Friday, April 04, 2014

Limestone caverns of Northern Borneo

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.

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.

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.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Limestone caverns of Northern Borneo