It’s almost impossible to have a bad meal in Malaysia — something brought home to me as I waited under leaden skies by a roadside, waiting for my bus to Batu Niah. Despite my unpromising surroundings, I had managed to breakfast superbly — throw together some glutinous rice, garlic, spinach and prawns, a cadaverously thin and henpecked chef, his bossy spouse barking orders, a large wok and change out of the equivalent of £2, and you have one of those life-affirming experiences that many of us travel for.
Batu Niah is a sweltering low-slung town and the gateway to one of Sarawak’s great glories — the Niah Caves. A geography teacher once described the area to me as Niah’s Ark on account of its extraordinary diversity and tangible links to early human history: earlier this year a 37,000-year-old human skull was discovered there — said to be oldest remains found in South-east Asia — while cave paintings depict the dead voyaging into the afterlife. Come late afternoon, I made my way along a boardwalk and explored the interior of the Great Cave. At 60 metres high and around 250 metres wide, it’s possibly one of the few caves that a claustrophobic person might be able to tolerate.
The same may not apply if you fear the onset of vertigo. Staring upwards into the distant recesses, I saw pinpricks of human beings perched on bamboo poles. Wobbling gently, they were retrieving segments of small cup-shaped bundles from the dizzying extremes of the cave.
These were the nests of the black-nest and white-nest swiftlet, which comprise a glutinous solution excreted by the birds’ saliva glands. This quickly solidifies into a cement-like substance long favoured by the Chinese.
The nests are processed into a soup that turns up in fancy restaurants in Singapore, Hong Kong and the US. At times they have been worth their weight in gold, which is why nest harvesters are prepared to take such extraordinary risks to retrieve them. Then, as dusk arrived, the show — the main reason people come here — began. In a thrilling tide of hundreds of thousands of wing beats, the swiftlets returned to roost, triggering a similar number of hitherto unseen bats to twitch into action, peel off the walls and swoop for the exit.
In no time, it was as though the air turned full of soot. I was outnumbered on a Hitchcockian scale. Mid-air collisions were narrowly avoided a thousand times every second. A similar spectacle occurs at dawn when the swiftlets dash out as the bats clock in.
Show over, I wandered back in the darkness, accompanied by unseen hooting and scuttling and the whizzing of bats cutting through the air. With my breakfast success still on my mind, I chose a pavement restaurant in town. I couldn’t see bird saliva anywhere on the menu — but just in case, I steered clear of the soup.
Published in the Malaysia 2016 guide, distributed with the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)