After taking my fill of Kuching’s culinary and cultural delights, I was itching to venture into the wild. Sarawak, Borneo brims with some wondrous wildlife experiences, headlined by the chance to commune with the highly endangered orangutan. But before ogling our close cousins in their natural environment, my guide Tony escorted me to the jungle-greens and butter-coloured beaches of Bako National Park.
Just 45 minutes’ drive from Kuching, this is Sarawak’s oldest national park, established as such in 1957, offering a compelling introduction into Sarawak’s natural soul. Perched on the northern top of the Muara Tebas peninsula, entering the park entails a speedboat ride from the rickety jetty of Bako village, roaring up the Bako River, past equally rickety stilt houses and traditional fishing stands, jutting out of the river.
My speed-demon driver was like the Lewis Hamilton of speedboating, blasting us through the murky waters, which are infested by some of Borneo’s less-hospitable inhabitants: salt-water crocodiles. Sliding around a bend in the river, the park’s towering sandstone cliffs gripped my attention, their eroded edges resembling a swirl of intense colours, patterns and beguiling sculptural forms.
We pulled in just off the beach, wading ashore in bath-temperature ankle-deep water, surrounded by a dense jungle beyond teeming with life, we jumped off the boat into the warm sea water and waded onto shore, navigating bearded pigs (wild boar) and scampering hermit crabs on the foreshore. Before the day’s heat peaked, Tony and I launched ourselves at the abundant network of walking trails, lacing the park, plumping for a 1km trek to Telok Paku.
There are 16 dedicated trails of various lengths, but even a short and sweet one hour jaunt immerses you in Bako’s staggering biodiversity and vegetation, spanning mangroves, kerangas (heath-forest), scrub-like padang vegetation, dipterocarp forest and delicate cliff vegetation. Almost every type of Borneo vegetation is represented at Bako. But the signature experience is trekking through the verdant rainforest and jungle carpet, clambering up the twisting and gnarled ancient tree roots that form fairytale staircases, spilling you out onto unspoilt bays, coves and beaches of white and butter-coloured sand, flanked by limestone and sandstone cliffs.
I marvelled over the strangling fig trees, artful orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants, all part of this bewitching, living, breathing eco-system. The wildlife is astounding. I hadn’t even noticed it, but eagle-eyed Tony pointed out to me a lime-green wagler pit viper, sunbathing on a plant, as I blithely breezed by. When they bite, they turn blue. I took Tony’s word for that. Potentially fatal, you have roughly three hours to get anti-venom at the hospital to survive their bite.
Long-tailed macaque monkeys are considered the local mafia, because of their fearless persistence, hassling visitors for food. They’re full of mischief. Don’t feed them – they will mug you for all you’ve got. In contrast to those crazy kids, the silvered langurs (leaf monkeys) were also ever-present, crashing through the canopy, playfully lolloping from tree to tree, contentedly chomping on leaves. A visual delight.
I sized up flying lemurs, monitor lizards and a rainbow of fluttering birdlife including the white-bellied Woodpecker, Asian Fairy Bluebird and Stork-billed Kingfisher. Adding to the forest soundtrack was a cricket that alerted all forest dwellers to passing humans, with a long and screeching cry that could have doubled for my car alarm.
But the real stars of the show in Bako are the proboscis monkeys. Found only in Borneo, several hundred of these rare monkeys call the park home. The male is a particularly odd-looking creature, with an enormous pendulous nose and a large pot-belly. I also discovered that he can maintain an erection for 24 hours, so don’t be surprised if that’s what state you find him in!
It’s an awe-inspiring rainforest, where one moment you are deep in the jungle before you are suddenly blinded by the sunlight, piercing through the swaying palms fringing a pristine beach. Depending on how far you walk, Telok Pandan Kecil is the most lustrous stretch of secluded white-sand beach, backed by a shelf-like rocky headland, creating a seraphic vista.
Then there are the whimsical and imagination-stirring sea stacks of sandstone, thrusting out of the South China Sea, just off the shoreline. Assuming all manner of wondrous formations, there’s the stone serpent and the monster’s head amid the plethora of naturally-sculpted shapes. Bako National Park is a revelation, nature on a sweeping canvas, elemental and extraordinary.
I did just a day-trip sampler, but you may well be tempted to stay a few nights, at the on-site accommodation. Be sure to fuel up on plenty of fluids when hiking, and trainers are certainly better suited to those navigating those gnarly tree roots than hiking boots.
Think Borneo and you may well think orangutan. Sharing 97% of our DNA, it was a runaway thrill to commune with these incredibly intelligent primates, endemic to Borneo and Sumatra.
Highly endangered due to habitat destruction and illegal trading, Sarawak has made great strides to dramatically turn the tables on the orangutans’ fortunes. The last untouched orangutan habitats have been cloaked in protection and for the past 30 years, wildlife rehabilitation centres near Kuching have nurtured orphaned and illegally captured orangutans. Matang and Semenggoh are both within an hour of Kuching and I paid a visit to the latter.
Semenggoh’s dedicated conservation efforts are bearing fruit, with a very healthy population of adolescent and adult orangutans now breeding in the wild of the surrounding forest. The rehabbed animals roam freely in the rainforest after being trained to fend for themselves in the wild. Twice a day, the rangers conduct a brief feeding session, in which some of the primates return to he viewing platform for a free feed. Nothing is more heart-warming than admiring an orangutan mother with a young baby, which was the highlight for me.
The viewing sessions are like nature’s own circus act, but they are very brief, so as not to compromise the park’s sterling endeavours to return the primates to self-sufficiency in the wild. They are doing God’s work, helping nature overcome man’s destructive and expedient excesses. Compellingly entertaining, illuminating and reaffirming, a visit to Semenggoh or Matang will linger long in your memories. http://www.malaysia.travel/en/nz
Fly to Sarawak with Malaysia Airlines, who offer multi-day services between Kuala Lumpur and Kuching, for the 90 minute flight. Malaysia Airlines flies direct to Kuala Lumpur from Auckland with convenient overnight flights. www.malaysiaairlines.com
Make plans for your own flavourful Sarawak Adventure with Wendy Wu Tours. Their five night private tour, with local English-speaking guides, includes the cosmopolitan delights of Kuching, traditional cultural experiences and encounters with Borneo’s revered orangutans. www.wendywutours.co.nz