The almost 43-metre tall statue of Lord Murugan stands by the entrance to the Batu Caves and is one of Malaysia’s iconic images. The epicentre of the annual Thaipusam procession, Batu Caves is famous for the festival, statue and main cavern behind it, but a far lesser known and arguably more interesting point of interest lays hidden to the side of the main affair. And you’ll only have to climb some 250 of the 272 steps to reach it.
The imaginatively named Dark Cave has more than two kilometres of surveyed tunnels and caverns and is home to a fascinating guano-driven ecosystem that you’re able to experience for yourself through a roughly hour-long guided tour through one section of the cave.
Probably first used by Chinese farmers, who mined the caves for guano, the cave systems were officially “discovered” in 1878 by two Europeans and in the following years they were surveyed and written up. In 1892 the Hindu temple within the main cave was first established.
In the decades that followed the limestone outcrop developed in two primary ways: the Hindu temple grew and became easier to access and limestone blasting and guano quarries damaged the surrounds. Both continued to some degree till 1980 and the statue of Murugan wasn’t completed until 2006.
What makes the Dark Cave fascinating is the ecosystem within. The cave is believed to be at least 100 million years old and the limestone that surrounds it was originally formed from shells and coral, from when this entire area was underwater. Home to millions of both fruit- and insect-eating bats, their guano supports the entire ecosystem, with teeming cockroaches, spiders, crickets, snakes and other creepie crawlies living off either the guano, the bats themselves or each other.
The first part of the guided tour takes you under one of the main roosting spots; thankfully it’s covered as the guano is falling continuously on it. The aroma is very special — you won’t forget it.
Further into the cave you’ll find spectacular stalactites and stalacmites and after one bend the guides will most likely have you turn off all lights so that you can experience perfect darkness. Throughout the walk you’ll see evidence of the guano mining and the guide will most likely point out the “guano hig- tide mark”, indicating just how much had already been taken out.
The tour has a heavy emphasis on the environment and opportunities for photographs are quite limited as they’ll politely ask you to refrain from taking them — the flash can stress out the bats we were told. This was in stark contrast to our experience in Taman Negara, where flash photography of the bats was almost encouraged.
The guide will highlight some of the stalactities and stalacmites with small hand-held torches though and they are just beautiful — glistening and often with a rapid stream of water dripping off. Some sections of the walls are terraced almost like paddy, with icy pools of water slowly overflowing and running down the wall’s edge.
The tour concludes further into the cave in a towering final cavern (but not at the end of the surveyed system), where shards of light pierce the darkness and you are allowed to take photos. From there you backtrack to the cave entrance.
The Dark Cave is open Tuesday to Friday, 10:00-16:00, Saturday and Sunday, 10:30-16:30 (closed Mondays). The Educational Tour leaves every 20 minutes and we paid 35 ringit (children cost 28 ringgit). The admission cost is perhaps a little steep, but it’s a worthwhile experience.
For more information, a photo gallery and further details on available tours, see the official Dark Cave site.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 1st September, 2014.