Although small, Niah National Park has a lot to offer. The caves are its main attraction – huge, and inhabited from 40,000 years ago. The human presence in Niah’s caves continues today, with brave men climbing up impossibly high poles to collect the sought-after key ingredient for bird’s nest soup, much as they have done for hundreds of years. The forest around is also unique, with a spectacular backdrop of limestone cliffs. One trail leads to the top for views out to the ocean.
The Great Cave at Niah National Park is an amazing place – a massive and spectacular cave, looming out of emerald rainforest, with a unique cave ecology – including animals not found anywhere else in the world. The cave is home to hundreds of thousands of swiftlets (and bats), and has a very rich history and culture revolving around the collection of the swiftlets nests (for prized birds-nest soup). On top of that, the caves have been regularly used by humans for more than 40,000 years. These people have left a rich record of their passing, making Niah one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia.
Niah is one of those rare places that has a special unquantifiable feel to it, which sends a shiver down your spine. You are drawn into the massive caves by some primordial human instinct, while at the same time being overawed by their size and the darkness of their depths, and a sense of their ancientness.
Writing in 1961, Tom Harrisson, then Curator of the Sarawak Museum, and who pioneered the excavation of the caves, reported in the Sarawak Gazette:
Niah will become accessible to the outside – whether we like it or not. Then it may well become one of the sight-seeing attractions of the Far East. For, archaeology apart, it is also in its own right one of the wonders of the unwestern world.
Fortunately for visitors, it is now very easily accessible; and although it definitely deserves its place as one of the wonders of the world (in fact it is up for UNESCO World Heritage listing), it is yet to be over-run by hordes of tourists.
It would also be a mistake to think that the caves are all that Niah has to offer – the forest around Niah and on the limestone hills above is beautiful and very special in its own right, containing a number of rare and interesting species. Many of these can be seen from the trails, whether the boardwalk to the caves, or (for the more adventurous) the climb the top of the limestone cliffs.
Because of its fascinating ecology, prehistory, history and current uses, we have included an extended Background section for Niah.
The number and distance of trails at Niah is somewhat limited – partly because of the small size of the Park, but more because of the fact that the park is largely dominated by treacherous limestone mountain, which is full of cracks and crevasses.
Despite that, the established trails pass through some interesting rainforest and beautiful scenery, and even offer some challenging trekking. We have described four main trails and destinations here.
Starting with a quick boat ride across the small Sungai Niah, the Boardwalk to the Great Cave leads through some beautiful primary mixed dipterocarp forest and alluvial (riverine) forests. Despite being relatively flat and on boardwalk, it’s still a good 4.5km walk to the Great Cave, but well worth the effort. The walk is interesting in its own right – not just as a means to get to the Cave. It provides a relatively easy and pleasant way to see some interesting trees and plants typical of these forests, 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 night time insects.
This is the main event at Niah. The Great Cave really has to be seen, heard, smelled, felt and experienced to be believed. In addition to its fascinating prehistory, history and ecology, there’s over a kilometre of boardwalk inside the huge cave passages, which does a big loop around the massive central pillar. If you’re up for it, the trail on to the Painted Cave leads out from the far end of the Great Cave.
The trail to the Painted Cave leads from one of the back entrances of the Great Cave, through some interesting scenery with cliffs on both sides, and up into the Painted Cave itself. The Painted Cave is one of the most pleasant of the caves – nice light (from both ends), smooth walls and floor, and on a more human scale than the Great Cave. A breeze passes through it and there are also no bats or birds – so it is comparatively sweet-smelling. The Painted Cave is also very significant from an archaeological perspective. Numerous artefacts were found here, including a number of wooden boat-shaped coffins, lying on the surface of the cave-floor (at the time of writing, there were still some just sitting there in the open). But most interesting for the casual visitor are the cave paintings which give the cave its name. These red paintings along a short segment of the cave wall depict a number of fantastical and stylised beasts, men and boats. Most of them are behind a couple of layers of barbed-wire and a little hard to see from outside their enclosure (bring some binoculars), although a couple remain outside on open cave-wall. This is not a difficult trail, just make sure you have the time and energy to add it to the Great Cave walk.
This trail leads to an Iban longhouse community located just outside the National Park, not far from the entrance to the Great Cave. The longhouse is called Rumah Libau (formerly Rumah Chang). It is an interesting place, especially if you do not have any other opportunities for visiting a longhouse. It may even be possible to arrange to stay at Rumah Libau, although this trail is the only practical way to get there, so you have to be prepared to carry all your stuff.
There are in fact two trails off the Boardwalk Trail which lead to Rumah Libau, so we describe them both, as a loop-trail, starting from the trail closest to the Park HQ.
This trail doesn’t lead to any caves, although it passes by a number of them. Instead, it takes you through boggy riverine forest, with huge buttressed trees, and then up to the top of the steep limestone cliffs above Batu Niah. The climb to the top is steep and tough, involving several scrambles up near-vertical sections of narrow and sharp, weathered limestone. The vegetation on the cliffs and at the top includes some unique limestone-specific species. From the top, there are fantastic views of the forest in the national park below, the town of Batu Niah, surrounding oil palm plantations and, off near the horizon, the South China Sea. Not a trek for the unfit or the timid.
Other Trails & Destinations
Trail to Batu Niah
A well-made concrete path runs along the banks of the Sungai Niah between Park HQ and the town of Batu Niah. It passes through secondary forest and farmland, where you can see a lot of tropical fruit trees and local crops being grown. It also passes through some picturesque farming villages. If you don’t want to fork out for a cab or boat, this 4km trail provides an alternative way to get to or from the Park HQ.
Unmarked trails around Gunung Subis
There are a maze of trails in Niah National Park, leading to a range of bird nest caves which riddle the limestone of Gunung Subis. These trails (and the caves) are not open to the public, and you are requested not to go exploring them, without express permission from the Warden or the Director of National Parks. These trails and caves are not well marked, and are potentially very dangerous in places. You could also find yourself in trouble with the armed guards protecting the birds nests in the caves.
There are so many fascinating aspects to Niah, so we have prepared more detailed background information for Niah than for many of the other national parks. We have divided up the background information as follows (click on the subject that you want to read more about):
This section gives a (very) brief layman’s introduction to how Niah’s massive caves came to be formed, and how the limestone impacts on the local vegetation.
This section explains about the caves’ unique and fragile ecosystem and some of the amazing animals living in them.
This section gives a short account of some of the archaeological excavations at Niah and what they have found.
This section gives a brief rundown of some of the modern peoples of Niah, their history, and aspects of their cultures.
Information about the ecology of the rainforests is incorporated in the trail descriptions (see the Boardwalk to Great Cave in particular).