After having our breakfast in Coco House, we left for Niah National Park which is located 110km south-west Miri. Niah National Park is one of the iconic national park in Malaysia because of its archaeological value.
Also in the van with us, were our driver, Yong and nature guide by the name of Putra. Both were birdists and they awed me when they started describing birds and plucking scientific names for the birds. In one hour, we reached Batu Niah town. Before driving into Niah National Park area, we stopped by a restaurant to buy packed lunch and bottled water since we were told there was no canteen in Niah National Park.
This is the map of Niah National Park.
After sorting out our itinerary with Niah National Park rangers, we cruised Niah River to spot Sarawak crocodiles. The gloomy morning turned into blue sky afternoon. During the briefing, we were told that due to the heavy rain last night, the water level was high making it difficult to spot the crocodiles. We proceeded with the cruise hoping that we would be blessed with few spotting of crocodiles. The voyage took us along Batu Niah town. We caught glimpse of the laid back life of the locals preparing meals and fishing under the jetty. The riverine forest and palm trees made up for the landscape with mirror reflection on the river. While we were absorbed with the serenity of the moment, our eyes were fixed on the riverbanks in case the crocodiles were sun-bathing.
At all material time, we avoided saying the word “crocodile” or “buaya” because they were taboo words. It is believed that by not mentioning its name, we will stay free from ill-fated circumstances. As if it was a common belief, we did not argue when Angela coined the nickname “brother” for the crocodiles. We hoped for the “brother” to surface on the water or bath under the sun.
Far into the horizon, I spotted a group of kids swimming in the river. I requested for the boatman to manoeuvre the boat closer to where they were swimming. Not long, Michael said, “How ironic it is that we see kids swimming in the river when we are here on a boat cruise trying to spot “brother”. It was Angela whose sub-ethnic is Iban who offered an explanation in the form of Iban’s child birth ritual which seeks to recognize the child’s social persona within the community.
The infant’s ritual first bath (meri’ anak mandi’) begins at dawn with the preparation of three sets of offerings. One is carried into the bilik apartment in the long house to be presented to the family’s guardian spirits (tua’) while the second one is carried to the river side to be presented to the spirits of the water (antu ai’) and the other to the spirits of the forest (antu babas). After the procession for the family’s guardian spirits is completed, the offerings to the water spirits are cast into the river. The chief ritual officiant then wades into the water and pronounces complex invocation in which he calls on the spirits of the water. These include the spirits of turtles, crocodiles and river fishes. The water spirits would then declare their intention to look after the infant and the guardianship continues throughout an individual’s lifetime.
If you haven’t been blessed with birth ritual in the river, I suggest you heed to the advice not to swim in the river.
We managed to spot only a “brother” on our way back to the jetty to the starting point for Madu Trail. I somehow did not catch even a glimpse of the crocodile but the rest managed to sight the crocodiles. Have I not told you that sharp eyes and total attentiveness are needed for this activity?
There are few trekking routes such as Niah Cave, Madu Trail and Bukit Kasut. Due to time constraint and weather condition, we were advised to walk along the Madu Trail to Lobang Lelong Cave. Lobang Lelong Cave is one of the caves which practise sustainable swiflet management and conservation in Niah National Park. Bird nest collecting in Niah’s caves is one of the most spectacular attractions of Niah National Park. Besides the main cave complex in Niah National Park, travellers can experience bird nest collection in Lobang Lelong Cave, Lobang Perintah Cave and Lobang Iman Cave.
What are swiftlets?
Swiftlets are cavernicolous birds that roost and nest in caves or cave-like man-made structures. Swiftlets forage outside the cave but return to roost in the evening. All species of swiftlets use at least some salivary nest cement in building their nests. This nest cement is manufactured and secreted from a pair of sublingual salivary glands located underneath the tongue. The salivary secretion nest cement is edible and constitutes the main ingredient of the bird’s nest soup – an expensive oriental delicacy. At Niah, the most heavily exploited species is the Blacknest Swiftlets.
The trek to Lubang Lelong was a mixed of wooden plank and earth floor.
The forest was teemed with happy songbirds, buzzing crickets and some plants endemic to Borneo. When we had our 5-minutes break at the hut built as resting area, I was shown the belian tree or the ironwood tree. If you own a belian tree, you will be an instant millionaire for sure. The journey to Lubang Lelong was scenic and revitalizing.
It was when we reached the junction to Bukit Kasut, we noticed the limestone cave high up in the sky.
The next thing I knew, we were at the beginning of steep staircase heading to Lubang Lelong Cave.
Thanks to a rare endemic plant by the name of Amorphaphalus, we were awed by its blooming flower that we spent awhile to admire it before climbing up the stairs to Lubang Lelong Cave.
Despite the mental block it caused me, I could not help but to admire the beauty of nature.
Once we reached the top, we were greeted by the pungent smell of guano. Although the bird nest caves are situated deep in the jungle, the access into the caves are limited to the public and guarded by the guards to prevent the bird nests from being stolen. In Niah National Park, a four months cave enclosure is imposed yearly between April to August to protect the nest during the breeding season. Since it was too dark inside the cave, I did not manage to get any good quality of Lubang Lelong Cave.
If you are interested to learn more about sustainable swiftlet management and conservation or decipher the sounds of the swiftlets, there are day trips to Lubang Perintah or Lubang Lelong.