Thursday, December 27, 2012

Whiffing the Shit of Three Million Bats

I find bats to be fascinating creatures. Oh, I independently evolved the ability to fly, separately from birds. Excuse me, I also use echolocation to travel in the dark, filling a different niche than the Aves. Yup yup, there's also over 1,200 species of me, accounting for about one-fifth of all mammals. That's impressive radiation right there. *** All photos can be enlarged by clicking 'em.

Light shining into Deer Cave, highlighting a lot of bat guano.
One of our furry cousins we actually got an up close look at.

To continue with elementary facts, lots of bats live in caves, others roost in trees. As for caves, they're a facet of our planet's geology I've personally never had much interest in. I'd say caves are cool if you asked me, but that's it. I've been in a few (all southern Arizonans need to visit Kartchner Caverns, with a meal at the Apple Farm after). They're a subject I know I would dig more if I put forth the effort, like linguistics and Wilco's catalogue (don't get mad, I only own Yankee Hotel Foxtrot).
The first cave Alli and I visited: Langs Cave.
Trying to reach the top, one drop at a time.
But then Alli and I just visited Gunung Mulu National Park in northwest Sarawak state, Malaysian Borneo. Along with luscious, intact rainforest (an island of green in a sea of oil palm plantations) Mulu has got a roster full of caves, some of which are the largest on earth. We walked through a few of 'em. You heard right: Alli went into caves! On her own accord! It's hypnotic and nutty to be inside them because you know you're in a cave, but it feels like you're under a colossal rock overhang. I kept repeating my own denial softly to myself: "there's no way this is a cave!"

Hot dang! Fear getting CRUSHED!.
We spotted a lot bats, too. But saw even more bat shit, scientifically known, and in Grandma friendly lingo, as guano. The poop coated the rocky floor, like a rancid chocolate sauce. Some slopes looked so smooth I bet you could snowboard down those hills, dodging guano moguls all the way to the bottom. This is bound to happen when three million plus bats call this place (known as Deer Cave) home. And remember our guide told us: when you look up in awe make sure your mouth is shut. She needn't say why.
Bat guano in the bright afternoon light. So much to see.
Entrance to Deer Cave. You can kind of tell, there's a huge cave in there.

Parts of the cave's ceiling (that can't be the correct term) looked like they had drums of black paint dumped onto them, as each splotch of dark was a cluster of bats. Some clusters looked to be the size of small lakes. The patterns resembled Rorschach tests on top of rock backgrounds. I thought: there's thrice as many bats here as there are people in the metropolitan Tucson region. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever seen three million of any animal before. Let alone our furry flying cousins. In Deer Cave alone one species accounts for the colony of three million strong: the Wrinkle-lipped Bat (Tadarida plicata), but many other species have been recorded, too.

Massive! It's hard to show in a photo how humongous Deer Cave is.
The Garden of Eden. Deer Cave actually used to be twice as big before this section caved in on itself. Reassuring huh?
Alli and I went through 4 total caves together. And truth be told Alli was a rock star in all of 'em! Conquering fear like it's no big deal. Joe Rogan would be oh so proud. The four caves varied a lot: some had humongous jellyfish sculptures in them; another a river; ceilings that looked beyond the scope of human reach, others we had to duck to get through; a side profile of Honest Abe even presented itself; and due to water erosion in the past, a few rock walls resembled perfectly cooked bacon, you know, the wavy, semi-crunchy variety.
Jellyfish formation.
Roomful of jellies.
Wavy bacon on the ceiling.
Abe Lincoln's side profile with swiftlets flying about.
Deer Cave is the largest cave passage in the world, to learn what that technically means you'll have to ask as Speleologist. Or get your Google on. For us, it was one of the more mesmerizing walks we've ever done. Seriously you could fit a hefty concert venue in there, a subterranean Red Rocks. Another apprehensively fascinating aspect of bats is their role as disease reservoirs, carrying nasty stuff that doesn't always negatively affect them, but can ransack our bodies. See the zoonotic diseases (when disease jumps from animals to us) Hendra, SARS, Marburg, Nipah, and possibly Ebola. More on this later, but for now do me one favor: go read David Quammen's new book, Spillover, on zoonotic disease. It's one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. Bats can carry gnarly diseases, just like pigs and chickens. So while we strolled through this cave cathedral, gazing up at these bulbous, jet black colonies my lips were sealed, I avoided using the handrails (shiny with guano lube) and enthusiastically washed my hands afterward. I think it worked, as far as we know, we're virus free.

More cave photos can be found below (first up Langs Cave):

Drip, drip; like a coffee maker.

Don't really know how to describe these formations.
The ice cream cone is slowly creeping up and up.

Two more from Deer Cave:
Whole tonna poop.

Cheesing in a cave.

Dorking out with a field guide outside Deer Cave as we wait for a million bats to fly out at sundown. They never came. To see how incredible the sight can be peruse the web. Or watch Planet Earth, the BBC got better footage than us.

Onto Wind Cave, the third one we did together. This isn't what I was aiming for but it looks snazzy.

Nutty formations everywhere.

Cauliflower rock.

Rajah Brooke's Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana), a stunner of a butterfly. Alfred Russel Wallace discovered' this butterfly in Borneo in 1855, meaning 'official science' found a creature it put a name on. The phenomenal scientist named it after Sir James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak.
Endemic one-leaf plants that only grow at the entrance to Clearwater Cave. Peculiar spots they pick to post up.

Fourth cave down pat for Alli.
In, looking out of Clearwater Cave.
Photos of my trip to Racer Cave, which sadly produced no racer snakes. I went solo on this jaunt:

Squeeze it on through.
Sea shell cemented in time.

Many of these large cave spiders were spotted.
Swiflet nest.
Connected top to bottom.

Cave cockroach - check out those antennae!
An alert cave scorpion.
After an hour of walking in this where we stopped to chill out in Racer Cave.

Previously seen spider eating a cave cockroach. Circle of cave life I guess.
Almost out again.
Last scamper out.


  1. Replies
    1. Hey they Crystal! I was a wondering when I'd start getting some Billy C comments on the ol' blog-o-rooski again. Keep 'em coming! And yes these caves were frickin' incredible.

    2. Hi Alli and Bryan.
      Remember me? I'm Indra. We met on the bus from Tomohon to Manado.
      I read your blog, and you had so many amazing trip. and that cave is great.
      Actually, I'm jealous..hahaha but don't worry if I finish my study, I will travelling..yeaaaaaaaaayyy and see Grand Canyonnnn..
      I hope someday I can accompany you both to trip in Manado.

      I have a blog. but i never write something :D
      don't hesitate to contact me. my email

      Best regards from Tahuna boy.

    3. Hey Indra!

      What's up? Thanks for checking out the blog. I definitely remember you. And thank you again for paying for our mikrolet ride! You didn't have to do that.Yeah, it's been one adventure of a trip for sure.

      Good luck with finishing up your last semester. I hope all goes well. Enjoy wherever you travel! So get in touch if you ever swing through Arizona - we can show you the Grand Canyon, some desert and food quite different than bakso and gado-gado.

      If we're ever in north Sulawesi again I'll be sure to let you know. We'll have to check out where you're from if we come back. Til next time,