The spectacular caves of Balambangan

These spectacular caves on Balambangan Island in northern Borneo are well and truly off the tourist trail. Pristine and seldom visited, the island is home to millions of bats, sleeping snakes and sly crocs…

If ever there was a reason to go sailing, it is this: the ability to explore places that few people venture – not just foreign tourists, but locals too.

We were lucky enough to go there with local friends who took us to two pristine caves. They have no names because they aren’t on the tourist map and any local indigenous names have been lost.

The rock formations inside these caves, especially the incredible stalactites and stalagmites, were as good as any UNESCO site we’ve seen anywhere in the world. Can you tell the difference between a stalactite and stalagmite?

caves of Borneo
Checking out the rock formations in “the vault”

Balambangan is the northern most point of Malaysia, off the tip of Borneo, and it’s a real gem. Getting to the island is difficult enough. There are no tourist boats and the only residents are nomadic Bajau Laut (sea gypsies). The first anchorage we visited was a twisty, turny affair through reefs and bombies.

Surrounded by lush, unspoilt nature, the anchorage offers great protection behind the reefs. The place is teeming with wildlife and mangroves where it is inhabited by salt water crocs.

We hooked up with local residents who took us to explore some little-visited, not on the tourist map. Getting to these caves is a muddy experience. The rickety old jetty is hazardous, and so too are the salt water crocs, spotted that day. It’s a hack through the forest, guided by Craig, Josephine and their friend Bob.

caves with bats, borneo
Close-up of hanging bat

The entrance to the cave is hidden and unassuming, but as we approached we could see into the gloom that we were about to enter somewhere a bit special. A wide open cavern, dripping with pristine stalactites and stalagmites served as a stone forest. Smaller caves shot off down pathways to increasingly beautiful formations. Ribbon stalactites fell in swathes of folds from the ceiling to the ground, forming zipper-like teeth along their sides.

Taking care not to touch anything, we crossed small pools and trod carefully round trellis-like formations carpeting the ground. Finely-chiseled statues, cloaked like Greek gods, watched as we made our way to the back of the cave. We walked into a high vault and were in the middle of the Lord of the Rings.

We didn’t think it could get much better until we arrived at no-name cave #2, which turned out to have plenty of wildlife including a sleeping reticulated python and millions of bats…

Peace and fair winds!
Liz and Jamie

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