Fuelled up with a default Martabak brekkie, it was a pleasant 3K hoof along a riverside path studded by rickety slapdash shacks and crazy dogs out to the park HQ, where my arrival pierced an unexpected calm with not a soul in sight. I was still frustrated however when the reception told of the discontinuation of cheap hostel accommodation, it had inexplicably been hiked up to 6 quid a night for a dorm bed which rather took the piss. After dumping my bags still uncertain as to my intentions, I took a small chugboat still miraculously anonymous the few seconds it took to cross the Niah River, where I hit upon the Archaeological Museum inspired by unique and important finds here.
NIAH ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM
It told of the area having originally been a limestone bed which had emerged from the sea only 1 million years ago, with subsequent weathering enlarging sea eroded caves further, stalagtites and stalagmites forming over the millennia and passages expanding to reach a width and height of up to 100 metres. Excavation work during the 1950s at the West Mouth of the Great Cave revealed human remains, especially the renowned "Deep Skull" discovered at a depth of 106 inches, which has uniquely been used to date human habitation in the area as far back 40,000BC. Fragmented yet whole minus the mandibular section, it has tentaively been aged to be a teenager but the sex is indefinable. Its closest morphological affinities remarably link it to Aboriginal Tasmanians, it was on display reconstructed with the mandible still intact and bearing a few teeth.
It is then from 14,000 years ago we find traces of burial practices. Other discoveries were the unique "Double Spouted" pottery vessels and "3 Colour Ware" dated from 1000BC to 500AD, more unique finds only ever found at Niah and nearby Miri. The Painted Cave here is also the only known example of such artwork in Sarawak. Before the discovery of the "Deep Skull" the earliest find of human remains was the "Perak Man" skeleton going back only 10,000 years, though paleolithic technology had suggested earlier habitation as far back as 31,000BC, and Australomelanesian finds in nearby Palawan in the Philippines pointed to such a culture before the neolithic expansion of Austronesians 4,000 years ago. Primitive stone and bone tools were complimented by bronze and iron utensils of a later era and pottery and further human and faunal remains betrayed a history of continuous human habitation until modern times. The nearby Painted Cave, only rediscovered in 1958, had its floor littered with "Boat-coffins" containing skeletons, ornaments and pottery, and the walls of the cave are adorned with haematite paintings of boats and dancing figures. The coffins have been dated as originating from betwen 2,000 to 1,200 years ago.
Human involvment still endures with the pretext of harvesting the nests of the 3 species of Swiftlets which roost here, masses of congealed saliva which are sought by the Chinese to make their famed Bird's Nest Soup. 2 of the species are able to employ echo location in order to fly in the dark just as bats do, and indeed 6 species of Bat live here, including the delightfully named Bearded Tomb Bat, Cave Fruit Bats, Cantor's Roundleaf Horseshoe Bats and the Hairless Bat, which is the worlds largest insect feeding species. There are estimated to be around a quarter of a million of them inside Niah Caves, which stream out of the West Mouth of the cave in unison every dusk. These punters are responsible for depositing around a ton of guano a day which in turn attracts all manner of beasties such as spiders, scorpions, millipedes, long legged centipedes, robber wasps, moths, beetles and countless other undesirables. The Cave Gecko is unique to this habitat and a local snake the harmless Cave Racer also inhabits them. Its reckoned that the birds nests here were harvested since the 16th century until their protection in 1995 and the collection of guano for fertiliser is also important.
After biting another financial bullet and securing a torch at the last minute, from there it was a few Ks along a boardwalk thoroughly encroached upon by full on rainforest and deliciously almost devoid of other tourists, nature's symphony of intriguing bird calls and rasping insects was pereversely shattered only by the odd motorbike heading home to a nearby longhouse. I spied many large and varied butterflies, one notably massive one being a striking black and brilliant yellow, also a fluorescent green lizard and another black and brown species with a white cheat line. Bird life was more elusive but I did catch a brilliant cobalt blue Stork Billed Kingfisher flash by right in front of me, another an indistinct species of russet red and black, finally a lurid green Bee Eater or similar. The odd large Squirrel scurried about but were typically too fast and shy to snap.
Having been forewarned of a temporary detour and armed with a less than satisfactory sketch map, it was a little disconcerting to confront a sign absent of arrowing decreeing no further access beyond, it wasnt even plain to which path it referred. Fortunately plumping for the correct one, I eventually reached a T junction amongst the trees, resisting the right turn towards the enticing Painted Cave when I unexpectedly spied distant promise of the longhouse in the other direction. I traced the short stroll up and over a rickety humped plank bridge spanning a minor river and found a rustic timber village patently larger than the advertised longhouse, all ramshackle stilt houses, caged chickens and a contrastingly bright modern school block. A wander along the meandering boardwalks revealed a few kids who couldnt understand my Bahasa Indonesia, but my quest to make contact eventually sealed a cold drink and a meeting with one of the local honchos. It was only now that I learned that the place was actually promoted as a homestay, with the notably Christian idolatrised longhouse boasting 107 doors. The functional architecture of these constructions was not the drawcard however, it was more interesting in its expression of a communal lifestyle whereby occasional meetings under the tutelage of the headman would address problems and deliberate future policy for agriculture for example. Traditions continued by my suitor such as body tattoos and hunting were juxtaposed by the modernity of primary services and occasional car ownership, it evidently still worked well for them.
Retracing the boardwalk out, I continued straight in anticipaton of the now imminent primary attraction the Painted Cave, only to come across an even more ambiguous and doubt provoking sign which allegedly told me to forget the planking and head off into the jungle. It was at this point that my wildlife spotting inspired dawdling allowed a couple of English chicks to catch up with me, and in tracing the evidently makeshift slash through the trees only allayed by periodic red markings on their trunks, I mused that at least we would all be getting lost together. Its dubious disposition more often than not descended into a quagmire of mud and bog and we were dumbfounded that they would knowingly send people this way, one of the chicks lagging behind so much in her trials that we began to worry for her. We finally retraced an elevated boardwalk however and it was only a short jaunt tellingly now past looming limestone rock faces that a staircase ascended to realise our goal. It was a bloody great big hole. Entering revealed that the passage was actually a tunnel, though of such dimension that however infeasibly a Jumbo Jet could conceivably be flown through it. The ceiling hung with stalagtites hanging over the odd mound of stalagmitic accretion accumulated over millennia and giant slabs the size of houses lay strewn around, having clearly fallen from above and now mimicing a giant crazy paving. The left desended dark and treacherous looking but an elevated banking which sidled up to the right allowed a fantastic appreciation of the whole underground chasm. It was along this wall that its major claim to fame was realised too, some archaic cave paintings which though humble and a tad disappointing reputedly portrayed dancing figures and water symbols. The Painted Cave had been used by local ancestry as a mammoth burial chamber and though I failed to find the alleged one remaining example, skeletons had been discovered here interred in "boat coffins" dating from between 2000 to 1200 years ago. Retracing the boardwalk, a continuation soon had us confronting another even more mammoth sized gape in the rockface, a fitting primer to the Great Cave. A staircase led me up into the stalagtite wielding cavemouth from whence a long encroaching passage narrowed until I was entered into a much darker claustrophobic world of intimidating shadows hundreds of metres long. Occasional skylights in the roof allowed less tentative passage, revealing a trully awe inspiring chamber on a scale which would have been impossible to predict, the dimensions of it could have swallowed Edinburgh Castle (and rock). Another gaping entrance off to the right allowed penetraton of further light, revealing bats bombarding around overhead in high pitched squeaks, though giant boulders the size of appartment blocks still shielded dark hidden depths. At a junction I elected to opt for the staircase left though, the climb rewarded now with the chance to appreciate a similar even larger window to the world outside. Exiting here, I must have covered perhaps a kilometre underground, discovering a second even more gargantuan chamber in the process. It was by this egress that a fenced off area enclosed Niah's renowned archaeological site where the "Deep Skull' had been discovered amongst many younger remnants, the earliest such traces ever discovered of modern man in all of South East Asia.
Running back into the English chicks here, a few local muslim boys were handy in betraying the way back out to the park HQ, and we followed their example in deference to the detour signs wary of more quagmire, electing to pursue the "off limits" habitual route. We saw why it had been bypassed as its renovation enforced passage along new precariously narrow and elevated concrete supports still naked of planking, a tightrope act which was still deemed preferable however. We eventually retraced a more rickety older path to take us back to the river and park HQ for a welcome wash and plate of noodles, happy that the job was done and deemed to have been a much merited excursion. Together with the chicks I still faced the problem of onward transport, and though delighted in the anticipation of more unexpected early progress up to impending city Miri where the chicks were already based, it didnt look good for me. Their persistent standoffish behaviour revealed one of them to have clearly taken an instant dislike to me and the other adopting an understandably partisan policy of selfishness in the pursuit of a lift, but I was eventually lucky in being squeezed into a vanload of Italians headed that way, as it turned out the same Italians I had shared the boat with up to Kapit but patently avoided. With apologies from them who baulked at the driver still demanding over the odds from me despite the van already being paid for, it was then compounded by hippy Superbitch peaking in her argumentative rudeness in even shying from volunteering where their nearby hostel lay. Grudgingly obliged to co-oprerate, together with Roberto a rare traveller from El Salvador who had similarly scored a lift, I excellently found myself safely ensconced in Miri well ahead of expecation. With Hippy Bitch Jodan having conversely found instant chemistry in Roberto even in the darkness of the Great Cave, it was somewhat fortuitous that after giving him a nudge in that direction I was left unmolested to frequent the convenient expat bar downstairs with suitably more mature and benign Chick no.2. A beer and a Rod Stewart concert on the big screen was a superb panacea for the bad manners and bullshit endured.