CHAPTER 14. Visit to the Birds'-nest Caves of Gomanton.
My stay in British North Borneo - Visit to a Tobacco Estate (Batu Puteh) - Start for the Birds'-nest Caves - News of the Local Chief's Death - Applicants for the Panglima-ship - We Visit the late Chief's House-Widows in white - The Hadji "who longed to be King" - Extraordinary Grove of Banyan-trees - Pigs, Crocodiles and Monkeys - Astonishing Swimming Performance of a Monkey - Water Birds Feeding on the Carcase of a Stag - The Hadji and his Men pray at a Native Grave-shrine - An Elephant charges past us - Arrival at the Caves - The Entrance - A Cave of enormous Height, description of the Interior - Return to the Village - Visit to the Upper Caves - Beautiful Climbing Plants - We reach the Largest Cave of all: its Extreme Grandeur - "White" Nests and "Black" Nests secured - Distinctions between the two kinds of Swallows by whom the Nests are made - Millions of small Bats: an Astonishing Sight - Methods of Securing the Nests described - Perilous Climbing Feats - Report of numerous Large Snakes - Cave-coffins, and their (traditional) rich contents - Dangers of the Descent - All's well that ends well.
I had just returned down the river with Richardson from Tangkulap. Tangkulap is a journey of several days up the Kinabatangan River in British North Borneo. Richardson was the magistrate for this district, and his rule extended over practically the whole of this river, Tangkulap being his headquarters. Only three or four white men had ever been up the river as far as Tangkulap, it being a very lonely spot in the midst of dense forests, with no other white man living anywhere near. I had stayed with him for two months, making large natural history collections and seeing a great deal of both native and animal life. We had then returned down the river in Richardson's "gobang" (canoe) to Batu Puteh, a large tobacco estate, and the only one on this river. Here we were the guests of Paul Brietag, the manager, a most hospitable German. He and his three German, French, and Dutch assistants were the only other white men on the whole of this great river.
While here, Richardson and I determined to visit the wonderful Gomanton birds'-nest caves, from which great quantities of edible birds' nests are annually taken. Very few Europeans had ever visited them, though they are considered among the wonders of the world.
We left Batu Puteh in Richardson's canoe early one morning, and, although we had a strong stream with us going down, we did not reach Bilit till evening. Bilit is a large village made up of Malays, Orang Sungei, and Sulus. Quite a crowd met us on our arrival, and they seemed not a little excited. It appeared that their late Panglima (chief), who was also a Hadji, had been on a second voyage to Mecca, and they had just heard that he had died on his way back. "That was quite right," they said; "his time had come, and, besides, it had been foretold that he would die if he tried to go to Mecca again."
Two men were most anxious to gain favour with Richardson - viz., the dead man's son and another Hadji, who was the richest man in Bilit, and who had a large share in the Gomanton caves. The reason was that Richardson had the power to appoint whom he liked as the new Panglima, provided, of course, that the man was of some standing and fairly popular. Richardson sent for one of the most influential men in the village to come and talk the matter over, but he lived on the other side of the river, and, it being late, they said he dared not cross in his small "gobang," as the crocodiles are very bad indeed here, and at night they often help themselves to a man out of his canoe. We went to the late Panglima's house and had a chat, but nothing was said about the new Panglima. I caught sight of one of the widows swathed in white, going through all sorts of contortions by way of mourning for her late husband. We found that the people were going to the caves in two or three days to collect the black nests. The white nests had been collected earlier in the year, but the influential Hadji "who would be king" offered to go with us on the morrow and start work earlier than he at first intended if his dreams were favourable, and thus we should be able to see them at work collecting the nests. Here was luck both for ourselves and the Hadji: it meant a step in his hopes of the much-desired Panglima-ship by thus gaining favour with the magistrate over his younger rival. He was a tall, haughty-looking man, with an orange-coloured turban, worn only by Hadjis, and the people seemed to stand in great awe of him and addressed him as "Tuan" or "Tuan Hadji," the word "Tuan" being usually used only when addressing Europeans like ourselves; still, his house in which we spent the night was little better than a pigsty, although he was a very wealthy man.
The next morning we were off before sunrise. After leaving the village we had a walk of about an hour and a half over a very steep hill through luxuriant, tall forest, and on the other side came to a small river, the Menungal, on the banks of which was a shed full of "gobangs" (canoes) which were speedily launched, we both getting into the leading one. We were followed by three others, in one of which was the Hadji. Most of the way was through fine forest, the trees arching overhead to shade us from the hot sun, the only exception being when we passed through a stretch of swamps, with low, tangled growth, when the river broadened out, but in the shady forest it was delightful, gliding along to the music of the even dip of the paddles.