Gunung Buda — Sacred Ground Of The Tabun (Part 2)

Gunung Buda is seen in the distance, overlooking the Medalam valley.

The second feature of a two-part series on Gunung Buda. Read Part 1 here:

By Karen Bong

GUNUNG Buda (literally ‘white mountain’ in the Tabun language) and its caves are shrouded in rich and mysterious history as it was used by the Tabun tribe as burial ground.

The skeletal remains of the Tabun people who came to populate Ulu Medalam, lie at rest within the caves.

In times past, the Tabun believed that after death, burying or keeping their dead in the caves will protect their remains from the threat and reach of hungry predators like monitor lizards and allowed safe passage for their souls to ascend to the sky.

According to our guide Larry Siga, the afterlife rituals involved letting the body decompose inside a coffin which was buried at a location near the village and marked as the first burial ground.

After seven months or a year later, another ritual and worship ceremony will be performed, after which the bones will be collected and placed into an urn to be sent into the caves which is the second burial ground.

Crossing the Adpa Assam over a fallen log bridge.

Larry, who guided the group of American cavers on their first expedition to explore Gunung Buda in 1995, revealed that some of the oldest human remains such as bone fragments have been found inside the caves and complex labyrinths of Gunung Buda.

But sadly, the skeleton remains had been disturbed, damaged or removed while many items buried with them had also been stolen during logging operations in the area a long time ago.

However today, Larry said that such ancient tribal traditions were no longer in practice as the community has moved on over time and some have embraced Christianity.

As such, he emphasised that more is needed to be done to protect, preserve and conserve the history and cultural heritage hidden inside Gunung Buda. He hoped that the Sarawak government could provide the much needed support.

The great migration of the Tabun to Kuala Medalam

A guide inflating a canoe with an air pump.

The Tabun are part of the Orang Ulu. The Orang Ulu (“people of the interior”) who historically linked to the Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Lun Bawang and others, arrived here from the remote ‘dataran tinggi’ or highlands of Indonesia over a century ago.

Larry who is also a Tabun, explained that their migration history is similar to the Kayan, who originated from the highland in Kalimantan known as Apo Kayan, or the Kenyah from Usun Apau, and had settled down in the Belaga and Baram regions.

The Tabun, Saban and Kelabit, he said, came down through the Batu Lawi mountain which neighbours Limbang in the northern part of Sarawak and set up their longhouse or village along the Ulu Limbang and Adang rivers.

However, an unknown plague or epidemic wiped out some 30 people in the longhouse but people of that time did not understand the cause and thus viewed the calamity as a curse and punishment for their wrongdoings.

So they left the village and started moving deeper into the interior with some moving to the Trusan side and others to Gunung Buda. The migration continued as time passed, as they searched for more fertile soil and a peaceful living environment to settle down in.

Kuala Medalam in Limbang is the final settlement of the indigenous Tabun people where they eventually built their community and started farming. It is believed that some even migrated down the Melinau River on the Mulu side.

Uncovering Gunung Buda

Red and blue flowstones and dripstone can be found within the cave complex.

The Gunung Buda Area was first visited by British cavers in 1984 during an expedition after they found the entrances and initial passages to several large caves such as the Deer Cave and Clearwater Cave at Gunung Mulu National Park in Miri.

According to the National Speleological Society (NSS), Americans first visited Gunung Buda when John Lane and George Prest visited the mountain to assess its potential for an American expedition in 1993. In late 1994 and early 1995, the first American expedition took place. Others followed in 1996, 1997 and 2000.

Sarawak Forest Department and the USA expedition published ‘The Caves of Gunung Buda 1997’ which reported that on December 1994, the group of explorers spent two months exploring the complex labyrinths of Gunung Buda.

The team surveyed and mapped a total of 30km of cave passageways, including the deepest vertical drop in Southeast Asia (which was named ‘Monkeys in the Mist’ at 140m) and the cave with greatest vertical relief (‘Snail Shell’ at 465m).

The density of large passages and the short distances separating many of the caves suggested that the caves may be part of a larger cave complex system. The potential for a 100km-long cave system within Gunung Buda was excellent.

Prior to their survey, the four-member British team had spent two weeks working along the base of Gunung Buda. With access limited to foot trails and rivers as penetrating the virgin forest proved slow and tedious, they made substantial finds including Beachcomber, Compedium, Turtle, and Disappointment Caves.

When trekking and camping, few things are more delightful than a bath in a clear river.

A limestone outlier just northwest of Gunung Buda, the report added, hosted a variety of interesting caverns including Gua Sirih, Bicyclone and Spirit of the Jungle.

Spirit of the Jungle lies in a crater-sized depression nestled at the base of a milky cliff that reaches 100m into the ocean blue sky. Bicyclone, on the same cliff, hosts a varierty of troglodytic species and air moves through the passage like an afternoon breeze at the beach. The entrance to Gua Sirih is laced with paper leaves that shine opal green in the sunlight.

The hallmark of the cave is the bone-white phreatic passage that gives the feeling of walking through the barrel of a wave.

On the east side, they discovered the Skylight Cave, Seabreeze Cave and ‘Monkeys in the Mist’ which was one of the most important discoveries of the expedition, featuring a vertical shaft unlike anything yet discovered in Sarawak at the time.

The south side of Gunung Buda hosts the Gua Ulat Cincin or Snail Shell with its large passageways, deep pits and beautiful decorations, as well as the monster tunnels and pinnacle karst of Green Cathedral in which five separate entrances and connection of Green Catheral and Beachcomber Caves were established.

Book a guided tour

Larry carrying a heavy load ready for the trek ahead.

A three-day-two-night camping trip would suit most people looking to visit. Activities include trekking, canoeing to explore the underwater lower Turtle Cave, water lilo (floating on inflatable tyre tubes on the water or ‘tubing’) in the Medalam River, camping in the wild and night walk.

Those with more adventurous spirits may opt for a five-day-four-night trip to trek to Gunung Buda all the way to Gunung Mulu National Park.

Day 1 — Arrive in Limbang and spend a night at Kuala Medalam Longhouse homestay.

Day 2 — Hit the trail from the starting point and trek to Gunung Buda base camp which will take about two hours followed by a visit and exploration of the lower Turtle Cave by canoe. Spend the night at base camp.

Day 3 — Start trekking from Buda base camp to Camp 5 of Mulu which will take about six to seven hours along the Head Hunters Trail. Spend a night at Camp 5.

Day 4 — Trek from Camp 5 to Long Litut Jetty which will take three hours and from there, take a boat ride to Mulu. Spend a night at Mulu.

Day 5 — Those interested to explore Mulu caves may stay for another day, otherwise they may opt to fly out via Miri.

Those interested to visit and explore Gunung Buda may contact Larry Siga (017-850 3666) to make arrangements and for price quotation. — DayakDaily