A couple of months ago I visited Niah Caves near Miri in Sarawak. You can read about my trip on my Malaysia Traveller website.
This cave complex is one of Malaysia’s most impressive natural wonders and it was nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010, though it has not yet achieved that honour.
The caves and some 3100 hectares of the surrounding rainforest and limestone hills were gazettedas Niah National Park in 1974, meaning they should be preserved in pristine condition in perpetuity.
The national park is managed by Sarawak Forestry Corporation which describes Niah as follows:
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.
Given the importance of the site for tourism you would think that everything possible would be done to protect this valuable, fragile and irreplaceable asset. However, on my recent visit, it was disappointing, but sadly not surprising, to see that the area is under threat from quarrying.
This Google Maps image shows extensive quarrying is already encroaching on the edges of the National Park and some of the limestone cliffs have been broken up and trucked away.
Is this area inside or outside the National Park borders? This map shows the approximate borders of the park:
Since the National Park was intended to protect all the surrounding limestone hills it is possible that quarrying is already taking place inside the National Park, which would be illegal.
This street level image shows the dirt road turn-off leading towards the quarry, busy with lorries.
Niah is not the only national park in Malaysia under threat. Illegal logging is reported in and around forest reserve areas across the country. Sarawak Forestry and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks should introduce buffer zones surrounding national parks within which certain activities, such as logging and quarrying, are prohibited. Access to these areas by trucks and diggers should be controlled. Strict enforcement and heavy penalties are needed otherwise Malaysia’s natural wonders will not be around for much longer.
After spending 9 months at Simunjan (see last post), Alfred Russel Wallace made a shorter exploration of Bukit Peninjau, a small hill (1,646 feet high) some 20 km, as the bird flies, from Kuching town centre. He was initially accompanied by Sir James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak, whom he had met in Singapore and who maintained a small cottage on this hill. ‘Rajah’ was a grand job title, but Brooke had only been granted the role by the Sultan of Brunei some 14 years earlier and Sarawak was still in its rudimentary stage of development. As such, think of the cottage as more of a wooden shack than a palace. Wallace stayed at the cottage from 13–20 December 1855 and between 31 December 1855 and 19 January 1856.
Wallace described the hill as follows:
“On reaching Sarawak early in December, I found there would not be an opportunity of returning to Singapore until the latter end of January. I therefore accepted Sir James Brooke’s invitation to spend a week with him and Mr. St. John at his cottage on Peninjauh. This is a very steep pyramidal mountain of crystalline basaltic rock, about a thousand feet high, and covered with luxuriant forest. There are three Dyak villages upon it, and on a little platform near the summit is the rude wooden lodge where the English Rajah was accustomed to go for relaxation and cool fresh air.”
Wallace would have approached the hill by river, disembarking at the jetty where the village of Siniawan now stands.
“It is only twenty miles up the river, but the road up the mountain is a succession of ladders on the face of precipices, bamboo bridges over gullies and chasms, and slippery paths over rocks and tree-trunks and huge boulders as big as houses. A cool spring under an overhanging rock just below the cottage furnished us with refreshing baths and delicious drinking water, and the Dyaks brought us daily heaped-up baskets of Mangosteens and Lansats, two of the most delicious of the subacid tropical fruits.”
Local government officials announced a few years back an intention to promote Bukit Peninjau (also known as Bung Muan and Gunung Serumbu) as a tourist destination and at least the place is signposted.
My trip to the hill was unfortunately a bit of a wash-out.
The sky looked fairly bright as I approached the foot of the hill.
But as soon as I parked my rental car the heavens opened and the hill disappeared behind the clouds.
I took shelter under the eaves of the Tourist Information Centre. Here you are supposed to be able to hire a local guide for RM50 to take you up the Wallace Trail but the place was locked and there was nobody around. Visitors are advised not to go alone but having no other choice, I dropped my contribution into the donations box and set off up the hill once the rain had eased off somewhat.
There is a map with estimated climb times. According to their estimates it should take nearly 4 hours to reach the peak.
There were quite a lot of arrows pointing the way which was reassuring but the path itself was overgrown with dense foliage which I dislike (I would make a very poor Wallace being scared of snakes, spiders and other creepy crawlies!).
Wallace was impressed with the versatile qualities of bamboo and the ingenious ways in which the local tribesmen put it to good use. In this chapter of The Malay Archipelago he wrote about bamboo bridges and I was pleased to see this example of one at Bukit Peninjau.
The wooden hut here is similar to ones I have seen in Peninsular Malaysia used as watch houses to guard over valuable durian trees during the ripening season. It might perform the same purpose here.
He was also fascinated by ladders made by driving bamboo pegs into a tree trunk:
“I was exceedingly struck by the ingenuity of this mode of climbing, and the admirable manner in which the peculiar properties of the bamboo were made available. The ladder itself was perfectly safe, since if any one peg were loose or faulty, and gave way, the strain would be thrown on several others above and below it. I now understood the use of the line of bamboo pegs sticking in trees, which I had often seen, and wondered for what purpose they could have been put there.”
I was amazed to see a similar ladder in almost the same location 160 years after Wallace’s time, the only difference being that they now use blue plastic twine to secure the pegs instead of strips of wood bark.
By the time I reached Batu Tikopog, a rock with an unusually smooth cleft, the rain started to intensify with thunder and lightning in the air. I decided to abandon my trek to the peak since visibility would have been zero. It’s a shame I didn’t manage to see the site of Brooke’s cottage either. Nothing remains of the cottage now except an indistinct clearing in the jungle. Plans to rebuild the cottage were announced a few years ago but nothing yet seems to have happened. Perhaps I’ll revisit one day once the cottage has been rebuilt.
After Christmas in Kuching, Wallace returned to Bukit Peninjau, this time accompanied by his English assistant and a Malay servant.
“A few days afterwards I returned to the mountain with Charles and a Malay boy named Ali and stayed there three weeks for the purpose of making a collection of land-shells, butterflies and moths, ferns and orchids. On the hill itself ferns were tolerably plentiful, and I made a collection of about forty species. But what occupied me most was the great abundance of moths which on certain occasions I was able to capture. …during the whole of my eight years’ wanderings in the East I never found another spot where these insects were at all plentiful,…It thus appears that on twenty-six nights I collected 1,386 moths.”
The hill is still teeming with insects. Most of Wallace’s moth collecting took place at night but even during the daytime this place has some of the noisiest bugs I’ve ever heard as this ten-second video attempts to show.
“When I returned to Singapore I took with me the Malay lad named Ali, who subsequently accompanied me all over the Archipelago. Charles Allen preferred staying at the Mission-house, and afterwards obtained employment in Sarawak and in Singapore, until he again joined me four years later at Amboyna in the Moluccas.”
Writing in his autobiography many years later, Wallace wrote about Ali:
When I was at Sarawak in 1855 I engaged a Malay boy named Ali as a personal servant, and also to help me to learn the Malay language by the necessity of constant communication with him. He was attentive and clean, and could cook very well. He soon learnt to shoot birds, to skin them properly, and latterly even to put up the skins very neatly. Of course he was a good boatman, as are all Malays, and in all the difficulties or dangers of our journeys he was quite undisturbed and ready to do anything required of him. He accompanied me through all my travels, sometimes alone, but more frequently with several others, and was then very useful in teaching them their duties, as he soon became well acquainted with my wants and habits.
He was less glowing about Charles Martin Allen who was just a teenager when Wallace took him to South East Asia as his collecting assistant. In his letters , Wallace complained about Allen’s carelessness and inability to learn.
Of all the Wallace trails I have visited so far this one is perhaps the most interesting and is fairly easy to access from Kuching. Pity about the weather though! Try to go on a dry day and see if you can get hold of a guide.
A map showing the location of Bukit Peninjau appears on my previous post about Wallace.
To read about another trip up Bukit Serumbu in Wallace’s footsteps, this one in 1912, see here.
Alfred Russel Wallace spent 15 months in Borneo from November 1854 to January 1856. After exploring in the vicinity of Sarawak town (Kuching) he made a journey into ‘a part of the interior seldom visited by Europeans’.
This is how he described the area in The Malay Archipelago:
“In March 1865 I determined to go to the coalworks which were being opened near the Simunjon River, a small branch of the Sadong, a river east of Sarawak and between it and the Batang- Lupar. The Simunjon enters the Sadong River about twenty miles up. It is very narrow and very winding, and much overshadowed by the lofty forest, which sometimes almost meets over it. The whole country between it and the sea is a perfectly level forest-covered swamp, out of which rise a few isolated hills, at the foot of one of which the works are situated. On the slope of the hill near its foot a patch of forest had been cleared away, and several rule houses erected, in which were residing Mr. Coulson the engineer, and a number of Chinese workmen. I was at first kindly accommodated in Mr. Coulson’s house, but finding the spot very suitable for me and offering great facilities for collecting, I had a small house of two rooms and a verandah built for myself. Here I remained nearly nine months, and made an immense collection of insects.”
Click on the expand map symbol in the top right corner to view a larger map.
I thought I would have little chance of tracing this location based on such a scanty description but I found on the map the small town of Simunjan where the Simunjan River meets the Sadong River. A couple of miles from the town is the only hill for miles around which is today known as Gunung Ngeli (though it is more of a Bukit than a Gunung given its modest height).
Further internet searches revealed that this hill was once a coal mining area and this was indeed the place where Wallace spent nine months in 1865.
It is a 170km drive (each way) from Kuching and it took me about 3 hours to get there in my Perodua hire car. But the trip was worth it as Gunung Ngeli was, a few years back, converted into a recreational park with a trail and steps all the way to the top, so I was able to have a good look around.
I made this short video to show how Gunung Ngeli looks today.
Wallace stayed such a long time here because it was so rich in insect life. He adopted the practice of paying locals one cent for each insect brought to him and this yielded great results:
“I obtained from the Dyaks and the Chinamen many fine locusts and Phasmidae (stick insects) as well as numbers of handsome beetles.”
“When I arrived at the mines, on the 14th of March, I had collected in the four preceding months, 320 different kinds of beetles. In less than a fortnight I had doubled this number, an average of about 24 new species every day. On one day I collected 76 different kinds, of which 34 were new to me. By the end of April I had more than a thousand species, and they then went on increasing at a slower rate, so that I obtained altogether in Borneo about two thousand distinct kinds, of which all but about a hundred were collected at this place, and on scarcely more than a square mile of ground. The most numerous and most interesting groups of beetles were the Longicorns and Rhynchophora, both pre- eminently wood-feeders.”
“My collection of butterflies was not large; but I obtained some rare and very handsome insects, the most remarkable being the Ornithoptera Brookeana, one of the most elegant species known. This beautiful creature has very long and pointed wings, almost resembling a sphinx moth in shape. It is deep velvety black, with a curved band of spots of a brilliant metallic-green colour extending across the wings from tip to tip, each spot being shaped exactly like a small triangular feather, and having very much the effect of a row of the wing coverts of the Mexican trogon, laid upon black velvet. The only other marks are a broad neck-collar of vivid crimson, and a few delicate white touches on the outer margins of the hind wings. This species, which was then quite new and which I named after Sir James Brooke, was very rare. It was seen occasionally flying swiftly in the clearings, and now and then settling for an instant at puddles and muddy places, so that I only succeeded in capturing two or three specimens.”
It was while Wallace was at Gunung Ngeli that he hunted and killed more than a dozen orang-utans, which nowadays would be a despicable thing to do but in his era would have been the only way to study the species in detail and besides, he financed his trip by selling skins and specimens to museums and collectors.
He describes these encounters in considerable detail. Here is one such excerpt:
“On the 12th of May I found another, which behaved in a very similar manner, howling and hooting with rage, and throwing down branches. I shot at it five times, and it remained dead on the top of the tree, supported in a fork in such a manner that it would evidently not fall. I therefore returned home, and luckily found some Dyaks, who came back with me, and climbed up the tree for the animal. This was the first full-grown specimen I had obtained; but it was a female, and not nearly so large or remarkable as the full-grown males. It was, however, 3 ft. 6 in. high, and its arms stretched out to a width of 6 ft. 6 in. I preserved the skin of this specimen in a cask of arrack, and prepared a perfect skeleton, which was afterwards purchased for the Derby Museum.”
Ienquired with Derby Museum to see whether they still held any of Wallace’s specimens as I though it would be interesting to visit next time I am in UK. Thiswas their response:
“Derby Museums do not hold any orang-utan specimens collected by Alfred Russel Wallace. This is despite his book, ‘The Malay Archipelago’ (1869), clearly referring to material being killed and collected for Derby Museum. We now know these specimens are in the World Museum Liverpool which was then known as the Derby Museum, named after the main donor, the 13th Earl of Derby (resident of the nearby Knowsley Hall), whose bequeathed natural history collection formed the basis of their collections.”
After my climb up and down Gunung Ngeli, which took about 90 minutes, I drove on to the small town of Simunjan. which was probably non-existent or just getting established in Wallace’s time. No old buildings survive as the town is situated on a bend in the river and is prone to erosion. The earliest structures were washed away and the present town of around 60 shophouses dates mainly from the 1960s.
There are various theories as to how Simunjan got its name. The most plausible, and the one which Wallace might have found interesting, is that it was named after a bird called the Munjan as shown on this billboard.
There was not a lot to see in the town but I had a light lunch and was warmly greeted by the friendly inhabitants.
Gunung Santubong is an 810m high mountain located about 35km north of Kuching, Sarawak.
Like many Malaysian peaks, it is associated with legends, this one involving a heavenly princess who was transformed into a mountain.
Viewed from afar, the profile of the mountain is supposed to resemble a woman lying on her back. I can’t see it myself. From this angle it looks more like the face of Homer Simpson.
The mountain is surrounded by jungle, mudflats and mangrove forests. Kuching’s best beaches are found here and dolphins and porpoises have been known to frequent the waters.
The fit and adventurous can try climbing this hill. It’s harder than it looks. The summit trek involves an energy-sapping climb with lots of rope ladders and scrambling up steep slopes. It can take anywhere between 2 1/2 and 4 hours to ascend, depending on fitness levels and the number of stops, and up to two hours to come down.
The trail starts at the Green Paradise Seafood Restaurant, about 5 minutes walk from Damai Beach. Those not wishing to go to the top can just take the easier jungle trek or visit the waterfall.
Damai Beach is a fine sand beach with a beautiful setting at the foot of the mountain. It can be prone to jellyfish at certain times of the year but during my recent visit the sea was very swimmable. The beach is shared by the Damai Beach Resort and the newly opened Damai Central, a public beach-front shopping, eating and entertainment complex.
The retail outlets in Damai Central are not yet fully occupied but it looks like a good facility and it allows public access to the beach which otherwise might have been turned into another exclusive beach resort.
Noticing something unusual on the horizon in the above picture I zoomed in to see what looked like a wrecked barge.
Also at Damai Beach is the entrance to one of Kuching’s top tourist attractions, the Sarawak Cultural Village. This 17 acre living museum is home to 150 people wearing traditional costumes who show visitors around replica longhouses from all the main ethnic groups of Sarawak and demonstrate their culture and lifestyles . It might not be the real thing but it seems authentic enough for most tourists and it sure is a convenient way to get an overview of Sarawak’s people all in one location.
How do you like my postage stamp design? Perhaps I should ask the Post Office for a job.
I went to Kuching in Sarawak this week where, among other places, I visited Bako National Park. It is the oldest national park in Sarawak (since 1957) and one of the smallest covering an area of 2,727 hectares at the tip of the Muara Tebas peninsula. It is only 37km from Kuching, making it easily accessible for day-trippers.
Getting there is part of the fun. I took a public bus to Kampung Bako and was dropped off right in front of the National Parks Boat Ticketing Counter. Here I chartered a small speed boat (with driver) for a 20-30 minute boat ride through a wide but shallow estuary and then out into the open sea before being deposited on a beach (Telok Assam) where the Park HQ is located.
Before catching the boat you can read a slightly concerning poster about crocodile attacks in Sarawak with a gruesome photo of dismembered human legs being removed from the stomach of a dead croc. Apparently there are 4.2 crocodile attacks per year in Sarawak and this number is increasing. Over half the attacks are in the Batang Lupar River Basin which I must make a note of not visiting.
Within minutes of arriving at Bako I saw more wildlife than I have seen in any other Malaysian national park. This family of Bornean bearded pigs was waiting for me on the beach. I’m a bit wary of wild boars but these guys did not seem concerned by humans and carried on making sandcastles. Nearby a group of proboscis monkeys were wandering about.
There are a number of well marked and maintained trails within the park. I opted for the relatively straightforward Telok Pandan Kecil trail, which, at 5km and 3 hours round trip, would get me back to the Park HQ in time for my rendezvous with the boat driver.
After the mangrove boardwalk at Telok Assam, the trail ascends through thick forest before reaching a plateau covered in scrub vegetation. The path continues along a sandy track lined with carnivorous pitcher plants, before emerging onto a cliff top overlooking the stunning and secluded bay below. Here you can see the snake-shaped sea stack rock formation just offshore. A further 10 minutes descent through thick vegetation and you arrive at one of the best beaches in the park. Some people were swimming but remembering the crocodiles and jellyfish and having no trunks I stayed on dry land.
On my way back I made a short detour to Telok Pandan Besar. The path ends on a cliff top overlooking another beautiful bay but there is no path down to the beach which remains inaccessible except by boat.
Back at Park HQ there is a good canteen and accommodation for those who want to stay overnight. For safety reasons, you have to register at Park HQ before setting out on a trail and sign back in on returning. Overall I was impressed with the efficient organisation of Sarawak Forestry Corporation which manages all the national parks in Sarawak. They have a good website too.