Blog for 2010-06-09

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Lambir National Park Day 7: To Niah

The day began ordinarily enough, with fried rice and eggs for a warm 7:00am breakfast. The plan was to discuss our first projects and then take a Malaysian tour bus to Niah for the afternoon into evening. Little did we know it would turn out to be one of the most exciting, interesting, and full days of the trip so far.

Before we left Lambir National Park however, we went over our project proposals. Marlee and Sam plan to work with soil ants, Nikko, Doni and I plan to measure carbon storage, Zach, Kaz and Pagi are looking at spider webs, Sarah, Tim Tam and Dex are questioning color adaptation in pitcher plants, Rachel and Chris are analyzing insect abundance in respect to lizard presence, Sachi and Alex are testing for the presence of alarm pheromones in fish, Sopark, Anasuya, and Dyna are looking at ant diversity in relation to forest structure and Thasun and Nick are analyzing road kill. With such a variety of topics, the projects are off to a great start, and Professor Webb congratulated the students while suggesting that the introduction to any project is vital and should be formulated thoughtfully and clearly.

We then had a bit of free time before the bus came to take us to Niah. Students revised projects, grabbed their pack lunches, and then it was time to hit the road at 12:00pm sharp. On the bus ride over, we got a good sense of the vast amount of primary forest that has been destroyed for the sweeping stretches of oil-palm plantations. On the hour and a half drive, oil-palm dominated our view from the windows, and huge trucks lumbered along the road with mounds of spiky fruit piled up in their truck-beds. However, our lively tour guide provided us with some interesting facts along the way to get us excited about the visit. She explained that there are many national parks and caves in the area, and people come from all over to trek in the jungle, explore the caves, mountain climb, and to visit the more traditional “longhouses”. These are large homes that have many different families all living together in separate areas of the house. They are now equipped with more modern appliances, but the people prefer to live in the same general style as they have for centuries. Our guide also explained that the people originally lived in longhouses to protect themselves from other tribes. She stated that they were a “head-hunting” society, so the easiest way to protect a group of people was to have them all sleep together in one location that could be well guarded. In other areas such as the Bario highlands, there are many farms where the two dominant crops are rice and pineapple. There are also Harvest Festivals on the 1st and 2nd of June every year.

As we were arriving at Niah National Park Headquarters, Professor Webb explained that this area is an Alluvial forest, which is the richest type of forest in the world. It is made up of mostly cast, which is a type of limestone where extremely sharp edges, hilly terrain and unusual shapes are present. It gives the forest a very jagged, rugged and wild look. Our journey began with a short, but rather unsteady boat ride across a murky, quickly flowing river.

Our bus guide had told us it was not a good idea to swim because of the fast currents, and then she had laughed and said that the real reason you don't want to swim is the presence of crocodiles (I am disappointed to report that no crocodiles were actually seen). We then took a long 3km hike through some amazing primary forest on a slightly rickety wooden pathway that wove itself through the trees and over the small river. The first thing we saw were butterflies, so many of them it was difficult to keep your eyes on just one. Bursts of color gracefully drifted across the sky from grays, blues, and blacks to whites, yellows, and oranges.

We happened to see two Raja Brookstone's Birdwing butterflies, a real treat since these large, majestic flyers are jet black with a bold green stripe running across their wings. We then headed onto the trail and directly happened upon some large seeds covered in a bright red, almost waxy, layer. Professor Webb excitedly asked what we though it was – nutmeg and mace of course! A member of the Myristicaceae family, this plant provides two important commercial crops world-wide.

As we continued down the trail, through the presence of fallen flowers, pungent scents and dropped leaves, it became clear that many trees were masting. The students then slowly dispersed a bit, and the smaller groups were better able to hear and observe the fascinating wildlife. Some highlights seen were a pigmy squirrel, a brief glimpse of a possible Honey Buzzard, a darkly colored monkey that may have been a silver-leaf, a Rufus-backed kingfisher, a Scaly brown babbler, a Black-napped Monarch, a Ruby-cheeked Sunbird (both female and male) and a Tufted Ground squirrel. The group heard some Red-throated barbets and Red-Crowned barbets. Some other things seen were herbaceous gingers, huge dipterocarp trees and many skinks, spiders, centipedes and crickets (oh, and the snack stand of course, directly before the entrance to the caves, for the students to refresh themselves by buying cold drinks).

Once we passed through the high metal fencing surrounding the caves, the students got quieter and more respectful. The dwarfing limestone and sheer cliffs seen before us were both humbling and exhilarating. As we walked near the entrance, Mossy-nested Swiflets could be seen swooping about. These swiftlets do make nests in the caves, but they are not the highly prized, extremely expensive nests of the Edible-nested Swiftlet of high demand in China (all the nests have some saliva of their creators, but the edible ones are almost all saliva). There are also Black-nested Swiftlets, and theoretically all were present in the cave, though we were unable to identify them specifically as one can only tell them apart when they are resting on their respective nests.

Upon entrance to the cave mouth, we walked on an almost chestnut-brown colored ground, and a musty, slightly repugnant and damp smell hit our noses. As it turns out, we were not only walking upon tightly packed bat guano, but we were likely to have it dropped on us from above... Yet as soon as we saw the tiny black dots on the chalky brown limestone walls of the cave, the scent was forgotten, and the vastness of the caves overcame us. The caves were so large it was difficult to see fully into their great depths and crevices. Bats hung from the ceiling like leaves from branches, appearing so still they could have been features of the walls themselves. Not only that, but long thing ropes dangled precariously from the tops of the cave, as evidence of the dangerous job of collecting the valuable Swiftlet nests so prized for making a youth-restoring soup. But as we got deeper and deeper into the cave, the light began to leave us, and the group lapsed into a awe-filled mood. We glimpsed cave-crickets with super long antennae, pools of clear, stagnant water and all shades of browns, whites and greens creating the patterns on the walls.

Then we were in darkness, complete and total darkness such that one was almost unsure if his or her eyes were actual open or closed. We had stopped in the middle part of the caves, and Professor Webb had asked us to turn off our lights and exist silently in the immense, limitless darkness. The cool air and a feeling of total boundlessness entered the group as we noiselessly stood in the blackness, utterly alone and yet completely together at the same time. It was difficult to measure the passage of time, but after a comfortable interval, suddenly a bunch of lights went on, and we carried on our way. Some of the most spectacular views actually came from standing in the cave and looking out onto the wild forest landscape illuminated by the slowly sinking sun. The deep earth colors of the cave made all the wild green tones of the forest just that much more vivid. After a brief stop at the edge of the last large cave, the group split, with most going on just a bit farther to look at some cave paintings, and others returning to the mouth of the great cave to see the bats awaken from their slumber and exit out into the feeding frenzy of the night.

Once we had seen a bit of the wall paintings (since the actual cave was locked off), we headed back through the suddenly noisy and alive caves. Bats were swooping about and clicks and fluttering could be heard echoing around. We joined the other members of our group, watched the coming and goings of the bats for a bit, then headed back into the forest with the setting sun. We saw more insects and a few nice flowers, as well as another larger squirrel, but the excitement of the afternoon seemed to be wearing a bit on the group and the walk back was largely uneventful. We clambered back onto the nicely air-conditioned bus, and starving, we headed to a food center about 15 minutes away from Niah Park. We wearily got of the bus, and whoa! So many smells, bright colors, people and music unfolded in the scene in front of us and jolted us with energy. It was a large square with tables and people crammed into the the center and all sorts of food stands lining the edges. The first thing we saw were the famous meat grilling stands, with all manner of chicken, whole crabs, shrimp, and unknown protein sources sizzling on skewers colored in an unidentified red sauce. The group held tentatively together at the beginning, but then gradually spread apart to get all sorts of foods from Ramen noodles, Roti bread filled with chicken or sardines, Chicken and Rice, buffet-style dishes, fried noodles, white buns filled with meats. We found some tables near a stage, where some form of Borneo Idol was taking place as men got up to sing and three judges sat soberly before them. Everyone was sharing with everyone and all sorts of new foods were experienced and enjoyed. As we were eating, some sort of military personnel entered the building, and suddenly everyone was standing. We nervously got up as well and hoped we weren't being disrespectful. Then finally some students ordered Chendul, a fascinating dessert. It is coconut milk, shaved ice, gulamelakn, sago seeds and red beans all combined together into a wonderful melange of icy coldness, gummy bits, and a crisp, sweet but light flavor. The perfect finishing touch on an active, hot, tropical, and awesome day.