Starting from across the river, the boardwalk leads through some beautiful primary mixed dipterocarp and riverine forests. Despite being relatively flat, it’s still a good 3 km walk to the Great Cave. The walk is interesting in its own right – not just as a means to get to the cave. There are interesting trees and plants, along with various birds, butterflies, insects and two wonderful species of squirrel – the tiny, fast-moving pygmy squirrel, and the beautifully coloured Prevosts squirrel. At night time the trail comes alive with glowing lichens and fungi, flashing fireflies, and an almost deafening chorus of frogs and insects.
Then there’s the Great Cave itself. It really has to be seen, heard, smelled, felt and experienced to be believed. There’s another kilometre or two of boardwalk inside the huge cave passages – and if you’re up for it, the trail on to the Painted Cave.
4/10 (long, some stairs in cave)
3 km to Great Cave
3.8 km to back end of Great Cave (Kuala Gan Kira)
|3-4 hrs return|
Flora & Fauna
None – boardwalk
The area around the Park HQ is all secondary forest and former farmland. In fact most of the trees around the HQ are fruit trees, and there are some beautiful ones along the bank of the river. These include mango trees, jambu air (water apple), durian, and jackfruit, as well as papaya and banana trees, pepper vines, and various local vegetables down by the canteen.
To reach the beginning of the boardwalk, you have to hop on one of the little boats from the jetty on the small Sungai Niah (RM0.50 per person at the time of writing). If you are planning on staying late at the caves, you may want to make necessary arrangements with the boat man (see Special Considerations below).
Pangkalan Lobang & Museum
The boat takes you across to the small wooden building on the opposite bank. This is called Pangkalan Lobang (“Lobang Jetty”), and was established as a trading station for the guano collectors – it now has a small canteen/bar and general store.
Just behind and up the bank from Pangkalan Lobang is the new Sarawak Museum building. This beautiful big wooden structure holds some excellent displays about the people, history, and cultures of Niah, as well as the archaeology – including a number of items which were collected from the caves during the digs. It also has interesting information about the flora and fauna of Niah.
The Boardwalk Trail starts just behind the Museum, in a clearing amongst some old resthouses, which are now used by staff. A sign marking the start also notes the distances to various destinations.
In the mornings and afternoons, beautiful Prevost’s squirrels (Callosciurus prevostii) – grey on top and rusty orange underneath – can be seen gambolling around this area and up the trees. Prevost’s squirrels eat ants, termites and beetle larvae, as well as fruits from rainforest trees. Squirrels play an important role in distributing the seeds of numerous rainforest plants, and are a themselves a source of food for wild cats and other jungle predators.
The boardwalk proper starts at the end of the clearing. The forest through here is mostly mixed dipterocarp rainforest, with numerous alluvial (riverine) patches, where the ground is crisscrossed by small creeks and swampy patches. The forest has a wealth of fascinating tree and other plant species, many of which can be seen from the boardwalk.
On the left of the path just after the start is a very tall tree with a smooth white trunk, and small, fine leaves. This is a tapang (Koompassia excelsa) – in fact the third tallest tree species in the world. Tapang are often left standing in places where the rest of the forest has been felled. This is for several reasons. First, it has a very hard wood and is difficult to cut. Second, the upper boughs of tapang are a favourite nesting spot for honey bees – so it is often worth more to people left standing. Finally, tapang are believed to be inhabited by spirits which would not take too kindly to their home being chopped down. However, tapang often have large buttresses (this one doesn’t), and following appropriate rituals, these may be cut to take some wood (usually for special culturally-specific items), leaving the tree alive.
A few metres further along the boardwalk from the tapang is a National Parks sign, requesting you to enjoy, use and preserve the Park. Behind the sign is a beautiful big buttressed tree. This is a keranji (Dialium laurinium).
Like tapang, keranji is a member of the legume family (which includes green beans – although these huge trees are more reminiscent of something from Jack and the Beanstalk). The fruit of keranji is edible – the small (1.5cm) black velvety oval pods contain a single fruit and one or two seeds. The fruit surrounding the seed is sweet and quite pulpy or floury. Piles of the fruits are a common sight in local markets during season.
From here, the trail undulates gently as it wanders through the forest. If you stop and listen, you’ll hear cicadas, loud gecko calls, and various birds. Fat skinks scuttle off the boardwalk and through the undergrowth on the sides, and you may notice bright red millipedes or streams of termites as they march on their way to demolish dead wood. The ground is quite well shaded by the large trees growing around, but there is still quite dense undergrowth. After 5-10 minutes, at the top of a rise, there is a turnoff on the right to Bukit Kasut. You are now about 900m from the start of the trail, and about 1/3 of the way to the entrance to the Great Cave.
Two or three metres up the Bukit Kasut trail (on its right) is a large tree with the number “117” on it. This is an engkabang – a term used for several large dipterocarp trees (all from the genus Shorea). Aside from being valuable timber trees, engkabang have large winged seeds (called “illipe nuts”). These used to be collected and processed into a cooking oil, similar to cocoa butter. At one time, this oil was an important export product for Sarawak. The resin of some engkabang species also had traditional medicinal uses – including for the treatment of rashes and blisters caused by contact with the sap of other rainforest trees (rengas trees).
The trail then descends into a patch of scrubby secondary forest, with much smaller trees. The boardwalk also leads over swampy patches. A number of interesting plants grow in these swampy patches, including wild gingers (Zingiberaceae – the flowers of some of these are eaten, and different gingers’ roots are also used as a spice – including tumeric and galangal, as well as ginger itself.) A number of small fan (Licuala sp) and feather (Pinanga sp) palms also grow through here. Another interesting type of plant common in the swampy patches are the aroids, with their large leathery heart-shaped leaves.
A number of aroids grow in Niah National Park – the most obvious are the Alocasia borneensis, shown here. They are related to keladi or taro, which produces a big edible tuber, eaten by local people. Some aroids also have edible fruits, although many in fact have highly irritant sap. These aroids and a number of other rainforest food-plants are now part of an interesting and groundbreaking study by the team involved in the archaeological digs. All staple food plants produce starch, and the starch granules of each species are unique. These starch granules can also survive for thousands of years. So the researchers are looking at the starch granules they find in the caves, and comparing them with those of plants growing around Niah today. By doing this, they hope to gain an understanding of the diets of the early cave inhabitants, and how the diets (and surrounding environment) changed over time.
The boardwalk soon climbs again onto a small knoll covered with wonderful large dipterocarp trees, and then back down to the flat alluvial forest again.
Just near here, there is a giant rattan growing next to the right side of the boardwalk. Rattans are a type of climbing palm – they use long tendrils covered in sharp hooked spines to attach themselves to and climb up trees. These tendrils sometimes hang down onto paths, where they can get caught on unwary passers-by – hence their popular name “wait-a-while” (or “lawyer vines” because of the way they sink their hooks into you!). Rattans have long been important for making “cane” furniture and baskets. This particular rattan is too big and thick for that, and the useful wild rattans are now in fact quite rare. If you look closely at the growing end, you will notice an interesting feature of this rattan: ants cover the growing end, where they eat the sugary sap produced by scale insects which feed on the tender shoot. The ants aggressively defend their turf, thus providing protection to the rattan shoot.
A few minutes further along the boardwalk there is a pondok (shelter) on the left, where you can stop and have a rest and watch some of the many beautiful butterflies which flutter around here.
From the pondok, another couple of minutes takes you to the new boardwalk leading to Rumah Libau (Chang), off on the left. This point is about 1.1 km from the start of the boardwalk. Just after the turnoff, the trail curves around a small limestone outcrop on the right, covered in moss and small plants. The weathering of the rock makes it look like a giant termite mound.
Occasionally, you may notice the tiny skittish shapes of pygmy squirrels (Excillisciurus exilis) as they flit around the trunks and boughs of the trees near the boardwalk. These tiny squirrels are only 10-14 cm long, including tails. They eat mainly bark and small insects.
The boardwalk passes through some swampy ground and shallow creeks, and soon there are glimpses of limestone cliffs in front, high up through the forest canopy.
The trail soon approaches these cliffs, and more limestone outcrops. At the base of the cliffs, the boardwalk meets a creek, the Sungai Subis, and turns left along it.
Just around the corner, there is a tree with a huge buttress projecting towards the boardwalk. This is a benuang (Octomeles sumatrana). The benuang is a softwood tree species which grows in riverine forest, and uses the buttresses for support on the wet ground. Large tables can be made with a single one of these huge buttresses – some beautiful examples of traditional tables made from large buttresses can be seen in the Sarawak Museum in Kuching.
The trail continues along the Sungai Subis, past limestone formations (on the left), which are reminiscent of Angkor Wat, looking like ancient temples overgrown with jungle. The cliff on the right is undercut by the Sungai Subis in places, and eventually disappears into a cave, only to reappear a short distance later. The limestone cliffs above are riddled with holes, and numerous stalactites have formed where limestone-laden water has deposited its burden.
The boardwalk pulls away from the Sungai Subis for a while, and passes through some dense scrubby secondary forest, before rejoining the creek again. There are more palms and gingers through here, as well as some large trees.
One tree which leans over the boardwalk here is a large strangling fig (Ficus sp), and its hapless strangled host. Figs, including strangling figs, play a key role in the rainforest because of their profuse fruiting (the fruit usually sprout straight from the trunk). These fruit are a vital food source for hornbills, monkeys, and a whole host of other birds and animals. Strangling figs actually germinate up in the upper branches of their host trees, where a seed has been deposited by one of the animals or birds which has feasted on the fruit. The roots then grow downward around the host’s trunk, (often) eventually strangling it (not all strangling figs kill their hosts).The Iban have a legend that the strangling fig, kayu kara, used to live on the ground. Kayu kara longed to climb up amongst the rainforest giants around it, to see the sky, sun, moon and stars. One day, it approached one of the big trees and asked if it could climb up on its shoulders, to see the sky. The big tree generously agreed. Kayu kara climbed up, and loved the view so much that he stayed there. After a number of years, kayu kara grew big, and became very heavy. The old tree who was his host said ‘You have seen the sky for many years now, and have become very heavy. Please get down.’ But the fig liked the view, and didn’t want to come down, so he strangled the old tree, killing it, and stayed there. The Iban consequently call someone who borrows something and doesn’t give it back kayu kara. They also believe that big strangling figs house demons, spirits and snakes, and don’t cut them down.
The boardwalk follows along the gently snaking Sungai Subis as it works its way around the base of Gunung Subis, through tangled alluvial forest and more occasional limestone outcrops. Eventually, it reaches a group of small stalls built out onto the sides of the boardwalk, and behind them, a track off to the left, and a bridge over the Sungai Subis. The narrow plankwalk to the left is the second route to Rumah Libau. Entrepreneurial Iban ladies from the longhouse are often set up here selling trinkets and cold drinks.
Across the bridge, the boardwalk passes between two large limestone outcrops of Gunung Subis. A large metal gate between these is intended to provide some control over access to the caves. You may notice some interesting plants growing on the limestone outcrops, including monophyllea – a unique limestone plant which has only one large leaf – and some pretty begonias.
The trail now crosses through some very rough terrain, with jagged limestone outcrops and deep crevasses where the water has cut into the limestone – fortunately the boardwalk passes over all of these, but it makes you appreciate how difficult the trail must have been before the boardwalk was built. The trail gradually climbs up the side of a limestone hill on the left, until you see an overhang and stalactites in front. This is the entrance to the Traders’ Cave, accessed by a short steep flight of stairs. There are pleasant views from the top of the stairs of the limestone cliffs of Gunung Subis across the valley, and lots of butterflies float about.
The temperature changes as soon as you step into the Traders’ Cave, suddenly pleasantly cool compared with the forest outside. You can understand the appeal of caves as a place to live, in the tropics! The Trader’s Cave is not so much a “cave” as a huge overhang, where the river has cut into the side of the mountain. But the first thing you notice as you enter is what looks like wooden scaffolding all around. These are in fact the frames of the seasonal housing formerly used by the birds’ nest traders who gave the cave its name. They are made of very strong and durable ironwood, without any iron nails, and may in fact be very old. In places, these structures were three stories high – but didn’t have roofs, as the cave provided a natural one! You can see the black marks along the ceiling and walls left from their cooking fires. (For more information about the Traders Cave and birds nest, see the Background pages.)
The trail passes along the length of the Traders’ Cave, which is very picturesque in the late afternoons, with golden sunlight streaming in. Occasional peeps and squeals from above, and dark green patches on the ceiling and floor give away the roosting sites of a few bats. At one point, were the cave is widest and most open, the trail passes over the outline of a badminton court marked into the guano floor. This was in fact made and used by the members of the original archaeological team in the late 1950s (leaving their own now historic archaeological record)!
The trail climbs up some stairs out of the far end of the Traders’ Cave, from where it creeps around the side of the hill towards the gaping maw of the Great Cave (which is in fact a bit hard to see at this angle from the boardwalk).