A few years back, I had read that a 40,000-year-old “Deep Skull” had been found in the “Hell Trench” of the great West Mouth of the Niah Caves. Since I was visiting Miri, Sarawak where the site of these old human remains was discovered, I told myself I was not going to leave the East Malaysian capital until I had explored its most amazing archeological heritage.
My travelling companion didn’t need much persuasion to come along either. All I had to say to him was, “Skeletons found!” and his eyes lit up! Yes, the Niah Caves located at the Niah National Park: about 3 km from Batu Niah and about 110km southwest of Miri, where 112 human bones from Palaeolithic and Neolithic burial sites had been found. Other findings include 1200 years old iron-age cave paintings, tools, pottery, traces of fruits and nuts, animal bones, and “coffin boats” that had been used to sail the dead to their final resting place in heaven.
We arrived at the Niah National Park Headquarters after a 1 hour 30 minutes drive from Miri City. There was ample parking space and we managed to get our entry tickets there. Prices range from RM3.00 for Malaysian children and RM10 per Malaysian adult. For non-Malaysians, the prices are double the normal rate.
Cross a Crocodile-Infested River
We then walked to the jetty where a speedboat took us across the river. Crossing the river is necessary since that was the only way to access the Niah Caves. Swimming across would be highly discouraged. We came across a huge signboard planted at the riverbank, announced ominously: “DANGER ─ Beware of Crocodiles”. So, don’t even think of dipping your fingers into the water when you take the two-minute boat ride across.
The first building we saw on the opposite bank is the Niah Archaeology Museum. Inside, we manage to find all the relevant information about the Niah Caves: its history, geology, ecology, and the archaeology of the entire site plus a display of one of the original burial canoes that had been used to carry the dead during the prehistoric times.
Niah Caves was first discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace during his Borneo expedition in 1855. He discovered human fossils and noted the caves as a potential excavation site for more finds. In the 1950s, Tom Harrisson, together with his two friends, Michael Tweedie and Hugh Gibb found evidence of long-term human occupation, habitation, and burial at the caves. In February 1958, the team led by Barbara Harrisson found the "Deep Skull” in the "Hell Trench H/6" ─ a torturous hot hole they were digging in at 101 to 110 inches below the original ground surface. The skull was a partial one with a jaw bone and two molar teeth, found to belong to a young girl or middle-aged woman living in Borneo 40,000 years ago. These discoveries led to more expeditions in 1959, 1965, and 1972.
Your Journey to Caving Begins Here
I won’t lie. It’s a long and sweaty trudge to reach the Niah Caves. How long would that be you might ask? About 3km and it takes around 45 to 60 minutes to complete, starting from the Niah Archaeology Museum itself, then on to a planked boardwalk interspersed by concrete pathways, to a bridge over a stream after passing the signboard to the Patrick Libau Iban Longhouse. We also had to experience 15 minutes of trekking before arriving at the first cave called Trader’s Cave.
The walk itself was hot and humid as we were enclosed by walls of rainforest vegetation and matured trees with enormous trunks and huge buttress roots. This is an untouched primordial rainforest after all. We managed to take a peak of various jungle fruit trees and herbs such as wild ginger in our journey as well as traversing small creeks and swamps along the way. The majesty of the looming limestone range on the horizon awed us just before approaching Gunung Subis ─ the mountain containing the Niah Caves complex.
The first cave we came across was the Trader’s Cave (Gua Dagang) ─ the first one from a series of caves contained inside the Niah Cave complex. This particular cave is probably named such because early settlers used the gargantuan rock overhang to carry out trading. The overhang was a natural “roof” over their “business premise” and the product they traded was bird’s nest collected from the millions of swiftlets living in the nooks and crannies of the cave’s ceilings. They would trade bird’s nests in exchange for other wares from traders around the world and you would be able to see the remnants of their “business premises” in the wooden structures that remain. They resemble scaffolding. You might be mistaken to think of them as such but in actual fact, they are the remains of the huts the birds’ nest collectors operated from a long time ago. Interestingly, the bird’s nest collection is still a viable industry for the current Sarawakian community. The Penan people, especially, eke a living out of it.
The Great Cave
After leaving Trader’s Cave, we arrived at the main cavern called the Great Cave. Once inside, we noticed that the Great Cave deserves its name as it is as large as several cathedrals put together. The entrance is over 60m high (as high as a 16-storey building) and 250m wide (as wide as three football fields placed next to each other). No wonder, the Great Cave is one of the world’s most spectacular cave entrances ever, but that’s not all, as it leads to an even larger, darker, deeper and more mysterious chamber inside.
Straight away on our left, we noticed a barbed wire section cordoning off the site where the “Deep Skull” skeletons and other archaeological findings have been found.
We stepped onto the boardwalk to walk in and soon after, we noticed a musky, acrid odour assaulting your olfactory senses with a sting so strong it could bring tears to your eyes. As we looked down we realized that the ground was covered for miles in layers upon layers of bats and swiftlets poop called guano. The cave ceilings were also packed with millions upon millions of bats that screeched and cackled like hyenas as they flew around looking for space to roost. The incessant squeals and increasing darkness creeped me out, so thank goodness for my travelling companion.
We were advised to have something like a hat over our head for obvious reasons. Don’t forget, the swiftlets reside here too. Together, they could rain excrement all over you.
Even the boardwalk gets rained on. Some parts may be slippery, so visitors need to be careful. We switched on our torchlights and it revealed spider webs all over them. Other inhabitants we found scurrying away from our torch beam include worms, crickets, centipedes, frogs, lizards, and other creatures that don’t look like anything I had ever seen before in my life. The Niah Caves also boasts exclusive cave dwellers and one of them is the Niah Cave Gecko.
After walking on the boardwalk for a while, we noticed
another signboard announcing: “Dark Area Ahead”. When they say the dark area, they mean it: it’s pitch black from here on.
We switched on our torchlight again as we were in a large chamber called Lubang Padang. The light streaming through openings in the rock roof above will shed light on some pretty amazing natural rock formations. Some sport bizarre shapes and visitors could let their imagination run wild to figure out what they resemble.
After walking through Gan Kira, the walkway led us into the final cave called the Painted Cave, better known as Gua Kain Hitam. Another burial site, the Painted Cave is called as such as this was where the 12,000-year old cave wall paintings and boat coffins had been found.
The paintings and boat coffins had been fenced off to protect them but as we peered deeper, we were able to discern drawings of human figures, animals, forest, and the boat coffins rendered on the back wall. The paintings were done in red hematite and stretched for 30 m long.
The Painted Cave exudes an ambience of peace and tranquility. No wonder the Borneo’s earliest dwellers chose it as the perfect grounds to send their deceased into the afterlife.
The journey of the Painted Cave is not complete if you have not discovered and searched the ground for the Niah Cave Gecko, endemic to Borneo. A final romantic walk accompanied by the symphony of sound orchestrated by nature will be the best experience that you will cherish and treasure throughout your adventure here in Niah Cave.
Grand Finale Airshow of Bats and Swiftlets
With this, we come to the end of our adventure. We had to backtrack to the first cave and made our way back to the river. As we have ample time remaining, we decided to hang around at dusk to see a magical performance in the sky. Right on the dot of sunset, two great black tornadoes swarmed into the skies. A stream of swiftlets swoop to their nests located in the Great Cave while an approximately similar number of bats emerge from it to forage in the jungle. The swarms intermingle in the sunset for a while before continuing onwards in opposite directions to their respective nightly journeys.
This in itself, made for a fitting finale to an extravagant and memorable visit to the Niah Caves. Make this journey as part of your Post Covid-19 holiday bucket list and you will never regret it as it is an adventure worth discovering, the hidden gem of Malaysia.