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.

The most striking feature about the forest on this Menungal River was the extraordinary growth of a species of banyan trees (FICUS sp.). I have seen many curious stilted trees of this FICUS family in various tropical countries I have visited, but these I think were more curious than any I had ever seen. One hardly knew where they began and where they ended, for they all seemed joined together, and roots and branches seemed one and the same thing. It was the acme of vegetable confusion. Even the river could not stop their progress, and we were constantly gliding between their roots and branches. The growth of ferns, orchids and parasites on the branches and roots of these trees was luxuriant to a degree and formed veritable hanging gardens.

On these Bornean rivers one is constantly seeing pigs, crocodiles and monkeys, but I noticed on this river an abundance of a monkey which one seldom sees on the large Kinabatangan River. I refer to the very curious proboscis or long-nosed monkey (NASALIS LARVATUS). These animals often sat still overhead and stared down at us in the most contemptuous and indifferent manner, and they looked so human and yet so comical with their enormous red noses that I found myself laughing aloud, our scullers doing the same, till the monkeys actually grinned with indignation. They axe large monkeys with long tails, and are beautifully marked with various shades of grey and brown, and their large, fleshy, red noses give them an extraordinary appearance.

One of them did a performance that astonished me. We saw a group of them on a branch over the river about forty yards ahead of us, when one of them jumped into the middle of the river and coolly swam to a hanging creeper up which it climbed, none the worse for its voluntary bath. This was the only time that I had ever seen a monkey swim, but the natives assured me that these monkeys are very good swimmers. It struck me as being a very risky performance, as this river was full of crocodiles.

I saw on this river a wonderful orchid growing on large trees. This was a GRAMMATOPHYLLUM with bulbs some times over eight feet in length. The length of the name is certainly suitable for so large an orchid. I saw plenty of water-birds, including white egrets and a long-necked diver which is called the "snake-bird," owing to its long neck projecting lout of the water and thus greatly resembling a snake. I shot several of each kind of bird, plucking the fine plumes from the backs of the egrets. We ate some of the divers that evening and found them first-class food, tasting much like goose. We later in the day disturbed a whole colony of these water-birds feeding on the carcase of a large stag in the river, and the smell was very strong for some distance. I did not attempt to shoot any more mock geese till we had put a good many miles between ourselves and the dead stag. We passed several canoes slowly wending their way to the eaves, the people taking it easy and camping on the banks and fishing. They dried the fish on the roofs of their thatched canoes. Some of these people had very curious rattan pyramid-shaped hats gaily ornamented with strips of bright-coloured cloth.

Toward evening the river got exceedingly narrow, and fallen trees obstructed our way, so that we had sometimes to lie flat on our backs to pass under them, and at other times we had to get out while our canoe was hauled over the mud at the side.

Just before we reached our destination for the night, we came to a spot where the bank was hung with bits of coloured cloth and calico fastened to sticks, I also noticed some bananas and dried fish tied to the sticks. This signified that there was a native burial ground close by, and all the canoes were stopped, the scullers putting their paddles down, while the Hadji and all his men proceeded to wash their faces in the river. This they did to ensure success in their nest-collecting.

We stayed the night in one of two raised half-thatched huts used only by the natives in the collecting seasons, a ladder from the river leading into them. It was almost dark when we arrived, and hardly were we under shelter when rain came down in torrents. It poured all night, and when we started off on foot at sunrise the next morning we found the track in the forest a regular quagmire; in places we waded through mud up to our knees. As we scrambled and floundered through the mud at our best pace we heard a great crashing noise just in front of us, and the air resounded with cries of "Gajah, gajah!" (elephant). I was just in time to see a large elephant tear by. It literally seemed to fly, and knocked down small trees as if they were grass. It seemed greatly frightened, and made a sort of coughing noise. It went by so quickly that I was unable to see whether it had tusks or not.

After about three hours' hard tramping, I caught sight of a high mass of white limestone gleaming through the trees. It made a pretty picture in the early morning, the white rock peeping out of luxuriant creepers and foliage. It rises very abruptly from the surrounding forest, and at a distance looked quite inaccessible to a climber.

We waded through a stream of clear water, washing the horrible forest mud from off us, and soon found ourselves in a most picturesque village at the very base of the rock. We disturbed quite a crowd of native girls bathing in a spring, and they seemed very much alarmed and surprised at seeing two Europeans suddenly turn the corner. Out of season I don't believe any one lives in this village except some watchers at the mouths of the eaves to guard against thieves. The Hadji gave us a rough hut with a flooring of split bamboo and kept us provided with chickens. All this no doubt was in his estimation part of the necessary steps to securing that much-desired Panglima-ship.

The two days we were here, people kept flocking into the village, most of the men carrying long steel-pointed spears, in many cases beautifully mounted with engraved silver: others carried long "parangs" and "krises" in rough wooden sheaths, but the handles were often of carved ivory and silver.

After some breakfast we started off to see the near lower cave, which was one of the smaller ones. We followed a very pretty ferny track by the side of a rocky stream for a short distance, the forest being partially cleared and open, with large boulders scattered around. The sky overhead was thick with swallows, in fact one could almost say the air was black with them. These of course were the birds that make the nests. The mouth of the cave partly prepared me for what I was to see. I had expected a small entrance, but here it was, I should say, sixty feet in height and of great width, the entrance being partly overhung with a curtain of luxuriant creepers. The smell of guano had been strong before, but here it was overpowering.

Extending inside the cave for about one hundred yards was a small village of native huts used chiefly by the guards or watchers of these caves. Compared with the vastness of the interior of the cave - I believe about four hundred and eighty feet in height - one could almost imagine that one was looking at the small model of a village. A small stream ran out of a large hill of guano, and if you left the track you sank over your knees in guano. The vastness of the interior of this cave impressed me beyond words. It was stupendous, and to describe it properly would take a better pen than mine. One could actually see the very roof overhead, as there were two or three openings near the top (reminding one of windows high up in a cathedral) through which broad shafts of light forced their way, making some old hanging rattan ladders high up appear like silvery spider webs. Of course there were recesses overhead where the light could not penetrate, and these were the homes of millions of small bats, of which more presently. As for the birds themselves, this was one of their nesting seasons, and the cave was full of myriads of them. The twittering they made resembled the whisperings of a multitude. The majority of them kept near the roof, and as they flew to and fro through the shafts of light they presented a most curious effect and looked like swarms of gnats; lower down they resembled silvery butterflies. Where the light shone on the rocky walls and roofs one could distinguish masses upon masses of little silver black specks. These were their nests, as this was a black-nest cave. Somewhere below in the bowels of the earth rumbled an underground river with a noise like distant thunder. This cavernous roar far below and the twittering whisper of the swallows far overhead, combined to add much to the mysteriousness of these wonderful caves.

On the ground in the guano I picked up several eggs, unbroken. How they could fall that distance and yet not get smashed is hard to understand, unless it is that they fell in the soft guano on their ends. We were told that when a man fell from the top he was smashed literally into jelly. I also picked up a few birds which had been stunned when flying against the rocks. This saved me from shooting any.

Spread out on the ground in the cave and also drying outside, raised from the ground on stakes, were coil after coil of rattan ropes and ladders used for collecting the nests. These always have to be new each season, and are first carefully tested. The ladders are made of well twisted strands of rattan with steps of strong, hard wood, generally "bilian."

On our return to the village we bathed in a shady stream of clear water, the banks of which I noted were composed chiefly of guano. In the afternoon we started off in search of the upper eaves. After a short, stiff climb amid natural rockeries of jagged limestone, we passed under a rock archway or bridge, under which were perched frail-looking raised native huts of the watchers. As we stood under this curious archway we looked down a precipice on our left. It was very steep at our feet, but from the far side it took the form of a slanting shaft, which terminated in a little window or inlet into the lower cave we had visited in the morning. In our ascent we had to climb up very rough, steep ladders fastened against the rocky ledges. The rocks were in many places gay with variegated plants, the most notable being a very pretty-leafed begonia, covered with pink and silver spots, the spots being half pink, half white. The natives with us seemed to enjoy eating these leaves; they certainly looked tempting enough.

Another fine plant growing among these rocks was a climbing POTHOS, with very dark green leaves, ornamented with a silver band across each leaf, but the finest of all was a fine velvet-leafed climber, veined with crimson, pink, or white (CISSUS sp.).

We at length came to the entrance of a long chain of eaves, through which we passed, going down a very steep grade, and our guides had to carry lights. After a climb down some steep rocks in semi-darkness, we at length found ourselves in the largest cave of all, supposed to be about five hundred and sixty feet in height.[14] It, too, had two or three natural windows, through which the light penetrated. One of them was on the top, in the very centre of the cave, and from down below it looked like a distant star. This opening was on the very summit of the Gomanton rock. This cave greatly resembled the smaller one I have already described, except that it was of much grander dimensions. As in the first cave, one could hear the roar of an underground torrent, and the swallows seemed even more numerous. On the rocky walls I noticed plenty of large spiders and a curious insect, with a long body and long, thin legs, which ran very fast, and whose bite we were told was very poisonous.

On the way back, when passing through some very low caves, the Hadji got some of his men to knock down for me a few of the white nests from the sides of the cave with long poles, and in another cave they got me some black nests. The difference between these white and black nests is this: they are made by two different kinds of swallows. The white nest is made by a very small bird, but the bird that builds the black nest is twice the size of the other. The white nest looks something like pure white gelatine, and is very clean, and has no feathers in it. The black nest, on the contrary, is plentifully coated with feathers, and it is, in consequence, not worth nearly as much as the white nest. The nests are made from the saliva of the birds. Both are very plain coloured birds; an ordinary swallow is brilliant in comparison. This is unusual in a country so full of brilliant-plumaged birds as Borneo is; but, as they spend most of their lives in the depths of these sombre caves, I suppose it is only natural that their plumage should be obscure and plain. These birds'-nest caves are found all over Borneo and the Malay Peninsula, and also in Java and other parts of the Malay archipelago, but these are by far the largest. The revenue from these caves alone brings the Government a very large sum. By far the greatest number of these nests are sent to China, where birds'-nest soup is an expensive luxury. The natives of Borneo do not eat them. For myself, I found the soup rather tasteless.

We were told that if they missed one season's nest collecting, most of the birds would forsake these caves, possibly because there would be so little room for them to build again. I learned that they build and lay four times a year, but I think that they meant that both the black and the white-nest birds lay twice each. The white kind build their first nests about March, and the black kind in May, and, as these nests are all collected before they have time to hatch their eggs, there are no young birds till later in the year, when the nests are not disturbed, but the old nests are collected with the new ones the following year. If the guano could be easily transported to the coast it would be a paying proposition, but the Government fears that it might frighten the birds away.

About dusk that evening after we had returned to our hut, I heard a noise like the whistling of the wind, and, going outside, I saw a truly wonderful sight, in fact a sight that filled me with amazement. The millions of small bats which share these caves with the birds were issuing forth for the night from the small hole I spoke about on the very top of the rock leading into the large cave, but what a sight it was! As far as the eye could see they stretched in one even unbroken column across the sky. They issued from the cave in a compact mass and preserved the same even formation till they disappeared in the far distance. As far as I could see there were no stragglers. They rather resembled a thick line of smoke coming out of the funnel of a steamer, with this exception that they kept the same thick line till they went out of sight. The most curious thing about it was that the thick line twisted and wriggled across the sky for all the world like a giant snake, as if it were blown about by gusts of wind, of which, however, there was none. Even with these strange manoeuvres the bats kept the same unbroken solid formation. They were still coming forth in the same manner till darkness set in, and then I could only hear the beating of myriads of wings like the sighing of the wind in the tree-tops.

They return in early morning in much the same fashion. I heard that the swallows usually did the same thing, only the other way about; when the bats came out, the swallows entered the eaves, and when the bats went in, the swallows came out, but it being now their nesting season, they went in and out of the eaves irregularly all day, but I was quite satisfied to see the bats go through the performance, as it was one of the most wonderful sights I have ever seen.

We had been told that it would be three or four more days before the collecting would take place, and also that they had to wait for a good omen in the shape of a good dream coming to one of the chief owners of the caves. Our pleasure was great, therefore, when the Hadji and some of his followers paid us a visit that night and told us that work should start in the largest cave the next morning for our benefit. That was good news, indeed, as Richardson could not wait more than another day. It was another good move for the Hadji and his Panglima-ship, and I told Richardson he ought to give it him forthwith.

The next morning we climbed to the top of the rock. It was hard work climbing over the brittle rocks and up perpendicular and shaky ladders. On reaching the summit we got a splendid view of the surrounding country, and could plainly see the distant sea; but all else was thick, billowy forest, dotted at long intervals with limestone ridges, also covered with forest. Here we found the hole on the top of the large cave, and stretching across it were two long, thick "bilian" logs, to which the natives were now fastening their long rattan ladders before descending them to collect the nests. We crept along the logs and listened to the everlasting twittering far below; but, although we could see nothing but pitchy darkness, the thought of what was below made me soon crawl back with a very shaky feeling in my legs

We then descended again till we came to the mouth of a curious cave, which was practically a dark chasm at our feet. We climbed down into the depths on a straight, swaying ladder, which required a good grip, and then, after a climb over slanting, slippery rocks, we found ourselves in the large cave, on a sort of ledge, within perhaps sixty feet of the roof. We were told that we were the first Europeans who had ever descended on to this ledge. From here we watched the natives collecting the nests. In a short account of this description it is impossible for me to detail all the wonderful methods the natives had for collecting the nests, but the chief method was by descending rattan ladders, which were let down through the hole on the top of the cave. It made one quite giddy even to watch the men descending these frail swaying ladders with over five hundred feet of space below them. The man on the nearest ladder had a long rattan rope attached low down to his ladder, with a kind of wooden anchor at the end of it. At the second attempt he succeeded with a wonderful throw in getting the anchor to stick in the soft guano on the edge of the slanting ledge where we were. It was then seized by several men waiting there; by these it was hauled up until they were enabled to catch hold of the end of the ladder, which they dragged higher and higher up the steep, slanting rocks we had come down by. This in time brought the flexible ladder, at least the part on which the man was, level with the roof, and he, lying on his back on the thin ladder, pulled the nests off the rocky roof, putting them into a large rattan basket fastened about his body.

We saw many other methods they have of collecting these nests by the aid of long bamboo poles and rattan ropes, up which they climbed to dizzy heights.

These eaves, we were told, were full of very large harmless snakes, but we did not come across them. If I had had a good head and plenty of skill and pluck as a climber, I might have come away a wealthy man, as the Hadji told us that in a sort of side cave high up in the large cave were the coffins of the men that first discovered these caves, and with them were large jars of gold and jewels, but no one dared touch them, as they said it would be certain death to the man who did so. A man once did take some, but a few days later was taken violently ill and so had them put back and thus recovered. It was not for any scruples of this kind that I declined the Hadji's offer to help myself when he pointed out to me the spot where they were, but I think he must have guessed that I would not have trusted myself on one of those frail swaying ladders with over five hundred feet of space beneath me.

On the way back we scrambled up to a small cave where there were numerous carved coffins and bones which belonged to some of the former owners of the caves, but alas! no jars of gold; possibly poor men, they did not realize good prices. We returned down the rocks a different way, which made Richardson indulge in some hearty language at the Hadji's expense, who must have had fears that the Panglima-ship was at the last moment slipping away from him. It certainly was awkward and dangerous work climbing down the steep precipices, and we could never have done it, but that the rocks were quite honeycombed with small holes which enabled us to get a good hold for our hands.

That night was a busy one for me, skinning my numerous birds and blowing the eggs by a dim light to the accompaniment of Richardson's snores, and I did not get to bed till 2 a.m. We were up again at 4 a.m. for the return journey. But I had seen one of the most wonderful sights in the world, and to me it seemed extraordinary that until I came to Borneo I had never even heard of the Gomanton eaves. Some day, perhaps within our time, they will become widely advertised, and swarms of noisy tourists will come over in airships from London and New York, but there will be one thing lacking - all romance will have gone from these lonely wilds and forests, and that is the chief thing. The Hadji returned with us to Bilit, and got his desire, the Panglima-ship, and well he deserved it.


[1] - C is pronounced as Th.: E.G., "Cawa" - "Thawa."

[2] - Nabuna, pron. Nambuna.

[3] - Panes of glass in a FIJIAN house are very unusual, but this house, being Government-built, was European. I can only recall one other instance, that of Ratu Kandavu Levu on his small island of Bau, and then it was only in the native house where he entertained European guests.

[4] - These circumstances were a matter of common knowledge, at the time of my visit, all over Fiji. On the other hand it must be remembered that Ratu Lala did not think he was doing any harm, for the woman, having done wrong, required punishing, and naturally South Sea Island ideas of punishment, inherited from past generations, differ radically from those of Europeans.




[8] - Pron.: longa-longa.

[9] - Pronounced "Samothe."

[10] - "b" pronounced "mb."

[11] - R. Shelford's Report.

[12] - From a Singapore Paper.

[13] - Some of these names that I got were "kudong" "blimbing," "mawang," "sima" "lakat," "kamayan," "nika," "esu," "kubal," "padalai" and "rambai."

[14] - These were the heights given me by the Malays.