Batu Caves lie on the northern outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in a huge limestone outcrop. The entrance would not be easy to miss even in a Yorkshire-type thick fog: since 1892, the Light or Temple Cave has housed the shrine to Lord Murugan and is now approached by climbing a magnificent 20ft wide 272 step staircase.
The Temple Cave is enormous - 113 metres high and very light and airy since a large proportion of the roof has collapsed. It has pigeons, rats and shrines. However, we only had to go two thirds of the way up the steps, where a large gate leads off to the Dark Cave. This is an ex-guano mine, ex-show cave and now requires difficult-to-obtain permission for entrance. Jimmy (Information Officer at the zoo) had the bit of paper. Light comes in from the roof in a few places but this cave - unlike (apparently) most Malaysian caves - IS dark in most places. Hence the name.
So, light stinky, don helmet (Malaysian-style, with the peak at the back for reasons that will become obvious) and turn the corner into the cave - and into a hail of bat shit from above and ankle deep bat shit below. The ankle deep bat shit is seething with cockroaches. Suzie was wearing flip-flops. It is said that all the durians within a thirty mile radius are pollinated by fruit bats from Batu - I think I may believe this after seeing them!
For the benefit of tourists in showcave days, a covered walkway was built where the bats and swiftlets roost. The walkway is now a little collapsed, covered with cobwebs and encroached on by guano. Using the walkway felt a little like being on the set of some bad post-holocaust movie. We did not, in any case, stay on the walkways (in some places, rockfalls made this impossible anyway) - but all explored some of the larger side passages. Here the graffiti artists had not been as busy. The main reasons that the cave had been closed were graffiti, damage to formations and disturbance of the bats. I found it difficult to get extremely annoyed about chinese graffiti - but very easy to get irate about smashed up formations.
The main evidence of human activity is, however, the 'tidemark' which runs through the cave - sometimes 12ft from the deck - and marks the level of. guano before mining. When you consider that the Dark Cave is HUGE - 366m long and 100m high and wide in places, that makes an awful lot of guano!
The formations, where the cave is decorated, are generally also large and impressive - as if a "normal" cave had somehow got expanded. Elsewhere, the cave seemed wind sculpted in a way I haven't seen underground before (do caves erode faster in highly organic, warm, water saturated air?). However, for someone who has only ever been in European caves before, it is the wildlife that is the most amazing - wherever the bats and swiftlets congregate, so do cockroaches, trapdoor spiders, centipedes, cave toads and a host of flying insects.
Oh it's lovely to hear the poor innocent insects, attracted to the light, sizzle in the stinky flame! In spite of Jimmy's nasty stories about what happens to tins of carbide in countries with high air humidity, I reckon that carbide is magnificent for high-insect caving! One species of scorpion is confined to the Dark Cave. It has no sting. Jimmy and I did not try the obvious test on the scorpion we discovered marooned on a rock in the middle of a large pool.
Jimmy, for once with a party that included people who were willing, was filled with enthusiasm for exploring passages that required crawling on gravel or (horrors) helictites. I will never do that in a skirt ever again. The anguished moans were drowned by the strains of 'Frère Jacques' coming from the main cave (Wendy was trying to keep Suzie and Eileen happy) and we were rewarded by finding some nice formations, straws, and the underside of a false floor with impressions of gour pools in it. Very fine. ... And Jimmy took photographs. I can assure any interested parties that standing in a warm cave, up to your knees in guano and plagued by insects is an infinitely preferable way of setting off flashguns to standing under a cold waterfall while the bloody photographer dries his lens. I may even get copies of the photographs for my pains! *
Many many thanks to Jimmy, Hereward and Wendy for the trip - and medals to Suzie and Eileen for surviving cheerfully. Eileen has stated categorically that she is "... NEVER going to go caving again." So we will probably see her in Yorkshire one weekend in the company of all those other cavers who have said the same.
* Unfortunately Jimmy followed the caving tradition too closely and had his camera set on the wrong film speed. So no photographs.