sign in a cave in Laos

18 July 2008

Seeking the Dark side of Batu Caves - WildAsia

Seeking the Dark Side of Batu Caves

LIZ PRICE explores the Dark Cave, one of the many caves at Batu Caves, a limestone hill just a few kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur. Find out how to join the Malaysian Nature Society on a tour of the Dark Cave system.

[published on WildAsia 29 Apr 2002]

I was crawling on hands and knees through gooey mud, with my face just inches from the muddy floor, and the boots of the person in front were dangerously close to rearranging my nose. And I was doing this for fun. "Don't worry about the mud, think of it as a free facial". This was what the guide told our party of first time cavers. Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound, I thought. As the people in front of me slowly disappeared one by one through the small hole between the rocks, I consoled myself thinking that a mud pack must be good, after all this was free and with no added chemicals, whereas in the beauty salon I could pay a lot of money for such a treatment. I closed my mind to the thoughts of what we had seen earlier crawling in the mud, lay face down and started sliding through the mud bath.

We were in Dark Cave on an educational and adventure caving trip, run by volunteers from the Cave Group of the Malaysian Nature Society. Dark Cave is one of many caves at Batu Caves, about 12 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur. Until now the hardest part of the trip had been the climb up to the cave in the blazing sun - some 250 steep steps. At least we didn't have to go all the way to the top, which is 272 stairs to the Temple Cave. Temple Cave is the main tourist attraction at Batu Caves, and is usually the only cave that the visitors see. So we were lucky to be able to go where most tourists don't. But at a price. We would get wet and muddy in the process. Fortunately we had been warned to wear old clothes and also to bring a change of clothing.

Once inside Dark Cave we were able to recover our breath as we were given a briefing on the history of the cave, its formation, what to expect, etc. Whilst sitting there taking it all in we were watched by a solemn troop of long tailed macaques who were resting in the branches overhead. They looked as intent as us. However, unlike us, they didn't gasp in surprise when we were told that the rock forming the cave is 400 million years old, and the cave itself is 60 - 100 million years old. They had heard it all before, and could probably also have told us that the limestone rock was originally formed from layers of shells and corals once under the sea, and that after the rock was uplifted into hills and mountains, the cave was formed by water, which gradually eroded the rock over the years, enlarging small cracks and fissures into the passages and chambers seen today.

We switched on our torches and entered the dark realms of the cave. The stench of guano, or bat excreta,, was quite overpowering. Our first confrontation was with the cockroaches. There were hundreds of them, crawling all around our feet and also above us, clinging to the roof of the covered walkway. Somebody screamed as a cockroach fell onto her neck. Where was Steven Speilberg - it was like something out of a horror film. All around us the floor consisted of dark brown "soil" which seemed harmless enough until the guide put her hand in it and we realised the soil was actually the bat guano, and was literally crawling and heaving with insects. It was alive. There were bugs, crickets, beetles, spiders, cockroaches, millipedes etc. It was an entomologists paradise.

Our revulsion slowly turned to wonder as we were told how this wriggling mass of life is a vital part of the food chain: the bats are the only animals which go out to feed and so every other creature ultimately depends on the bats. Their guano drops to the floor and all the creepy crawlies feed upon it. Then in turn, the larger animals such as long legged centipedes, frogs and rodents feed upon the smaller ones. High above our heads we could see countless bats flying round like a scene out of a Dracula film. These are the fruit eating bats, and further in we would see the insect eating bats. One person jumped when the guide said we would be lucky to see a snake: apparently the cave racer is well adapted to a life in the dark, and dines exclusively off bats, thereby completing the food chain.

The cave formations were wonderful: long stalactites hanging down from the ceiling with the often stumpy stalagmites rising up from the floor to meet them. If they join they become columns. They were all of various shapes and sizes and colours, some glistening as the calcite crystals caught our torch lights. Many were still alive and growing, all were formed by water. The water becomes saturated with calcium carbonate as it seeps down through the rocks, and this is slowly deposited over the years and builds up into the cave formations. We saw a beautiful flowstone cascading down the wall, we saw straws, gour pools, curtains. Each formation was fantastic. We had been warned not to touch anything. The growth rate is very slow, about 1cm in 70 years. So you can imagine how long it has taken for a 10m high column to form. Some of the stals were pure white, others were creamy coloured, a few were grey and one or two had an orange-red tinge. These differences in colour are caused by the minerals in the rocks, e.g. manganese, iron etc. The most unusual formations were the helictites, these are really thin and small, but defy gravity and can grow sideways and even upwards. Mother Nature certainly had a good imagination when she created this cave.

Further on we came to the longest passage in the cave, and this is where most of the cave fauna live. At first we thought we were approaching a waterfall but then realised the sound we could hear was actually caused by bats flying high overhead. These are the insect bats and there must have been hundreds if not thousands of them. Meanwhile at ground level and on the walls we saw more crickets, spiders, and long legged centipedes. And we were in luck for in the next section we saw the cave racer. This snake was about 2m long and was a creamy white in colour. We were assured it was non poisonous so gathered closer to have a good look, and the snake seemed unconcerned about our presence, probably thinking "here goes another tourist group disturbing my peace and quiet". After all our oohing and aahing during the educational part of the trip, it was time for the fun bit - the crawl in the mud. This is where I found myself lying face down in the mud following the shoes of the person in front, through a tiny aperture that only looked big enough for a mouse. Or a small dog. Incidentally we had been accompanied throughout the trip by a white dog named Calcite. Apparently she joins every caving trip and knows the cave as well if not better than the guides.

Somehow I contorted my body and got through the small hole, only to be confronted by an even smaller one. I had to turn my head sideways and put one arm in front and the other arm behind in order to reduce my shoulder width, then breath out and slowly inch my way forwards through the constriction. Phew! It was a relief to breath again having come back into a slightly larger passage. After those few moments of apprehension of whether I'd fit through or just get stuck, we then had a fun slide down a slope into a muddy pool, with each person trying to make a big splash. We were so muddy by then that a bit more dirt didn't matter. Having slid down we then had to climb up to get out - this time a vertical wall, but with the guides pointing out convenient footholds it was easier than it looked. We were shown a deep hole in the floor, this is part of the pothole series which the experienced cavers descend using ropes - not suitable for us beginners.

And finally we were out. Wet, muddy and exhausted, but exhilarated. And we could only laugh when we realised that for most of us it was the first time since childhood that we had crawled and played in the mud. If only our mothers could see us now. It had been a wonderful adventure in the dark.

Tours to the Dark Cave

There are 2 tours available:

1. The educational tour, run daily on a basis, cost is RM15. Takes about 1-1.5 hours, walking along concrete paths.

2. The adventure tour (as described in the article), cost RM25 per person, and should be booked in advance.

No special equipment is required, just wear old clothes and lace up shoes, and bring a good torch with spare batteries. And for the adventure tour, don't forget to bring a change of clothing to go home in!

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