THE SUNDAY TIMES TRAVEL
24 JANUARY 1999
By: STUART WAVELL
Edge of Darkness
A forbidden cave, a childhood prank, a sudden death; STUART WAVELL returned to Malaysia and retraced events that had haunted him for 40 years.
The objective was a cave on a remote tropical island. It contained a malevolent presence that when rouse, exacted a terrible penalty upon intruders. To my certain knowledge, it had killed one person and nearly finished off my brother. I would bear some responsibility if more fatalities had occurred since I squeezed through the cave’s entrance as a boy.
Forty years later, curiosity and conscience impelled me to find it again.
I possessed a clear visual memory of the cave’s keyhole entrance, but unlock its, co ordinates was going to be a trickier matter. The 104 Langkawi islands, scattered like emeralds off the Malay Peninsula are riddled with more cavities than a slab of Swiss cheese. Thousand of tourists beguiled by Langkawi’s golden sands and ancient legends at relentlessly funnelled into caves with names cave of the Banshee and Gua Cerita. Few people have heard of the cavern that I knew as the “Cave of the tiger spirit”.
How to proceed? My story would have to serve instead of a map. It is a tale that chills the blood and curls the toes. I would act, systematically. I could relate names, dates and of course the telltale symptoms of the cave’s victim. But would these rings any bells after so long? Curtains of rain swayed, outside my hotel window the north coast of the main island of Pulau Langkawi. The hotel had been planted in the jungle with care so that the tops of venerable tress lapped its edges and bands of monkeys could inspect the guest’s bedrooms at their leisure. That first evening, the cloud base lifted and I had my first stroke of luck.
It came from an unexpected quarter. Joining the hotel’s free tour of the local rainforest, I was struck by the eloquence of our guide, a tall Indian Malaysian named Irshad Mobarak, as his electric torch unerringly lit up birds, glowing mushroom and creatures that crept through the dripping forest. Suddenly a jagged shape dripping through the beam, Irshad slipped into commentary mode: “Bats are precision fliers aerodynamically more manoeuvrable than flies.” he began. My ears pricked up. A bats expert might prove invaluable on my mission. Irshad agreed to meet me the following morning. In the hotel lobby, he listened impassively as I laid out the story.
The Malediction began about 80 years ago on the on the small island of Pulau Tuba. One day, the island’s Malay district officer an amateur archaeologist named Wan Mahmoud, ventured into a cave and discovered some ancient two handled jars, shaped like Greek amphorae. He quickly contracted an acute fever became mentally unhinged and died within a few days.
To the Island’s population of Malay fishermen and poor farmers, the cause of his madness was self evidence; the cave was inhabited by a dangerous tiger spirit, which has possessed and kills the district officer. The precedent for such super natural events were too numerous to leave any room for doubt. A strict taboo was placed on the cave.
Scroll on 40 years. A party of five Europeans was scrambling up a steep slope, on entering the cave for the first time in most islanders’ memory. At eight years old I was the group’s youngest member. In front of me were my brother Derek, aged 10, my father and two or his broadcasting colleagues. Following us wan Sulaiman bin Talib, the headman of Pulau Tuba, who was no doubt regretting his participation in this incautious expedition. The cave entrance was a jagged vertical slit, garlanded with bulbous stalactites; the first to enter was Bob Sheeks, the smallest adult, whose struggle presaged the comical contortions of the others. By the light of our lamps, the cave’s interior was revealed to be about 25ft in diameter and with a low roof, like an inverted rice bowl. There was a pungent smell I could not place.
Tony Beamish, my father’s friend began to dig in a search for Greek jars, while my brother examined the base of the walls. Derek explained later, “I was hoping there would be a tunnel that would widen out into other caves where we might find something, as in the Famous Five.”
I stood, near the entrance with the head man waiting for the tiger to materialise. I had already begun to suspect there were more things in heaven and earth than most colonial children had dream of. It seemed as if I seesawed between two worlds. One was characterised by afternoon visits to the Lake and attending the army school where my classmate was a beautiful girl with butter golden hair named Joanna Lumley. I was smitten.
Yet there was also a world of mystery and weirdness into which I found myself drawn evermore deeply. Thanks to my father’s job as a roving broadcaster with a penchant for jungle-bashing, I was wired in such deviant subjects as ape-man, lake monsters and lost tribes. I was accustomed to strolling through the Looking glass to witness trance dances, propitiation ceremonies and all manner of juju.
So, as I stood beside the cave mouth, clutching a catapult in my pocket, I had a pretty good idea of what a tiger spirit was. It was strictly speaking, a were-tiger, counter part to the European was wolf. To many Malays in former times it was a fact not mere belief, that some men could turn into tiger and wreak havoc.
There were reported cases of korinchi men found impaled in tiger traps with the incriminating chicken feather in their mouths. There were accounts of men ripped their wives to shred in the marital bed after returning in tiger form from the jungle. I have subsequently witnesses a jungle Sharman and a Malay Pawang (witch doctor) assumes the frenzied behaviour of a tiger during trance-induced healing ceremonies.
In the spirit world, the tiger was prominent. The most feared kind of Kermamat harimau (tiget spirit) could invade and derange a human being. That was the sort believed to be guarding the cave. Gromit would have recognized my worried expression. Mercifully, after an hour or so fruitlessly grubbing about, we made our way back to the boat ang returned to the rest house at Kuah, the capital of Pulau Langkawi. The following morning, my brother complained of a headache. But we were distracted from it by a summons to the local district office, where the headman of Pulau Tuba awaited us with surprising news.
He announced that we had banished the tiger-spirit from the cave and more significantly, we had liberated a cornucopia of bat dug that had accumulated in the cave for the past 40 years. This benison, which accounted for the revolting smell I had detected, represents an invaluable hoard of fertilizer for their paddy fields, he said. In appreciation, he presented us with two live Pelandok mouse deer. To reciprocate the gift, my father improvised by painting his shovel bright red and inscribing it with, our names. This was mounted with due ceremony on the wall of the district office.
It seemed like a happy ending to a Boy’s Own tale. But my brother’s temperature had shot up to 105 F. Late that night two Malay soldiers found Derek running down the beach screaming. He was rushed to the mainland and spent the next fortnight in Taiping hospital. My Father says it was touch and go whether he would live. There was talk of sunstroke and histoplasmosis, a disease associated with fungal bat guano, but the doctors seemed at a loss.
Even today, Derek has a vivid memory of the hallucination that gripped him. “I woke up and could see people who were trying to get into the room. They were trying to flood the room by poring water under the door. I was running around and screaming and trying to escape. I don’t remember much after that”.
The implications only occurred to me years later. We bad been so concerned about Derek that we had forgotten about the Islanders. Confident that we had banished their tiger spirit, they would have entered the cave unsuspectingly to harvest their windfall guano. Had we left an epidemic behind us?. I still had disturbing dreams.
“Does all this sound crazy?” I asked Irshad. “Not at all”, he~ replied. “You are following your dream just as I did”. Eleven years ago he explained, he had been a banker in Kuala Lumpur, feeling increasingly jaded by city life. One night, he experienced a vision that persuaded him to relinquish his Job and set up his environmental consultancy. “I have never been happier”, he said. Irshad enthusiastically agreed to be my guide and interpreter. “Now, I am intrigued,” he confessed. He did not know Pulau Tuba personally, but he knew a man who did. What is more, the man owned a plot of land that contained a cave.
Driving across Pulau Langkawi, which is almost the size of Singapore but with a population of only 40,000, I noted that the main island was not nearly as developed as most guide books implied. True, most bays were holiday resorts and the coastal capital of Kuah was a creeping sprawl. But the hinterland’s jungle clad mountains, serene kampongs and emerald paddy fields tugged at poignant boyhood memories. Shukri Shafi was serving customers at his restaurant when we arrived. He gesture to a table and listened to our story with bemusement. Yes he had a two acre plot of land on Pulau Tuba in which there was a cave, but he had never been inside it.
“Is it on a sea clift I asked. No, inland, he replied. This did not square with my recollection of approaching it directly from the sea.
How wide is the entrance?” I demanded. He thought about 20ft. It did not sound promising. Then Shukri’s business partner arrived with a different description. Johannes “Johnny” Cordier, a retired aeronautical engineer from Hamburg, was an amenable character who had founded the Rive Gauche restaurant in Kuala Lumpur with Shukri before settling down in Langkawi. “The cave entrance is about 8ft wide, narrowing down to a slit rock,” Johny reported empathically. “I think it can be approached by sea.”
Bingo. The coincidence seemed uncanny of all the caves, of all the landowners etc- but fate plays strange, tricks. Shukri had even better news. The old headman of Pulau Tuba had been succeeded by his son, whom he would telephone to expect our arrival the next day. It was time to take a fix on our on our destination from Langkawi’s tallest mountain, Gunung Raya.
A snaking road, through the jungle took us nearly to its 2,800ft summit, where the view spanned the distant shores of southern. Thailand. I had imagined Pulau Tuba to be an outlying island but there it was below us, a dark and enigmatic outline, just a’ few miles from Kuah across the shimmering Andaman Sea and separated from a much larger island, Pulau Dayang Bunting, by a curved sea channel.
The next morning an eagle followed the progress of our small passenger boat as we set out from Marble Beach at Kuah. Among the half dozen villagers aboard was a white haired man who recalled a cave that provided guano fertiliser. “People don’t go there any more. Some of the old people say it’s dangerous,” he said. My stomach switched to churn cycle. After a voyage of 20 minutes, we rounded the forested head land of Pulau Tuba and puttered towards a long jetty that sprouted from a village of rusty iron roofs and palm trees. “There is your cave” said the, old man. He was pointing at a dramatic limestone outcrop that soared 40Oft in the air, behind the village. Something was amidst, surely I would have remember such an arresting spectacle? And it seemed too far inland.
As we clambered onto the landing stage, Irshad bent down to inspect some pellets on the ground. “Bats,” he murmured, and looked up wards. Nestling in the eaves above us was a tiny black bat. Perhaps we were getting warm, after all. The old head man’s son greeted us courteously at a ramshackle cafe above the beach. Mansor bin Sulaiman was the island’s political representative and effectively its leader. Now aged 52, he recalled the Englishmen’s visit all those years ago. “Before they came, the cave was pantang (Forbidden). In those days, alot of people believed there was a dangerous spirit inside,” he said. Discreetly broaching the concern that had brought me on this mission, I inquired about his father. To my relief, Mansor replied that he had lived to die ripe old age of 82 dying in 1989. So had anyone fallen sick, after entering the cave? He shook his head. “We took thousands of bags of bat guano out of there” he said.
“Once a year, when it was time to plant paddy, we went to the cave and took out more. But, we have not used the cave guano for about 20 years.” Why? Had the tiger spirit returned? He smiled. Only a few old people believe in that sort of thing any more. Now the government gives us fertiliser and it’s no longer necessary to go there.” Could we see the cave? He nodded, and summoned a man with a motorbike. Our guide, a man in his forties named Adnan Kymis, explained that he had once carried the bags of pre¬cious guano from the cave. We set off on two motorbikes in gentle rain, wending our way through Kampongs and paddy fields until the limestone out crop towered above us.
TWO CAVES impossibly high on the rock face were discernible, their shadowed recesses conjuring the eye sockets of a skull. “Not those,” Adnan said. “Your cave is lower down”. Turning round, I glimpsed the nearby sea and realised we had crossed to the other side of the island: my memory of a seaborne approach was correct. Beside a waterfall, Adnan led the way on a path that crossed a stream and began to ascend through fishtail palms, ginger plants and wild fig trees.
A flooded meadow sucked at our shoes: Shukri and Johnny, it seemed, had purchased a bog. Adnan came to a halt and dropped a small bombshell: he had not visited the cave for 20 years and was unsure of the route. Gesturing to a thick wall of jungle that barred our way, he asked if we wanted to go on I heard a strangulated noise worthy of Basil fawIty and realised it was me. I had not come halfway around the world to be thwarted at the last moment.
We pushed through the foliage to find the remnants of a path cluttered with dead fronds and lianas. The air became moist and stifling as the incline steepened up a glacis of rocks and rotten tree trunks. Then, suddenly, we were there. Chill fingers played an adagio on my spine as I examined the entrance. It was almost exactly as I had last seen it, complete with narrowing walls, a keyhole mouth just over 1ft wide and dangling stalactites. Unaccountably, though the floor was higher reducing the depth of the entrance. It was the moment of truth that, I must have thought would never arrive, for I had forgotten to bring an air filter mask or even a crucifix.
Adnan was hanging back and looking at me expectantly. Switching on my torch, I went down on my knees and shuffled forward, stooping further as the sides crowded in. I could not comprehend what I saw in front of me. The cave had disappeared. It had been completely filled in. “it was a mudslide,” Adnan ventured. “We did so much digging around here that the entrance must have trapped mud coming down from the mountain”.
Disappointed was overlaid by a wave of relief. I would not have to confront my old ghosts, of course. But the tiger spirit, or whatever it was, was now buried forever. Nobody have perish as a result of our foolhardiness. On contrary, I had played a small pat in enriching people live with commodious supplies of dung-perhaps fitting memorial for a journalist. So was it all in my imaginations? Back at the village, a Malay named Hamid Bakar gave me the answer. “There was one strange thing about that cave”, he mused. “When we used to go in there to collect the guano, we had to take car¬bide gas lamps. For some rea¬son, batteries would never work. Can ‘ you explain that?” Well, what do you think?
Stuart Wavell was a guest of Kuoni and the Datai Hotel-Langkawi