Niah National Park ~ Sarawak Borneo

What to expect

• other ways of getting there

Niah National Park is about 1hr 45min drive from Miri town centre. Just a little tip for those who want to go on the cheap and prefer to travel the way some locals do - there are several unmarked vans or 4WDs across the road from the local bus station (by the tourism information centre). These vans/4WD pick up passengers to various destinations and if you're lucky..there are a few going to Niah. The rate is about RM18 per person and the good thing about taking these unmarked vehicles is that they will drive you straight to the Niah National Park entrance. Normally these vans will drop off or pick up passengers along the way but they will be on their way as long as they have 6 passengers at the start of the journey i.e. from the bus stand across the road from the local bus station in Miri (next to the football pitch). However, if you're uncomfortable with hopping into unmarked vans/4wds, then please take the normal mode which is by taking the scheduled bus to Batu Niah and then another taxi ride to Niah National Park or day tours.

• stay overnight or day trip?

Most visitors make day trips to the park as it's easily accessible now. The number of hours spent at the caves is roughly 4hours on average, taking into consideration how many caves you wish to visit and the walk of 3.5km from the riverbank to Traders' Cave - the first section of the Great Cave and the start of the cave walk. In total, you may be spending about 7 hours including travel time for this trip. However, if you would like to watch bats in flight in the evening, then there are places to stay at the National Park. The chalets and dormitories at the park are with air condition or fan and each unit is equipped with a sitting area and kitchenette.relatively clean. There's also a cafeteria where local cuisine and some western food choices are served and If you get bored in the evenings, there's TV at the cafeteria. For more on accommodation at Niah National Park, go here

• entrance fees, boat fees and other rentals

The entrance fee costs RM10 per adult which you can pay and register at the park headquarters. The headquarters opens at and closes at 5.30pm daily. Don't worry if you haven't brought the essentials with you like raincoat or ponchos, torch lights and caps, there are items for sale there and the torch lights are on rental at RM10 per unit.

The boat rental is RM1 per person per way and takes a mere 1 minute to cross the width of Niah river. The boat times are from 9.00am to 5.00pm and from 5.00pm to 7.00pm it's RM1.50 per person per way.

If you're interested in hiring a licensed guide for the walk, it'll cost you RM80 but there are freelance guides loitering around in the great cave for RM40. Whether the information provided is accurate, that remains to be determined.

• caution

The plank walk leading to and into the caves is very slippery. The park is in the process of replacing the wooden plank walk with cemented pathways but in the meantime make sure your shoes have good grip. Melissa had on a pair of all-terrain trekking shoes and even then the slippery planks were too much for her. She slipped off the walkway in the dark tunnels and sustained a few nasty bruises. Visitors will need a very good torchlight for the walk through the connecting passageway from the Padang through to the Moon Cave .

If you're going to the caves without a guide, then do make sure you keep to the trails. There are only a few directional signs in the cave passages and along the way. Best to read up on the caves and the historical background before you go as there are no information plaques available for visitors.

• Things to bring with you

~ a good torchlight, make sure the batteries are new. There is no lighting in the caves and if your light dims, you may have a pretty hard time finding your way out

~ raincoat/poncho

~ drinking water

~ hat or cap (protection from bird or bat droppings)

~ a pair of shoes with good grip

~ a pair of gloves if you intend to hold on to the guano encrusted railings for support along the way

~ snacks although there is a stop close to the cave entrance where the Iban ladies from nearby longhouse make their living selling biscuits, can drinks, bottled water and souvenirs

~ A set of spare clothing to change into after the long trek.

~ Some wet wipes and water

Niah National Park

If you're thinking of somewhere to visit for the day whilst on transit in Miri, Niah National Park is the ideal place to go - it's a combination of nature, history and living culture. The caves are located within the 3,138 ha of a mixture of peat forest, marshland, kerangas and lowland dipterocarp forest of Sarawak. Niah is probably one if not the smallest of national parks in Sarawak . As such it cannot sustain a habitat big enough for larger mammals but is still home to a variety of insects, bats, bird, macaques, mouse dears, hornbills, flying lizards and other reptiles.

Across the Niah river and at the start of the 3.5km walk to the caves sits the park museum. There's sound information on the park such as the geological makeup of the area, the ethnological activity at the caves, the peoples that have lived in the area - their livelihood, culture and festivities, history of birdnest collecting, the archaeological finds at Niah cave conducted by Tom Harrisson in the 50's ; it's a good idea to make a quick stop here, just to get a gist of the area.

From the museum, it takes roughly 45mins brisk walk to the bottom of the fortified limestone wall. The quiet trek through the lowland forest is strangely calming. Thick, high primary rainforest canopy pegged with giant tapang trees (Koompassia excels), shade the forest floor below. Speckles of sunshine sprinkles the stream nearby, birdcalls resonate through the jungle, monkeys frolic up on the high branches and the Rajah Brooke butterfly flutters around soggy ground, searching for salt supplement. A flying lizard stretches its lateral flaps and glides down, rests gently on a tree across the stream, scuttling off into the shadow.

Once upon a time, the entire state of Sarawak was blanketed with a canopy created by 35 - 40m high dipterocarp trees anchored to the ground by gigantic buttress roots. Today, only fragmented pockets of land such as at Niah protects the original landscape of James Brooke's Sarawak and Charles Darwin's Borneo . Indiscriminate logging activity has changed Sarawak 's landscape dramatically and the complete ecosystem of the virgin jungle will be lost forever ~ in it a complex of endemic fauna and flora species as well as the nomadic tribe Penan. Greed of a few and need for development has sealed the fate of 100's of species.

The early dwellers in the area were the Penan tribe. They are the only nomadic tribe in Sarawak hence the immense publicity they had as compared to the other native tribes. These nomads survive and depend entirely on the jungle. They do not open lands for planting nor farming. Their intricate rattan weaving is prized but they rely on wild rattan to provide them with the best material for their art. The intense logging in Sarawak has left them with no home or the government has resettled them in longhouses and timber houses of which they are unused to staying in. Without the jungles, their freedom and existence are in danger. The sago palms have been cut down and now many of them are without their staple diets, resorting to eating tapioca which is not in their diet.

Their daily meat like the dears, wildboars and monkeys have all disappeared and they are left without meat to supplement their diet. The Penans are slowly disappearing as a tribe. Some have been assimilated into civilized commununities, others are dying. Their dependence on the jungle for life and death is there way but death in the new world is a horrifying certainty for many who yearn to return to the jungle for their final breaths to find their land tied up in bureaucratic red tape and corruption. However, at Niah caves, the Penan families have traditional rights to collecting the birdnests here. These prized delicacies are for the Chinese markets have been traded since the Ming dynasty period and is still in high demand today if not higher. The Penans living in the area are also given licenses to collect the guano (bat droppings) for the fertilizer market. Today, only 10 licenses are given out to Penan families living in villages along the Niah River .

The next batch of early inhabitants migrated from Baram, Bintulu and Baliangan. Known as the Orang Ulu or the Interior people - they were from smaller tribes such as the Preban, Segan and Bakong. The Ibans migrated from Skrang and Batang Ai area some 70yrs ago, built longhouses along the rivers and settled down. A decade later, Malay traders moved in from Brunei, some intermarried with the natives and settled down. About the same time, the Chinese migrants arrived. The Chinese were mainly agriculturists, planting peppers, cocoa, tobacco, vegetables and oranges whilst others involved in trading.