Saturday, April 23, 2011

Niah National Park

Located on the Sungai (river) Niah, about 3 km from the small town of Batu Niah, a 110 km to the south-west of Miri in northern Sarawak. The park was first gazetted as a National Historic Monument in 1958, gazetted as National Park on 23 November 1974 and was published to the public on 1 January 1975. The Park is one of Sarawak's smaller national parks, but it is certainly one of the most important and has some of the most unusual visitor attractions. The park's main claim to fame is its role as one of the birthplaces of civilisation in the region. The oldest modern human remains discovered in Southeast Asia were found at Niah, making the park one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.

Forty thousand years ago, the Niah Great Cave sheltered human life. Here lies the oldest human remains in Southeast Asia, along with many other relics of prehistoric man. Today the Cave is home only to bats, swiftlets and other specially adapted forms of life. However, a few locals still venture into the dark interior to collect guano (bird and bat droppings used as fertilizer) and bird's nest. 

The famous Painted Cave is another highlight of the visit to Niah Cave. Here, little human-like figures drawn in red haematite watch over a gravesite where the bodies of the dead were each laid in its own boat-shaped coffin. The Great Cave and Painted Cave have been declared as National Historical Monuments. 

The Caves are accessible via a raised plankwalk that winds through lowland forest vibrant with birds and butterflies. Apart from the Caves, visitors can explore several kilometres of forest trails to feel the richness of tropical rainforests, climb a 400m tall limestone ridge or visit an Iban longhouse located near the Park boundary. Visitors can also rent a boat or walk along the river from Park headquarters to Batu Niah town. 

Early Human Settlements
Niah's important was first realised in 1957. The curator of the Sarawak Museum, Tom harrison, led an archeological dig at the West Mouth of the Great Cave. The exavations revealed plenty of human settlements in the area; tools, cooking utensils and and ornaments, made of bone, stone or clay. The types of items found suggested a long period of settlement reaching back into the palaeolithic era (the earlist part of the stone age).

In 1958, a discovery was made which confirmed Niah's place as a site of major archaeological significance. Harrisson and his team unearthed a skull which was estimated to be 40,000 years old. The find was at first rediculed by the scientific community, for it was the skull of a modern human (homo sapiens), and it was widely believed that  Borneo was settled much later. However, as dating techniques improved and as more evidence of the settlement of Southeast Asia and Australasia came to light, Harrissson was proved right.

What is most interesting about Niah, however is the continued human presence over tens of thousands of years and sophistication of societies that gradually developed there. A large burial site further into the mouth of the cave had clearly been used from palaeolithic times right up to the modern era, as  late as 1400 Ad. The earlist graves found in the deepest levels, were simple shallow graves without adornment. Yet moving up through the layer, coffins and urns appeared along with grave goods such as pottery, textiles and ornaments and even glass and metal items, which came comparatively late to Borneo.

The Great cave is not only important archaeological site. The painted Cave as its name suggests, houses detailed wall-paintings depicting the boat journey of the dead into the afterlife. The meaning of the paintings was explained by the discovery of a number of "deadth-ships" on the cave floor-boat shaped coffins containing the remains of the deceased and a selection of grave-goods considered useful in the afterlife, such as Chinese ceramics, ornaments and glass beads. The death-ships have been dated as ranging between 1 AD and 780 AD, although local Penan folklore tells of the use of dead-ship burials as late as the 19th century.

Interesting sites to Visit 

The Great Cave

The Great Cave is approximately 3 km from the Park Office and is easily reached via the plakwalk which is enclosed on both sides by dense primary rainforest. The stroll along the planwalk is fascinating in its own right, as you pass close to giant tapang trees (Koompassia excelsa (Becc) Taub.) with their enormous buttressed roots, padanus plants twice the size of a person and colourful exquisitely formed orchids and tree fungi.

It is worth taking your time and walking quietly along the way, as you may well see some of the park's wildlife. Colourful birds, squirrels, lizards, butterflies and all maner of unsual insects and invertebrates are commonly seen. If you are lucky, you may see monkeys, flying lizards and the ocasional hornbill.

The first significant rock formation you reach is the Trader's Cave, which is really an extended rock overhang rather than a cave proper. This is where the birds nest and quano traders conduct their business, hence the name.

A few minutes later, the West Mouth of the Great Cave comes into view and you are left in no doubt that this cave deserves its name. At over 60m high and 250m wide, it is one of the world's most spectacular cave entrance leading to an even larger chamber within. On the left of the cave mouth the archaeological excavation are clearly visible. Photographer should come prepared as the view from the cave mouth out over the surounding jungle is quite unique and the jagged stalacites, overhang and dangling creepers of the cave mouth make a dramatic frame for a very memorable photo.

Proceeding into the cave, the sound of disembodied voices mingles with the squeaking of million of bats and swiftlets to create an eerie atmosphere. The voices belong to the guano (bird and bat excrement) covering the cave floor. The guano is then carried in sacks to the Sungai Niah, where it is graded and sold as fertiliser.

The Large Chamber (Padang)

The passage at the back of the Great cave leads to the large chamber known as 'Padang' where shafts of sunlight stream down from the large holes in the cave roof to illuminate the bizzarre rock formations in the Burnt Cave. This ia another excellent spot for taking photos. After the Padang, the cave passage becomes pitch black and it is here that you will need the flashlight, not only to find your way along the plankwalk but to view the extraordinary shapes and weathering effects found in the Moon Cave.

The Painted Cave

Shortly after the moon Cave, the plankwalk emerges into daylight and a short pathway through the forest leads to the Painted Cave. This is the site of the famous Niah cave paintings and the place where the 'death-ship' were found. The contents of the death-ships have since been transferred to the Sarawak Museum, but the wall behind the fenced-off burial site.

The paintings can be difficult to see unless you allow your eyes to become accustomed to the light. They are rendered in red hematite and cover a long narrow strip (approximately 30m) at the back of the wall. They potray spread-eagled human figures, probably representing warriors and hunters, some of the animals of the souls of the deceased on the dangerous journey to the land of the dead.

Although the burial site at the painted cave is far more recent than those at the Great Cave, it is no less important as it offers a clear insight into the develoment of the traditional religions of Borneo. It is worth spending some time at the Painted cave, as the atmosphere of the place is very tranquil and relaxing resting place for their ancestors.

 Birds Nest

The guanocollectors are not the only people who earn a living from the cave. Strategically positioned bamboo poles and leaders are evidence of the birds nest collectors, local people who have practised this dangerous occupation for generations. The half million swiftlets that live in the cave make their nests purly from their own salivary secretions and when the nests are cleaned and cooked they produce the famous birds nest soup, which is as highly regarded in Chinese cuisine as caviar is in the West.

Wildlife And The Rainforest

If you leave the Great cave and return along the plankwalk around clouds intermingling. This is the nighty 'changing of the guard' half a million swiftlets are returning to their nests, whilst half a million bats fly out to forage in the forest. although this is one of Niah's most spectalucar sight, it represents only small niches in a complex ecosystem. One of Niah's other notable sights is the unsual number of luminous fungi (which can be clearly seen from the plankwalk at night).
Treks And Trails
The Park has two-marked walking trails, Jalan Bukit Kasut and Jalan Madu.                          

Jalan Bukit Kasut

This trail (green and white markings) leads to the summit of Bukit Kasut. The 45 minutes walk passes through beautiful primary rainforest before moving into Kerangas forest at the foot of the hill. You will also see some fascinating cliff vegetation clinging tenuously to life in the steep lomestone slopes. The trail is a little steep but the view at the top is worth it, offering a sweeping panarama of the rainforest canopy.

Jalan Madu

This trail (red and white markings) sticks quite close to the banks of the Sungai Subis, a tributary of the Sungai Niah. It takes roughly an hour and passes through both alluvial and peat swamp forest. There are plenty of wild orchids, bizarre mushrooms and giant pandanus plants along the side of the trail.
How to get there?
The Park Headquarters at Pengkalan Batu is accessible either from Miri or Bintulu (109km or 2 hours by road from Miri and 131km or 3 hours from Bintulu).

Accommodation facilities consist of chalets units, a rest house and hostel-style rooms, all with electriciy and piped water. Unlike some of the other parks there are no cooking facilities.
Niah National Park Contact Number:
Tel No:             (6) 085 - 737450 / 737454
Fax No:             (6) 085 -737918

Others Facilities Available
Other facilities include jungle trails, public toilets and washrooms, canteen, AV room, information centre and 24- hour electricity and piped water.

There is a canteen at the Park, serving variety of simple meals and drinks.

Old clothes, facial towels and hats are recommended in the caves as protection from the bird droppings. A torch comes in handy in the Caves.
Other facilities include plankwalk to the Caves, public toilets, canteen, information centre, 24-hour electricity and treated water. 

For booking and further enquiry, please contact us or for On-line booking click

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