Food Adventures in Malaysia: Day 13, Deer Cave in Gunung Mulu National Park
When I started planning my two weeks in Malaysia, there was little doubt that I needed to take the opportunity to witness firsthand the massive spectacle of Deer Cave. Just a few hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, Borneo is a must stop at destination for any Malaysian bound traveler. And even though I saw Deer Cave as featured on The Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth series, it did nothing to prepare me for the mass, the grandeur, the smells, the excitement, and the wonder of being in Deer Cave in person. It is truly a once in a lifetime experience that I wish every lover of nature and natural formations could experience.
About Deer Cave
Deer Cave is the largest cave passageway in the world. It is large enough to fly a jumbo jet through. It is only 4.1 kilometers long, however, it is up to 169 meters wide and up to 148 meters tall. For all those American football players out there, that’s 185 yards wide by 162 yards tall. There is another cave which was discovered in Vietnam in 2009 which has a claim to the largest cave title as well, but depending on who is surveying the two seems to get to make the prize claim.
Deer Cave was first explored in 1978, and was aptly named because of the small Bornean deer found inside the entrance of the cave. The deer would go to the cave to drink the water that flowed through it. That seemed a bit odd, being that there is so much water throughout the rain forest jungle in Borneo. So it became a matter of study, and was discovered that the water in Deer Cave has a high salt content in it due to the giant piles of bat guano inside. Bat guano has salt in it, which runs off in the water. This sounds pretty disgusting to you and I, but the salt source was a life save to the deer.
So where does all that bat guano come from? Well, there are over 3 million bats that call Deer Cave home. And every night they exit the cave for a feeding frenzy on the flying insects of the jungle. It is a pretty spectacular sight which I was fortunate enough to see.
For more information, I found a great website all about the Caves of Mulu…. The Mulu Caves Project. My little Canon PowerShot camera was not capable of taking any pictures in the immense black of the cavern, so it is with great respect that I share the Mulu Caves Project’s Deer Cave photos with you. But check out their site. It’s pretty awesome.
Getting to Deer Cave
Travel to, and accommodations at, Gunung Mulu National Park, home of Deer Cave, is a rustic adventure all its own, as detailed in my Day 12 post. From park headquarters, the only way to get to Deer Cave is by walking the 3 kilometer long iron wood boardwalk. The walk was beautiful, and took us straight into the heart of the Bornean jungle. The tropical fauna was awesome; and the sound of insects and frogs mesmerizing. We crossed swampy pools and bright green rivers, and found some amazing insect travelers too.
The Massive Entrance to Deer Cave
I was already in sensory overload from just coming out of Langs Cave, which is only 100 meters away from Deer Cave. It was raining as we sauntered between the caves. Then, all at once, this enormous hole appeared above us. It was pitch black against the stark white limestone mountain side. I’ve never seen such a large cave in my life. Holy hell it was HUGE! Unbelievable.
I estimate the palm trees in this picture were about 55 feet tall. They were the most beautiful palms I’ve ever seen, but they looked so tiny inside the cave’s mouth.
Abraham Lincoln Formation in Deer Cave
As we wandering into the cave (strictly staying on the boardwalk pathway), our guide pointed out the watering pools the deer used to come to. We rounded a few corners and started entering the main passageway of the cavern. Our guide then stopped us and told us to turn around. Silhouetted before us in the cave mouth was the perfect image of Abraham Lincoln. This natural occurrence is weird on every account.
So all the black you see is open cave…not wall. It was so enormous inside that my camera flash just disappeared into the darkness. Absolutely amazing place. Like the water dripping down in front of me here? These water streams were all over from openings in the limestone that collected the rain water and flowed into the cave from cracks in the ceiling.
Here’s a close up of Abe…
Deer Cave Bat Guano
When planning a trip to Deer Cave, you should know that you are in for an awesome but smelly experience. With over 3 million bats living inside the cave, there is bat crap all over the place inside. The stink is a bit stifling. It smells oddly like bad body odor, but with a wet mustiness that is hard to explain. If you’re sensitive to these sorts of things, you could rub a little Tigers Balm under your nose. I had some with me, but the smell wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be, so I didn’t use any.
There is guano everywhere inside, and upon leaving the cave you will find that you are covered with little “dirt” pellets all over your arms and clothes. But don’t let this ruin your day. The poo is one of the attractions of the cave, and the park did a great job of showcasing it by building the boardwalks right through the 2 giant piles of it in the cave (literally inches under your feet). The bats roost in two main areas of the cave, and over time, have produced piles of bat shit 100 meters tall!
This is giant pile of bat guano #1. Like the roaches that feed off the waste?
Mmmmm….tasty poop for breakfast anyone?
After walking through the entire length of the cave, the boardwalk starts climbing a small mountain of rock inside the passageway. As you climb the stairs, you begin to notice the stink growing stronger and stronger. Why is it so? What could it be? You soon discover that this mountain you’ve been climbing isn’t all rock.
Giant pile of bat guano #2. Holy bat shit Robin!!!!! Planet Earth didn’t over exaggerate the immensity of this heaping pile of dung.
Deer Cave Garden of Eden
At the top of this second pile of poo, there is a lookout point to the other side of the cave passage. This pristine, primordial scene is aptly named The Garden of Eden. I thought this was one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen. The vibrant green and falling water was so stunning against the blackness of this giant chasm….the largest in the world….
Awesome Bat Exodus Show at Deer Cave
As if the wonders of Deer Cave itself weren’t enough, the 3 million bats which call it home leave the cave every evening to go hunt bugs in the forest. The bats even an estimated 15 tons of insects per day!
Like I said earlier, it was raining when we entered the cave, which was a big concern to me because the bats don’t come out when it’s raining. But as we were leaving the cave, the rains started to slow and then came to a stop by the time we reached the bat observatory/amphitheater. Our guides were not hopeful that the bats would show, and several in our group left. But I came nearly 14,000 miles to see these bats, so I wasn’t leaving until I got to see them.
After 45 minutes of waiting, we cheered in excitement as we saw a little cloud of bats leave the cave and fly overhead. This apparently was the scouting party, because after about 10 minutes they returned to the cave and flew inside. A few minutes later, another cloud came out, followed by a second. They too returned after a few minutes and went back inside the cave. Then, as if a loud siren to exit sounded in the cave, the bats began their mass exodus. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. A single wispy trail of bats began flying overhead. This trail, which looked oddly cartoonish, kept undulating from the cavernous depths for over 10 minutes uninterrupted. What a trip! I took several pictures of the start of the show, and even shot a video of it which I share below.
But what was equally impressive was that this same show was going on on the other side of the cave as well. I started seeing the other bats flying over the top of the mountain from the other side of the cave. That was cool, but what was absolutely incredible was that I got to see those bats forming large doughnut formations in attempted protection against the predatory hawks that feed on the bats every night. They do this hoping to confuse the hawks. I saw this on Planet Earth, but never expected to actually see it in person. The hawks, which just simply pick the bats out of the air, gorge themselves every night on the bats. But with so many bats breeding constantly, it doesn’t even make a dent in the population. I stared in awe at this amazing show, and offered another prayer of gratitude for the chance to witness such wonder.
The Bald Gourmet visits Deer Cave in Malaysia’s Gunung Mulu National Park.
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