We’d heard there were some caves hidden deep in the jungle off the western slopes of Mount Kinabalu, and when we finally decided to trek in and find them, we discovered a place unlike anywhere else in Sabah.
Over the past few years we’ve become friends with the people of Sayap Village. Located in Kota Belud district, Sayap is the last settlement on a dirt track heading up the west side of Mount Kinabalu. One of our favorite camping spots is at Sayap Substation, a ranger outpost on the border of Kinabalu Park, nestled in the forest beneath Lowe’s Gully. For a long time we’d been hearing about a couple of caves buried in the jungle to the north of the village, and since Sticky Rice Travel is always on the lookout for new adventures, we decided to gather a small team together for a three day trek to find the caves.
After a homestay in the village, we left bright and early with two local guides and made our way down into a valley. Farming is the main livelihood in Sayap, and the village is surrounded by a mountainous landscape of forested farmland. The first couple of hours were spent wading through pineapple plants under the shade of durian trees, zigzagging through rubber tree plantations, and snacking on rambutans as we cut through rice paddies. After crossing a rickety suspension bridge, we left the valley and hiked uphill until we arrived at an old shack on the top of a ridge. With sweeping views of the valley and an excellent vista of Mount Kinabalu’s sawtoothed summit, it was the perfect spot for a mid-hike rest. After a snack, we grabbed our packs and carried on down the backside of the ridge. We had couple of hours to go until we reached our campsite, and after a while we left the rubber tree farms for a pristine primary rainforest.
The trekking was great, and the forest was beautiful. We were off the beaten track, and by that I don’t mean we were bushwhacking through the jungle – the trail we followed was well-trodden, packed down by years of foot traffic from the local Dusun population, but the area was still relatively unexplored by the outside world. We set up camp at a two-story cabin in the middle of the jungle, built in a clearing on the banks of a fast-flowing river. That afternoon we set out to explore our surroundings, and after skirting around the base of a limestone cliff we came across another river, pouring out from underground through a maze of massive boulders and turquoise pools.
The next day we left our belongings at the cabin and hiked upstream to find the two caves. The trail paralleled the river for most of the morning, full of rapids as it pushed through the forest. At one point the path cut towards the water’s edge and we spotted a calm bend in the river through the trees. I splashed upstream thinking it might be a nice spot for a knee-deep wade, but when I got there I found that it dropped into a crystal clear pool that was well above my head! It was the perfect swimming hole, and a great place to cool off.
Not long after our dip, the trail veered from the river and took a steep turn uphill. We were nearing the first cave and the path had all but dissolved into a forest full of large boulders and rocks. We arrived at the first cave and looked down into the darkness as a few bats flew out overhead. The cave didn’t appear to be very large, so we decided we’d check it out on the way back, after exploring the second cave.
We’d been hiking uphill for a bit, and out of curiosity we decided to head off trail and scramble up a steep rock wall to see if we could find a view. It was a tough climb, but the reveal was stunning. From the top of the ledge we could see down into a massive gorge, lined with steep cliffs and towering limestone pinnacles. After getting back on the trail we hiked down to the river and into the gorge. It was like nothing else we’d ever seen before in Sabah.
The immensity of the surrounding cliffs was overwhelming, they towered above the dipterocarps, making the ancient giants seem like miniature bonsai trees. The gorge was narrow, a deep slice in the earth, with a whitewater river cutting through the middle. Our guides pointed out the second cave to us, a small crack in the side of the cliff, completely dwarfed by the massive rock face that it sat in. We were glad we saw the caves, but more so because of where they lived – our friends from Sayap had sold us on the wrong geological attraction.
We found a somewhat calm spot in the river and waded across as a light midday rain started to fall. The opposing bank was a tad steep, but once we climbed up, we found a large flat area at the base of the cliff. The limestone shot straight up with a gradual overhang that protected us from the drizzle. It was a perfect spot for camping, next time we’d bring tents.
We retraced our steps back to the cabin, and after a good night’s sleep, packed up and trekked back out to Sayap. Our friends in the village were glad to see us, and excited that we’d enjoyed the “caves”. We told them that we’d be back. And that we were bringing friends.
All photos by Charles Ryan