The second reason for making our way to Sandakan is that it takes only three hours to get to the Kinabatangan River, its tributaries, and the area around Sukau. This is a wild life reserve and home to the famed probiscus monkeys and pygmy elephants both found only in the rainforests of Borneo.
But before we get there, I have to digress.
Do you know much about the making of birds nest soup? I know that is quite a digression, but just stick with me.
Birds nest soup is, as the name suggests, made from birds nests, but not from the regular twigs and leaves type birds nest. It is made from a very particular nest made by a very particular and small swift. The so called Glossy Swiftlet makes its nest entirely from its own saliva, which when excreted from the swiftlet’s mouth becomes sticky and the swift is able to build its tiny nest with it. It is hard to imagine how much spit a swift would have to produce, but produce it, it does. The Chinese see the swift as a remarkably clean bird because it never sits on the ground, and they believe this is born out by the fact that the nests they build are white. (Some of them are black but they are not as desirable.)
I can’t help but think that only the Chinese, a nation renowned for their disgusting habit of spitting freely, loudly and grossly wherever they are, would find a nest made out of bird spit a delicacy.
The Chinese consume over 90% of all harvested bird nests despite the fact that these swiftlets are not found in China. They believe eating the birds nest has significant health benefits. It is hard to find anyone else in the world who believes this and almost impossible to find someone willing to pay the going rate of $2500 US for one kilo to test the theory. But the Chinese spent five billion dollars on birds nests last year which only goes to prove the adage that the Chinese are one dumpling short of a dim sum
Gomantong Cave is famous for having many thousands of these spit building swiftlets’ nest on the ceiling of the cave. The Chinese, fueled by their insatiable appetite for this little delicacy and presumably a fine sense of smell, first discovered this cave in the 14th century. Since then they have made their way here twice a year to harvest these incredibly valuable nests. They have learned that the best time to harvest them is early on in the nesting season so that the swiftlets have time to rebuild for laying their eggs, then again after the chicks have left the nest.
Gomantong Cave is just off the road we are taking to Sukau.
We are picked up from our hotel in Sandakan by Jeffrey, a part Malay and part Chinese wild life guide who is taking us to the Probiscus Lodge, an eco lodge we have booked in the midst of the rain forest reserve on the banks of the Kinatangan River.
Jeffrey is the most unlikely name for a wild life guide. And this Jeffrey is the most unlikely looking wild life guide you can imagine. He is fiftyish with a huge pot belly, large round spectacles, matching a large round face topped by a rather sparse showing of hair, brushed forward and dyed jet black. Every ten minutes, without fail, he pops a piece of candy in his mouth. He looks as if he should he sitting behind a desk in a bank. Recognising that no one will believe the truth, he wears a polo shirt with “Nature Guide. Probiscus Lodge” emblazoned on it. We immediately suspect that he is an impostor who found the shirt in a thrift store. It probably should also say “I do not work for HSBC”.
We ask Jeffrey if we have time to stop at the Gomantong Cave on the way.
The entrance to the cave is unprepossessing
But inside is a completely different story
The cave is home to many thousands of bats as well as the swiftlets. The result is an incredibly thick layer of guano on the cave floor and an overpoweringly disgusting smell. It is absolutely essential to wear a hat inside the cave!
The only way round is on an elevated boardwalk that keeps your feet from sinking into the guano. The cave is also home to an alarming number of cave cockroaches
They are everywhere. They cover the walls which isn’t so bad, but also the walkway which is. We try hard to avoid stepping on them but the occasional crunching sound tells us when we have been unsuccessful. They do not try to avoid stepping on us, and feel free to scurry across our shoes, but fortunately do not venture any higher.
We ask Jeffrey if any attempt is made to harvest the Guano and he says it is now illegal to do so. The cave is famous for its ecosystem and the guano is host to a myriad of strange and wonderful insects that are now protected:
The cave is also home to a small snake that feasts on the cockroaches. Either the snakes aren’t that hungry or there aren’t enough snakes
The cave is 300 feet tall and has several outlets into the mountain sides for the bats and swifts to enter and leave
The nests are on the ceiling of the cave which makes harvesting them extremely difficult and dangerous. The harvesters must have a permit which shows they are skilled and know which nests to harvest and which to leave so insuring that the swiftlets remain. The first harvest of the year will start in a few weeks and the first of the workers are arriving today to get the cave ready. There is some basic housing outside the cave where they stay:
Their job is to start rigging the ropes and step ladders up to the ceiling which will allow the pickers to start the harvest
I have not taken a sudden interest in the practices described in Shades of Grey – the photo above shows one of the workers getting ready to climb to the top of the cave with the ropes
And the following photo shows a harvester holding thousands of dollars
The contents of this cave are so valuable that the government has a guard living inside it 24 hours a day. His home is a small hut perched on top of a huge mound of guano:
Judging from what we see, he must take in laundry on the side, although airing it in the cave is not such a good idea. How he washes anything seems a problem, as there are of course no amenities provided. Not even a toilet. But he is sitting on the largest one known to man.
I am not sure which I am more surprised at. That thieves could steal nests 300 feet up without being noticed, or that someone is prepared to live inside the cave to make sure they don’t.
I ask Jeffrey if he has eaten birds nest soup. He says he has, but that he prefers to eat the birds nest raw.
Now that is truly disgusting. I view Jeffrey in a completely different light and understand why he pops a candy into his mouth every ten minutes
A week later we are in Hong Kong where many high end Chinese herbalists have them right alongside rhino horns and other delicacies