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June 15, 2011

Foul Odors and Sweet Sights

Tom McLaughlin

[Editor’s Note: This is the second column on the World’s Largest Cavern. The first part appeared on The Tentacle on June 8. It can be found at]


Mulu, Borneo – After a refreshing drink and rest at the jungle station, we walked a further kilometer to the first cave. Lang Cave, a small non-descript cavern which snaked back into the mountain.


The few stalagmites and stalactites (I can never remember the difference) were well lighted with the usual drip, drip, drip, of liquid calcium carbonate. There were many calls of “watch your head” as we followed the mushroom lights on the horseshoe-shaped boardwalk.


The walls were lunarscape grey with smooth bulges jutting into the pathway. It was like every other cave one sees on television where the kid gets lost or trapped and the dog, NCIS or Bones has to save the child or retrieve the remains. My daughter, my wife and I were not impressed. My five-month-old son blew bubbles and tried to reach his feet.


The stench is the first thing that greets you when you enter Deer Cave. Pretend you just snorted a concoction of ammonia with a dash of outhouse and that gives you a fairly good idea. A tear watering, dry heave odor, the basis of which is used to manufacture a gas to quickly disperse rowdy crowds demanding the deposition of a despot in a third world Middle Eastern country.


Once you recover from the stench, the guide directs your tear-blurred gaze upward to a black, cloudlike arrangement on the ceiling. They are the animals responsible for all the smells – bats. You couldn’t see individuals, just dark nebula like clusters delineated from each other by curves, a string theorist dream.


The guide directed us back further into the cavern stopping and telling us we were lucky it was not hot and dry outside because then the smell would be worse; and she would not be able to take us much further. We were also informed not to touch the railings to support our balance because they were covered with bat poop. Unbelievably, the smell did get worse and when we all got the very rear of the cave, we broke formation and ran like the proverbial “bat out of hell” to the entrance and fresh air.


Technically the cave is 174 meters wide (for the Americans about a tenth of a mile) and 122 meters high, about the size of 54 story building. If the stink of the place was not so bad, one could stand around and take in the magnificence of the place. We were also warned not to open out mouth when we looked up because of a possible deposit of fresh guano; but I really didn’t want a glop in my eyes either.


Out of the cave, I settled down to watch a magnificent performance of nature. Facing the cave entrance about 100 meters away, at about 5:35 P.M., the bats began to leave the cave in search of food. I had expected a massive explosion of bats each going their individual ways.


They first emerged from a hole at the roof of the cave. A cloud silhouetted and then assembled into a long, slinky line with a hollow center, rolling, expanding, contracting, forming curves under and over still in this tube-like spiral revolving around a center axis. Then, about two minutes later – and every two minutes thereafter – the next group came out and performed similar acrobatics, all disappearing in the same direction over the canopy. We were told about 2-3 million bats left the cave each evening returning between four and five the next morning.


I wanted to stay until the last bat had left, mesmerized by the whole scene, but we had a long trek back to park headquarters and the guides didn’t want us walking in the pitch black of the jungle.


I would go back but I would be more prepared with a hat, goggles and surgery mask so I could spend more time in Deer Cave. I would still return, even if I couldn’t go into the cave, to witness the spectacular bat spectacle each evening in the jungle of Borneo.


To read more articles about Malaysian Borneo, please redirect to Tom’s blog at


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