Spelunking

After our night in Bako National Park we packed ourselves up, waded through the surf and once again purred down the coast and up river back to Kuching where a flight to our next Borneo wildlife encounter awaited. We wanted to check out the abundant swiftlet and bat populations housed in the many formidable cave formations in the limestone (karst) areas of the island. So we headed off to see the enormous Niah caves in eastern Sarawak, near the industrial city of Miri. We had loved exploring caves in New Zealand, with their cold running water, glowing invertebrate life and wonderfully weird shaped interiors carved by millennia of coursing streams. However, in Borneo, we came to realize there are caves, then there are CAVES.

We arrived to Miri in bright sunshine after a short hop from western Sarawak and were whisked away from the airport with comfort and convenience by the very knowledgeable owner of our next accommodation, Forest Tree Tops Lodge. John, the proprietor, was an expat Brit married to a local woman, a member of one of the many indigenous populations that dominate the wilder uplands of the island. They had raised their family in this part of the world and had lived on the land for about 20 years. John had an interesting personal story, having worked in the local oil industry prior to setting up the family hotel. He was wise and helpful about what to see and how to get there. After checking into our very comfortable lodge set in the country among gently sloping hillsides, we took a refreshing plunge in the small round pool beside our room. The next morning after a tasty home cooked breakfast, John drove us off to Niah equipped with our sun block, bug spray, packed lunches, four litres of water and high expectations for the adventure ahead.

Once we arrived at the main check in point, we paid the nominal visitor fee and registered as day users, noting we were only the second visitors of the day. We set off down the well marked trails toward the main main attraction known as the Great Cave. We quickly began to realize how special this outing was going to be as we were virtually alone in a massive national park, thickly forested and known around the world for its extensive cave complexes. Once we had taken a small ferry across a river, our day long hike started in earnest. This was the Borneo we had come to see! Trees towering over the landscape on a massive scale. We had a hard time calculating the height as we really had nothing to compare them to in our experience with trees. The tallest of the forest giants, the emergents, stood a full 20 meters above their comrades, who themselves had attained a height of at least 50 meters. These are trees so tall that to stand directly below a trunk and peer up it is impossible to make out the top. These stands of mature trees, known as dipterocarps, are among the tallest rainforest species in the world and are located in one of the planet’s most important biodiversity hotspots. The far off canopy, suspended high off the sparsely inhabited forest floor, appeared to teem with avian life and insects. Even in the morning heat, the forest was active and loud and we marveled at the huge variety of echoing bird songs and calls.

The trail soon morphed into wooden boardwalks, installed to keep soil compaction from harming the giant trees protected in the park. The trees grow in highly leached soils, a poor medium from which to extract nutrients and to support their massive size. As a result, these trees grow widespread root systems and in many cases rely on enormous buttresses at their base to keep them upright. These wide formations facilitate tremendous upward growth eventually allowing them to cast shadows on forest rivals. Vines and slender trees grow much more rapidly and initially bask in sunlight but because they are relatively short lived,  the determined hardwoods relentlessly advance on them to become the forest keystone species able to create an independent upper canopy ecosystem. All of this fierce solar competition also spurs huge biological variety and adaptation. As a result, the forest floor is littered with the a huge range of fallen leaves, some of them at sizes that seem almost magically capable of attracting Jurassic era fauna. Luckily we were not trampled by a herd of stegosaurus despite the dino ready appearance of the forest. We marveled at the outsized scale of things and challenged the kids to locate the biggest leaf they could find, each of them offering up specimens of ever larger candidates. Gabe eventually prevailed with a leaf matching the area of his torso.

big leaves

We eventually climbed out of the dense forest moving through increasingly bouldered trails and rocky ravines. Soon we confronted 100 meter tall limestone cliff faces with eroded bases, riddled with crevices and long vertical fissures. The trail then darted to the left into a narrow opening in the rock formation. We had reached our first destination! Smugglers cave, so named for its historical reputation as a base for nefarious trading. We switched on our headlamps and flashlights and walked through the well worn path down a widening passageway. Eventually we arrived at a huge chamber displaying massive stalagmites and stalactites. The large cavern was at least 100m long and 20m tall. All interior surfaces were gleaming with a muted green mixture of moisture, bat guano and crystallized minerals.

The trail and wooden boardwalk led up and out of the cave and onward toward the Niah Great Cave. Nothing on the trip to date had really prepared us for the enormous size of these caverns. When we reached the outer edge of the main opening, looking down on the expanse it became clear that we could easily stash away any number of superfluous jumbo jets had we the need. The main cave is made up of several voluminous chambers with 70m high ceilings over an expanse of many hundreds of meters long. The whole system has been estimated to cover some 10 hectares and features extensive network of boardwalks and ladders leading through many kilometers of passageways. It took us about 30 minutes to wind our way up and down about 500 metres into the complex, confronting vast collections of bats and their digestive wastes. We marveled at the many dangling ropes fixed to the cave ceiling put in place to harvest swiftlet nests, the key ingredient in the hugely expensive dish aptly named bird’s nest soup. The nests are painstakingly crafted by the small winged creatures, molded from their saliva to form a spherical enclose for roosting eggs. Locals climb free hand up the intimidating heights to collect the nests prior to the bird’s laying their eggs. No doubt this frustrates the birds to no end and keeps them extraordinarily busy. According to the park officials, nest harvesting is carefully managed to ensure the enormous bird population remains stable.   

After spending time admiring the strange internal world of the limestone caves with its eerie, echoing chambers, rugged surfaces and robust aromas, we concluded we had absorbed about as much of the atmosphere as we were able and slowly trekked back to daylight. The vast interior spaces, so alien and foreboding, left strong, lasting impressions and again made us marvel at the incredible diversity of environments that make up our world. After our three days of enjoying the countryside and natural wonders of eastern Sarawak we were due back to Kuching and then onward to Kuala Lampur and our next destination: Cambodia.

 


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