sign in a cave in Laos

22 August 2008

An adventure in Dark Cave - Star 1998

Saturday, November 14, 1998
On The Move

An adventure in the dark
Story and pictures by Liz Price

"LIE down flat on your stomach and crawl. Never mind the mud, just slither through it. 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.

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. I closed my mind to what we had seen earlier crawling in the mud, lay face down and started sliding through the mud bath.

We were in the Dark Cave on an educational and adventure caving trip, run by volunteers from the Cave Group of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS).

Dark Cave is one of many caves at Batu Caves, about 12km north of Kuala Lumpur. Up till now, the hardest part of the trip had been the climb 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 visitors see.

So we were lucky 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 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, we were watched by a solemn troop of long-tailed macaques who were resting in the branches overhead.
A fine flowstone.
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 to 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.

After the rock formed into hills and mountains, water eroded the rock to make the caves, 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 excrement, was quite overpowering.

Our first confrontation was with the cockroaches. There were hundreds of them, crawling all around our feet and above us, clinging to the roof of the covered walkway. Somebody screamed as a cockroach fell onto her neck -- 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 bat guano. It was alive. There were bugs, crickets, beetles, spiders, cockroaches, millipedes etc. It was an entomologist's 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 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, further in we would see the insect-eating bats.

The guide said if we were lucky , we would 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 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 torchlights. 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, straws, gour pools, curtains. Each formation was fantastic.

We had been warned not to touch anything. The growth rate is very slow, about one centimetre in 70 years. So you can imagine how long it has taken for a 10m-high column to form.

Some of the stalactites 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, for example manganese and iron.

The most unusual formations were the helictites. Thin and small, they 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, where most of the cave fauna live.

At first we thought we were approaching a waterfall but then realised the sound was actually caused by bats flying high overhead.

There must have been hundreds if not thousands of these insect bats. Meanwhile, at ground level and on the walls, we saw more crickets, spiders, and centipedes.

We were in luck for in the next section we saw the cave racer. This snake was about two metres long and was creamy white in colour. We were assured it was non poisonous so we gathered closer to have a good look. The snake seemed unconcerned about our presence, probably thinking "here's another tourist group disturbing my peace and quiet."
Muddy, but jubilant after the adventure.
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. 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.

(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 breathe out and slowly inch my way forwards through the opening.

Phew! It was a relief to breathe again in the slightly larger passage. After those few moments of apprehension on 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 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 was part of the pothole series which experienced cavers used 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 it was the first time since childhood 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.

These tours are run by the Cave Group of the Malaysian Nature Society at weekends. For more information contact Mr Wong on 010-241 7907.

No comments:

Post a Comment