Niah Caves – Sarawak’s magnificent tangible heritage

Sarawak is a blend of sublime beautiful natural landscapes and a varied, enchanting tribal culture that exhibits a rich spectrum of spectacular creative artistic expressions, imbedded with ritualistic and religious symbolism that adorn and give meaning to the life and wellbeing of the tribal communities.

Its archaeological tangible heritage is world-renowned, as in the majestic cave complexes, among which are the Mulu and Niah Caves.

The Mulu National Park, which is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco)-listed tangible archaeological heritage site of humanity, is in the Upper Baram – Mulu District, while the Niah National Park is in the Miri Division.

In 2010 and 2021, the Sarawak government applied for Unesco listing of World Heritage Site for the Niah Cave complex, which is in the Gunung Supis limestone mountain range in the Miri Division, approximately 90km from Miri City.

It is a prehistoric site with human habitations dating some 40,000 years ago in the Palaeolithic era, evidenced by the discovery of the Deep Skull in the Hell Trench in the Niah Caves.

The Painted Cave, some 150 metres from the south entrance of the big cave has wall paintings dating back to 1,200 years ago.

City dwellers who are used to living in concrete jungles suffused with polluted air, traffic snarl, and other modern mechanistic inconveniences may savour an exhilarating, sublime, and healthy experience by venturing into the caves, rainforests, and other natural physical landscapes.

The Niah Caves offer such an experience of pristine rainforest and majestic caverns for urban dwellers to see raw natural wonders and be humbled by the experience.

To visit the Niah Caves, one needs to take the 90km – about an hour-and-a-half’s – drive from Miri City to the Niah National Park. To access the cave complex, visitors must register at the Park office and pay an entrance fee of RM10 for adults, and RM5 for senior citizens.

A short walk takes you to the river with a warning sign to be aware of crocodiles. Paying a ringgit per person, the boat takes you over to the other side, to begin the 2.2km trek on an elevated plank walkway through a luxurious pristine rainforest to the caves.

Towering trees, ferns, and a myriad of plant species adorn the surroundings with the whole spectrum of green hues, interspersed with the dark brown and brown colours of tree trunks and dried leaves which carpet the ground. The air is pristine, clean, and invigorating, soothing your senses and energising your lungs.

Add to this, the symphony of the forest composed of the sounds of crickets and other insects, as well as the multifarious sounds of birds, the sound of the breeze rustling through the leaves, and the flow of water in the brooks, rivulets, streams, and rivers.

This natural symphony of the forest not only engages one’s senses, soothes one’s nerves, but also calms the soul, drawing it into the wondrous arhythmical sonic cacophony of the rainforest.

To the uninitiated, the symphony of the forest draws you into the mystical realm beyond its physical manifestations.

The forest is enchanting and it energises you as you carefully walk along the wet and slippery raised wooden-planked pathway that meanders towards the cave.

As one approaches the cave, the forest scenery is gradually replaced by limestone outcrops that jut through the trees with ferns and other plant species clinging precariously onto the outcrops.

Entering the caves, one is confronted by the awesome walls and high roof. The gigantic stalactites that hang from the ceiling, and the stalagmites, as if growing up from the ferreted floor of the caves that took thousands of years to form, will take your breath away.

After passing the smaller Trader’s Cave, one climbs an almost vertical staircase that leads to the cavernous main cave, the Niah Cave, with an opening of 150m wide and 75m high. But the inner cavern is much higher and larger.

Here, you feast upon the wondrous limestone formations of contorted and grotesquely-shaped stalactites and stalagmites. This immense cavern is a sight to behold – a glimpse of nature’s many wonders.

It is difficult to imagine how the Palaeolithic Homo Sapiens of 40,000 years ago survived in these inhospitable caves when we compare them to our modern amenities. Of course, there’s no comparison, for they lived simply, focused on foraging for food and having shelter for survival.

The only evidence of their existence – of the oldest recorded human existence in Malaysia 40,000 years ago – are the Deep Skull of the Palaeolithic era together with tools, axes, pottery, and shells.

Most of the visitors end their trekking at the Big Cave, the Niah Cave. But the real challenge is ascending the almost vertical steps into the interior of the cave through pitch-black passages, treading the meandering, slippery, and damp planked walkway, with longitudinal and latitudinal bar handles along one, or both sides, depending on the terrain, to provide safety, and to prevent falling into the crevasses or hollows along the way.

It is not a flat terrain but one that ascends and descends, undulating, sometimes vertically, and meandering. Headlamps or hand-held torchlights are a must to light the way to ensure safe passage. As one proceeds through the interior of the cave, it is like moving into a void with no spatial-temporal markers, except for the artificial ray of light that lights up the surroundings, revealing grotesquely-shaped limestone formations that cast eerie shadows on the walls.

The stalactites and stalagmites in various stages of formation range from the most recent that are being formed through the falling trickles of water from the ceiling, to the ancient ones that have developed into pillars, the result of stalactites fusing with stalagmites.

The sound of the caves can be scary or soothing, depending on one’s emotional disposition. In the pitch darkness, any sound can be intimidating. An ubiquitous sound throughout the passage is the sound of trickling, or flowing water, as it traverses holes, crevasses, and other orifices, as well as cascading down the walls, on its way to coalesce with other similar watery discharges, to eventually form rivulets, brooks, streams, and rivers.

Other than that, you may hear insects and avian creatures that inhabit this darkened world. As you move along through the void, you may emerge into a cavern with high ceilings and a small opening on the roof, and hear swiftlets which make their nests in the high ceilings.

The swiftlets fly through this hole in the evening to forage for food, returning just before dawn. The birds’ nests, which are located on the roof of the caves and made from the saliva of the swiftlets, are a precious and expensive delicacy. These nests are plucked by using high rope-like ladders which are attached to the ceiling. It is a risky and arduous job to harvest them. As you proceed through the dark passages, the smell of bird droppings and guanos assail your nose.

It takes around 40 minutes to traverse the 1.2km of darkened passage to emerge into the south, smaller opening of the cave, which is not as spectacular as the main cave, yet awesome, nonetheless. Descending the passage through the staircase and exiting the south entrance, one comes upon the verdant rainforest with its myriad of flora.

Following the elevated planked walkway for about 20 minutes, one then ascends a 30m vertical staircase with intermittent platforms to reach the opening of the Painted Cave, which is much smaller in comparison to the main Niah Cave.

Carefully treading and ascending the smooth boulder floor, one reaches the fenced area of the Painted Cave, where one can discern faded paintings of figures and designs on the wall, believed to be 1,200 years old. There are, of course, the ubiquitous stalactites and stalagmites.

Not many people reach this cave because of the arduous climbing and descending of the darkened passage. The Painted Cave exudes an air of serenity and mystique.

Most trekkers, upon reaching either the main Niah Caves or the Painted Caves, take photos, have a drink, eat a bar of chocolate, and then leave. They miss the beauty and serenity of the caves by not contemplating in silence and feel the awesome sublime ambience of the cave.

If you do that, then you will feel the majesty and sublime presence of rock formations, and the cavernous void, as well as the sonic orders that reverberate against the walls and roof of the caves. The caves are not merely a physical phenomenon, but a mystical one that harbours mysteries beyond the normal man’s ken of perception.

Sarawak boasts of magnificent natural assets, ranging from caves, rivers, parks, and rainforests. Coupled with its varied tribal culture, it provides an ecotourism nonpareil, of which the Niah and Mulu Caves are the stellar attractions.

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