While Leech Boy and I were on the side of a mountain in the Bario jungle, we promised ourselves that, as soon as we got back to Miri (the transportation hub of the area), we would (1) check into a nice hotel; and (2) seek out a Pizza Hut (which, along with KFC, is strangely ubiquitous in Malaysia). 

Check and check. An hour or two after our arrival in Miri, we had checked into the Marriott and had devoured a large, pepperoni pizza with extra cheese.  We had also recruited a local guide to take us to the nearby Niah caves the next day.  He was a very congenial man named Stephen who, in an incredibly small-world (particularly given that we know almost no one in Borneo) turn of events, happened to be the nephew of Jaman (from Gem’s Lodge in Bario).   

Stephen picked us up in the morning and drove us along the coast of the South China Sea to Niah National Park, where we paused at a small museum to
Pizza Hut in Miri
learn more about the park’s caves and to see a 40,000 year-old (!?!) human skull that had been discovered in one of them.  Then we set off along what was, for the first 45 minutes, a very nice, wooden boardwalk.  1/3 of a mile or so before the first cave, the boardwalk was transformed into a Walk of near death/serious injury.  As Stephen explained to us, the boardwalk was under construction and, beacuse the detour set out by the park was too long and too muddy to warrant serious consideration, we would instead be walking along the 18-inch wide cement framework of the boardwalk-to-be.  Err.  I think it would’ve been less scary if, at times, it didn’t cross over rivers and rise 20 feet above the rocky ground below.  But it did. 

Happily, we arrived
Shanna on hike to Niah
without incident at Trader’s Cave, so named because of the birds’ nest (they’re a Chinese delicacy) and guano (i.e., bat dung – which is used as fertilizer) traders who collect their wares in the other caves and then conduct their business there.  Next came the astounding Great Cave–one of the largest cave openings in the world.  We were overwhelmed by the cave’s vastness and, even more so, by the uninterrupted column of light that streamed down through an opening above us. 

We climbed along immense rocks and then followed a rickety, wooden walkway (complete with cave centipedes and gigantic crickets) into the pitch black of the inside of the cave.  Happy that we had remembered to pack our flashlights, we followed countless flights of stairs to the Painted Cave, where we saw faded drawings and remnants of the “death ships” on which the cave’s ancient dwellers had once set their dead afloat.  
In Great Cave in Niah National Park
Throughout the caves, we came across flimsy-looking, wooden poles that spanned the hundreds of feet from the caves’ floors to their roofs.  Cave CricketBirds’ nest collectors scale these poles, which are no more than 6 inches in diameter, every few months to gather the valuable swallows’ nests above.  A collector who falls from his perch encounters no safety nets or harnesses, just the hard rock below.  As I have so many times on this trip already, I felt an overwhelming appreciation for the plushness of my day job.