Spelunking on the moon: Navigating in the dark of Sarawak’s Great Niah Caves

DayakDaily exploring the depths of the Moon Cave.

By Ling Hui

I SHOULD have put on my ‘kampung adidas’ in the car, I thought to myself as my navy-blue stockinged feet in sandals trod on the plank pathway, wet and slippery from moss, and stretching endlessly ahead.

A cloying darkness had engulfed the five of us as soon as we descended a flight of stairs through a canal into a dark passage known as the Moon Cave. Other than the illuminating rays of our torchlights and where they shone, we could see nothing but pitch-black beyond.

Luckily, I’m not claustrophobic. Nonsensically, I tried to open my eyes wider, thinking I could see better that way, and unsurprisingly, failed. I eventually surrendered to the unyielding blackness that seems to stretch on indefinitely.

Soon, my eyes grew accustomed to the new level of dark, and instead of watching my steps in fear of slipping and falling, I decided to look up. And that was the best decision I had ever made on this trip, definitely better than the sandals, because what I experienced for the next 15 minutes was nothing short of otherworldly.

As we ventured deeper into the cavern’s depths, the air thickened with anticipation. With each step, the echoes of our footfalls on the wooden planks reverberated against the ancient walls, a rhythmic cadence amidst the incessant twittering of the swiflets in the background.

Occasionally, we stumbled upon hidden treasures—clusters of baby bats or pups, hanging from the folds of rocky alcoves, and delicate swiftlet nests clinging to the jagged edges, not high up on the ceiling but right above our heads. The birds would flinch and shy away from the rays of our torchlights.

Baby bats or pups hanging from cracks on rock formations in Moon Cave.

Up above, remarkable rock formations seemingly danced in the flickering light, their weathered shapes an indication of the passage of time and the relentless forces of nature. But it was the moonscape below that truly mesmerised—a barren expanse of rocky terrain, completed with craters buried in a thick layer of bat and swiftlet excrement. The greyish hues of the cave rocks all around appeared like the surface of the moon, casting an enchanting spell upon the subterranean landscape.

While in the embrace of Moon Cave, one can feel cut off from reality, the boundaries between the real world and imagination blurring. I couldn’t help but feel as though I was treading on alien land, as if I was spelunking on the moon!

I wondered if the cave earned its moniker, the Moon Cave, from the ethereal journey it provides?

Shower in ‘heaven’s light’ at ‘Padang’ chamber

Before entering Moon Cave, one encounters the grandeur of ‘Padang’, a vast chamber with soaring ceilings and some of the most peculiar towering rock formations and cave roof openings, from which beams of sunlight, fondly dubbed the ‘light from the heavens’, streak though like curtains of light.

Come at the right time and you’ll witness a dramatic spectacle as rays of sunlight stream gracefully through the overhead vents, illuminating the space as if you were the focal point of a dedicated spotlight—an Instagram-worthy moment indeed.

This part of the cavern has two such openings in the ceiling, though only one offers the ideal backdrop for photos, while the other remains tantalizingly out of reach. It was precisely at 1.15pm on a sunlit day when we arrived at the ‘Padang’, a stroke of fortune allowing us to behold the breathtaking vista in all its glory.

DayakDaily journalist showering in the ‘light from the heavens’ at ‘Padang’ chamber.

According to our 32-year-old park guide Aubrey, it’s common for the majority of Niah Caves visitors to halt their exploration at the Great Cave, foregoing continuing towards ‘Padang’ and Moon Cave, ultimately leading to the Painted Cave, which is a further half-an-hour plank walk from Moon Cave’s exit.

This was because of the increasing difficulty of the trail, compounded by slippery paths and opaque darkness, aptly termed the ‘dark phase’, in stark contrast to the earlier ‘twilight’ and ‘light’ phases of the caving adventure.

For me, the journey into ‘Padang’ and Moon Cave, leading up to Painted Cave, held far more significance than the earlier stages of our expedition. Beyond the sense of accomplishment from covering greater distances than others, the otherworldly experience and spectacular sights we encountered along the way made every additional mile traveled feel truly rewarding.

To all who are neither claustrophobic nor nyctophobic, and are physically fit, heed my words: ready your torchlights and batteries, wear your best hiking shoes, and climb those stairs at the far end of Great Cave, for the journey ahead promises unforgettable sights which few have seen before. Venture forth into the unknown, embrace the darkness and you will see a world unlike any other.

Aubrey (left) and Cresency, our friendly park guides at Niah National Park

Death ships heading to the afterlife

Shortly after leaving Moon Cave, the boardwalk leads into daylight and a short path through the forest to reach Painted Cave, the last and furthest stop on the trail. Painted Cave, located in a separate and smaller limestone formation, holds significance due to its renowned cave paintings and the discovery of ‘death ships’, otherwise known as boat coffins.

Although the contents of these ships now reside in the Sarawak Museum, the boat coffins at the burial site, now sadly deteriorated into ironwood fragments, can still be viewed behind a fence.

Behind these boat coffins on the wall, spanning approximately 30 metres, is rock-art painted with red hematite or plant dye. The depictions include various human figures, likely representing warriors and hunters, as well as local forest animals. Notably, the paintings also feature boats resembling Viking longships with different designs, some embellished with larger figureheads than others.

Some of the longship paintings on the walls of the Painted Cave.

Aubrey explained that the longboat paintings demonstrate a belief by the ancestors that the longboats would carry the souls of the deceased on a journey to the land of the dead. They are also ‘signboards’ saying that this is a cemetery area as boats symbolise death.

“Here at Painted Cave, most of the paintings is the shape of boats. So, it signifies that the spirits of the dead will travel to another world, like how we (the living) travel using boats.”

It was a pleasant surprise when Aubrey led us to a shaded site next to the fenced-off site where we could admire at a safe distance more of the ship paintings without the fence blocking our view. There, we realised something: all the death ships were facing left toward the mouth of the cave as if they were headed into the cave, onto their travel to the underworld.

Spending time at Painted Cave was worthwhile as the tranquil atmosphere and open space encouraged us to reflect; perhaps as the air was finally free from the acrid smell of guano, or maybe our hearts were lighter after having reached our final destination.

Magnificent rock formations at the entrance of Painted Cave.

Goblin’s gold luminous moss beside Great Cave’s foreboding stairs

It shocked me how the emerald-like luminous moss known as goblin’s gold, found in plain sight right beside the Great Cave’s daunting stairs leading to the depths of the cave complex, was rarely mentioned in the abundance of articles featuring the Great Niah Caves of Sarawak.

Compared to the dull, muted green hue of common moss, goblin’s gold appeared more dazzling and eye-catching. Despite being in daylight at the West Mouth of the Great Cave, the glow of the moss carpet still could be perceived.

Aubrey, a two-month conservation officer who handles joint ventures and collaborations with researchers within Niah National Park, enlightened us with his scientific knowledge and described how the goblin’s gold has lens-shaped cells that refract light, reflecting it back into the environment and giving the whole thread-like, multicellular filament mat a florescent glow.

This endemic species (Schistostega pennata), favours dark, damp places like caves, though it can grow in more open habitats. When fully grown, goblin’s gold “sort-of resembles a tiny, green, semi-translucent feather”, as described by Matt Candeias in his article titled “Goblin’s Gold: the story of a luminous moss”.

A carpet of goblin’s moss found right next to the stairs of the Great Cave.

Aubrey also mentioned a group of three researchers from Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh recently visited Niah Caves in February to gather samples for their research on goblin’s gold, five begonia species, and the Nyatoh tree.

Along the trail, specifically at Trader’s Cave, he pointed us to a few begonia plants that were growing on the limestone walls, each occupying a different niche on a single hill. Other than the ones with opaque, green leaves that we saw, he noted other species with translucent leaves in either green or dark purple colors.

As of the latest research documented in “Five New Begonia species (Begoniaceae) from the Niah National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia” (2003), five endemic begonia species have been discovered within the national park.

One of the begonia species in the vicinity of Trader’s Cave.

Prehistoric skeletons, swiflets and bats at West Mouth

One can’t really speak about the Great Niah Caves of Sarawak without mentioning the historical discovery of a skeleton in deposits dated to some 40,000 years ago and is one of the earliest remains of homo sapiens or modern men to have been found in Southeast Asia.

Cranium fragments known as the “Deep Skull” were unearthed from the ‘Hell Trench’, named after the torturous heat in a hole 101 to 110 inches below the original ground surface, following its discovery on February 1958 by Barbara Harrison and her team.

Major excavations led by Tom Harrison, government ethnologist and curator of Sarawak Museum, as well as various others following that revealed a total of 166 burial sites, some of which were occupied, and burials dating to the late Pleistocene and early Holocene (20,000-8,000BC), and hundreds of others of Neolithic burials dating from 4,000 BC to about 1,000 AD.

Records from the Niah Archaelogy Museum, located before the entrance to Niah Caves, laid out seven different burial types: flexed, seated, mutilations, extended, multiple, cremation, and burnt, with burnt burials being the most popular in the Neolithic era.

Studies of excavations also found that around 12,000 years ago, Niah people began to produce cutting tools made from sharpened pebbles. By 6,000 years ago, they started carving refined tools like polished axes, then decorative pottery, mats and nets.

While some of the original artefacts are on display at the Niah Archaelogy Museum, empty excavated lots at the West Mouth of the Great Cave, are still perfectly preserved behind fences. Other than its historical value, the Niah Caves deserve its renown for the Great Cave is one of the world’s most spectacular cave entrances due to its magnificent size at over 60 metres high and 250 metres wide.

Hanging down from the high cave roofs are ironwood and bamboo poles erected by indigenous ancestors who exhibited excellent engineering skills to aid their bird’s nest harvests. With our necks craned to their fullest to look up along those poles, a thought screamed in our heads: how on Earth can a human climb 60 metres up on just poles and ropes?

It was even more mindblowing to learn that modern-day nest collectors would sometimes climb on a hanging rope crossing the cave, from one point to the other, to ease their harvesting process, while they are, again, 60 metres above the ground!

The rope leading up to the ceiling of the Great Cave that is 60 metres above the ground.
Uncleaned bird’s nests on display at the Niah Archaeology Museum.
A flock of swiftlets perched on their nests at Trader’s Cave.

As told by our 30-year-old female park guide Cresency or just C, there are to-date 110 licensed climbers or bird’s nest collectors, mainly comprising of local Penans and Malays, and only 20 to 30 of them are still active today.

“There are only that many active licensees today because of how dangerous the harvesting process is. The younger generations nowadays would rather rear their own swiftlets than risk their lives in this occupation,” she told us.

As for guano (bird and bat excrement) harvesting, Seni and Ading Langajang are the last Penans who are still seen to be collecting them.

The twin, who have been collecting guano for over 40 years since they were 15-years-old, said collecting guano was easy because they only needed to sweep it up with brooms and fill up their gunny sacks, an effortless process that takes about 15 minutes.

“Guano is good as fertiliser for my oil palm trees, but it cannot touch the palm fruits or else the entire tree will die. I experienced it myself,” said Ading, the elder brother.

Ading (left) and Seni, the Penan brothers who have been collecting guano from Niah Caves for over 40 years.

Niah National Park to be listed as Unesco World Heritage Site this July?

All government caretakers of Niah National Park, including Aubrey and Cresency, look forward to the positive outcome of the 2020 nomination for the national park to be listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, expected to be announced this July.

If successful, it will reaffirm the regional and global recognition of Niah Caves while Niah National Park would be Sarawak’s second Unesco World Heritage Site after Gunung Mulu National Park, which was listed in 2000 for its high biodiversity and limestone features.

The Sarawak government had in 1972 declared Niah Caves as a historical site whereby it is an offence to deface, disturb or destroy any part of the caves and the archaeological and zoological remains found therein, following the realisation of its historical and economic significance. The iron fences installed then at each cave mouth opening can still be seen today.

In November 1974, the entire coverage of 3,139 hectares outlining the limestone outcrop and forest margin of Gunung Subis was gazetted as Niah National Park under Forest Department Sarawak.

Niah National Park was nominated to be listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2020.

A wedding at Niah National Park, and more

Niah National Park offers a wide range of unforgettable experiences, including caving adventures, history insights, nature retreats, photography opportunities, research, wildlife observation, bird watching, jungle trekking, hiking, and yes, even wedding event venues.

As the national park provides various accommodation such as chalets and hostels for up to 60 pax, an innovative couple with one half from Limbang and the other from Julau, actually tied the knot and celebrated their big day there last February.

As Aubrey recalled, the newlyweds even had their wedding photos taken in the chalet compound while dressed in traditional Iban costumes.

“I was quite surprised because it was my first time seeing such a concept. Niah (National Park) can actually be a place to hold weddings!” he exclaimed, noting that visitors mostly come for the trekking and caving experiences.

Trail entrance to ‘Bukit Kasut’.

‘Bukit Kasut’, which literally translates as Shoe Hill—renown for its toughness due to its almost vertical steepness that has been likened to the hind part of a shoe—is a magnet for hikers and fitness enthusiasts.

From the junction which is 0.9km from the main entrance, one needs to travel 3km on the Madu Trail until the legendary Bukit Kasut Trail, which is said to ascend for another 3km. Hikers must climb seemingly endless flights of stairs and rocky slopes before continuing up several vertical ladders to the viewpoint.

Hearing the description of the trail alone made our adrenaline surge, and we were somewhat disappointed when told that the Bukit Kasut Trail was temporarily closed for maintenance. Despite so, we were contented with our four-hour adventure in the world of caves.

With hearts full of wonder and phones brimming with electronic records of our memories, we bade farewell to our park guides and this enchanted landscape. My socks and sandals were stained with you-know-what, but I couldn’t bring myself to wipe them away just yet. Lost in a trance, I lingered, reluctant to part ways with the magic of the moments spent exploring the mysterious caves.

I will surely put on my ‘kampung adidas’ before getting out of the car next time, I told myself, making a mental note as I hopped into the 4WD vehicle. Until we meet again, Niah National Park. — DayakDaily