Getting down and dirty in Taman Negara
I was very, very uncomfortable. The cave was dark, I could slip on the rocks anytime and fall to my death and worst of all, I had just touched something soft and sticky. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I had a feeling it came out of the wrong end of the bats which were flying above me.
“Don’t stop, you must move on,” our guide, who was a few feet ahead of me, called out. I tried not to think too much and went on.
My friends and I were in Gua Telinga, which in Malay translates as ‘Ear Cave’. There was something about this cave which reminded me of the inside of an ear; the way one had to climb down into it because it wasn’t at ground level, the way it narrowed uncomfortably in certain places, the way it twisted and turned before it narrowed.
I’m not exactly the caving type. In fact, I’m not any type at all. I had come to Taman Negara, Malaysia’s National Park where Gua Telinga was located, to – I don’t know, enjoy a bit of trekking, a bit of walking, nothing too difficult, you know, stuff like that. Unfortunately my friends were keen on caving, so I tagged along.
I had heard all sorts of stories about Gua Telinga. I’d heard that in some sections the ceiling was so low that you had to slither on your stomach to get through and that most parts of the cave were practically coated with bat droppings. But then, I enjoy a good challenge, so Gua Telinga it was.
Our guide entered the cave first. The opening wasn’t very large and was only four feet high so we entered it sideways, crouching. Water was dripping down the walls, making it a little dangerous, so we held on to the rock with our fingers and toes.
The stench didn’t hit me at first but as we went deeper into the cave it got stronger- an unpleasant, cloying smell which filled the air around us. I held my breath and tried to breathe through my mouth, then immediately realised that that was even more disgusting.
After walking with bent backs for about 15 minutes, the ceiling dropped even lower to barely three feet above the ground. So this is where we start crawling, I thought. With the help of our headlamps, we made our way into the narrow passage. My palms touched the cave floor, which was cold and wet. “Try not to talk, guys. It’s pretty gross,” someone’s muffled voice came from far behind me.
We crawled for some time until finally the ceiling rose. This allowed us to relax our knees and limbs a little, although it still wasn’t high enough for us to stand. The walls had also opened wider, giving us more room and air to breathe, as stale and musty as it was.
Finally the passageway opened up to a large chamber. Here, the ceiling was high, maybe about 15 feet; I couldn’t really tell. We could all stand now. “Is everyone here?” asked the guide. I wiped my filth-covered hands on my clothes but they were just as dirty.
And as we re-assembled and stood there, we heard the sound of hard, leathery wings flapping all around us. Bats flew above us, back and forth from wall to wall, from ceiling to wall and back again. Those that weren’t flying were hanging from the ceiling, their wings folded around them protectively like perfect black capes. There were also bats huddled together in crevices, there were bats hanging from ledges, there were bats looking at us with beady eyes; there were bats everywhere.
After going up another smaller chamber and making use of holes and cracks in the wall to pull ourselves up, we emerged from Gua Telinga a few minutes later, exhausted and in need of a wash.
I’m still not the caving type, but I really would do that again. Just remind me to bring a pair of gloves next time.
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