Tag Archives: Bird’s-nest caves

Reaching Borneo

A Trail of Breadcrumbs’ continued from Bali to Borneo, where I spent a little too long in Kota Kinabalu before exploring Northern Sabah. This was dominated by a tour of wildlife in rescue centres, albeit impressive organisations, it was a saddening fact that these were necessary. This was only emphasised by the roads being almost entirely lined by palm oil plantations and tour guides emphasising their value to the local economy. Tourism and palm oil are two of the biggest industries in this part of the world, it must be a delicate balance in PR. 

There was the chance, however, to follow rivers and explore rainforest, to listen to the orchestra within and to see nature in the wild, orangutans, proboscis monkeys, snakes, elephants. All truly awesome experiences. 

The highlight was of course to reach the Gormantong caves that Annie didn’t manage to (she was eventually persuaded she wouldn’t be able to access them). Alas a breadcrumb wasn’t left here, but one did find a home (albeit temporarily) on the coastline of one of the islands not far from Kota Kinabalu and where I had dived the previous week. This was a relaxing, calming pause in the fast paced itinerary and one worthy of marking.

Bexhill to Bexhill

A Trail of Breadcrumbs reaches Borneo, Louise Kenward (2014)

Bexhill to Bexhill

A Trail of Breadcrumbs reaches Borneo, Louise Kenward (2014)


Gormantong Caves

North East of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) sit the Gormantong caves. One of the sites the rare and much prized bird’s nests of the apparently culinary delight from which bird’s nest soup is made from. Annie Brassey had been very keen to visit these at the time of her visit to what was then Northern British Borneo in 1878. She had been able to visit Madai caves where the swiftlets also nested. Reached more readily by boat, the Sunbeam docked at Darvel Bay from where there was quite some expedition still to reach their destination. The trip is documented well in Annie’s journal and in photographs and sketches made at the time. The nests she brought back from her trip are also still in tact and currently being looked after by the Bexhill Museum. What is also well documented is her desire to reach Gormantong. A good deal further from Darvel Bay, her journal gives the impression that she had already had someone attempt to discourage her from such a venture. Despite this Messers Wilson and Walker were sent to survey the area on foot. Crossing rivers, swamps, jungle and general inhospitable land, they finally reached the caves some days later. Little detail is given about the caves themselves, however, and what they found on their arrival, rather emphasis spent assuring Lady Brassey that it really would be an impossible journey for her. With great reluctance she relents and they move on. This did, however, make me curious to recreate an expedition. Not the travelling through rivers, swamps and jungle, I anticipated that some years later it would be a little easier to get to.

Black bird's nests caves, Borneo "looking awkward" (Lady Brassey photograph collection, with kind permission from Hastings Library)

Black bird’s nests caves, Borneo “looking awkward” (Lady Brassey photograph collection, with kind permission from Hastings Library)

Planning as much as I could from the UK, with time restrictions and a less than clear answer from the internet, I arranged to join a tour that took me overland through Sabah, principally because it included a visit to Gormantong caves. With extra days to spare I still held out hope of reaching Madai but if nothing else, reaching the caves that eluded Annie so, and that she so wanted to visit would certainly be good enough.

Dressed in hard hat and head torch, long sleeves, trousers and fully covered shoes, I embark on my own expedition. A short walk through jungle, the orchestra was playing loudly and jubilantly. No one else was around and I wondered how much the environment had changed from the views that would of greeted Messers Wilson and Walker on their eventual arrival, and how much cursing dear Lady Brassey may have received. Long houses flank the entrance to the caves where equipment is stored for harvesting. A large cavernous opening awaits and I’m warned of cockroaches and falling guano. Nothing could deter me from going in. The central area is very tall with a small opening at the top allowing a small amount of light in, where I could see bats circling. On the ground lay a large mound of guano. Helpfully a walkway had been built around the perimeter so, unlike Annie and her group, I didn’t need to walk through too much goo. Blessed with a cold for this part of the trip my olfactory senses were blissfully hampered. The stench that kept others at bay did not bother me.

Gormantong Caves (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Gormantong Caves (Louise Kenward, 2014)

The atmosphere was cool and dark, taking in as much of the beauty of the caves, the light and the structure of the rock face I was completely absorbed and almost didn’t notice two people sitting in a small wooden hut constructed to one side at the base of the caves. Wardens of the caves, they are careful to protect their valuable bounty. As in awe of the structure and the cave as I was, I’m not sure I’d actually want to live there.

Reaching the sunshine again I’m a bit disappointed not to stay longer, but as with a tour I have to move on. Very very happy to have reached the caves and keen to report back to Annie.

Caves in Borneo

Research today has focussed on the time Annie Brassey visited Borneo. In particular of the caves where bird’s nests are collected for making bird’s nest soup. I had been under the impression that a visit to one of these had been responsible for Lady Brassey contracting malaria. My journey passes through Malaysia and Indonesia and I am trying to establish the possibility of locating and visiting such a cave.

Entrance to Madai Caves‘The Last Voyage’ documents time spent in Singapore before sailing around the coast of Borneo. This included stopping at Brunei, Sarawak and Elopura (now known as Sandakan).

“I had been very anxious to go to the black bird’s-nest caves of Gomanton, but was assured by everybody that the difficulties would be found insurmountable. All agreed that it was absolutely necessary to await the return and the report of Messrs. Walker and Wilson, who had gone to Gomanton to survey the road…A shorter expedition has been therefore proposed, and it is arranged that we shall cross the bay and look at the bilian-wood cutting…The distant views of Sandakan are very fine, as is also the aspect of the north bluff of the island of Balhalla, where the best white birds’-nests in the world are found, and are collected at terrible risk to life and limb…we found Messrs. Walker and Wilson, now on their way back from the caves, of which they gave an interesting description. They seemed, however, to be firmly impressed with the idea that it would be impossible for us to visit them, the difficulties of the expedition being far too great for anyone unaccustomed to Borneo jungle-life. They had been obliged to swim rivers, wade through mud up to their arms, sleep in damp caves, and endure other hardships not very conducive to health in a malarious district.” (The Last Voyage, Brassey, pp178-180).

Up for a challenge, I am nonetheless reluctant to be swimming rivers, wading through mud up to my arms and sleeping in damp caves. However, it is looking as though visiting the caves of what is now referred to as Gomantong Caves in the Sabah region of Malaysia, may be a little easier today. From preliminary research it seems that these are a more practical destination than the Madai caves on the North East coast of Borneo. There are a number of sketches which illustrate this part of Annie’s journeys, the one below shows Annie’s journey, the one above features the entrance to the caves.

It might make a difference if I received this kind of treatment…

Bird's nest Caves at Madai