January 31, 2011
Throughout my trip I have put up with a lot. I was chased by evil goats across a field when I had a stomach flu that nearly killed me. I went cage diving with great white sharks. I had a spider the size of my fist fall down my shirt. I was threatened by a pedicab driver in a back alley in Beijing. However, these experiences pale in comparison to my journey into Gomantong Cave deep in the jungles of Borneo or as I have dubbed it: my own personal hell. A nature documentary producer for BBC James Brickell lovingly refers to the cave as the “unhappiest place on earth.” Some locals call it “the cave of horrors.”
The cave is home to millions of swiftlet birds that build birds nests out of their spit, which are harvested and made into a Chinese delicacy known as birds nest soup. The swiftlet birds were being threatened by the mass collection of the bird’s nests because people were collecting the nests while there were still eggs or chicks inside the nests and killing the birds. The Malaysian government passed a law to regulate the collection so now this cave is one of the only legal places in the world to collect the bird’s nests. There are two harvests a year when it is safe to collect the black and white nests and they are so valuable that a family could retire after one successful harvest. The workers protect the cave when they are not harvesting to make sure no one illegally steals the nests. It is a very dangerous job and it is easy to fall to your death or fall prey to one of the many other creepy crawlies in the cave.
Those other creepy crawlies inside the cave is what led me to naming this cave my own personal hell. The swiftlets are not the only species that calls this cave home. Millions of bats and cockroaches can also be found here along with snakes, rats, scorpions, and the Giant Scutigera Centipede, which many locals have dubbed the King of Hell. Luckily I didn’t see any snakes, rats, or scorpions, but I saw more bats and cockroaches than I would ever care to see and I caught a glimpse on the cave wall of the dreaded centipede. There is a wooden walkway built around the edges of the cave for people to walk on, but it is heavy with a thick layer of bat guano that in some parts reached mid calf level. It was so slippery and instinct was to grab the rail for support, but it was also so heavily covered in bat guano and cockroaches that I really had no interest in touching it. It kind of puts in to perspective seeing one cockroach in my apartment in New York and freaking out versus seeing millions slithering up the walls, rails and even (to my horror) my legs. I wanted to move quickly, but I had to walk slow or else I would slip and do a face plant into the layer of bat poop and who knows what other creatures could be hiding in there. The stench of ammonia from the droppings is so strong it felt like it would never leave my body and in fact if you stay in the cave for too long you have to wear a special breathing apparatus because the ammonia can cause a fungus to grow in your lungs leaving you coughing up blood and with very long exposures can even kill you. The cave has no shortage of things that can kill you, the scariest being the dreaded centipede. This skeletal Tim Burton-esque creature is one of the more deadly centipedes and can grow to the size of a small dog. Apparently one bite lands you in the hospital or and in some cases is deadly.
About halfway through the cave I had a bit of a panic attack and thought about turning back, but I said to myself: you will never come back in here- finish this! And I did! And I am glad I never have to go back!