Travel Features > Getting Around

Self-Drive Sarawak - Roads, Rivers and Rainforests

Mike Reed hits the road for a Borneo adventure on four wheels

Days 4 & 5 - Cavemen and Crocodiles

The stretch from Mukah to Bintulu is the least inspiring part of the journey. The road is straight, and the scenery is pretty enough but doesn't have the ruggedness of the Iban heartland. The advantage is that you eat up the miles quickly, and arrive in Bintulu in plenty of time for lunch. This sprawling industrial town is the centre of Sarawak's liquid natural gas industry and the fastest growing urban area in Malaysia. Bintulu may not be as picturesque and charming as Sarawak's older towns, but the affluent local population means that there are plenty of OK restaurants. If you want to relax for an hour or two after lunch, there is a very pleasant beach at nearby Tanjung Batu.

Just under two hours steady driving from Bintulu brings you to the turnoff for Niah National Park, one of the most important archaeological sites anywhere in the world. You can drive straight to the Park HQ, where you will find some very comfortable and sensibly priced accommodation, a useful information centre (videos shown nightly upon request), and a well-run canteen serving local and western food. If you're planning to leave the next day, the first thing you should do before you settle in for the evening is cross the river and follow the plankwalk (45 min) to the mouth of the Great Cave. Here you will see two vast black clouds twisting and turning in the sunset sky as half a million swiftlets return to their nests to be replaced by half a million bats flying out to feed on insects and fruits. An awesome sight, but no more unusual than the strange luminous fungi which illuminate the plankwalk at night. Back at the park HQ, you can grab some supper and enjoy a few beers with fellow visitors in the Park Canteen, or drive the short stretch into Batu Niah (5 min), where there are a few good Chinese restaurants.


The great cave at Niah.
Dennis Lau ©Adventure Images Sdn Bhd
The next morning, follow the plankwalk again. You'll pass the Traders Cave (a rocky overhang named for the birds nest traders who conduct their business there) before coming into the mouth of the Great Cave. The cave mouth is one of the largest in the world, and the people inside it look like ants by comparison. But it's not just nature that's fascinating here - Niah is one of the birthplaces of human civilization. The area around the cave mouth has been inhabited for over 40,000 years, making it easily the oldest human settlement in Southeast Asia. Inside the cave, it's not as pitch black as you would expect. The kerosene lanterns of guano diggers and birds nest collectors bring a faint yellow glow to the gloom. The plankwalk leads through a succession of spectacular chambers, until eventually it emerges into daylight on a small forest trail.

Another five minutes brings you to the Painted Cave. As its name suggests, it is decorated with cave paintings, which depict the journey into the afterlife. The paintings are very faint, and you will have to let your eyes get accustomed to the light before you can make them out, but you cannot miss the wooden death-boat (a wooden boat into which the body of the deceased was placed), only one of many originally discovered here. The Painted Cave has been used as a ritual burial site for almost 2,000 years, and its tranquillity and serenity help to explain why Borneo's earlier inhabitants chose it as a final resting place for their ancestors.

Days 4 & 5 Alternatives

If bats and burial sites are not your thing, you can always spend a day or two at Simalajau National Park, just 45 minutes drive from Bintulu. There's some excellent beaches, and some of the biggest crocodiles in Borneo. Just remember, don't feed the animals, especially not with your body parts.

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