Bats, Mud and Dark Spooky Places: Niah Caves National Park
Jun 29, 2007
"The boardwalk is under construction now, so you'll need to use the alternate route. It is a little muddy."
"Turn here," the woman behind the park's information desk explains while pointing at some coloured lines on her map.
We're not too worried. We can handle a little mud.
Soon we have loaded our bags into our four bed hostel room that we have to ourselves and have changed into our hiking shoes for the two and a half hour walk to the Niah caves.
This morning, we caught a bus from Miri for the 100 km trip south. On the bus we'd met Becci and Scott, a nice British couple on a whirlwind trip through SE Asia, and passed the time chatting about travelling. Before long the bus was stopping at the crossroads leading to the Niah park. Happily, we were able to share a taxi with Becci and Scott to the park as well (always good to save a little money!), but soon after had to part ways: they were on a daytrip from Miri and didn't have much time to waste.
A boat ferries us across the thick muddy Niah river where the trail begins. A concrete walkway leads into the buzzing, creaking rainforest. The insect noises sound like a construction site: it sounds like a rotary saw cutting through the trees while the hooting and squealing of birds punctuates the insect chorus. It is almost deafening.
Before long, we are on a raised boardwalk walking over thick underbrush, stagnant swampy tea-coloured water, and faster-flowing muddy river tributaries. The boardwalk is a marvel in itself: new with shiny metal floorboards and concrete footings sunk into the soft rainforest floor. I spot a gold-coloured lizard darting over the walkway and I stop to snap some photos. Strange rocks with Swiss-cheese pockmarks protrude from the stagnant swamp water. Laura spots a flying squirrel plummeting from a treetop, and at one point we hear the chattering screeching sounds of monkeys in the trees around us. Everything is a vivid shade of green. We walk onward, quickly covering ground on the flat well-tended boardwalk.
After an hour of walking, we reach the sign we'd been warned about
. Ahead, a narrow trail leads through the dense rainforest through mud, around deep puddles, and through swampy, mosquito-filled bogs. It is our path to the caves.
It is slow going. Recent rains have flooded sections and submerged boards laid over the deepest waters. Deep mud sucks at our shoes. It would be easy to slide deep into the water and submerge our shoes. Eventually, Laura does. We tuck our pantlegs into our socks and smear mosquito repellent over them to keep leeches away. The intense heat and humidity soon covers us in sweat and washes off the bug repellent. I towel myself dry with my shirt before smearing more DEET over my skin to deter the mosquitoes that whine around us in clouds. I smear the white lotion over my shirt and pants as well, as the mosquitoes can easily bite through our clothing.
Our feet are coated in thick sticky mud. Eventually, we learn to "read" where the deepest mud is, and where it is safe to walk. We walk for an hour and see no one. I'm a little concerned that we will be returning along this muddy path in semi-darkness; we will be staying at the caves to watch the bats fly out at dusk, leaving us to find our way back through the very wet and muddy forest at night.
The path ends abruptly at a rickety stepladder to a wooden boardwalk. A sign points us left for the painted cave and to the right for the great cave. We turn left.
A series of steps leads up up up. I walk cautiously. The steps look old and partially rotted. I'm far from confident they will support my weight. Thankfully, they do.
We find ourselves at the mouth of a truly huge cave. A four storey building would fit inside. Further inside, a fenced-off area displays faded cave paintings. Nearby, a set of planks is the only remains of the several caskets that were found here. The painted cave is among the most important archaeological sites in SE Asia: it contains the oldest remains of Homo sapiens found in Borneo, a skull found in layers dated to around 40,000 years and also contains a sequence of human occupation that may span the period from around 40,000 years to 2,000 years ago. For more info, you can take a look at Niah Caves Archeological Info Uniquely, the huge cave has two large openings and is thus quite bright inside. A small group is excavating an archaeological dig near the smaller opening, slowly digging a perfectly rectangular hole in the cave floor. The cave is filled with the shushing sound of dirt being sifted.
We explore the cave for a while then return back the way we came. The great cave is what we've come for, amongst the largest caves in the world. It is difficult to imagine one larger than the painted cave we just left!
We climb some wet slippery stairs to the cave mouth. Children are yelling and playing near the entrance and call hellos to us as we pass. Before us, a boardwalk leads up into the darkness.
My flashlight illuminates a few metres in front of me. The boardwalk is wet and slippery from water and bat guano. The squeaking of thousands of bats echoes and drifts through the cave. They are invisible in the darkness and my flashlight isn't powerful enough to illuminate the ceiling far above.
With each step I take the cave becomes larger. Something scurries on the boardwalk ahead and I catch it in the beam of my flashlight. A huge cricket-like thing with long antenna and legs crawls slowly like a large spider.
I try to get a photograph and eventually succeed. I wonder what huge spiders might lurk in the darkness, but see none.
It is when I see rays of light shining through a hole in the ceiling that I am truly awe-struck. The light illuminates the massive first inner chamber, showing for the first time how large the cave really is. I am standing in a chamber about the size of stadium. Stalactites hang like huge teeth from the ceiling while stalagmites grow from the floor in strange otherworldly shapes. The size and grandeur puts any cathedral to shame. It is truly awe-inspiring.
Long wooden poles have been fastened together end to end and hang from the ceiling of the cave. Ropes extend from the wooden poles to various spots around the cave. It looks like a strange trapeze apparatus and, in a way, it is: these poles are used by the local tribespeople to harvest the prized swiftlet nests -- the essential ingredient in bird's nest soup -- from the cave walls and ceilings.
Now, the poles are abandoned. Later in the year however, after a ceremony and sacrifice at the cave entrance, men will shimmy up the narrow poles to the ceiling where they will balance to collect the nests. Meanwhile, there is an ongoing scuffle and scraping in the darkness from another group of locals. These men walk the cave floor collecting bat and swiftlet guano in bags which are later brought to the neighbouring town to be sorted and graded before being used as fertilizer.
The cave is incredibly huge and, at times, extremely smelly. It smells like a mink farm, skunk, and burnt rice all at the same time. Yet it doesn't matter either: the cave is also beautiful -- a blend of greens and yellows -- and staggeringly big. How large? A man once flew a hot air balloon inside (for a Guinness record apparently). It is equivalent to about three hockey stadiums put end-to-end. The floor area has been calculated at about 10 hectares. Yet the walls and ceiling are sculpted by time and water into strange, bulbous shapes. As light from above illuminates one area, another is just as dark, dripping with water and bat droppings from the ceiling alive with the little creatures a hundred metres overhead.
It is all very very cool.
We walk about one kilometre through the cave before emerging into the main entrance, gaping like a huge mouth over the surrounding forest. One one side are the buildings where Tom Harrison performed his archaeological dig that discovered the oldest human skeleton in SE Asia (and managed to mess up all sorts of things in the process ... see the link above for more). We explore a while before turning back the way we came. A short while later, we encounter a group of Koreans being guided by a local man. He is puzzled why we are going back into the cave. Dismayed, we discover that his group had not travelled the muddy "alternate route" that we had. No one does, he tells us. I look at his shoes: there's not a speck of mud on them!! We will definitely take his advice.
First, however, we must wait for the bats! We take seats at the mouth of the cave (about 10 storeys high and wider still) to wait for sunset and the bats to emerge for the night. At the same time, we have been told, almost the same number of swiftlets fly into the cave to roost for the night. It is something we want to see for ourselves.
After about an hour, Laura notices a steady stream of bats along the light-coloured rock of the ceiling. The stream winds close the rock before emerging into the jungle. Hundreds fly overhead, and the stream just gets larger and larger. It reminds me of an ant colony winding its way toward food. The swiftlets are, indeed, flying into the cave but there are no where near the same number as bats. It is hard to grasp how many there must be. Both of the cave entrances must see the same exodus, as would each of the gaps in the ceiling! Thousands upon thousands of bats emerge into the forest. Perhaps there will be fewer mosquitoes on our walk back as a result!
Soon, it is time to return. The last boat across the river is at 7:30 and we don't want to be stranded! We walk past the "trail closed used alternate" sign and head back..
Before long, the boardwalk disappears, leaving only narrow concrete supports to walk upon.
It is a little treacherous, but much easier than the mud. We walk carefully past men building the new boardwalk, get briefly confused at a junction, and are back at the river in half the time it took to get to the cave. It is a good thing too: it is quickly getting dark and it would be next to impossible to navigate through the mud and swamp in the quickly fading light.
We wash the mud, sweat, and insect repellent from our clothes by hand in our bathroom sink and hang them around the room to dry before showering and heading off for dinner. The ever-surly young server takes our order and returns with what will become our regular meal: noodles, vegetables, and two iced teas.
We wake the next day resolved to walk to the summit of a nearby mountain. The signs indicate it is a one hour walk to the summit through the forest. By midmorning, we're on the trail.
The narrow trail leaves the boardwalk and winds through the forest, soon becoming muddy and wet. The trees tower overhead and strange vines, rock formations, and massive towering trees make it an interesting walk. However, it is at least as muddy as our walk to the cave the day before and our pace is slow as we detour around thick mud and water.
When we intersect with the trail branching up to the summit, the path becomes almost completely submerged. I walk ahead and see one lake of stagnant water after another: the way is impassable without rubber boots. We turn back. Thinking an alternate return route is possible, we take a branch toward the river and find that equally submerged. We return the way we came, pleased we took the time to explore the forest without the comfort of a boardwalk but a little dismayed we couldn't complete our trip.
We eat a quick lunch (noodles again!) and embark on a 45 minute walk to the nearby town. We need to find a phone to reserve places in a turtle sanctuary on the mainland. The walk takes us past crooked wooden houses with chickens wandering along the path. Dogs eye us suspiciously while children wave at us excitedly, yelling 'hello!" and jumping up and down.
In town, we find a pay phone and get some change, but cannot make it work. A woman at a nearby restaurant comes by to help, and tries to dial for us with no success. She calls her friend over who also tries. One brings out her cell phone and dials for us: no luck. We have given up when a woman from a nearby cellphone shop is called over to giver her advice. "You want to call Kuala Lumpur?" she asks. "Drop the first number," she instructs us. "That's the country code, you don't need that."
At least five concerned and very helpful women are gathered to watch Laura dial the phone and each offers a smile when she is able to finally speak to someone. The turtle sanctuary is booked, we're told. We can't get a spot until August. Argh!
We return to our room with some snacks purchased in town, a pineapple, and clothes wet from the rain that began during our walk back.
By 9:30 the following day, we have packed, eaten breakfast, and are in a taxi to the highway junction where we will catch a bus 115 km south to the town of Bintulu. From there, we'll take another taxi 30 km north to Similajau park where we will stay along the beach and hike 10 km to deserted beaches through dense rainforest.
We leave behind the caves at Niah, easily the most interesting and incredible sight in Malaysia thus far. Our walks through the forest were interesting and beautiful. However, it will be the caves -- massive to the point they defy any attempt at description -- that will remain always in my memory.
I wanted to come to Borneo to see bats. I had heard that you can watch them exit their caves in a big, black stream that lasts over 30 minutes. Part of me just didn't really believe this. I realize that it is hard for some people to understand my love for bats and I can't really explain it other than I have always like the under-dog and so many people dislike bats, that someone has to be on their side! And I really do think their faces are cute and the fact that they eat mosquitoes is a real bonus.
When I read about Niah Caves in our guidebook, it said: "At one time, some 470,000 bats and four million swiftlets called Niah home. There are no current figures, but the wall of the caves are no longer thick with bats and there are fewer bird's nests to harvest....The best time to see the cave wildlife is at dusk during the 'changeover', when the swiftlets stream back to their nests and the bats come hurtling out for the night's feeding, creating a swarm to rival any horror movie." Perfect, I thought - I want to go there!
I have spent my fair share of time in the forests at home attempting to walk along sagging, wet boardwalks slick with rain-soaked moss. So, I was thrilled to see the excellent boardwalks here that are rubber-coated metal and not the least bit slippery. It keeps the impact of hiker's boots from messing up the forest floor and allows us to get into the dense jungle very quickly. The trail out there is a long one as we obey the information centre and take the muddy detour through a virtual swamp. My mud-caked shoes add a slippery layer that makes walking on the wet, wooden stairs in the cave a somewhat tenuous activity. I walk carefully and avoid going for a spill.
The cave is absolutely enormous. I teld Matt that this cave is what football fields use to describe the word 'big'. As we enter it I can tell it will get very dark and I am slightly nervous of the webs I see coating the bottom of the steps and the boardwalk. What is making those...? I don't think I want to know. The darkest part only lasts about 10 minutes where all we can see is the small beam of light cast from our small torches. But, then ahead, we see light. The skylights formed by small holes in the ceiling illuminate the cave in a most spectacular way. I think at first it is lit by electrical lights, but it is just the filtered sunlight of late afternoon. The sun glistens off the water droplets as they appear to fall slowly, several stories from roof to floor. I hear the scurrying and quiet squeaking of bats, but cannot see them on the high ceiling, hidden in the dark.
We sit outside the cave at the end of the day awaiting the show. Thankfully we are not going to have to return the way we came. If we had to do that, we could never wait this long for the bats. At 5:30pm, there is nothing but the odd swiftlet returning - a black dot whizzing into the cave and disappearing in the darkness. At 6:00pm, I see a few bats exit the cave, but they turn around and return inside. Maybe it is still too light out. At 6:15pm, I notice something out of the corner of my eye and they realize the swarm has started exiting, but they are flying along the roof before it exits out into the forest. It is amazing! It must be about 10 bats wide and it just doesn't stop coming. They are all exiting from the same spot and it is only because the roof is white near the exit that we can even see them. The black walls and roof of the cave further in, disguise them and hide their numbers. We marvel at a hawk that has flown in and sits quietly on a branch near the exit. It appears to swoop down and attempt to catch bats. It certainly picked the right spot for a snack!
We glance at the time and realize we must head back as the dark is approaching. We watch one last time as the never-ending flow of fluttering black rushes from the cave entrance and disappears over the canopy of the jungle. We chuckle to ourselves that if we were mosquitoes, we would be very, very afraid right now!