INT. TRAVEL ARCHIVE:
677: The Little Island
Escape the late-winter blues with a tropical blast from the past
675: Scenic Spirituality
Commune with religion and nature in an ancient land
673: Aoni Onsen
Return to a forgotten time at one of Honshu’s most remote getaways
671: The Golden Rock
One of Burma’s many splendid attractions hangs by a hair
669: Hida Takayama
For personal trips gentle to the soul, seek out the old-time charm of Hida Takayama
A serene stroll through history awaits at this seaside retreat
663: Cruising the Bay
Ha Long Bay offers a breath of calm away from Vietnam’s urban rush
Fox fires and bar codes help a rural Niigata town reinvent itself
535: Hotel California
Mark Parren Taylor kicks up the desert dust in Palm Springs, the perennial
Hollywood star retreat.
531: Race through time
The Xterra Saipan triathlon journeys through tropical jungle, up steep mountain
paths and across the sands of history. Tama M. Lung joins the chase.
527: Bohemian rhapsody
No visit to Paris would be complete without taking in the Montmartre district.
Bon vivant Simon Rowe dusts off his French to go exploring.
523: Slow Motion
Mark Parren Taylor touches down in the timeless former seaport of Lukang, Taiwan.
519: Rock of ages
From ancient times to the present, Gibraltar has always been an island of
legends. Stephen Mansfield sifts through its history.
515: Go west, young man
Simon Rowe takes in the big skies and dust trails of Western Australia's
East Kimberley region.
511: All mixed up
Mark Parren Taylor makes land on Macau and finds an enigmatic blend of cultures,
cuisine and heated competition.
505: Earth, wind and fire
A historically imperiled town in Papua New Guinea holds the keys to a magical
getaway. Carlo Niederberger splashes ashore.
501: Off the rails
Braving the 2,010 kilometers of Vietnam's Reunification Express from Ho
Chi Minh City to Hanoi is quite the adventure. Simon Rowe goes along for the
493: Rites of passage
From firecrackers and cheek piercing to divinations and buffalo races, Thailand's
most colorful customs come alive at two annual festivals. Mark Parren Taylor
joins the crowds.
489: Paradise found
Beaches, battlefields and a colossal casino provide tropical pleasures on
the Pacific isle of Tinian. Carlo Niederberger touches down.
485: Through the grapevine
Stephen Mansfield drinks up the delights of the Château Monbazillac
in southwest France.
481: Pleasure island
Saipan awaits the young and young at heart with its pristine beaches, pointy
peaks, and perfect amount of entertainment. Carlo Niederberger checks in.
477: Reservoir of dogs
Simon Rowe visits the Kingdom of Tonga, where storms burst without warning
and wild canines rule the night.
473: Into the bat cave
Sarawaks Niah Caves are home to hairless bats, birds on the brink
of extinction, and lots of bugs, according to Simon Rowe.
469: A fork in the river
Laos ethnic minorities battle the forces of time. Stephen Mansfield
goes upriver in search of them.
465: Action scene
Sick of the short, humid Japanese summer? Tired of the winter? In NZ its
summertime and the living is easy, the food and drink inexpensive, and the evenings
long and lazy. Mark Devlin heads south to explore and party.
457/458: In living color
Simon Rowe soaks in the glow of Samoa's kaleidoscopic streets.
454: From Jamaica with love
Michael McDonagh soaks up the atmosphere in James Bond's balmy birthplace
449: See worthy
Dan Grunebaum drops oar in the stunning caves of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay
445: Great heights
Simon Rowe packs his hiking boots and sets out for Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu
441: Split personality
There are few cities with such an exacting dividing line between past and present
as Lijiang in China's southwestern province of Yunnan
438: Fierce creatures
Simon Rowe introduces us to the untamed charms of Australia's Kangaroo Island
434: Leap of Faith
Simon Rowe dives into a tropical island paradise of waterfalls, reefs and bush
rugby on the Fijian archipelago
430: A week in Provence
Stephen Mansfield explores the historic festival city of Avignon, a medieval
diamond in the south of France
426: Outer space
Surreal sites, lunar landscapes and UFO sightings go with the territory in Chile
422: The Big Easy
The Moorish streets of Granada, Spain are alive with a new Bohemian rhapsody
418: Small awakening
414: Fowl play
The animal kingdom comes alive in the Galapagos
410: The river of spirits
Wading through soulful waters in Varanasi, India
406: Heading north
Marching to the beat of a modern drum in North Korea
Santa's lap - enjoy saunas, Santa and sightseeing in Finland’s Lapland
Seeking the past in China's megacity
Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatias phoenix
The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
World heritage site
Land of hope
Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
Suzhou and Hangzhou
The river mild
Top of the world
Memo from the Lower Mekong
Call of the wild
Mad about Madurai
Into the bat cave
Sarawaks Niah Caves are home to hairless bats, birds
on the brink of extinction, and lots of bugs, according to
The sound of thousands of tiny beating wings comes first.
It begins as a low-pitched thup-thup that rises quickly to
a deafening whoooosh, not unlike the sound of a typhoon roaring
through a bamboo forest at 180km per hour. With this din comes
an odor so foul, its impossible to take a breath without
pinching your nose. Unsettling though it is to stand beneath
the nightly migration of some 200,000 hairless bats on their
way to feast among Borneos treetops, for the inhabitants
of one of the worlds largest cave systems, its
simply business as usual.
Sarawak may be thin on mobsters, but theres plenty
of underworld, one dreadlocked Japanese traveler had
joked in a bar beside the Kuching River one rainy night. He
was referring to the Mulu Caves in the Bornean highlands from
which he had just returned and whose five million year-old
caverns, explored to date, exceed 200km in length. A week
later, and more than 200m from sunlight inside the dank-smelling
caverns of the Niah Caves National Park, I suddenly recall
the Japanese hippys final comment before he staggered
out into the rain: What moves overhead is not always
as gripping as what lies underfoot.
My reluctant guide, Heredanak, whose name sounds like an exploding
firecracker, couldnt have agreed more. He assures me
that if the cave floor begins to churn beneath my feet, its
only because its alive. Tons of guano and urine deposited
each day by the bats and swiftlets becomes a movable feast
for the millions upon millions of trogolobitescave dwelling
critters like the assassin bug, the cave racer snake, spiders,
mites and dung-munching beetles.
While the Mulu Caves remain the largest, the Niah Caves are
the most accessible for travelers to Sarawak. Though at times,
the journey from Kuching City can test even the hardiest of
old Asia-hands: I am forced to endure a six-hour bus ride
to Bintulu, pick up the two-hour connection to the riverside
town of Batu Niah, then entrust my life to one of the local
longboat cowboys who, for a few extra Malaysian ringgit, runs
me at top speed up the log-strewn Sungai Niah River to a Chinese
traders house and the national park headquarters.
Soon after we arrive, a huge thunderstorm breaks across the
valley, turning the river into a muddy cauldron and sending
raindrops the size of golf balls pelting through the forest
canopy with cannon-ball velocity. A huddle of tired-eyed men
sit smoking inside the traders house, their shirts and
boots encrusted with thick, strong-smelling bat guano, an
odor that in Sarawak means the caves are never far away. A
plank walk leads from the Chinese traders house into
tall stands of dipterocarp rainforest, durian trees and frog-filled
rainwater catchments, before falling away to a labyrinth of
narrow limestone canyons that have to be dodged, ducked and
skirted in order to reach the base of the massive bluffsthemselves
visible for kilometers around.
|Floating up the Sungai
Niah River in the calm before the storm
Not until the last moment does the mouth of the Kuala Besar,
or Great Cave, suddenly loom up to swallow you. Spanning some
244m across and rising to a height of 62m, it resembles the
gaping maw of some huge prehistoric beast with extremely bad
breath. The stench of bat and swiftlet guano is overpowering.
From the West Mouth, we skim and stumble our way over a crusty
plank walk before crossing a dry underground river to reach
the Painted Cave, so-called for its haematite animal paintings
that anthropologists from the Sarawak Museum believe were
left by cave-dwelling peoples some 38,000 years ago.
Amateur graffitists have also left their marks on the cave
walls, prompting museum officials to restrict entry to the
Painted Cave for fear that the ancient wall paintings will
High on the cave ceiling, the shed skin of a cave racer snake
unfurls in the breeze. The fact that these wriggly cave dwellers
are harmless does little to settle Heredanaks nerves,
already ill at ease in Niahs gloomy underworld. Not
so harmless are the scorpions and long-legged centipedes that
inhabit the dark, less frequented caves. My encounter with
nine scorpions in one pitch-black antechamber might have been
my last if my guide had not found an alternative path around
the fearsome critters. The debt is repaid when my flashlight
picks out the fuzzy outline of a long-legged centipede that
sits contentedly chewing on a giant cockroach, centimeters
from his head.
For the birds
Dangerous animals aside, the Niah Caves are home to one of
Asias most dangerous professions: the centuries-old
tradition of bird nest collecting. Swiftlet nests, according
to the Sarawak Museum, have been gathered by Chinese traders
for over 1,500 years, and the glutinous saliva with which
the birds use to build their nests, remains the prime ingredient
in the Chinese delicacy, bird nest soup. One bowl of the grayish,
viscous liquid can cost up to US$100 in some Hong Kong and
|Locals walk the plank
When I return to Batu Niah two weeks later, preparations
for the start of the October harvest are frantic. The second
of two annual harvests, this one will last three months, during
which time the trail between the cave mouths and the traders
house on Sungai Niah River becomes a bustling highway of nest
collectors with their cooks, riggers, maintenance men and
security guards in tow.
Its a risky business, says Alex Jaman, 42,
a former Niah nest collector who now spends his days earth-bound
as a freelance tour guide. He points out the fuse-wire thin
rattan ladders, called gugulug, which collectors must scale
to reach the nests high on the cave walls, along with the
three-meter metal-tipped scraper, or penyuluk, which is then
used to pry off the nests. Daylight from ceiling cracks and
fissures is so scarce, he explains, candles made from beeswax
and beer-bottle kerosene lamps must be carried.
Unlike the Penan, the indigenous people who hold land title
in the Niah Caves region, harvesters, security staff, and
guides like Jaman hail from Sarawaks largest ethnic
group, the Iban. Still adhering to traditional ways, they
use forest products such as bamboo, rattan and belian to construct
their rope ladders and make offerings of tapioca wine and
rice cakes to the cave spirits to ensure good harvests.
Not even the forest spirits, however, can guarantee
the bountiful harvests that once were. Poor ecological management
has seen Niahs population of 1.7 million swiftlets,
first recorded in 1935, decrease by almost 90 percent over
the past decades. So critical is the situation now that the
Sarawak Forestry Department has begun introducing harvesting
bans (the first in February 2002) to allow the swiftlet population
Some 90m above our heads, three harvesters cling precariously
to a narrow ledge of a dry sump, as they feed out their gugulugs
to the riggers below. Statistics on deaths and accidents during
the harvests are hard to come by in an industry where concession
owners are fiercely secretive and local government officials
prefer not to comment. Says Jaman, Every year a man
dies or is seriously injured. Its usually the young
and inexperienced who slip and fall. Runoff from heavy
rains, he says, makes the limestone greasy and dangerous to
climb. Fueled by a lucrative Chinese market, the small fortunes
harvesters stand to make justify the occupational hazards:
a kilo of uncleaned black nest will fetch between RM800-1,500
ringgit (US$210-394) at market price when sold to Chinese
traders in Miri, Bintulu and Kuching.
The route back to the Great Cave follows a knobby path between
the stalagmites of the Traders Cave, a vast limestone
overhang, wide enough to accommodate an entire Boeing 737.
Twenty years ago, when the Niah Caves swiftlet population
was in better shape, this was a thriving marketplace where
climbers and gatherers, businessmen and buyers would haggle
over harvests for days on end. These days, the now derelict
traders bamboo houses serve as a reminder of those boom
times and the inevitable decline of an age-old profession.
Niah National Park is located in Sarawak, East Malaysia, and
can be reached by local bus from the towns of Miri (two hours;
RM15) or Bintulu (three hours; RM30) to the Park Headquarters.
Longboats operate along the Niah river from Batu Niah town
to the Park Rangers office. You can charter for RM60,
or pay RM5 for a return trip with the locals.
Where to stay
Basic chalet accommodation is available at Niah Park headquarters.
Prices range from RM60 (fan-cooled) to RM180 (air-conditioned)
per room for overnight stays. Booking information is available
through the Sarawak Tourism Board. Email: email@example.com
or check out www.sarawaktourism.com/niahcave.html
Sarawak has a year-round hot and humid climate. Harvesting
of swiftlet nests in the Great Cave takes place from August
to December and January to March. However, the Sarawak Forestry
Department has issued harvesting bans (last one from March
to May 2002) and may issue more if swiflet populations do
not recover soon.
Photos by Simon Rowe