When Dr Nur Atiqah Abd Rahman ventured into the Dark Cave in Selangor, she knew she had found her favourite kind of outdoor adventure.
That was back in 2012, and since then, the bat researcher has explored many more caves in Malaysia.
“I have been to caves in Perlis, Pahang, Kedah, Perak, Selangor and Sarawak, ” she said, adding that she loved the cool interior of the caves.
“I always love the wind tunnel in the cave because I can feel the fresh cold breeze as I walk along, ” she said.
Nur Atiqah also found the fauna that she encounters within the dark cavern to be thrilling and fascinating.
“Caving is exciting and allows me to see things that few people have experienced such as the cave centipede, the trapdoor spider and spiny millipede, as well as learn about the unique food web in a cave ecosystem where it usually starts with guano, ” she said.
Caving, also known as spelunking, is the recreational exploration of caves. A typical caving trip may require participants to climb, crawl, swim and walk to explore wild cave systems.
Nur Atiqah said some of her favourite caves are Kota Gelangi Limestone Complex in Pahang, and Selangor’s Batu Caves. She enjoys the Anak Takun Cave, too, which is also in Selangor.
“Caving at Anak Takun is the most memorable experience where I need to crawl and walk in the water that comes up to my waist, ” she said.
If anything, caving enthusiasts like Nur Atiqah are spoilt for choice as there are many amazing cave systems in Malaysia. The cave systems here cater to both beginners as well as more experienced explorers.
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Caves can be found throughout the country, mostly in limestone hills or karst towers. Some of these, such as Gua Musang in Perak, are more accessible to adventurers than others.
There are also those that are more remote such as Gua Cerita in Kedah and the Gua Ikan cave complex in Kelantan.
While Malaysia has the perfect geography, nature guide Mohd Syukri Jali said caving hasn’t quite found a large audience among outdoor enthusiasts.
“Malaysians in general have not been exposed much to caving. Most of them are more familiar with jungle trekking, ” he said.
According to Mohd Syukri, there is a perception that caving is only done by experts, which is not true.
“Beginners have the option of doing ‘photoshoot caving’, which is not risky, ” he said, adding that he tries to promote caving to travellers whenever he can to raise more awareness.
That being said, there are some dangers associated with caving. For example, participants run the risk of hypothermia, rockfall, drowning, exhaustion, and bad air.
But all these can be avoided with the right preparation and gear, said Mohd Syukri who has been organising caving trips since 2012.
“Those with health problems like asthma, or are claustrophobic, are not advised to do a caving expedition. However, they can do something more simple like visiting a show cave, ” he said.
Show caves, sometimes referred to as “commercial caves”, are caves that have been made more accessible for guided visits. These caves don’t require special caving gear as they often have paths, rails and electric lights.
Mohd Syukri hopes that more people would consider caving as there is much to see and learn within the caves.
Away from the world
The opportunity to learn about a new ecosystem is why Raymond Sabastian was drawn to caving.
“Caves are nature’s gifts which have evolved over the course of millions of years by various geological processes. I have always been attracted to explore nature’s beauty and I often ‘bump’ into caves be it small or large, ” he said.
The senior legal associate enjoys the unique landscape of caves and feels like he is in another world during his caving trips.
“It is also the thrill that comes with it, especially when exploring the darker and narrower parts of a cave where there is no visible lights to assist you, ” he said.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also spurred Sabastian to do more caving as it is something that he can do on his own or with a guide or two, away from large crowds.
According to Sabastian, there is a sense of solitude when you are inside a cave. “Once you are deep in a cave, you realise how quiet the surroundings are compared to the noise we’re used to in our everyday lives. To me, it’s the sense of solitude that makes caving interesting, ” he said.
Sabastian is looking forward to exploring more caves and discovering the beauty of nature, and would encourage more people to take up the activity.
“The caves we have, not just in Malaysia but in the entire world, are unique. The history of each cave, the depth, the location... essentially everything about caves is unique, ” he said.
Exploring with care
That uniqueness deserves to be protected and conserved, says Nur Atiqah, who is also the executive secretary of the Malaysian Cave and Karst Conservancy (MCKC).
MCKC was established in 2015 to advance the awareness of the scientific, educational, aesthetic, historical, and cultural values of caves and karst in Malaysia.
Some threats that caves in the country are facing include limestone quarries, urban development, land clearing, and lack of buffer zones.
Over the years, MCKC has also called for responsible tourism in caves and karsts.
Nur Atiqah says there are measures that one can take to be a more responsible caving enthusiast.
“Cave visitors should avoid disturbing cave organisms or their environment, pack up everything they come with, and any trash found. It is also advisable to not smoke or light fires in caves and not disturb archaeological or palaeontological artefacts.
“Cave visitors also should not damage formations or other surfaces of the cave and stay on the established pathway to help keep other areas of the cave pristine, ” she said.
Nur Atiqah would also like to see the relevant authorities take more steps to conserve caves and karsts.
“The local council should ensure strong legal protection of caves and karst as a protected area under an appropriate law, ” she said.
Management of caves, according to Nur Atiqah, should follow the guidelines as published in the IUCN Cave and Karst management guidelines that highlights balancing tourism and infrastructure development with conservation.
“Limestone hills take millions of years to form but bulldozers and explosives can cause irreversible damage in just a few hours.
“When there is a disruption in the cave area, it will impact the present biodiversity and contribute to the extinction of the species even in one cave or a small limestone hill, ” she emphasises.
Nur Atiqah believes more people can play a part in protecting caves by picking up caving which would instil better awareness on the need for conservation.
“Caving will provide new experiences for individuals who have never entered the caves and subsequently share the experiences gained to family and friends and then promote the importance of cave and karst conservation.
“Caves in Malaysia have outstanding precious heritage, biodiversity, geology, and ecotourism that are valued and should be conserved, ” she concludes.