Mythical warriors, ghosts and creepy crawlies – these are the stuff of mysteries or horror movies.
In Negri Sembilan, one woman offers these and more for anyone who has the guts to explore the dark recesses of a cave, or brave an up close encounter with a poisonous serpent. But this is not just for the adventurous.
The many caves in the Pasoh Felda 4 settlement near Simpang Pertang, where such encounters can be arranged, are also the site of a pre-historic settlement, making it an important area for archaeological research.
Nor Azliny Mohd Ali, founder and owner of Azliny Team Building Outdoor Adventure (Atoa), offers anyone who is game an opportunity to experience nature in its purest form.
As the name of her company suggests, she also organises team building exercises for company executives.
For Azliny, her work today is just an extension of a childhood spent near forests and caves.
Azliny explains about the excavations and tool findings estimated at 14,000 years old in Gua Pelangi (Rainbow Cave)
Azliny, 34, recalls that when she was young, her father frequently spoke about seeing a white tiger near one of the caves close to their home in Pasoh Felda 4.
“According to my dad, it meant that there was a spirit there,” she tells Focusweek. She never saw the feline herself, but she did accompany her father whenever he went into the caves to collect guano (batdroppings) that he used as fertiliser in his garden.
Unlike Azliny and her father, most of the villagers preferred to stay away from the caves and the surrounding area. Legend has it that a female warrior lived in one of the caves and they feared offending her.
Strange music can sometimes be heard from the caves, and the villagers attribute it to ghosts that, they are convinced, live nearby.
But Azliny’s own investigations later proved that the sound was merely made by strong winds blowing against a curtain of limestone structures within. She named it Curtain Cave.
But it took some time before she decided to make cave exploration her full-time vocation.
Life, for her, began in more staid surroundings – specifically in a corporate setting.
In the years following her graduation in 2004 from a local university, where she earned a degree in business management, Azliny worked for several Malaysian and Japanese companies, first in Shah Alam, and later in Damansara, Brunei and then Cyberjaya.
In all these companies, she served in the human resource department where she also gave financial and management advice to other departments.
Azliny on her bike ready to enter the forest.
After several years in HR, Azliny, by then a single mother of two boys, wanted a change.
She signed up for a part-time teaching course at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang. While engaged in her academic pursuits, she also found time to visit her mother in Pasoh Felda 4.
“I was looking for a change in my life. Working in town was not ideal for my children and me. We were not happy. I wanted to find a balance between my children and what I wanted to do,” she says.
Coincidentally, one of her lecturers impressed upon her the benefits of making children aware of conservation and nature to balance their reliance on electronic gadgets.
She says that whenever she returned to her kampung to visit her mother, she found a new interest among teenagers and adults in hiking and trekking.
“They seemed to relish looking for secrets in the jungle, and it was then that I realised I also wanted my children to grow up appreciating the beauty of nature,” she says.
She did some reconnaissance work in the jungles near her home. “One day, while I was out looking for places that I hoped would be of interest to explorers,I saw a rainbow against the wall of the main cave that I later named Gua Pelangi. I also
took it as a sign,” she says.
Azliny took some photographs and collected a few chunks of rock that she believed were limestone. In archaeological
terms, the presence of limestone meant that the cave once served as a human habitat.
“I called Prof Datuk Dr Moktar Saidin (director of the Centre for Global Archaeological Research at USM and the country’s foremost expert in the field) and he told me the prevailing belief was that Batu Caves were the southernmost prehistoric human habitat in Peninsular Malaysia,” she recalls.
Her discovery prompted an excavation that began in 2014 and since then, archaeologists have found tools, bones and other items that prove the presence of humans there in prehistoric times – dating back 9,000 to 14,000 years ago.
In the meantime, Azliny had swapped her business suits for tracksuits, kicking off an adventure that would take her into the jungles of Negri Sembilan.
The business Azliny’s company offers a number of activities: caving, abseiling, flying fox rides, archery, bushwalking, night trekking, bird watching, 4WD rides, ATV driving, tree climbing, jungle games, swimming in the river and visits to Orang Asli
Her investment in the business has been anything but small. While USM funds the excavation work, Atoa pays to upkeep the road and the area around Gua Pelangi where visitors can engage in archery.
She has also built temporary facilities such as toilets, a canteen that serves as a cooking and dining area and a surau.
Money has also been spent on equipment such as helmets with headlamps, ropes, walkie-talkies and batteries. The bulk of the operating expenditure goes into trucking water to the site. “We need water for ablution, bathing, cooking and research
activities. We buy the water from Syabas,” Azliny explains.
Nevertheless, the business has had a positive impact on her village as well. A new business, in the form of providing ancillary services, is shaping up and everyone in the village is reaping the benefits.
Azliny has finally found what she wanted, and helped her fellow villagers as well.
Caretaker of the forest
Apart from giving urban dwellers a taste of the jungle, Nor Azliny Mohd Ali doubles up as a caretaker of the forest near her
home in Pasoh Felda 4, Negri Sembilan.
In return, authorities such as the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) and the Forestry Department of Negri Sembilan
allow her to continue taking visitors into the jungle.
Her company Team Building Outdoor Adventure (Atoa), has been given the task to protect the newly discovered site.
Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) also engages her company as a partner in its research work because of her local knowledge of the unique forested area called “Pasoh Island”.
Within the small area are at least 400 species of birds and about 800 species of trees.
“On our bushwalks, we have found all sorts of birds, insects, snakes, monkeys, pheasants, butterflies, and tracks of other
animals,” she says.
Camera traps have successfully capture images of clouded leopards and panthers but elephants no longer roam the area
like they did 20 years ago.
Nor Azliny Mohd Ali’s organisational and planning skills were put to the test last month by a group of KLIA2 air traffic controllers and their families.
The group was in Gua Pelangi, Pasoh Felda 4 in Negri Sembilan for a team-building exercise managed by Azliny Team Building and Outdoor Adventure (Atoa).
“I have three full-time employees and many part-timers to help out,” Azliny, founder and owner of Atoa, says.
The team’s responsibilities include assisting participants along the way, such as when they enter the caves using rope ladders or when they climb steep jungle tracks.
Others stay back in the village to prepare meals for the participants, visit local traders to replenish supplies or organise homestay accommodation.
KLIA2 senior air traffic controller Haizar Abd Halim says he enjoyed the experience, even during the torrential rain that
brought “mayhem” into the village.
“Vehicles were bogged down in the downpour,” he says. “Despite the challenges, Azliny remained cool, calm and collected. It was superb, and the caves were fantastic.”
Caves to explore
Gua Pelangi, which is where the excavation work is focused, is a medium-size cave with a big entrance. Being the easiest to access, it is also the first cave visitors enter.
Azliny explains the significance of everything the visitor sees inside the cave, including the square pits dug up by the archaeologists.
Visitors learn why limestone caves came to be homes during prehistoric times and why dry caves that also permitted the entry of sunlight were preferred over those that were covered in moisture.
They also learn a bit of history of the era when these caves were inhabited.
Archaeologists believe that in the rear of Gua Pelangi, layers of sediment have covered the original floor of the cave.
Prof Datuk Dr Moktar Saidin, director of the Centre for Global Archaeological Research at USM, says if financing is available, the next round of excavation will focus on clearing the sediment.
Above Gua Pelangi is Gua Tirai (Curtain Cave) where participants must clamber up a steep cliff face to enter a descending tunnel.
Gua Kelawar, or Bat Cave, is hidden and not an easy cave to explore. It requires a bit of acrobatics to get in and a steady
heart to descend the six metres into a large chamber that is full of bats.
A few kilometres away from Gua Pelangi base area is a cave for the eyes to feast on.
At midday, the sun’s rays breach the roof through the many cracks to form shafts of light within the otherwise cavernous
darkness of Gua Waris.
To descend to its chamber, one has to clamber over massive boulders and large rocks that have, over thousands of years, lined up to create a unique, natural stairwell.
Descend another 40m and you land inside a cavern fit for a mythical female warrior. It’s not as grand as the Mulu Caves of Sarawak but it holds hidden secrets to pique the interest of children and adults in some exploration.
Hopes and expectations For Azliny, this is more than just a business. This is also where her two boys have learnt to love nature.
During a recent visit, the boys, dressed in camouflage pants and Atoa T-shirts, rushed past her and raced one another to take the lead on a bushwalk to the forest canopy walk near the FRIM (Forest Research Institute Malaysia) Pasoh offices.
“I know I have made the right decision. Just look at my boys,” she says, the joy unmistakable in her eyes.
She wants to see Gua Pelangi become a major eco-tourism centre where people can learn more about their past.
The good news is that Gua Pelangi has recently been gazetted as a historical site.