfortunately Williams-Hunt died shortly after.

G. de G. Sieveking was working for the Federated Malaya States Museums, Kuala Lumpur, and systematically excavated Gua Cha along with M.W.F.Tweedie of the Raffles Museum, Singapore. Their findings threw new light on the prehistory of the region, indicating that some Orang Asli were here around 10,000 years ago. And they showed the importance of the Nenggiri as a major inland route through the Peninsula. The Hoabinhian tools and burials were found below the occupation layers with pottery, with a few signs of overlap with the Neolithic. The Hoabinhians probably occupied the shelter from 9000-5000 years ago. They had a well developed industry with well made stone implements, and living by hunting and gathering. The Neolithic remains showed burials accompanied by grave goods such as pottery, polished stone tools, shell necklaces and stone bracelets. In all more than 30 burials were found.

Gua Cha has had various names over the years. Noone who first excavated the shelter referred to it as Gua Menteri, after the large stalagmite in the centre. The name may have been derived from an Orang Asli called Menteri who lived in Kampung Gua Cha. The Temiar (orang asli) call the shelter Gua Chos, their pronunciation of Cha.

The rock shelter is in a limestone cliff, and is about 18m long, with a maximum width of 18m, and height of about 13m. The cliff however is not really part of a free-standing limestone outcrop. A small stream runs past the hill and flows into the Nenggiri.

Gua Peraling

Gua Bukit Peraling is at Kuala Yai, on the south bank of the Sg.Perias, and 15 minutes walk from Kampung Tohoi. The rock shelter was discovered in the 1940's, when H.D.Collings recorded it as having great archaeological potential. Williams-Hunt briefly looked at the site in 1951. In 1994 a team from the Department of Museums and Antiquities began excavations under Adi Haji Taha, and they found remains of human burials, and blue Indian glass beads, stone implements and pottery pieces. The glass beads are similar to those found at Santubong in Sarawak. It is estimated that Gua Peraling was inhabited about 2000 years ago. It is a large rock shelter, with two chambers, about 90m long in all, and running parallel with the Sg.Perias.

Gua Bukit Chawas and Gua Batu Cincin

Although these two caves are not visited during the rafting expedition (the cave is 8.5m long and 8.5m wide, and is in a rubber estate), they are new discoveries which are worthy of note. They were found by loggers in 1992, and first excavated in 1993, and findings have shown evidence from the Hoabinhian and Neolithic periods, as well as a pre-Islamic Malay kingdom in Ulu Kelantan from about 1000 years ago. It was probably a Buddhist and Hindu but not Indian culture, and part of the Srivijaya Empire (600-1300 AD).

The caves are 7km from Kuala Betis, and are about one kilometre apart, and only accessible by 4WD. Bukit Chawas has 2 caves: Gua Chawas in which Gua Berhala Kechil is situated, and the smaller Gua Berhala Atas. The initial excavations revealed Orang Asli remains of food remnants and bone tools. Further digging showed traces from the Srivijaya period; ash layers are believed to be from the baking of votive tablets as found in various other caves, e.g. those in Perlis. About 1000 pieces of tablet were found in Gua Berhala Kechil, and show images of Buddha and a Hindu god. The Neolithic artifacts consist of ceramics, polished stone tools, and food remains such as bones and siput shells. Pebble and flake tools are from the Hoabinhian period. Gua Chawas is about 23m long, 10m wide and 5m high. There are some paintings of a family on the roof.

In Gua Batu Cincin evidence was found to suppose the cave was used as a camp site. Pottery and cooking utensils were found from about 2000-3000 years ago, i.e. Neolithic. More recent is an Orang Asli art gallery on the walls, from about 300-400 years ago. These paintings are similar to those found in Gua Sireh in Sarawak. They depict people and animals.

Adi Haji Taha (1993) referred to the caves as Gua Berhala in Gua Cina, at Gunung Biol.

The next caves of note are downriver, and after an afternoon's rafting, one arrives at Kuala Jenera, where camp is made. Interestingly, Mike Gibby described the Jenera as being clear water - when I was there in November 1996, the water was really brown and silty. Obviously logging is taking place upriver. The following day an Orang Asli guide led us along the forest path to reach Gua Chawan.

Gua Chawan

Gua Chawan is situated on the left bank of the Sg.Jenera and runs parallel to the river. The cave takes its name from a formation which looks like a cup. It was excavated by British archaeologist Brian A.V.Peacock in 1962-3, who thought the site was a pebble tool industry from the Hoabinhian period. He found tools and pottery.

Following the cliff upstream there are two small rock shelters, one of which has some nice crystalline formations. Further on is the main one "cave", again just a large rock shelter, the only cave passage being a loop of about 15m. But I did see a solitary bird nest inside. There are some charcoal marks about 15m long on one wall, carbon dated to about 1000 years old, which may have been from a fire used to make the votive tablets. Maybe they were made here, and used in Gua Berhala Kechil. There are a lot of large stalactites hanging down from the cliff. The rock shelter is about 100m long, and 10m above the river.

Beyond Bukit Chawan is another limestone hill, and across the river is the Orang Asli settlement of Pos Gemala. We had a traditional lunch here, quite a scenic spot with the white hills rising tall out of the green forest. That night we slept in Gua Jaya, which is just downstream on the Nenggiri.

Gua Jaya
Today the only access to Gua Jaya or Yahaya is from the river. The Orang Asli took us in their boat, and mooring under a low overhang, we had to scramble to the bank and climb up the steep slope using convenient tree roots. The cave is about 10m above the river. The main chamber is large, about 36m long and 23m wide with quite a lot of guano on the floor, but very few bats. About 1500 pottery shards were found here by Peacock in 1962-3, and he suggested the cave was used as a kiln. There are some charcoal drawings of matchstick figures. At the end of the chamber a climb up and over some fine, small gour pools leads into the next, smaller chamber. Here I saw a nest of braken, and some unidentified paw prints. Following the cliff face in the other direction, i.e. upstream, a climb leads up into a short passage, but it doesn't actually lead anywhere.

The next day is spent rafting down to Kg.Keldong, which again has limestone outcrops, although we were unable to visit any. There is a small hill on the left bank, opposite the resort, and behind the resort is Batu Keldong. On the final day, we went past several fine deeply undercut limestone hills before the put out point is reached at the road bridge at Kg.Setelu (Setar). From here, a 4WD ride took us back to Gua Musang. I travelled this road with the Cave Group in 1992 in an ordinary car; today the road has become so bad that a 4WD is necessary. There seems to be a lot more logging activities generally in the area.

Using evidence gathered from all these caves in Ulu Kelantan, the archaeologists can slowly piece together the history of the area. Archaeological evidence from Thailand can also help complete the picture, as there were no borders in those days. The caves were probably used as shelters and campsites during the nomadic lifestyle of these ancient people. Perhaps the Semangs have descended from the Hoabinhian, as they have remained largely hunters and gatherers, whereas the Temiars are the descendants of the Neolithic, as they are more agriculture-based.

© Liz Price - article may only be republished with the author's permission.


ADI HAJI TAHA (1993) Recent archaeological discoveries in P.Malaysia (1991-1993). JMBRAS 66(1)77-83.
ADI HAJI TAHA (1985) The re-excavation of the rockshelter of Gua Cha, Ulu Kelantan. Federation Museums Journal, 30:1-134.
GIBBY,Mike (1995) Malaysian waterlines. Malayan Naturalist 48(4)4-7.
GIBBY,Mike (1996) Where in the world? Ibid 49(2)24-28.
NORAINI SHARIFF (1994) Caves hold key to Kelantan's past. New Straits Times, Lifestyle, Apr 29.
PEACOCK,B.A.V. (1965) The prehistoric archaeology of Malayan caves. MNJ 19:40-56.
PRICE,Liz (1994) Archaeological discoveries in Kelantan caves. International Caver 10:36.
PRICE,Liz (1994) Kelantan caves -further discoveries. Ibid 11:40.
G de G SIEVEKING (1955) Recent archaeological discoveries in Malaya (1954). JMBRAS 28(1)198-201.
WILLIAMS-HUNT,P.D.R. (1951) Recent archaeological discoveries in Malaya (1945-50). Ibid 24(1)187.
WILLIAMS-HUNT,P.D.R. (1952) Recent archaeological discoveries in Malaya (1951). Ibid 25(1)183.

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