Malaysia’s National Park offers caves, waterfalls, bats, and unexpectedly delicious meals
We had grabbed a light lunch earlier before being picked up at our checkpoint in a van, and the vehicle was now rumbling hurriedly down the highway towards the loom of greens in the distance.
For so long, I’d been wanting to visit Malaysia’s Taman Negara (or National Park), and finally bit the bullet upon being seduced by the ‘Sleep In a Cave Experience’ curated by adventure specialists Adenue while browsing their website (adenue.com).
After two-and-a-half hours of tarmac, we turned off into an unmarked gravel road. Branches reached out to brush against the sturdy metal of our vehicle, reminding us that we were foraying into the world’s oldest rainforest.
A short while later, we were dropped off at the mouth of the first cave that would initiate our escapade into Taman Negara. A stretch and a deep breath of fresh air later, we were given torchlights and led into Snake Cave.
In we go …
… head-first as the light of the day slowly ebbed into darkness. The glow from our torchlights revealed the nooks and edges of the cave all around us. I was surprised to find that the cave was relatively dry. A few bats chattered excitedly at the glare, which settled into muffled grumblings soon after.
I tuned my ears to every small peep and squeak, eager to catch sounds that might turn out to be something interesting. The group kept close to Mat, our Adenue guide, for fear of stumbling into the snakes that the cave was named after. Earlier, we were briefed on what we might see (or hear) in the cave; bats, spiders, centipedes, and monkeys are but a few creatures that have made their homes in the hollowed caverns.
We left the cave exhilarated; some of the travellers swore they heard hissings from the dark grotto. Emboldened by the first experience, we were eager to explore our next destination:
Elephant Cave. Unusual stalagmite formations writhed and curled, framing the entrance. When we walked in, Mat showed us the formation that the cave was named after; employing a bit of imagination, one could definitely spot the silhouette of elephantine trunks and legs.
This time I explored away from our guide, walking towards the quieter spots. In turn, I was rewarded with a macaque peeking out from his perch and a leech that I probably caught on the short trek to the cave, a small price to pay for such an unusual escapade.
Getting our hands dirty
Before arriving at our campsite, Mat took us to a top-secret location (or so he told us) of a waterfall. We trekked through a bit of jungle dirt, relieved that the absence of rain in the last couple of days had left the paths dry. It was a typically warm day, and we were eager for a dip in the cool waters of the jungle river; we were not disappointed. The promising rumble of a waterfall in the distance yielded a cool splash about pristine fresh waters. Swathed in lush greens, the waterfall was a sight for sore, sweaty eyes.
A bath later, we were headed towards the cave that we would call home for the night: the Cathedral. We grabbed our tents and built our shelter with Mat’s help. Once he was sure we were safe from the perils of collapsing tents, he instructed us to gather firewood and taught us how to make a fire with a magnesium flint.
And with that, Chef Mat was in the house: the fire was his kitchen and the rainforest his restaurant. He asked for a show of hands of what we wanted for dinner, and we settled on some local-style spiced marinated chicken, Italian sausages, and baked potatoes. I knew of Malaysia’s love for food, but was happily befuddled to find it even in the heart of its 130 million-year-old rainforest.
Some of us made chit-chat while others sat a little out of the way to enjoy the peace of dusk, eagerly drinking in the sounds of night. As a chill began to seep through our thin cotton clothes, we huddled closer to the fire for warmth, watching our dinner taking shape in Mat’s experienced hands.
After a much-needed shower and before winding down for the night, we were each given a torch. There was laughter all around as Mat recalled a time when a lady was so scared that she kept her torchlight on the entire night! He jestingly warned us that whoever did that would have to do the dishes the next morning. Excited at the prospect of hearing a passing wild boar, we kept our eyes open in pitch darkness with our guide describing the source of unusual sounds in hushed tones, for fear of scaring the critters away.
Every rustle was greeted with a gasp or whispers asking Mat if that was a tiger. Our friendly guide merely shook his head, coolly replying that it was not the sound a tiger would make. After a few rounds of heading to the toilet built just outside the cave, most of us were sleeping to the serenade of the jungle.
The chatter from a small roost of bats coming home from a night of hunting gently woke me up from my dreams of jungle cats and creepy-crawlies. We were told bats were relatively harmless creatures, and after what I had seen yesterday, I was unperturbed by their return. There was a new understanding between Earth and I, just from spending one night within her evergreens.
When I crept out of the tent, there was a fresh fire going, and Mat was taking orders for breakfast – bread toasted off the fire, pancakes, fruits, and coffee or tea. On the agenda were two more caves, and we were pleased that Adenue were thoughtful enough to fuel us with a hearty breakfast.
With sensible shoes on, we trekked through bits of jungle pathway towards Turtle Cave. At this point, we were pretty ho-hum about caves and were expecting the experience to wind down. But Mat always had tricks up his sleeve, saving the best for last as he lead us towards Bat Cave.
The sound of a multitude of tiny winged rodents yelling greetings to one another at the top of their lungs was a sound you could hear from afar, a stark contrast to last night’s serenity. It made the tiny roost from Cathedral Cave sound like a peep. Occasionally a bat would fly too low and almost bump into one of our heads, eliciting yelps and cries that added to the merry din.
Admittedly, I was a little unnerved. But I was also left speechless as I marvelled at how polarising Nature could be – from tranquil to turbulent, the reticence of a still rainforest to the obtuse cacophony of hundreds of bats at once. Her pulse is exciting and full of wonders; you just have to know where to look for it.