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February 12, 2014

Treacherous But Worth The Effort

Tom McLaughlin

Niah Caves, Malaysian Borneo – Niah caves are a complex located near the oil town of Miri, just about an hour flight north of Kuching, where I live. It is one of those places where I had always wanted to visit but never quite made it.


My daughter and my granddaughter had arrived from Montana and this was a perfect time to make the sojourn. The whole family squeezed into the cheap Air Asia flight, a truly cattle-car experience.


The caves are important to the prehistory of Borneo. They have housed people on the island since about 40,000 years ago and they are still being excavated by teams of scientists. I should say re excavated because the first guy to work in the area was a drunken Englishman whose publications have been discredited.


We checked with the desk clerk, the "guide," and the driver of our hired car, and we were assured that the trip would be fine for my 10-month old granddaughter and my three year old son. Since it was the monsoon season, we brought along umbrellas.


The trip from Miri to the caves was along the coastal road where the sea was wild and frothy, stirred up by the monsoons. The road was bumpy and an unpleasant ride, with potholes and swales.


We arrived at the parking lot and discovered the walk to the caves was about five miles. This distance was fine for us, Leilia, my granddaughter front packed on my daughter, and Dzul, my son, used to such long excursions, ambled along slowly with us.


Our idea of trekking is to move slowly and take in the sight and scenery. We examined bright red millipedes, listened to the monkeys and birds, stopped and looked at the flowers. Dzul looked intently at everything, a budding biologist like his sister and father, taking in the natural world. A very satisfying walk.


At the end was a table with four Malay ladies selling the usual tourist trinkets, water and soft drinks. They were a jovial bunch and they clearly enjoyed watching the western tourists come by, commenting on them and giggling about their attire, facial features and other oddities of the western culture. They started in on us. We were the first to bring such young children, but stopped short when they found out I spoke Malay. We rested and all exchanged pleasantries, and they were surprised to learn that the children go everywhere with us and have since birth.


We came to the base of the caves, and, uh oh, steep wooden, old steps covered in algal growth and wet moss complete with slime, all brought on by the wet monsoon season. Slippery as ice.


We had come so far, yet we were so near as we debated on whether to risk the children on such a hazardous journey. We formed a plan about how to walk up the many series of steps and kept going. On the way up, Dzul wrapped himself around Suriani and on the way down he did the same to me, head close to mine to facilitate balance. There were no incidents, but my heart pounded.


The only cave we visited was, we were told, the most spectacular. The rock shelf entrance, about a half a kilometre long, went into the back for a full kilometer. We could not see the top of the cave as it ascended into darkness. It eventually descended to meet the back of the cave. Lichens glowed blue green irradiance on the rocks where the sun struck. Below, a valley, descending at least three kilometers, dropped off as we looked at the top of the trees.


We could have walked the kilometer to the back, but noticed more steps as the walkway zigzagged back to the rear and from there we would need flash lights. We asked returning visitors if it was worth it and they said yes but not with the children. Besides, I tend to lose my balance in the dark.


We admired the incredible views, electing not to explore the rest of complex because, we were told, of the treacherous conditions. We slowly ambled back to the car, revisiting millipedes and other denizens of the jungle. Dzul slept most of the way on Suriani's shoulders.


The trip was beyond incredible and I was so happy to be able to share this caving experience with my daughter, wife and the children. At one time, not so long ago, I was told I would not be able to walk because of a rare neurological disease. Thank you, God.


...Life is good. . . . .


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