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travelogue
 PAST ISSUES

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
665: Okayama
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
661: Agamachi
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 ride.
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
Sarawak’s 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 it’s 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
Japan's microbrewers
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
403: Santa's lap
Santa's lap - enjoy saunas, Santa and sightseeing in Finland’s Lapland
399: Shanghaied
Seeking the past in China's megacity
395: Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatia’s phoenix city, Dubrovnik.
391: The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
387: Prague
World heritage site
383: South Africa
Land of hope
381: Hawaii
Pearl Harbor
377: Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
374: China
Suzhou and Hangzhou
370: The Nile
The river mild
367: Tibet
Top of the world
363: Laos
Memo from the Lower Mekong
360: Cuzco, Peru
Lost cities
357: Namibia
Call of the wild
354: Southern India
Mad about Madurai

ISSUES 349-   
ISSUES 299-

Into the bat cave

Sarawak’s Niah Caves are home to hairless bats, birds on the brink of extinction, and lots of bugs, according to Simon Rowe.

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, it’s 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 Borneo’s treetops, for the inhabitants of one of the world’s largest cave systems, it’s simply business as usual.

“Sarawak may be thin on mobsters, but there’s 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 hippy’s final comment before he staggered out into the rain: “What moves overhead is not always as gripping as what lies underfoot.”

 

Batting around
My reluctant guide, Heredanak, whose name sounds like an exploding firecracker, couldn’t have agreed more. He assures me that if the cave floor begins to churn beneath my feet, it’s only because it’s alive. Tons of guano and urine deposited each day by the bats and swiftlets becomes a movable feast for the millions upon millions of trogolobites—cave 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 trader’s 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 trader’s 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 trader’s 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 bluffs—themselves 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 disappear altogether.

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 Heredanak’s nerves, already ill at ease in Niah’s 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 Asia’s 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 Singaporean restaurants.

Locals walk the plank in Sarawak

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 trader’s house on Sungai Niah River becomes a bustling highway of nest collectors with their cooks, riggers, maintenance men and security guards in tow.

“It’s 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 Sarawak’s 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 Niah’s 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 to recoup.

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. It’s 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.

 

Getting There
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 Ranger’s 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: stb@sarawaktourism.com or check out www.sarawaktourism.com/niahcave.html

Other information:
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


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