Banpingshan, Taiwan

Click for directions to the Banpingshan guide

Kaohsiung’s Shoushan National Park is much more than just Monkey Mountain but many forget about the other parts of the National Park.  Banpingshan is located between the Lotus Pond, the HSR station and World Games Stadium.  Embarrassingly I didn’t hike here until this spring because Monkey Mountain is just a couple of minutes from my apartment.  I will travel all over Taiwan and East Asia looking for new hikes but for some reason 20 minutes within Kaohsiung was too far.

My initial hike on Banpingshan was less than spectacular.  Banpingshan was heavily mined for cement and lime for over a century.  During this time the height of the mountain was reduced by 53 meters to its current height of 170 meters.  (gov’t source)  Michael Turton wrote an excellent blog with old photos about the history of the cement operations earlier this year so I won’t rehash that.  Read Michael’s piece here.

My first trip to Banpingshan was rather boring as I hiked up the stairs to the main mining road to the main observation point and back down the mining road past the old quarry on the eastern side of the mountain.  The southeastern portions of Banpingshan were most heavily affected by the mining and I almost entirely walked through that area.  The next time however I hiked along some trails about halfway up the western slope (near pt 2 on the map) and the trees and rock formations match or exceed the best on Monkey Mountain.

Fascinating trees and rocks can be found all over Taiwan but one of the highlights is a completely intact military bunker at the northeastern end of Banpingshan.  The bunker is likely from the post WWII militarization of Taiwan by the KMT as defense against a possible PRC (China) invasion although it could have been made by the Japanese during WWII.  The bunker has 4 exits, 2 tunnels, 1 connecting tunnel and 5 small rooms.  The longest tunnel is 50 meters long and about 1.6 meters tall.  It is made of concrete and is very safe from cave ins.

The Nanzih factory region.  Down there somewhere is Oil Refinery Elementary School.  Such a homey name.

One of the five interior rooms.  Maybe 2 meters wide by 3 meters deep by 1.5 meters tall.

Banpingshan overlooks World Games Stadium and the Straits of Taiwan.  Further north of this is the Nanzih factory zone.

Click for directions to Banpingshan

Niah Caves National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia

Click for directions to Niah Caves

Lambir Hills National Park might have been my favorite Borneo destination but Niah Caves National Park was by far the most physically impressive place that I visited.  It is much more than just a cave.  It is a nice place for hiking, it has significant archaeological relevance and it is part of an extremely profitable bat guano and bird next collecting industry.

In 1958, a team of archaeologists discovered a 40,000 year old human skull which conflicted with the then accepted fact that Borneo was settled much later than that.  Evidence of continual habitation over the last 40,000 years continues to be unearthed at the caves.  The most fascinating find are the death coffins for transport to the afterlife.  It’s always fascinating to learn about ancient civilizations that shared some sort of mythology despite never interacting with each other.  The boat coffins are no longer at the caves but you are able to see them at a museum in Kuching, Malaysia.  Click here for a photo link to a boat coffin.

The hike starts at the headquarters and requires visitors to first cross over a river using a small ferry boat costing 1RM (about 30 cents).  It’s a little puzzling why a National Park with as many as 1000 visitors per day couldn’t build a small bridge but the ferry adds a little charm to the trip.  Shortly after the ferry the trail becomes a slightly elevated boardwalk through a swampy area.  I was never really confident that the boardwalk would support my weight (170ish lbs) due to the weathered state of the boards.  I never saw any broken planks or evidence of recently fixed planks but I made sure I was walking on the support at all times.  I was also on the lookout for crocodiles since Niah National Park is known for crocodiles although they probably live in the larger river that you take a ferry across.  It’s a 3 kilometer hike through a beautiful rainforest with interesting trees, rock formations and potentially some wildlife.  It’s flat and it should be relatively easy for most but everyone needs to be careful since the heat and humidity can be a factor.

Traders Cave is the first cave that you reach.  It actually isn’t a cave but it is rather an overhang in the side of the mountain.  Until 40-50 years ago this cave was used by the bird nest and bat guano collectors to both live and to trade their products with merchants.

Opposite the Great Cave (pictured at the top) is another mountain that I think has another cave in it.  If you have more time (probably a 2nd day) you can also explore this and do a couple of other short hikes.  Long before Niah Caves became a national park it was the source of two valuable products.  Bat guano is commonly collected in caves all over the world to use as fertilizer but they also collect bird’s nests.  Bird nest soup is very popular in China and other parts of the world.  Swiftlets use saliva to create the nests and these nests are very valuable.  Some sites report it as 1000USD/kg but this Borneo Post article says 30USD/kg.  Unfortunately this is another area where Chinese tradition is impacting the natural world.  Swiftlet numbers have declined from 1.7M in 1930 to 100,000 at Niah Caves.  Read more about bird nest soup here.

The Great Cave doesn’t actually go down but rather it is a horizontal cave in the side of a small mountain.  There are 3-4 exit points in addition to a skylight.  The hike inside the cave is at least 1 kilometer in length but it never gets narrow.  About 200 meters past Niah Cave (see map) there is a second cave.  Painted Cave is a second smaller cave with cave paintings and where the boat coffins were found.

The cave is at least 50 meters high and I think he was going to free climb this metal pole to collect either bird nests or bat guano.   I actually have no idea how they collect either of them but it must be incredibly hard and dangerous work.

Here is a video (not mine) of bats in flight at the other amazing caves in Malaysia (Mulu).  Every night millions of bats leave the caves and fly like a school of fish wiping out the mosquito population.  I have no idea how any mosquitos survive the sheer numbers of bats.  We wanted to stay at Niah for this but I had mistakenly booked an evening flight back to Kota Kinabalu and I had to be the reason that we missed this.

Directions on how to get to Niah Caves can be found on my waterfall website – click for link

Lambir Hills National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia

There were waterfalls and trails everywhere at Lambir Hills.  Yes, it was my favorite part of my Borneo trip.  I could have gone again and again and again but I only went one time.  The waterfalls aren’t physically impressive but instead they are hidden pools of solitude in a beautiful rainforest.  The hiking trails are perfectly made natural dirt tracks.  It’s fairly easy hiking but the rolling hills and heat got to me while I was there.

There are 3 waterfalls that can be done as an easy 3 hour loop but there are an additional 3 waterfalls that require a full day hike to get to.  I only had enough time to visit one of these further waterfalls because of how far they are from the headquarters.

Latak waterfall is the most popular because it is only a 20-30 minute walk from the parking lot.  You are no longer allowed to swim under the waterfall but there might be too many people here to truly enjoy the beautiful natural setting.

Directions to Latak Waterfall link

Lambir Hills has one of the highest diversity of trees in the world and they have signed 100’s of trees for visitors.  This is an orange paperbark tree that naturally sheds its bark and is one of the few trees that isn’t covered in moss in Borneo’s rainforests.

Pantu Waterfall is small but relaxing.  It isn’t visited as much as Latak Waterfall but it is still close to the main loop.

Directions to Pantu Waterfall link

We had to hike fast to get back to the headquarters before closing.  She was a runner and glided effortlessly down the trail while I struggled to keep up.  If you look closely you can see her in the above photo.

Tengkorong Waterfall is another relatively small waterfall but it was the highlight of the hike.  The photo doesn’t show it but the waterfall falls into a bowl that wraps all the way around the swimming hole.   It would be awesome to spend an hour here relaxing and swimming.

Directions to Tengkorong Waterfall link