Hiking and cave explorations are the best ways to overcome the fear of heights, dark and tight spaces. Loong Wai Ting braves the little-known side of the iconic caves


“ALWAYS remember to secure your carabiners before anything else,” Wan, our guide from Wira Adventure Consultant tells us before we ascend Gua Cili Padi. Just like its name, which literally means bird’s eye chilli, the climb packs a punch or two, even for experienced climbers like Wan.

Slippery rocks, thick foliage and difficult terrain — these are the challenges as we haul ourselves up using ropes that are tied to trees and rocks. Luck is on our side as the weather is cooling (it rained the previous night) with wispy white clouds stretching out on the blue sky.

Not knowing what to expect, most of us pack light — just a small backpack with a bottle of water, some snacks and mosquito repellent.

As we dutifully follow our guide and trudge along the slippery and sometimes muddy path, Wan will stop now and then to make sure that all under his care are doing fine.

The path quickly turns difficult as we begin a near vertical ascent. At times we are crawling on all fours on the ground and using vines and snaking roots to pull ourselves up. As soon as we reach a somewhat flat ground, Wan happily announces that we will take a short break.

Ten minutes later, we continue with our journey. Mosquitoes are a constant nuisance. They buzz in our ears and around our bodies. Pesky insects aside, it takes us about 30 minutes to reach the mouth of Gua Cili Padi.

Inside, rock formation can be seen on every corner of the cave, which is about the size of a football field. In some parts of the cave, there are small chambers enough for a person to squeeze in for a comfortable nap.

It’s quiet and the only sound we hear is the constant sound of water dripping down from the cave ceiling. The cooling and dark cave is very inviting, especially for those who seek time off from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Gua Cili Padi is only 13km north of Kuala Lumpur, just behind the iconic Batu Caves,one of the most renowned Hindu shrines outside of India.

Trekking, cave exploration and wallclimbing (there’s flying fox activity too!) at Gua Cili Padi and its sister caves (Gua Anjing, Gua Ichibawa and Gua Damai, just to name a few) are actually the adventurous side of the Batu Caves that not many know of. These activities are managed by Wira Adventure Consultant, which also manages the Gua Damai Extreme Park in Kampung Melayu Wira Damai.


MORE CAVING

Our journey continues when Wan leads us into another cave near Gua Cili Padi.

Precipitous rock walls stand in front of us near the mouth of Gua Ichibawa, named after a Japanese national who found the place years ago. At the entrance, narrow-walled corridors provide the only access in and out of the cave.

Inside, we have to go down on all fours to reach the main chamber, all the while appreciating and learning about flowstone, stalactites and cave insects.

We are told that treasures that dated back to the Ming Dynasty were previously discovered in Gua Ichibawa. Archaeological discoveries such as kettle drums and axe-like tools from the Hoabinhian (between the Paleolithic and Neolithic) period were also found here.

Wan then instructs everyone to gather around and to switch off our torch lights. Seated in the pitch dark cave, we begin to understand what it’s like to live in total darkness.

Instead of being scared, most of us are overwhelmed by the sense of calmness and peace.

“This is what it feels like when it’s time for us to leave the world forever,” he says as-a matter- of-factly. As we sit in silence, pondering his words, the clicks of the fruit bats can be heard in the far corner of the cave.

Five minutes may not be a very long time, but sitting in the dark cave, it feels as if time has stopped. As soon as Wan switches his lights on, we make our way out of the cave.

At the same time, Wan advises us not to touch anything in the cave as it will affect the precious rock formation and stalactites. He explains that heat from our hands may disrupt the formations. Besides, you wouldn’t want to be responsible for breaking any of the stalactites. We’re told that each stalactite that “died” as a result of human touch will take 60 years to re-grow.


DON’T LOOK DOWN

Although I’m anxious about climbing Gua Damai, which is accessible through Gua Cili Padi, I’m glad that I go ahead with it.

Having climbed Gua Damai previously, I can say that the trek up is fairly easy. For an inexperienced climber like myself, the ascent is not that physically taxing, though possessing a certain strength is an added advantage.

Throughout our hike, we come across different groups of hikers. It’s no surprise because Gua Damai is a popular hiking trail for both local and foreign thrill seekers.

Despite the slippery path, we troop up and down the hiking paths and trails before arriving on the summit of Gua Damai.

There are two options for us to descend, either the zig-zagging stairs or to abseil. I choose the latter and brave myself for the last descend of the day.

One by one, the members of the group abseil using ropes and carabiners that are securely fastened onto the walls. Then it is my turn. Trying hard not to look down — it’s a 90m drop, by the way — I grip the rope tightly, say a little prayer, push myself off the ledge and inch my way down.

Strangers, friends, my teammates and even curious onlookers cheer and offer support from below. It helps to take some of my fear of heights away. This is the sort of camaraderie you get when you’ve spent a good four to five hours wading through the challenges together.

In spite of the tiring and the occasional fear-inducing experience, this is the perfect vehicle to overcome the fear of heights, dark and tight spaces.

You’ll emerge a much braver person than before you start out. Like I did.

EXHILARATING EXPERIENCE

EVERY year, base jumpers from around the world take part in the annual base jump event that takes place at the Gua Damai Extreme Park.

A prelude to the annual KL Tower Base Jump event, Gua Damai is the first and only place in Malaysia, where qualified jumpers take the plunge from the height of 96m from its cliff and land on the football field nearby.

Recently, I had the opportunity to join a group of base jumpers from the United States, France, United Kingdom, Australia, Russia, New Zealand, Mexico and Malaysia... just to name a few, as they prepare for their jump at the park.

Dubbed Gua Damai International Base Jump 2017, the two-day event, which is in its 10th year, attracted 110 participants from 13 countries. The event is organised by the Selayang Municipal Council with the cooperation of Wira Adventure Consultant and Tourism Selangor.

As early as 6.30am, two buses ferry jumpers from their accommodation to the base of Gua Damai near Batu Caves in Selangor. Each registered jumper is given a T-shirt, goodie bag (it contains snacks, food and drinks) and a jump passport. Before the jump, each participant must present their jump passport, which is almost like an ID card.

We then take the zig-zagging stairs up to the mouth of Gua Damai. It is a steep and rather tiring ascent. Inside the cave, one can marvel at the beautiful rock formation. Occasionally, bats, birds and other cave-dwelling creatures can be seen on the walls.

Gua Damai is a natural wonder by itself. There’s a certain thrill, especially for first-timers, in climbing through the cave. Some times, you need to crawl your way through.

For inexperienced climbers, the climb can be tiring. Rest assured, there are ropes and safety harnesses on the walls for climbers to use for a safer climb.

All the participants have to haul their own gears and parachutes up the narrow and sometimes slippery path.

There are sections of the climb where you need all your upper body strength to pull yourself up. One wrong move and you’ll risk slamming your entire self on the sharp edges of the limestone wall.

About 10 minutes into our caving adventure, we arrive on the other end of the cave, surrounded by lush vegetation. The trees are denser than from where we started.

Dried brown leaves cover most of our path and it can be quite slippery. Just like inside the cave, there are ropes tied to trees for climbers to use to get to the top. Another purpose of the rope is so that we won’t lose our way going up and down later.

On the summit of Gua Damai, crystal quartz can be seen lining the side of the hill as we make our way to the edge of the platform where the jumpers take their leap. The climb may not be for the fainthearted but once you get to the top, it is well worth it.

As more jumpers arrive on the platform, the surrounding area can be quite packed. With the carabiner safely in locked, I find my seat on the edge of the platform, which provides a bird’s-eye view of the jump.

Soon, a small crowd start to gather at the far corner of the football field below, all anticipating the first jump of the day. As the crowd point their smartphones towards the sky, curious kids from a nearby kindergarten stand by their classes’ windows shouting excitedly as the first jumpers successfully land on the football field. Cheers and applause can be heard from where we are.

Seeing the base jumpers in action, it is definitely a thrill. The excitement is written all over their faces. Fuelled by high-fives and last minute checks that everything is in place, one by one, the participants jump from the platform.

A moment of panic ensued when Mexican jumper Johnny Saavedra miscalculated his jump and landed on a tree nearby. Luck is on his side as Saavedra escapes unhurt and is swiftly brought down by the rescue team on standby.

Saavedra is considered a veteran in his field, with years of experience in base jumping and has clocked over a thousand free jumps around the world. On his jump, Saavedra says: “In a situation like this, always remain calm and stay focus.”

As the 59-year-old returns to the warm embrace of his anxious family, the rest of the jumpers finish their session without a hitch. Well, almost...

Before Saavedra, another jumper has also crashed into a nearby palm tree, breaking it in the process. Like Saavedra, he too escapes injury.

When the afternoon wind starts to pick up, the organiser and the rest of the jumpers agree to call it a day. Many decide to hang out at the base, taking extra care in folding the gears, while others just make themselves comfortable, resting among the rocks.

As for me, my arms and legs are aching from the earlier climb. But stimulated by the spirit of the thrill seekers, I’m itching to get on the harness again and climb to the platform to admire the view below.


TRAVEL FILE

HOW TO GET THERE

Getting to Gua Damai Extreme Park is very easy via Jalan Tun Razak and then Duke Highway. After exiting from Duke Highway on your left, take the flyover in front of you and then turn right. Go through all the traffic lights and you’ll see signs leading to the park. If you’re unsure of the way, use traffic navigation apps like Waze or Google Map. Just punch in “Gua Damai Extreme Park” and it’ll take you to its doorstep.

Contact Gua Damai Extreme Park at 012-481 2005 (Pak Mus).

SAFETY TIPS & REMINDERS

1. Always heed the guide’s advice

2. Always stay together with your group.

3. Bring along a small backpack and at least a litre of water per person.

4. Dress appropriately and comfortably i.e leggings, rash guard, dry fit shirts or shorts.

5. Wear comfortable, covered shoes. No slippers!

6. Don’t vandalise, litter or touch any rock formations.

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Crawling through Gua Ichibawa
Cave cricket found inside Gua Ichibawa
Final briefing by Wan (right), our guide
One of the fastest way to descend Gua Cili Padi is by flying fox
Abseiling down Gua Cili Padi
To get to the top of Gua Cili Padi, we had to trek and climb through the smaller caves inside
Base jumpers in action
A base jumper leaping off the 96m platform
1,2,3...jump!
A jumper hauling his own parachute after his jump