27 October 2015

Niah Caves

Niah National Park Sarawak
Home to early man, Niah is one of the most important archaeological
sites in the world. 
A year ago, while we were living in Miri, we took the opportunity to drive down to Niah, a World Heritage Site comprising some of the longest inhabited caves in this part of the world with settlement dating back to 46,000 years ago.  I had meant to write a post about it at the time but so many other things came up.  I realised, the other day, that the trip was about a year ago so I thought it was the right time to post.
Niah National Park Sarawak
River between the welcome centre and the cave trails.
We drove down while my father was on a visit to meet the new baby, Niah is one of the must see tourist attractions of the area and one that my husband and I had wanted to see for many years.  I had been desperate to go since we arrived but it was not really a suitable venue for late pregnancy due to the heavy walking required and the remote nature of the location so we decided to wait until after the birth. We drove down before we bought our own car so, not having the space to seat 6 we had to take both cars.  
Niah National Park Sarawak
The bush trails look like fun
Niah is about 200km from Miri which makes it a (just about) doable day trip.  The roads, while decent, are single lane and there is a distinct likelihood of getting stuck behind a logging truck or a horrendously passive Sarawakian driver.  There are not many places to stop so if this does happen you have no option but to endure.  Our poor little baby was desperate for a feed on the way home and, stuck in that way, she just had to cope until I could pull over in Miri and sort out a bottle for her. 

Niah National Park Sarawak
But, as we had the children with us we stuck to the managed walkways
Niah National Park Sarawak
There is plenty of wildlife but the larger birds and mammals eluded us.
The caves are well signposted and, on arrival, there is an office where you can purchase tickets and register into the park.  Once that is done you have to get a ferry across the river where the walk to the caves begins. 

Exploring Niah National Park Sarawak
A little slippery when wet the boards still make for an easy walk.
There is a very good museum by the banks of the river which explains the history of the caves and the archaeological importance of the finds there.  From the museum it is about a 3-4km walk through the jungle to the first of the caves.  The walk itself is a delight, in order to keep the path clear the parks authority have put down board walk so the going itself is not strenuous (although the heat was enervating, particularly for Mr EE who was carrying the baby).

Niah National Park Sarawak
The walk gives a good opportunity to see the local vegetation
and landscape.
The walk is interspersed with benches and places to rest should you want to and, close to the caves, there is a stall selling souvenirs and (rather overpriced but very cold) drinks.  Every 500m or so there are boards giving (very good quality) information about the forest and vegetation.

Niah National Park Sarawak
The management take great pains to provide good quality information.
The first cave we came to was called Traders' Cave.  This is really no more than a large abri and rather reminiscent of the Cro Magnon habitations of the Dordogne.  It was used, for many years, as a home for the cave nest harvesters and the remains of their lodges, which were built out of belian (iron) wood can still be seen.  The harvesting still goes on, although it is regulated by the park authorities but the harvesters no longer live in Traders Cave.  

Traders' Cave Niah National Park Sarawak
Traders' Cave -you can see the remains of the lodges (dating from the 70s)
on the left hand side.
A short climb further and we came to the aptly named Great Cave.  It is huge, one of the largest I have ever been in.  To the left hand side there was a large section cordoned off and this is where the archaeological research is still ongoing.  A bit further down and we came to a small shelter where our group took the chance to rest, feed and change the baby and give the older children a bite to eat from the picnic we had carried with us. 

Archaeology Niah National Park Sarawak
The archaeological dig at the main cave.
After that we walked into the cave.  Forewarned we had brought torches and they are absolutely necessary.  Beyond the cave mouth the path is in complete darkness.  The trail undulates, sometimes gently, sometimes rather steeply over mountains of guano.  Here and there poles for the bird nest harvesters hang down from the ceiling.  They were not collecting during the time of our visit but it is still a well used location with the nests being highly prized.  Part of the trail leads out the back of the cave to the painted cave decorated with paintings by the earliest inhabitants of the region.  The other part of the trail loops back towards the archaeological dig at the entrance to the main cave.

Niah National Park Sarawak
The path into the cave - note the bird nest harvesting ladders/ropes
hanging down. 
After that we walked back to the river as the evening came in.  We could hear frogs and monkeys in the trees but saw very little.  The return boats are meant to stop at a certain time but, if you ask nicely, they will wait for you should you want to see dusk in the caves and there is accommodation in the park should you want to stay overnight.

Niah National Park Sarawak
Looking back towards the entrange the people (at the mouth of the cave)
give some idea of scale.
We were advised to see Niah before Mulu as after the spectacular caves there it would be a disappointment.  We do think we did the visit in the right order (we went to Mulu 5 months later).  Niah is rather more rough and ready compared with the very slick and managed environment in Mulu and in that regard it was a little bit more fun.  Although we did run into other people in Niah (mostly school groups) it was positively deserted when compared with Mulu which was heaving with visitors. 
Niah National Park Sarawak
Exploring the cave.
One of the things we were sad about when we left Miri was that we would not get a chance to visit Niah again.  We had been hoping to do some of the trail walks and spend more time in the caves and museum.  It was not to be but we were extremely lucky to have been able to see them at all.

Bats Niah National Park Sarawak
Bats roosting in the ceiling of the cave
Niah does have a bit of a reputation for being a more challenging site to visit than Mulu but I think that is a little unfair.  We were a rather unusual band comprising 2 under 8s, a 6 week old, a healthy and active man with a broken foot rather tired from carrying a baby, a pensioner and a 6 week post-operative new mother.  If we could manage it I think just about everybody could.
The youngest ever visitor?  She slept through the whole thing.

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