Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Miri: Hiking through Niah Park, marveling at the Great Cave, ogling the details of a primary forest

Miri Niah Cave from the Stairs
60m high, 250m wide, the iconic Niah Great Cave opening
Accuweather forecast 70% chance of rainshowers on our second day in Miri, Sarawak but the morning gleam looked promising. It's our famtour group's first and only full day here, the second largest in Sarawak and even if I had to work until 3:30am for an outsourcing project, I looked forward to escape the city and hike the forest. 

Our van drove two hours to Niah town (yay, time to grab some winks) 110 kms southwest of Miri to have a quick lunch and launch off to the Niah National Park, located three kilometers from the town of Batu Niah. We took a cursory look at the longhouse museum, wondering if the 40,000 year skull display is the real thing and not a replica apart from having fun finding words that share the same meaning as their Filipino phonetic spell- and sound-alikes. 
Miri Niah Boardwalk
Locals abound on some stretches as the park is a wonderful place for a picnic
After riding a boat to cross a murky river, here's when the real fun begins -- treading the 3.5 km plank walk leading to the Great Cave. Imagine a plank path that long weaving through a primary forest of towering trees -- goes to show the town's wherewithal to have undertaken this literally kilometric undertaking. Part of the joy of hiking at least for me is looking at the details while taking in lungfuls of fresh oxygen, immersing myself in a green cocoon.  
Oh, it's hard not to keep stopping along the way as we keep finding curiosities -- vibrant red millipedes coupling by the handrail, snails that resemble a walking leaf, limestone formations that wouldn't look out of place in a fantasy movie. I have two regrets though: one, I didn't bring my macro lens, and two, we only have three hours max to explore this place. Honestly, I could spend a day or two here just mindlessly walking and shooting the details. 

With so many welcome distractions, I believe anyone wouldn't really mind the three kilometer walk (I'm biased as I love to hike) to get to the cave.   The Trader's Cave is a prelude to the Great Cave, an extended rock overhang where swifts nest and guano traders used to conduct their business, hence the name (workers collect guano in the relative darkness for selling as fertilizer). I was already at the Great Cave when the sky turned temperamental, unloading its share of precipitation (Accuweather turned out to be accurate after all).  I've seen images of this 60m high, 250m wide cave opening but this one looks surreal with the fog wrapping the limestone karsts and trees in mists, adding to its spectacle.
Miri Niah Cave Ferns
Ferns growing on the guano-fertilized grounds of Traders Cave

The squall added even more drama to the surroundings with an impromptu waterfall cascading down the rocks inside the cave.  Emmie (Abadilla), the intrepid travel adventurer-writer/tiger whisperer from the Manila Bulltin, and I would've wanted to venture another three kilometer beyond this point (Burnt Cave) to the Painted Caves (site of the thousand year old cave paintings) but our guide Yeong was quick to quell the thought (we were on a schedule understandably and our other groupmates may not welcome the idea).  Chalk that one up for a future trip. That and the UNESCO heritage site of Gunung Mulu.

Going back with our guide, Yeong, I asked him why not build a bridge across the river entrance so they wouldn't have to rely on boats for the very short crossing.  What he told me made perfect sense - this helps regulate the entry and exit of visitors to the park (or risk swimming in the crocodile-infested river).  Come back late and you would have to stay in one of the chalets (I wouldn't really mind that anyway and at RM42 for accommodations good for 4 persons, it's literally a steal).

Info: Niah National Park is open from 9am-4pm daily.  The last boat crossing is at 7:30pm • Chalets/fan rooms are available inside the park at RM42 good for 4 pax  • Late visitors going to the Painted Caves are advised to stay in the chalets overnight

 AirAsia Zest has just launched the first Manila-Miri route last Dec. 7. Flight schedules: Manila-Miri, Mon, Tu, Thu, Sat, 2:25PM • Miri-Manila, 5:10PM • To celebrate the new route, AirAsia Zest is offering all-in-fares for as low as P2,587 (RM199) one way from Dec. 9-15 for travel period of Dec. 20, 2013 - Jan. 31, 2014. Visit. www.airasia.com for details.

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