Monday, August 9, 2010

A Little Cave Excursion

View of the entrance to Niah Caves from the inside.

Other than protecting a diverse rainforest habitat, Niah National Park is perhaps better known for its extensive cave systems (other than the famous discovery of a 40,000 years old human skull). After all limestone hills and caves make up about 67% of the area in the Park.

Despite having made several trips to Niah National Park before, I hardly ventured beyond the entrance of Great Cave simply because I don’t like walking the damp and slippery path inside the caves. However, several weekends ago with friends of MNS Miri, I decided to make an exception, we went deep into the depths of Niah Caves to explore and photograph the interior of Niah caverns!

It was raining heavily in Miri everyday last week, but we needn’t have to worry about the weather last Saturday for it was sunny throughout. Upon arrival at the Park and after making sure our tripods are secured in our backpacks, we began the 3km trek to the Niah caves.

As usual, we were constantly on the lookout for signs of wildlife. This time we were rewarded with view of 2 beautiful Prevost’s squirrels scampering above us in the trees, their 2 bands of reddish brown and white furs were very striking and easily recognizable. As for the monkeys once again they eluded us. Oh well, there is always another time … Niah is but 45minutes away from Miri by car.

Upon approaching Subis Limestone, approximately halfway into our walk, we began to see dark grey weathered blocks of ancient coral reef limestone scattered all over over the forest floor.

These limestone boulders were eroded into jagged edges by the action of rain water and the surface looked harsh, however the force of living plants appeared to be even greater for they have unrelentingly wrapped and entwined themselves onto these rocks, their roots creeping through the crevices and eventually cracking up the limestone blocks as they grow bigger and stronger.

We knew Traders Cave was near when the white limestone cliffs peeped through the breaks in the forest trees. Strictly speaking Traders Cave is not really a cave but a huge half-moon limestone overhang carved out by the flow and dissolving action of subterranean river water many many years ago. Anura, a geologist, pointed out the various grooves on the ceiling of the cave where the different layers showed the weathering of limestone at different periods of time. Just before we exited Traders Cave on top of the staircase, I looked back and as always never failed to be impressed by the enormous dimension of Traders Cave.

After Traders Cave, it was only a short walk away to the main entrance of Great Cave. I was lagging behind the others and just as I passed by the archeological site I suddenly saw a bird of prey flying in and landed on a nest in a tree just outside the cave mouth. When I looked closer I saw another bird, it is a nest for two! It is strange to see raptors building their nest so close to the place where the monkeys hang out, but then again perhaps it means that the monkeys have moved away. After waiting for 10 minutes with no more movement from the nest, I gave up, re-grouped with the others and prepared myself to enter Great Cave. Rosie decided to stay behind.

Great Cave is the largest cave in Niah National Park. The mouth of the Cave stretches wide and we could hear the constant buzz of the swiftlets and an occasional bat or two flying in and out of the cave.

We walked towards a set of staircase that climbed up and over a jumble of fallen big rocks into the dark and cavernous cave. The air inside was a few degrees cooler but mixed with slightly pungent smell of guano deposits.

In the distance, we could see the light of the other entrance of Great Cave, Gan Kira that leads to Painted Cave. The raised plankwalk took us through the winding passages of the cave interior, passing by several large chambers.

At the narrower and darker passages, our torchlight picked up roosting bats perched upside down on the wall as well as swiftlet nests. Somehow the cave was not as dark and the path not as slippery as I remembered, perhaps because of the sunnier and drier weather today.

The plankwalk also passed by 2 big sinkholes. Here the mid-day sun beamed down from the roof openings and illuminated the bizarre rock formations, formed and sculpted by the slow action of dripping rainwater.

We stepped off the path onto the cave floor and went underneath one of these sinkholes. Bathed in soft light and surrounded by large rock sculptures of various sizes and shapes decorated with interesting patterns, it definitely felt like standing in the middle of a living art gallery!

What better way to end our little cave exploration than to catch a view of another cave inhabitant, the rare Niah Cave Gecko which obliged us by staying still for a photo shoot.

After a rather long and strenuous climbing of stairs, we emerged from the cave and into the warm sunshine.

I am already looking forward to my next trip to Niah caves!

Article and images by Sara Wong/MNS Miri/Jul 2010

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