The coral reef flats
The little green and red wooden speedboat skimmed over the vibrant, clear water over the shallow coral flats, frightening massive sea turtles and sending them scurrying for the safety of deeper waters off the edge. Up ahead there was a small settlement built on the water in a small mangrove bay which we were headed for. Limestone cliffs covered in lush green vine forest towered behind. This is the island of Balambangan, Malaysia’s frontier on the north, directly off the tip of Borneo. Only a couple of kilometers away is politically the Philippines.
Getting here was a massive drama. There were five of us in this group. Rowan Brown and Shane van Duren, both Australian ex-pats plus Shane’s sister-in-law Viani and her friend, both from Borneo. Frankly, we were in search of treasure. Rumours had reached us that the Japanese in World War 2 had left a bunch of guns, swords etc stashed in caves among these islands. Today pirates from the islands to the north still bring terror to these islands, taking hostages and generally running amok with machine guns, stealing what they can and returning to their homes in the violent and dangerous southern Philippines. Malaysia’s presence was felt the day before on the neighboring island of Bangi to the east where we had arrived the day before to arrange transport to Balambangan. Civilians had guns, we even saw a guy get off the ferry with a semi automatic rifle on the Bornean mainland as we were getting on. The Malaysian Navy had two patrol boats, each with a .50 caliber machine gun at the ready. This was a tense place and we knew we were not welcome on Bangi as outsiders. Trying to get a fair price for the short journey over to Balambangan was near impossible. Soon the boat owners had called each other up to fix the price at an unreasonably high rate, literally two weeks wages for a short boat ride – 30 times the cost of the much longer journey (four times as far) from Borneo to Bangi. Luckily Jess had the number of a local Bornean known as Uncle Jimmy on Balambangan itself so we negotiated a much fairer price, however the boat was not available until the next morning. That night we had no other option other than sleep on the town jetty. Shane offered to keep watch, being a soldier (including the Foreign Legion) for most of his life served him well, he disguised himself under a pile of clothes and kept watch with a massive, sharp hunting knife in his hand, peering through a tiny eye space.
So that’s how we ended up dodging little one-tree islands and sandbars eventually reaching the fringing reef on Balambangan. The settlement ahead was Uncle Jimmy’s place. He welcomed us upon arrival and got to work making us feel at home. He farms and raises fish such as grouper and emperor in sea cages and lives on this house built on stilts over the water. He showed us around, I had to be careful of the rotted planks on his boardwalk that constantly threatened to break. A pipe slanted down from the limestone cliff nearby and into his house, trickling water into a large bucket. This, he explained was the only freshwater on the entire island. Inside his house he had the skulls of enormous crocodiles. I asked where they were from. He told me these were shot in the mangroves “just here.” So soon enough after we took turns to shower on his rear balcony he had cooked up some fish and delicious mud crabs and we sat down to talk. Asking about the caves on the island brought silence and a concerned look from Jimmy.
“I cannot let you go to the caves” he said with real concern.
We asked him what the problem was.
“Ghosts live in them. You will surely die” he replied. “A man fell into one cave and was found two days later with both legs broken and possessed by a ghost. You must take a guide. Nobody has been into those caves for years.”
Well, most of that was exactly what we wanted. A cave the locals won’t go near on an island visited by pirates and covered in uninhabited rainforest. The part about not being allowed to go there and needing a guide was the downside. Ghosts? Well, all I can say is a guy spending two days in the bottom of a cave with no drinking water and two broken legs may appear not-so normal after a while spooks or no spooks.
We told him it would all be OK and not to worry unless we had been away more than two nights. He soon relaxed and wished us well, as a bonus calling over his boatman to drop us off in the mangroves close to the cave we wanted to explore.
Balambangan is a smallish island shaped like the letter “c” with a large bay inside full of murky water, mangroves and mudflats with a little fringing reef. Towering over the bay were several peaks, all appeared to have caves. One particularly ominous one looked like something from the old Scooby Doo cartoons with a big yawning mouth on what looked like a head. We were taken to the shore and stepped off into the tangled mass of mangrove prop roots and mud. The going wasn’t so easy, and the best course of action happened to be climbing up a limestone wall into the forest. For hours we crashed through the vine forest, orchids covered some of the rocks and branches of the trees while if you weren’t careful an eye could be torn out by the cruel barbs of a lawyer palm’s three meter hooked tendrils. The forest floor was on top of crumbled limestone so there was not a drop of water anywhere, rain would have simply vanished between the rocks. Eventually we made it to one of the several peaks and climbed up to the top. Standing on a wind-cropped treetop I could see all around, the small fishing village on the other side of the arm of the island we were on and in the other direction well into Filipino territory. The peak we were on had no decent caves but the next one across was the spooky Scooby Doo peak. We elected to climb back down and over towards it. The trouble was the rainforest was so tall and dense we could not see exactly where it was or the best approach. Soon we came to a ravine in the forest between the two peaks. The shortest possible drop was seven or so meters. Luckily we had rope, but the trouble was it was horrible stiff green nylon rope from the hardware shop back in Borneo so we didn’t trust it a great deal. But trust it we must. I went first, then helped the girls down from the bottom. Soon we were all down and continued. Rain has an interesting effect on limestone, it dissolves it like a sugar cube, leaving a pitted, spiky surface that can easily cut skin or rope so we had to be careful as we continued. We disturbed something on a massive tree trunk. Two colugos shimmied up the trunk before I could get to my camera. Also known as flying lemurs they are allied to primates and have a massive gliding membrane from their wrists to their ankles, including a short tail. In “flight” they look like a gliding pentagon with a hand, foot or tail coming from each corner and a head at the front. As they shuffled up the tree they looked more like animated leather napkins. For me this truly was a major highlight.
The creepy horror movie mouth
Eventually we reached the base of the peak we wanted, and while tracking around the base through the loose limestone blocks we heard the boatman far below. He called out for us to come back. We inquired what for. He said it was because the ghosts were about to come out and it was dangerous, and Jimmy said so. Also that the police would come looking. We called back at him not to worry for at least another night and he eventually gave up and we heard him no more. Leaving the girls there with Rowan, Shane and I split up to try and find the entrance to the cave as it was so easy to see from the water. He went uphill and I went further forward. Time was short as daylight was nearly gone. After climbing the sharp rocks and crawling through vines I finally found an opening and stepped out into it. What I saw was surreal. The setting sun had washed everything in orange, the opening of the cave was way bigger than we thought and the rain had eroded natural archways and sculptures. It was clear nobody comes here, at least nobody had for a long time. Roots of figs twenty meters above hung down all the way to the ground. It was amazing. Before I could explore I had to get the others here. So I backtracked, finding them and eventually we were all there. Now for the next part, how do we get in? Walking to the entrance revealed that there was a drop into inky blackness. I kicked a rock in only to not hear it land. Wind was howling through this cave from somewhere else.
Looking up. This cavern was enormous.
This mountain was hollow! To the right was a sinkhole which wasn’t more than five meters deep and it seemed to have a passage going deeper down. So the rope was tied off and I carefully slid down into the living room sized sink hole. There was a passage leading diagonally down in the general direction of the massive cavern we had just looked into. So down I went in the tight space on my hands and knees and found myself in an enormous cathedral-like opening. Far above, an opening to the sky shone light in. You could probably BASE jump within that cavern alone. Up not so far above the others asked if I was OK. We found a small hole to lower the bags down one by one at that stage. Once the bags were safe the others came in and soon we were all in this huge cave. The wind was coming from a massive opening at ground level at the far corner and bats streamed out into the twilight to hunt. I followed the stream back to the roost, a smaller cavern reeking of ammonia and guano. Indeed I was ankle deep in the stuff. Broken bits of insects and general poo was what it was made of with cockroaches and crickets polishing off what they could. I was hit by two bats in their confusion and decided to rejoin the others who had found something really cool, going by their yelling.
I raced over to find a small tunnel about three meters up. In it was a different bat, a tiny blossom bat with big brown eyes and a fuzzy face unlike the ogre-like faces of the other bats in the cave. She had a baby clinging to her and after taking a look at us decided to fly away into the night.
Looking out at the jungle from the other side to the entrance we came in by
We continued our exploration and found another cave almost as big right next to the one we started in. This was to be camp for the night. Candles were lit and stuck in the walls and we all did our best to find comfort in the guano floor. The fire at the entrance served well to keep insects at bay. But some were welcome. Fireflies flew out of the jungle and regularly entered the cave, flashing around our heads before deciding it was more interesting outside and promptly left. The pressing issue was now water. Everywhere else in Borneo was well watered, you never had to go far at all to find it. But on this limestone island it simply runs into the ground with little or no runoff. Our mission was to find some, and it would take some skill. So Shane and I walked into the night looking for a sinkhole, creek, anything. There was a small creek but it was reduced to mud. Water was dripping off tree roots but not enough of it to catch. We could not initially find any water-vines either but a stroke of luck did come our way with the discovery of a large one over a creek bed. A swipe of the bush knife severed it and clear water trickled out. We drank from it and set up a bottle to catch the precious fluid. Dinner was simple, it came from cans and we sat in the firelight for a while before tucking in for the night.
The morning sun blasted through the cave entrance illuminating the insects flying around outside. A massive golden birdwing butterfly floated past and a too-delicate-looking-to-fly wood nymph with its lace patterned white wings drifted about lazily. We had more exploration to do. Collecting the water bottle and drinking from it was a great relief. But there wasn’t enough to keep us all happy for long. Following the creek bed down the hill ended up in a small passage vanishing into the earth. It looked good and Rowan and Shane wanted badly to explore as there would be water in there and maybe a maze of awesome passages. One by one we all looked in and noticed how insanely dangerous it was. The roof and sides were not carved out of limestone, they were made from chunks of limestone held together by gravel and dirt. Water had run so low we had to get back to Jimmy’s. Heading in the direction that felt right ended up being right. We were not to be going back the way we came, but instead were to find our way back from the other side of the hollow mountain. The forest soon gave way to grassland and we found the first human track we had seen the whole time, following it for an hour or so all the way back to Jimmy’s pier-house.
He was thrilled that we survived but also a bit upset at us for not being careful of the ghosts.The police had been called to go out and find us because Jimmy had decided to panic after we had left and told him not to worry. He had arranged a transport directly back to the Borneo mainland with his boatman.
So we crashed our way over a (thankfully) calm-ish sea all the way back to the northern Borneo town of Kudat. The waves were crashing into the shore much more so than normal, so after nearly being cleaned up by a huge wave that rolled in between us and the open sea (while the boatman had turned the engine off and had to pull start it for an epic last second escape) we had to take the long way into the port itself.
The next day we were staying at Kudat and the police called to arrange a meeting to ensure we were OK. Rowan remarked that all they wanted was money for being “inconvenienced” but they turned up, a stern looking man in his police uniform and… a “lady” officer which was just a man in a Muslim women’s hijab with nail polish. Even if they were after money we weren’t giving it to them. I guess that’s how things roll in Malaysia…
The beach near Kudat on a calm day