1. Gua Niah (Niah cave)
Niah is one of Sarawak’s smaller national parks, but it is certainly one of the most important, and has some of the most unusual visitor attractions. The park’s main claim to fame is its role as one of the birthplaces of civilisation. The oldest modern human remains discovered in Southeast Asia were found at Niah, making the park one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Yet there is much more to Niah than archaeology. A vast cave swarming with bats and swiftlets; the thriving local economy based on birds-nests and guano; ancient cave paintings; a majestic rainforest criss-crossed with walking trails; abundant plant and animal life - all these and more make up the geological, historical and environmental kaleidoscope that is Niah.
Niah’s importance was first realised in 1957. The curator of the Sarawak Museum, Tom Harrisson, led an archaeological dig at the West Mouth of the Great Cave. The excavations revealed plenty of evidence of human settlements in the area; tools, cooking utensils and ornaments, made of bone, stone or clay. The types of items found suggested a long period of settlement reaching back into the Palaeolithic era (the earliest part of the stone age). In 1958, a discovery was made which confirmed Niah as a site of major archaeological significance. Harrisson and his team unearthed a skull which was estimated to be 40,000 years old. The find was at first ridiculed by the scientific community, for it was the skull of a modern human (homo sapiens sapiens), and it was widely believed that Borneo was settled much later. However, as dating techniques improved, and as more evidence of the settlement of Southeast Asia and Australasia came to light, Harrisson was proved right.
What is most interesting about Niah, however, is the continued human presence over tens of thousands of years, and the sophistication of the societies that gradually developed there. A large burial site further into the mouth of the cave had clearly been used from Palaeolithic times right up to the modern era, as late as 1400 AD. The earliest graves, found in the deepest levels, were simple shallow graves without adornment. Yet moving up through the layers, coffins and urns appeared, along with grave goods such as pottery, textiles and ornaments, and even glass and metal items, which came comparatively late to Borneo. The Great Cave is not the only important archaeological site. The Painted Cave, as its name suggests, houses detailed wall-paintings depicting the boat journey of the dead into the afterlife. The meaning of the paintings was explained by the discovery of a number of “death-ships” on the cave floor - boat-shaped coffins containing the remains of the deceased and a selection of grave-goods considered useful in the afterlife, such as Chinese ceramics, ornaments and glass beads. The death-ships have been dated as ranging between 1 AD and 780 AD, although local Penan folklore tells of the use of death-ship burials as late as the 19th century.
Niah National Park is located on the Sungai (River) Niah, about 3 km from the small town of Batu Niah, 110 km south-west of Miri. The park was first gazetted as a National Historic Monument in 1958, and in 1974 some 3,100 hectares of surrounding rainforest and limestone hills were included, to form Niah National Park. The park has a visitor centre and good accommodation, and is very easy to get around, thanks to an extensive network of plankwalks to and throughout the caves. A torch (flashlight) and good walking shoes are absolutely essential - the caves are unlit, and the plankwalk can become slippery from the constant dripping of water from the ceiling of the cave. A wide-brimmed hat is desirable, for obvious reasons.
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2. Gunung Mulu National Park
The majestic Gunung Mulu, rising over a mass of sandstone and shale, 2376 metres above sea level, dominates the Gunung Mulu National Park in the Miri and Limbang Divisions. The Park covers 52,866 hectares of shale and sandstone flanked by limestone outcrops with virgin tropical forests at the lower slope giving way to montane vegetation in the upper regions. It was gazetted as a National Park in 1974. The mix of natural habitats in all its diversity amidst such wild and rugged scenery makes it one of Sarawak’s most popular destinations. Foremost among its attractions are the spectacular pinnacle rock formations tucked in the valley of gunung Api and its cave complex which can only be described in superlatives. Despite its ruggedness, the park is easily accessible and there is a range of activities to keep everyone busy and happy.
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3. Loagan Bunut National Park
Tucked away on the upper reaches of the Sungai Bunut in the Miri Division, is a huge lake, the largest natural lake in Sarawak. The local Berawan Fishermen call it Loagan Bunut. In 1991 an area of about 10,736 hectares encompassing the 650-hectare lake was gazetted as a National Park as part of the on going effort to preserve the unique habitats, rare and valuable plants and wildlife indigenous to the region. The lake is utterly dependent on the Sungai Bunut, Sungai Tinjar and Sungai Baram whose water levels are subject to seasonal fluctuations and this accounts for the fluctuating levels of the water in Logan Bunut. During spells of extreme dryness, usually lasting between 2 to 3 weeks, the lake is converted to vast expanses of dry cracked mud.
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