Twice a year a strange phenomenon occurs in Borneo's northern state of Sabah: the Gomantong Cave nest harvest. Licensed nest harvesters perilously construct temporary ladders from rattan and rope to reach valuable swiftlet nests clinging to the uppermost parts of the massive caves. Several men loose their lives annually while trying to climb to nests that can be 300 feet above the cave floor. Despite the shocking price of the nests, harvest techniques have changed very little over the centuries. Men hang flimsy ladders on iron hooks thought to have been placed by Chinese harvesters centuries ago.
The Gomantong Caves are open to the public; witnessing the dangerous and frantic nest harvest is certainly not to be missed if you time your visit to Sabah correctly.
- Read more about things to see in East Sabah.
What to Expect at the Gomantong Caves
A wooden plank walk through green rainforest connects the office with the entrance of the Black Cave (Simud Hitam). Most visitors are shocked at the unexpected size of the cave entrance - the ceiling of the main chamber reaches up to 300 feet. Wooden walkways throughout the Black Cave keep visitors safely above the estimated 10 feet of guano deposited by the millions of resident bats. Entering the cave is not for the squeamish; a horde of beetles and cockroaches make a squirming feast of guano and dead swiftlets that fell out of nests.
The White Cave (Simud Putih) is the source for pricier nests and much more difficult to reach. Tourists must get special permission and have spelunking experience to explore the White Cave. The entrance is a 30-minute scramble up steep rocks above the entrance of the Black Cave.
Tips for Visiting the Gomantong Caves
- Entrance Fee: The entrance fee for foreigners is $10; children under 12 years old cost $5. You must pay an additional $3 to bring a camera inside.
- Wear Proper Shoes: The walkways become slippery with guano. Unless you are a fan of falling into literal heaps of guano, wear closed shoes with traction rather than the default sandals.
- Wear a Hat: A good portion of the estimated two million bats that call the Gomantong Caves home will be adding to the guano deposits on the floor while you are beneath!
- Photography: Lighting inside of the Gomantong Caves is very poor; 300-foot-tall ceilings render flash nearly useless. If you are not traveling with a tripod and professional SLR, consider avoiding the camera fee by just pocketing your camera before the entrance.
- Wildlife: Pay attention and walk quietly during the 15-minute walk from the office to the cave entrance, sometimes endangered orangutans and red leaf monkeys make special appearances.
- Inside the Caves: Be on the lookout for interesting cave dwellers such as crabs and giant centipedes. The presence of crabs reinforces the theory that the cave was once submerged.
Edible Bird's Nests
The Gomantong Caves, along with the Niah Caves in Sarawak, are considered the top sources for edible bird's nests in the world. Male swiftlets typically build nests over a period of 35 days by excreting sticky saliva. The market price of swiftlet nests is astronomical; one kilogram of white nests brings in around two thousand dollars while the “red blood” nests can fetch ten thousand dollars per kilogram! A bowl of bird's nest soup in a nice restaurant can cost as much as $100. Despite the price, the gelatinous nest is nearly tasteless.
Edible bird's nests are reputedly high in calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium, however the medicinal claims for longevity and use as an aphrodisiac have never been proven.
While the collection of edible nests has been going on for centuries, the jury is still out on the ethics of bird's nest soup. Nest collection is closely regulated and licensed at Gomantong Caves where full-time security guards the entrance of the caves. However, in less-regulated places such as the Andaman Islands, the price and demand for the nests encourages unethical practices such as throwing the young swiftlets out to harvest nests prematurely. The IUCN has upgraded edible-nest swiftlets to “critically threatened” in some parts of Southeast Asia.
A bulk of the swiftlet nests go to Hong Kong to be used in soup, drinks, and medicine, however the U.S. is the second-largest importer in the world.
Getting to the Gomantong Caves
The Gomantong Caves are located a little over an hour from Sandakan along the road to Sukau in Sabah, Borneo. Many travelers choose to visit the caves while on their way to sleep overnight in Sukau and tour the Kinabatangan River. While not impossible, getting to the Gomantong Caves without joining a tour is challenging and requires hitchhiking or walking the final four miles from the road junction to the cave. To avoid getting stuck, team up with other travelers and hire a taxi or private car from Sandakan; expect to pay around $30.
Tours from Sandakan to the Gomantong Caves cost between $30 - $40, depending on the operator and whether or not the tour continues on to Sukau and the Kinabatangan River. Confirm before booking that the tour price includes the $10 entrance fee at the caves.
- Read more about getting around Sabah.
When to Go
While the Gomantong Caves are open all year, the nests are collected only twice annually. The first harvest takes place between February and April when the male swiftlets finish building the nests. A second harvest occurs between July and September after any surviving fledglings have left the nests. To find out if a harvest is in progress, inquire inside the tourist information office in Sandakan located inside Wisma Warisan at the junction of Lebuh Tiga and Jalan Utara.