We got in the van and headed north as the day's first bursts of sunlight spread slowly across the highway. It was a beautiful, serene drive, with massive white limestone caves out one window, and dark, mysterious jungle out the other.
We arrived at Gua Tempurung, a cluster of tremendous, imposing caves. The word “gua” means cave in Malay, and “tempurung” translates into “coconut shell.” From behind a rusty metal entrance gate, a dull orange light caught my eye. This is where our exploration would begin. Our cave guide, a small, nimble Malaysian guy inexplicably named Jay-Z, tossed Will and I a couple of miner's helmets and headlamps, and we stepped inside.
Our Guide Jay Z
The formations that greeted us were absolutely unreal. All around us, the white limestone walls sloped and spiked dramatically, carved and cultivated by thousands of years of ocean waves. Jay-Z encouraged us to find images in the rock, which wasn't hard at all. He used his flashlight to illuminate a gorilla, a jellyfish, and a pregnant lady. Will found Bob Marley, and I saw that shaggy guy from The Muppets. Overhead, bats swooped in and out of our conversation, fluttering and flapping, then suddenly still.
Gradually, the cave exploration became more physically demanding. At first, we simply walked with our flashlights, climbing a long series of metal stairs higher and higher into the stalactites. When we couldn't climb any higher, we had to slide down a steep limestone hill, the marble so polished against our quick-dry pants that it was impossible to brake, let alone land gracefully. From there, we shimmied down a tiny black hole and dropped into a cool, knee-deep underground river called the Sungai Gua Tempurung. At this point, we'd gone further than any of the other cave visitors, and now it was just me and Will and Jay-Z, the lapping water, the crunch of pebbles, and the quiet, rhythmic plonk of dripping stalactites.
We spent about one hour swimming through the cave. The spaces darkened and tightened, and often, the only way forward was flat on your belly, walking on your forearms and dragging your body horizontal behind you through the total darkness.
Gua Tempurung is 1.9 kilometres in length, and stands 497 metres high. It's biggest cave in Malaysia, and locals used it as a hiding place when the Japanese were invading during World War II. Will and I tried to imagine what it must have felt like back then, a time long before the routes in and out of the cave had been established, and before our powerful headlamps with beams that can cut through any uncertainty. We passed several makeshift gravestones as we swam and waded and crawled.
Eventually, we washed up in a burst of daylight, and the cave's ceiling sloped gently upwards, once again becoming high enough for us to wade out toward the trees.