Ancient wonders of Niah

By on July 13, 2010 in caves, national parks with No Comments


It is pitch black, cold… and eerily scary.

Brrr…gives me the goosebumps. No wonder bats like to live here.

Eeeeekkk!!!!

What was that?!

Arrgh…flying insects…

I was trying my best to walk as slowly as possible on the slippery plank walk, with trusty headlamps lighting the way. It was a torture, especially with guano– bat dung ‘perfume’ on the ground everywhere, its smell hanging heavily in the air.

The silence around me was eerily spooky.

Walking in the darkness of the Moon Cave at the Niah National Park located in Miri, in northern Sarawak, it was surreal just to imagine the life of the ancient people whom used to live in the caves.

Living off the land, and staying in a cave full of bats…brr… I probably wouldn’t survive a day…

Actually, the Niah National Park is quite an interesting place. It is located on the Niah River, approximately 3 km from the town of Batu Niah, and 110 km to the south-west of Miri city. It was gazetted as a park in 1974 and covers a size of 3,140 hectares.

A visit to the Niah National Park is great for the adventure and breathtaking sceneries and wildlife. A huge part of the park is karst, therefore it is littered with limestone outcrops throughout the plank walk journey to the caves. Peat swamp and mixed dipterocarp forests can also be found here, as well as its wildlife such as squirrels, hornbills, Rajah Brooke butterflies and other interesting creatures.

There are several interesting sites to visit at the park. This includes the Great Cave, the Large Chamber, Painted Cave, Burnt Cave, Padang and Moon Cave (Gan Kira).  It is best to go early; the park opens at 8 am, in the morning to be able to visit the various caves here.

It was here in 1957 that Tom Harrison, the then curator of the Sarawak Museum discovered evidence of human settlements at the West Mouth of the Great Cave. Uncovered were tools, cooking utensils as well as ornaments made of bone, stone and clay.

A year later, his archaeological team discovered a human skull estimated to be 40,000 years old. It is regarded as one of the oldest modern human remains discovered in Southeast Asia. This makes Niah National Park one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.

All these findings and more are pictographed and depicted in a small museum located just outside the Park. The museum should be visited before the start of the journey to the caves at Niah National Park, to get a greater understanding of the importance of the park. Later, take a short boat ride, to begin the long plank walk journey to the heart of Niah National Park.

One of the most interesting caves here is the Painted Cave.  Reaching the place is a challenge in itself (roughly a 2 hours walk for about 4.1 km to the Painted Cave) , and it would be wise to wear sturdy and comfortable shoes. The plankwalk can be slippery, especially if one visits during the rainy season. However, it is well worth the journey as this is the site of the famed Niah cave drawings, and the findings of the ‘death-ship’.

Sampans (or small wooden boats) were used at the time to ‘bury’ the remains of the dead, along with several cherished possessions such as ornaments and clothing. These wooden coffins, the ‘death-ship,’ and its contents were later moved from the site and can now be viewed at the Sarawak Museum in Kuching city, the capital of Sarawak.

There is however, a pictorial board set-up just outside the Painted Cave where visitors can read of the excavations and preservation works carried out.

Visitors will find that the walled-area has been fenced up, to protect the fragile drawings on the cave walls. It is difficult to see from afar but they are somewhat visible (with a pair of binoculars) and are said to have been drawn with red hematite. One can see human figures as well as animals drawn on the walls.

If one goes to the other side of the walled fence, just a few metres away one can see a few drawings that have not been fenced up. It takes a while to adjust to the gloomy lighting of the cave, but it is worth the visit.

Later, take a breather at the makeshift bench by the mouth of the cave, and take in the green surroundings. This part of the cave is humid and the walls still maintain their whitish limestone colour. It is a few metres from this site, that  a new excavation is well under way at the foot of the Painted Cave as evidence of human settlement is said to have been uncovered here only recently.

Also, look out for the swiftlets living in the ceilings of the cave. Some parts of the cave have low ceilings, so it would be easier to spot some swiftlets as well as bats resting during the day here. Avoid shining your flashlight directly at the animals as it may disturb them while they rest.

As swiftlet nests are highly sought after by bird nests’ collectors, the park is carefully looked after by the park warden to avoid illegal harvesting of the nests. Due to the seasonal bird’s nest and guano gathering activity carried out, Sarawak Forestry usually bans these activities for several months in a year. This is to protect the swiftlet population, and preserve the environment of the caves.

For those wishing to visit the Niah National Park, do remember to wear sturdy shoes as it tends to get slippery from water falling from the roof of the caves, bring a hat, bottled water, flashlight (get the really bright ones, as it gets pitch black at the Moon Cave) and you’re good to go.

You’ll definitely be rewarded at the end of the day, with an amazing experience to treasure for a lifetime.

How to get there:

Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia flies to Miri on a daily basis. Check out their websites for further information: www.malaysiaairlines.com and www.airasia.com.

For further information, contact:

National Parks Booking Office

c/o Visitors Information Centre

Lot 452, Jln Melayu, 98000 Miri,

Sarawak, Malaysia.

Tel: 085-434184 Fax: 085-434179

Website: http://www.sarawakforestry.com/htm/snp-np-niah.html

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