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Published: August 14th 2009
Because Mulu National Park is fully-booked up for the whole of August, I decided to go to Niah National Park for a while instead and then hopefully visit Mulu later in the trip. To get to Niah National Park from Kuching there is first a five hour boat trip to the town of Sibu. For pretty much the entire voyage up-river there were stacks of logs lining the river banks. From Sibu there is then a four hour bus ride to the town of Bintulu, through 200km of almost entirely denuded countryside and massive oil palm plantations. Outside of the national parks the end of Sarawak's wilderness areas is fast approaching. There is no longer a bus directly to Niah National Park so you need to get off at the turn-off halfway between Bintulu and Miri and take one of the private cars that hang around there waiting for passengers. There's probably no cars there at night though so I decided to stay overnight in the mining town of Bintulu. There was an older couple from Queensland on the boat from Kuching with the same plan so we teamed up to split the cost of taxis and so on. Bintulu is
a dodgy eerie sort of town that felt decidedly unsafe. Strangely we had arrived right in the middle of the annual Kite Festival which runs from the 2nd to 9th of August and every hotel was almost full, entirely unexpected in a town that nobody has heard of. The first hotel we tried, the Lai Lai Hotel where the two reception staff had the combined intellectual ability of a plantain squirrel, did have two rooms available but they were 60 ringgits each so we thought we'd see if we could do cheaper. While Mr. Queensland waited on the sidewalk with the bags, Mrs. Queensland and I did a tour of the night-time streets looking for hotels. All were full, and they just kept getting worse and worse. At the last place we tried before settling on the Lai Lai, a fat troll of indeterminate sex and with only one working eye languidly pushed a registration form at us while an old man with a mass of sores for a face stared from the corner. The room rates were suspiciously cheap, the premises less than lowly, and when we asked to see the rooms first the troll just angrily tapped at
the form with a pen. I don't think it was the sort of hotel where the customers normally stay for the whole night.
The next day we headed onwards to the lovely little town of Batu Niah, next to the national park. We didn't stay at the Niah Cave Inn (say it out loud) because their rooms were 74 ringgits, so went round the corner to the Niah Cave Air Cond Hotel which was cleaner and cheaper at 30 ringgits. I spent one night in town but for the next two nights I moved to the accommodation at the park headquarters which is slightly more convenient being right at the park itself but more restricted in choice of eateries.
Niah National Park is a real place of contradictions. There are four-bed dorms but you can't just pay for one bed, you need to pay 42 ringgits for the entire room, even if you're all alone like me. The hostel buildings have large kitchen areas with fridges and acres of cupboard space for crockery and food storage, yet cooking is forbidden and you are required to get all your food at the park's restaurant. There is loads of accommodation
at the headquarters -- seven chalets and five hostels (each hostel with four rooms of four beds), all quite flash really -- but almost nobody stays at Niah because the only attraction for most people is the cave system and its an easy day-trip from Batu Niah or even Miri just two hours away. The HQ used to be on the same side of the river as the park, which would have been mightily convenient for the guests as they could access the park at any time they wanted, but now its on the other side so you need to rely on the hours of the boat service which means no early mornings, and no night-time trips unless you don't care about cost. I wasted the best birding hours because of the boat service. The river is only about twenty feet across but too deep to wade (and there are crocodiles in there). The boat fare is one ringgit, but after 7.30pm its supposed to be negotiable. On my first evening I was going to go into the forest to look for nocturnal animals, and the boatman says the fare will be 30 ringgits! In isolation thats not a lot
of money (about NZ$15) but in relation to other costs its ridiculous and its also a fair chunk of my daily budget so night-time forays were out apart for the first half-hour of dark up till 7.30pm when you're not likely to see anything except spiders anyway. In the mornings the boat was supposed to start running at 7am. I only had one free morning for birding so I was there at 7. The boat arrived at 8.15. The whole time I was waiting the forest on the other side was positively heaving wth sound as the birds did their morning exercises but by the time I got over there, even though it was still only 8.30, all the activity had died down and apart for the occasional call here and there the forest was a silent as a non-haunted morgue. I was very annoyed.
The caves at Niah are really fantastic and really big. There is a boardwalk running right through them so its all nice and easy. The main attraction at the caves for the last several centuries have been the swiftlets that nest inside. They can fly in total darkness because they echo-locate like bats. There
are three species, identified by their nests as physically the birds look almost identical to one another. The mossy-nest swiftlet builds its nest of moss, the black-nest swiftlet of its own saliva mixed with feathers, and the edible-nest swiftlet of pure saliva. It is this last species that is the main supplier of birds-nest soup. The nests of the black-nest swiftlet are also collected but are less valuable because of the work involved in getting rid of the mixed-in feathers. The nests are really just like tasteless gelatin, their only worth coming from the difficulty of collection. The birds breed deep in the caves, cementing the nests on the walls and roofs, so to get them the nest-collectors clamber up ridiculous bamboo ladders that look like wisps of straw and swing about in the upper reccesses of the chambers a hundred feet above the floor. Its one of the more stupid food collection techniques around, for one of the more stupid food items.
Once I'd seen the caves I just spent my time wandering around on the boardwalks through the forest looking for wildlife. Not all the wildlife was in the forest. There was a big huntsman-type spider in
my room. Not as big as some of the ones I saw out at night but still big and scary enough to make most people want to vomit in terror. I don't know if they're venomous or not but they certainly look like they could be, so I trapped him under a cup from the kitchen, under which he stayed till I checked out. I probably could have taken him outside and released him the next morning but I expect spiders have the same revenge fantasies as the rest of us so I decided it was best for all concerned if he stayed under the cup during my tenancy. And speaking of big spiders I found a tarantula burrow out in the forest which had an entrance as wide as my thumb is long. I was hoping to see the inhabitant by night but the spider stayed hidden. Of the other animals around, the best of the birds were the teensy little rufous-backed kingfisher and the absolutely ginormous great slaty woodpecker (50 cm long according to the field guide). Best of the mammals was the plain pigmy squirrel which is so small it looks like a bushy-tailed mouse, and so
fast they look like they're flying between the branches. Once you get your eye in, the pigmy squirrels are everywhere in the forest.
When I left Niah I took the secret direct taxi that the locals use when travelling to Miri which only costs 20 ringgits, cheaper than the combination of car to junction and then bus to Miri, and also faster. It left Niah at 8.15am so I was anticipating getting all the way to my destination in Brunei on the same day but when I arrived in the Miri bus terminal at 9.30am I discovered that rather than buses all day long to the border as I had thought there would be, there are just two, at 9am and 3.30pm. Another taxi driver at the terminal kindly offered to take me to the border town for just 100 ringgits. When I baulked at this ridiculous price and said it was too expensive he responds with, "no, very cheap"!! The 3.30pm bus wasn't really worth catching so I stayed for the night in Miri at the surprisingly nice and professional Cosy Inn. Miri is a very nice town, the kind of place where you could stay for a
week or more just to relax. Something that wasn't to my taste though were the numerous seafood restaurants everywhere with rows and rows of tanks of live fish, crabs, river shrimps and even big mangrove frogs, all fresh for the table. One of them was even called the Seaworld Seafood Restaurant!! It was mainly the frogs that made me sad because I really like frogs (to look at, not to eat). I went looking for a post office and instead I found a pet shop just a few doors down from the Cosy Inn, filled with baby turtles and tortoises, hamsters, mice, kittens, puppies and fish. Strangely enough, the staff didn't seem to think it at all wierd that I was wandering round taking photos of their fish tanks. I guess nothing tourists do is odd any more.
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