sign in a cave in Laos

22 August 2008

Kenyir's impressive caves - Star

Saturday, April 15, 2000
Off the Beaten Track

Kenyir's impressive caves

By Liz Price

MOST people go to Tasik Kenyir for fishing or maybe boating, but I went there for an adventure of a different kind. Caving. Tasik Kenyir in Ulu Terengganu is the largest man-made lake in South East Asia.

When the area was flooded with water between 1978 and 1985,, most of the hilltops and highlands remained above water level, thus creating about 340 man-made islands. There are more than 14 waterfalls, numerous rapids and rivers. And caves.

Located about 60km from Kuala Terengganu, it covers an area of 369 sq. km or 260,000ha. This makes it Malaysia's largest rock-filled hydroelectric dam. Sharing its border with Kelantan in the west and Pahang in the south, this immense lake also serves as a third gateway to Taman Negara. The hilly regions of Tasik Kenyir contain areas of untouched tropical rainforest estimated to be millions of years old.

There are two caves accessible to visitors at Kenyir, Gua Bewah and Gua Taat. Getting to the caves is fun. They are located at the southern end of the lake, and lie within Taman Negara. Therefore permits have to be bought in order to enter the Park. From Pengkalan Gawi (Gawi jetty), which is the main gateway to Tasik Kenyir, you have a choice of speed boat or slower house boat.

We went out by speed boat, the journey took 70 minutes and it was a fun ride, although those in the front got soaked as water washed over the bows. I could have done with wiper blades on my sunglasses! It was actually quite chilly speeding over the lake, especially as the sun was hiding behind clouds. We returned using the house boat which takes about three hours.

Before the creation of the lake, there were probably several caves accessible and some were of archaeological importance. However when the area was flooded, most of the caves were lost underwater.

Batu Tok Bidan cave in Gunung Bewah was one of those. Prior to its disappearance, archaeologists had discovered Neolithic artefacts such as kitchen utensils, stone adzes and pottery sherds. Molluscs shells with the tips broken off suggests the site was frequently used as a shelter in the prehistoric past. Even a Neolithic burial was found, with broken pottery laid at the foot of the deceased.

The cave was probably adjacent to two well known routes used by the aborigines in prehistoric times through Terengganu to Sungai Tembling. The cave was first dug in 1959 by R.Noone, and later by Malaysian Historical Society in 1976. The Neolithic or New Stone Age era occurred about 10,000 years ago.

Now there are two remaining limestone hills containing the caves. The caves can only be reached by boat. Gua Bewah is the biggest of the known caves, situated in Bukit Bewah. From the floating jetty, a steep flight of steps lead up to the big entrance situated 40m above lake level. The cave is basically one huge chamber. A strong stench of guano was noticeable as we climbed up the steps, indicating a large colony of bats living inside the cave.

As we went in, it took a while for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, and we realised just how huge the chamber is. The roof was high above our heads, and although we could hear the bats, we couldn't see them.

Bats play an important role in the ecosystem, because where there are bats, there will also be other cave fauna. The bats support the whole food chain -- their droppings or guano is fed upon by the smaller fauna such as insects and invertebrates which in turn are food for larger creatures such as small mammals, frogs and toads and even the cave snake.

To the left of the main entrance are various pits in the floor which were dug by the museum department. Unfortunately no mention is made of what archaeological relics were found.

Old sacks of guano bear testimony to the fact that people once entered the cave to harvest guano for use as a fertiliser. Today the sacks make a convenient staircase up the guano covered floor. There used to be electric lighting in the cave, but it no longer works.

The back section of the cave is the most interesting containing an abundance of cave fauna such as crickets, cockroaches and spiders. For many people, it would be a nightmare to see all these "creepy crawlies" but for me, they are an important part of the cave ecology.

There are not many stalagmites or stalactites, so although the cave is not pretty in that sense, it is really impressive due to the huge size of the chamber.

Gua Taat is in the hill opposite Bewah and has two entrances, The main entrance is reached by a wooden step ladder, the steps are obviously underwater when the level of the lake is high. The entrance is quite small and low compared to Bewah.

Again there are a few pits dug in the floor, and these probably fill up with water during monsoon time, when the lake will overflow into the cave. We saw otter pawprints in and around the pits. I guess the animals catch fish which get trapped in here during monsoon time.

A straight tunnel with a flat roof leads to the back section, where it meets a small stream. The passage then swings round to the left, and there are some nice formations, such as a "Lion King" shaped stalagmite and an impressive array of 'sharks' teeth' formations. Light comes in from the second entrance, but to reach it entails a belly crawl through a tight squeeze.

Gua Taat was first dug in 1959. Flaked tools from the Hoabinhian period (14,000-10,000 years ago) were found, as well as pottery and food remains such as molluscs.

There is a second cave further round, Gua Taat 2, but it is basically just a long rock shelter. It is easy to see why stone age man used these caves as temporary refuges -- for shelter and protection, and providing a good view down onto the lower grounds below.

As Taat and Bewah may hold more secrets of the past, further excavations are now being planned by the authorities in its bid to unravel the mysteries and secrets of these caves. Ketengah with the co-operation of the State Museum and other government agencies plans to provide better access to these caves.

Ketengah (Terengganu Tengab Development authority) administers the lake and islands, protects the natural heritage and recognises the value in preserving this area of mountainous tropical rainforest. They are taking steps to provide facilities such as ranger stations, base camps and hiking trails.

Surrounded by a lush tropical jungle, the Kenyir Lake is a popular and ideal retreat for nature lovers, anglers and photographers, as well as cavers. Other activities include swimming, canoeing, boating and jungle trekking.

Due to the cleanliness of the lake, the Kenyir Lake has a wide variety of fresh water fish such as Baung, Toman, Kelisa and Lampam. Accommodation such as houseboats, floating chalets and lakeside resorts are also available to visitors.

My sojorn was made all the more enjoyable thanks for Encik Johari of Ketengah for hosting my visit, and to Yusof of Try Adventure for transport arrangements. Thanks guys.

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