Limestone caverns of Northern Borneo

By Miriam Chacko
chacko.miriam@gmail.com

THE CITY OF MIRI rallies around shops, houses and parking lots. All of which provide convenience, shelter and landscape typical of a city but lacking Sarawak authenticity. However, beyond city limits, the rumbles of the forest and the marvels of nature capture Sarawak’s essence.

When I have guests who are nature enthusiasts, I am never in a quandary as to where to take them. The waterfalls of Lambir, the caves of Niah and sunsets on the beach are my usual selling points. Without need for much convincing, they are willing to explore all three options and almost always, the caves trump the other two, for its unique experience.

Upon reaching Niah National Park, the trail begins after crossing Sungai Niah by boat. Dipterocarp species of Red Meranti and Tapang and the distinct call of the Chestnut Rumped Babbler invite you to explore the forests that surround the caves. The trail involves a plank walk which meanders through the forest and eventually into and through the Traders Cave, the Great Cave and the Painted Cave, in that order.

Sungai Niah.

Sungai Niah.

An interesting phenomenon to look out for on the forest trail is the appearance of relatively small limestone outcrops on either side of the plank walk. Individually, the outcrops resemble giant anthills with roots of trees buttressing and anchoring out of them. In a cluster, they resemble a miniaturized version of Angkor Wat. These outcrops constitute the limestone forest and indicate that the caves are nearby. Looking up at this point on the trail, through the canopy, one can see the steep slopes of the Gunung Subis limestone massif.

Limestone Forest.

Limestone Forest.

By now, eager to see the caves, my step usually picks up speed. The trail which until now was flat starts to incline and rise away from the forest floor.

Even though I am fully expecting to enter the first cave on this trail, at the moment when the entrance shows itself to me, it always feels like I am chancing upon it for the first time. The wooden beams at the entrance of the Traders Cave are remains of homes and shops that belonged to previous inhabitants. Ideas of living in a cave start to take over when I see the spectacular view of Gunung Subis laden with dipterocarp trees in the distance. What a sight to wake up to! But the reality of living here was minimalist housing for the sake of making big bucks in the bird nest and guano business.

The exploitation of black nests in Niah began less than 200 years ago. The bird nests sought after belong to swiftlets, more specifically the black-nest swiftlets (Aerodramus Maximus). Made out of the saliva and feathers of swiftlets, these nests are believed to have rejuvenating and cosmetic virtues when consumed.

They fetched a good price in the market and its trade became the backbone of the economic development of Niah town. Peaking at 18,500 kg per year in 1931, it accounted for 70% of the total production of black nests in Sarawak. While trade exchanges carried on in this cave, the actual collection of the nests from unimaginable heights took place in the Great Cave.

As I exit the Traders Cave, I notice the stalactites fringing the mouth of the cave. Along with the greenish brown rocks and craters on the cave floor they create a monstrous scene like the jagged teeth of a Jurassic creature.

Stalactites in Traders Cave.

Moving along the trail, one enters the west mouth of the Great Cave. The archeological site on the left of the entrance is where many artifacts were uncovered during the excavation in the 1950s and 1960s.

It was here in 1958 that Tom and Barbara Harrisson uncovered a human skull; a Deep Skull, known to belong to the earliest modern human in Southeast Asia. This is definitely a fun fact worth remembering for later conversations that begin with ‘did you know’. But, keeping in mind that I will soon be traversing into the darker corners of the caves, I try not to think about skulls as I move along.

Cave opening in the Great Cave.

The first chamber of the Great Cave; the Padang, is a large one, littered with bamboo poles that are precariously attached to one another lengthwise and hang from the ceiling. A Tukang Julok would perform the feat of climbing the poles and cause the nests to fall from the cave walls and a Ngumpul would collect the nests that had fallen. In the 90s, it would have been more likely to catch a Tukang Julok in action but for better or worse, those days are over.

Eyelets in the roof allow the skylight to stream through into the depths of the cave and casts shadows upon magnificent rock formations. Like seeing shapes in the clouds, I can make out a wild boar, organ pipes, a woman’s face and other unrelated shapes from the rocks.

Eyelet in the roof of the cave.

Eyelet in the roof of the cave.

Fascination overcomes fear till we reach the next chamber within the Great Cave; the Moon Cave, aka Gua Gan Kira. The dark and eerie cavern of the Moon Cave fuels folklore concerning the spirits of bygone local heroes that are known to loom the caves. In this cave, torchlight is the only thing that stands between you and complete darkness. Very quickly my imagination that was creating wonder a few minutes ago starts to work against me. Scenes from The Descent and Alien fill my mind and cause my feet to move faster.

Intangible yet omnipresent throughout the Great Cave is the smell of guano and char. During my first visit, alarmed by the smell of guano, I expected to see several bats hanging off the ceiling. Alas, I saw a few within the radius of my torchlight, on the ceiling of the Moon Cave. Apparently, over the years, the number of bats and swiftlets in the cave has reduced drastically. To think, 25 years ago, visitors covered their heads and shoulders upon entering the caves to prevent droppings from falling on their hair and clothes. Today, all you need are a good pair of walking shoes and a torchlight to tread through.

Light at the end of the tunnel while walking through a dark cave is a glimmer of the exit and possibly hope if one is claustrophobic.

The next cave on the trail is the Painted Cave. It was here that the Harrissons found bodies buried in wooden boats dated to ca. 1000 years ago and wall paintings of boats and dancing figures. These figures are thought to be associated with the boat burials to depict a religion in the way the inhabitants bid adieu to their dead. Some of the artifacts found in these boats along with the bodies were Chinese ceramics, ornaments and glass beads, all of which were considered useful in the afterlife. The local name for the cave is Kain Hitam, meaning Black Cloth which aptly defines the mood of the cave.

With the excavations that started in 1954 led by the Harrissons and the more recent Niah Cave Project in 2002, a wealth of cultural material of prehistoric origin has been uncovered. This includes animal bones, bone-based hafting tools, human skeletal remains, shell food refuse, stone tools, local and imported pottery, textiles, basketry, and beads. Most of these artifacts can be found in the Sarawak Museum in Kuching.

The Park also has a museum located just before crossing Sungai Niah, on the way back to the Headquarters. With photos, information charts and relics, it displays a chronological timeline of the goings on in the caves.

All in all, Niah is a perfect setting for a school visit. Combining teachings of Geography and History there is a lot to learn from these limestone caverns. Every time I visit, I rediscover the caves and imagine what life was like 40,000 years ago.

Most findings have been removed from the caves, except for the cave painting, guano and possibly some birds’ nests. But even with just the remains, Niah is a mausoleum of different stories, each with a different protagonist, raison d’etre, era, culture and ending.

As of now, Niah tops the list of amazing things I have seen in nature. Next stop, Mulu. 🙂


Miriam Chacko is essentially an environmentalist. After completing her postgraduate degree in Environment and International Development from the University of East Anglia, she got involved in projects promoting environmental awareness. Drawing on her experience, she has written articles on climate change and conservation.

A keen traveller, she has visited many countries in and around Asia and her love of the outdoors and interest in different cultures comes through in her writing.

Miriam has been writing for The Borneo Post SEEDS since 2013.

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