Sabah Road Trip Day 4, Part 1 – Gomantong Caves

Today we were supposed to drive from Sandakan to Semporna. This is the dangerous route that Joseph told us about. A lot happened today, so I’m going to break up today’s experience into two posts.

Our first challenge of the day was finding a petrol station for the car. This car drinks petrol like water, and drinks only the highest grade of petrol. When you’re in Kota Kinabalu or around Kundasang, that means Petron 97. But when you’re away from Sandakan, Petron 95 is all you’ve got.

Nonetheless, we tried our luck and managed to last till Lahad Datu. Baby Crab decided to take the wheel today because she’s the more experienced and fuel efficient driver. On the way there, we took a detour to visit Gomantong Caves. This added about 50km to our drive.

This is the cave entrance.

We got to see a wild orangutan.

This is what you see as you enter Simud Hiram.

The cave network links 2 caves – Simud Hitam & Simud Puteh. There’s also a passage called Ulun-Ulun, which you will see if you decide to get a guide to trek up to Simud Puteh. Among other things, the caves are known for the birds’ nests that are harvested and exported through Sandakan.

The Hitam cave is open to the public and contains the lower quality black birds’ nest. The Puteh Cave and Ulun-Ulun are not open to visitors and require a guide to access.

You know what else can be found there?


The caves are also home to hundreds of thousands of bats that come out in the evening. If you’re so inclined, you may stay till sunset to watch the bats emerge. The Sabah government says there are 2 million bats living there, but studies say this is grossly overestimated and puts the figure about ten times lower.

200,000 bats is still a lot of bats. You can see them at 5.15pm to 6.15pm exiting the Puteh Cave.

We watched this phenomenon during a road trip to Thailand earlier this year, so we gave this a miss. We did the touristy thing where we walked around inside, stepping all over bat guano (bat shit). And omg. There’s. So. Many. Cockroaches. Inside the cave.

The wooden boardwalk is covered in bat shit. Do not attempt to run from the cockroaches. You will slip on bat shit and fall down.
And then the cockroaches will crawl all over you.

Even if you don’t fall, you’ll likely reach out and grab the handrail… which is also covered with cockroaches.

If you’re going with someone who is afraid of cockroaches, don’t tell them about the cockroaches. If you’re with someone who is afraid of cockroaches, and are already inside the cave — enter from the left boardwalk — tell them it gets better.

It doesn’t….

It gets worse….😱

Initially you’ll have 2-3 cockroaches on every step on the path. Their numbers increase till there’s 7-8 cockroaches on every step. You’ll get to see mass cockroach orgies as well.

So after you do the usual touristy stuff, take photos and such, on your way out of the cave, take a look at the opposite side. There’s this cave opening right at the top where light streams in. You’ll also see a wooden house up there. Remember this for now.

You can’t see the house from here, because of the glare. But it’s there.

Upon exiting the cave, there were a couple of Malay guys inside a wooden building on the left. From there, if you turn back and look on the outside of the cave, you’ll get to see the wooden house I mentioned. It is situated precariously high, and trust me, even if you were beside the house, it still looks precarious.

This is where Baby Crab activated her superpower.

One of the guys there asked her how the cave, and she went, “Smelly!” They laughed. She asked about the houses on the hillside, and who stayed there. One of them, whose name we later learned was Anan, told us that he lives there.

Baby Crab asked, presumably jokingly, if we could go visit, and surprisingly, he said, “Yes, come, I’ll take you.”

So that’s how Baby Crab came to be trekking up the hill in a dress. Totally unprepared in her pink Anello bag, shoes not meant for trekking, and not even a hair band to tie up her long hair, we seized this golden opportunity to climb up the hill with Anan.

This is Anan. He can climb up the hill in 15 mins. We took about an hour.

And this is the house he lives in with his friend.

As we climbed up the hill, Anan told us about how he had spent over 20 years collecting birds’ nests, since he was a teenager. They collect the nests only after the young birds have flown the coop, that is, grown old enough to leave the nests. This ensures that the practice is sustainable, otherwise they would be killing off future generations of swiftlets by which they earn their keep.

The black stuff on the walls are the birds’ nests.

Every year, 80 harvesters go up to the caves to harvest 4 tonnes of birds nests in 14 days. They do this 3-4 times a year. This allows harvesters such as Anan to earn RM12,000 for his efforts each time. The rest of the time, Anan maintains the farm, water pump, etc. When he’s not at Gomantong, he’s back with his family in Sandakan.

As I listened to Anan’s story, I got curious. How does one get a job like this? In fluent Malay – cos he’s Malay – he said that he knew who the boss of the company was, and he went to ask the boss for the job. And he’s been with the same company ever since.

It pays well, but it’s a very dangerous job.

Not only that, his boss provides him with all the water and food he needs up on the hillside. If he wanted to build a house, his boss would provide him with all the materials, but he would have to build it in his own. Otherwise, he can stay with a friend who has already built their own.

Another house on the hill.

A place that is usually off-limits to people without a guide.

This is the entrance to the Puteh Cave, so named for the white and more valuable birds’ nests that can be harvested inside. That small building there is another wooden house.

View from the top of the hill.

Another entrance to Puteh cave from the top of the hill.

Anan and his friends at the top of the hill.

Precarious trek downhill. The hem of Baby Crab’s dress can be seen at the bottom.

This narrow passage is called Ulun-Ulun.

Some signs that tell us we’re not supposed to be here.

More signs that tell us we’re not supposed to be here.

We totally would not have walked here without Baby Crab’s superpower.

This final photo is the entrance/exit that leads back to the car park. From there, we continued our journey to Semporna.

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