sign in a cave in Laos

27 September 2009

Madai Caves - Brunei Times

Local tribesfolk nestling among the Madai Caves

Brunei Times 27 Sept 2009

A river runs through it: The Madai Cave is one of very few in the region to have a river running through it.

The Madai Caves are not as well known as the nearby Gomantong Caves in Sabah, or the caves in Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak.

However, Madai has long been an important area for birds' nest collectors and is now becoming better known among tourists looking for adventure.

Situated between Lahad Datu and Tawau, the hill containing Madai Cave itself rises steeply from the forest floor. There are more than 25 caves in this area, but Madai is the biggest and best known. The caves were first visited 60 years ago by scientists who noted how the phosphate deposits from the bat and swiftlet guano were collected and used as a fertiliser.
Madai village

A much older industry is that of birds' nest collection. The local Idahan people have had the rights for collecting birds' nests in the area for generations.

Harvesting birds' nests is a well known industry throughout Borneo, which features many limestone caves that are home to the swiftlets that build the edible nests.

Swiftlet farming is becoming big business. Existing buildings are being converted to bird "hotels", and in some places new purpose-built structures are being constructed. The demand for birds' nests has continued to soar over recent years, especially for the culinary and medicinal markets.

In Madai, the collection of birds' nests is controlled by the villagers who own the rights. As you walk to the cave you pass through Madai village. The locals are the guardians of the birds' nests, and during the collecting season they can offer a place for the nest collectors to stay. There is even a small mosque in the village.

A staircase leads up to one of the entrances. First, you walk through a dark tunnel where there is a grave of an unknown person. This passage leads to the cave entrance, where there are a few houses, used by the men who guard and collect the nests.
house used by nest collectors

There is also another grave. This one supposedly belongs to "Nenek Apui", who was one of the earliest inhabitants here.
Walking into the cave, I was struck by how impressive it is. The ceiling is about 130 metres above, and the chambers are large. There are several openings high in the roof that allow a small amount of daylight to enter.

The floor is covered in guano and it was actually quite slippery walking across the sticky, wet droppings.

There were also lots of small cockroaches running around in the guano, feeding on smaller invertebrates. All around I could hear the clicking of the swiftlets and chirping of insects.

There were a few swiftlets on the floor, and although they presented a good photo opportunity it was sad to know they would not survive.

I was quite surprised at the number of men inside the cave, considering it was not yet collecting season.

The collection is controlled and restricted to twice a year, so as not to deplete the swiftlet population.

There were few ladders hanging in the cave, but more will be installed when the collection begins.

From this part of the cave we went down to the lower river passage, where the river comes pouring out of the hill. This was quite a spectacular sight as there are not many river caves in Malaysia.

We were able to explore inside for a short distance.

Madai Cave was even used in one of the stages of one of the world's toughest endurance race, the Eco-Challenge Sabah 2000, when participants had to climb the rattan ladders.

If you want to visit Madai Cave, it is best to get permission from the District Office in Lahad Datu town, otherwise you have to make arrangements with the Idahan elders.

The cave is certainly worth a visit if you are in that part of Sabah.
The Brunei Times

© Liz Price
No reproduction without permission

See more photos on Madai album.

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