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On my final full day in Sarawak, I got out of the dorm room bed at 6am and tiptoed out to the lobby to pack my things, eat a quick breakfast, and head to the bus stop for Bako National Park. The tourism office said the bus would leave at 7am, but in reality it was closer to 8:00. I watched the sun rise over the domed spires of Kuching's mosques as I waited. Soon, the bright red bus arrived and I paid my 3 ringgit ($1CAD) and sat back as the city changed slowly into rolling hills and verdant forest near the coast.

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There were a lot of people on the bus, so I assumed I'd have no problem getting a boat to the park. During the winter season the boats limit their load to 4 passengers, since the sea swells can be unpredictable. However, it turned out that everyone was already part of a group. The girl at the counter informed me that I could wait for another group and join them, but if I was under a time limit for return the following morning I'd have to arrange my own boat back, covering the full cost myself. It was my last day, and I was finally doing what I really wanted to do, so I splurged a little and paid the 90 ringgit for the return boat.

Every cloud has a silver lining, they say. Not having a group, and forced to wait, I got the opportunity to speak with one of the local boat pilots, an Iban tribesman. He told me about the huge changes he'd seen in his village over the last 30 years. They lived in longhouses on high bamboo stilts before, he explained, and their life came from the bamboo forest. They used the spikes of one particular species to make the poison darts for their blowguns, and to painstakingly tap out the tattoos that decorate the older men and woman of his tribe. Now, their houses are low, modern one-storey bungalows, painted in a rainbow of colours, and many more than there were in the past. Many converted to Islam, he said, "But don't worry miss, you're totally safe here!" and no one knew how to tattoo anymore. In spite of all the changes in his life, he was happy. He said they all made a living harvesting tiny shrimp from the lagoon to make the local fermented shrimp sauce, called belacan, and taking tourists over to the park in their boats before and after harvesting hours.

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Kumpung Bako's colourful shoreline

At about 10am an older Canadian couple arrived at the dock, with space to spare in their boat. "I think you can get in with them, girl," said the boat pilot, as he went to join the other boatmen at their breakfast table.

The Canadian couple had hired a park guide, so on the way to the park I was treated to some free information about the area's red limestone hills (bands of iron in the stone changed the colour). He also pointed out some wildlife even before we entered the park, a large wild boar snuffling his way along the base of the limestone towers. The pair only had a few hours in the park, while I had the whole day, so I bid them farewell and went to have my breakfast and register at the gate.

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Our beautiful blue boat pointed at the cloud-wreathed islands in the distance

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The shrimpery!

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Rugged red limestone towers

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Close up: Bands of iron wind their way through the limestone, washing down and making a dramatic orange colour

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Panorama of Bako beach

I reached the front desk and informed them I would be staying with Elliot Billingsley, though I wasn't on their registry. I gave all the pertinent details. They couldn't seem to understand why someone would add another person to their group, so I asked to leave my bags with them and leave a message for Elliot, saying I was there and I'd be back from my trek around 5pm.

Over breakfast in the canteen (surprisingly cheap and good, considering you really don't have any other choice!), I studied the map. I decided to begin the day with the short 1.4 km Monkey Trail, where one is likely to see troupes of grey long-tailed macaques in the morning and evening, then go down the beach trail, which had the greatest variety of land features and was home to the giant pitcher plants.

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Photos, clockwise from top: An Engrish sign warns to watch out for wild animals, the front entry to the park, my delicious "kampung fried rice", and a warning sign to watch out for falling coconuts, beside a big pile of fallen coconuts!

All of Bako's pathways start out the same way, a rickety wooden foot path over a haunting dead mangrove swamp to the trail head. The trail become more and more difficult as you enter the treeline, often with tree roots for hand-holds and ladders leading up into the distance.

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I turned up the Telok Paku trail, a one-hour 800 meter path (that should indicate that it's more challenging than it sounds!). The forest was a dark canopy overhead, and silent except for the sounds of birds and chittering monkeys. I didn't see anyone else for awhile, then started to see occasional stragglers sitting down after a particularly hard ladder-climb. I spotted a man with an absolutely enormous DSLR set-up and a park guide, taking shots of a family of macaque monkeys. I'd ordered a new camera before my trip but because of the holiday it hadn't arrived on time, and my old point-and-shoot wasn't up to the challenge of low-light action photography. I kept going. After awhile I began to hear crashing in the high tree tops, and something started pelting fruit at my head! I still didn't see the culprits, so I moved on. Then, I saw them: a family of monkeys just at the side of the path, and no one around to scare them away.

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I took a few shots, and realized the macaques were coming down the trees toward me. They were quiet, and didn't seem aggressive or even interested in me, so I stood stock-still and changed my camera to video mode. First, the mother scaled down the tree and drank water from the puddle by my feet. I heard more movement from the adolescent in the tree, and he came down as well. Next thing I knew, I had two monkeys drinking water from a puddle, almost seated on my feet! I was so excited, I nearly cried!

After their long drink, they scampered back up into the trees and were gone. I composed myself and walked on into towering rock formations and signs of water erosion on the stone pathway that told me I was nearing the end. Beautiful flat-leaved vines clung to the rock walls as though painted on.

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I took my time to relax at the beach, wandering around and looking at the wildlife and shoreline. For a national park the beach was surprisingly covered with litter, washed up on shore from the sea, and blobs of crude oil from the oil wells of Brunei. I'd left my backpack by the tree line and looked back to see that a wild boar was looking at it with great interest. A tall man shooed him away, and I went over to thank him. We chatted a few minutes, then I headed back to the trail head.

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On my way back I spotted yet another family of long-tailed macaques and got really close to a mother and infant. The mother clearly didn't care about people being nearby, but the baby gave me such a human look of concern I had to laugh, as he pulled on his mom's fur just like a baby trying to get attention!

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Next on the agenda was the Telok Pandan Kecil trail, a 2.4km trail that wound up through the thickest parts of the jungle and into the dry, sandy, hot highlands before heading down through strange rocky outcrops to Bako's most picturesque beach. By this time it was nearly noon and the chances of spotting monkeys at their lowest, since they usually go for an afternoon siesta in the hottest part of the day. I didn't see any other people for a long time on this trail, which branches off from the 5.8km Lintang trail, a circular path that leads right around the park HQ. After awhile the path begins to circle around a huge hilltop on a ridge, with dense jungle below. I saw some movement in the trees and got closer for a better look, and saw what I'd hoped to see all day: a baby proboscis monkey practicing his climbing skills. Where there's a baby there's bound to be a family, and sure enough, a little ways off were a bunch of long, white tails hanging down from the top of a huge tree. Yet again, my camera failed to do the sight justice. A young couple was coming up behind me so I quickly shushed them and showed them what they were in danger of disrupting. Luckily for them, they had a much better camera than I, and they thanked me profusely. "This is exactly what we came here to see!" they whispered excitedly.

The trail ahead diverged into two separate paths, the Kecil trail and the continuation of the Lintang trail. I turned up the Kecil trail and climbed a steep escarpment that ended abruptly on a hot, but surprisingly wet and humid sandy plateau with low scrub vegetation and a wooden bridge path. To either side of the trail were dozens of species of carnivorous pitcher plant, some with crimson pitchers as big a my head. This particular type of pitcher plant is really interesting. They grow large pitcher-shaped appendages, which fill with rain water and a sweet nectar that attracts insects. The insects (and sometimes even rodents, lizards, and frogs) become trapped inside because of downward-facing spikes growing on the walls that prevent escape.  I've had Nepenthes pitcher plants, like the ones in Borneo,  in my home for a number of years now, so it was really cool to see these carnivorous plants in their natural habitat. Some grew in parasitic clusters on the scrubby trees that dotted the hilltop. Others clung precariously to the rock walls where the highland gave way to the beach. The largest, however, were scattered on the forest floor.

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There was a lot of other strange and interesting plant and wildlife up there. I saw a couple snakes slither quickly into the tall grass as I approached, and got close up to a beautiful butterfly with big, hairy legs. Vines with lentil-shaped leaves wound around the trees that weren't colonized by the pitcher plants. I walked slowly, drinking it all in and getting rather severely sunburnt in the process despite multiple slatherings of sunscreen.  The sandy plateau ended abruptly with a really strangely eroded stone that looked a bit like a brain, and then headed down the hillside to the beach.

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The beach was reachable only by a long wooden ladder, ending with a short drop to the sand. There was a woman on a blanket sunbathing, and a man waving a stick in the air. "Did you throw this down at us?" he asked, red faced and clearly upset. I'd heard something falling as I came down the steps, I said, but denied it. He didn't seem to believe me, so I walked away to the other side of the bay. A log stretched out on it's side at the far end looked like a perfect place to re-charge after the hike. I got to enjoy it for about 5 minutes before a Chinese woman came over and sat beside me on the log. A huge, empty beach, and she chose to sit down beside me. I sighed. Personal space bubbles aren't a thing in China. "Do you know, can the boat come here? I tired, want to go back," she said. I explained that the boats would only depart from HQ, in Chinese. She was surprised. We chatted a few more minutes, then her husband and son came over. I ended up having to vacate my spot, since the little brat threw both a coconut and log toward me within the first minute. "How old is your son?" I asked her.

"Oh, he's 13 years old," she said.

"Maybe he should learn to act like it," I said, picking up my now-damp e-book reader and stalking off while the boy tried to kill any wildlife he laid eyes on.

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I spent the next hour swimming and relaxing in the shade, my skin already starting to feel hot and tight from earlier sun exposure. Around 4:00 I started back, not wanting to complete the trek back in the dark. The tide was coming in, and the view around the dead mangroves was even more impressive.  I got back to HQ around 5:00 pm, and spotted Elliot coming up the trail toward me with a girl with glasses and a thin boy with wind-swept hair.

"Ah, we've been looking for you!" he said. "We left a note with the park staff but they seemed confused."

"Funny, I did the same," I replied, completing introductions. Anita was Elliot's Canadian girlfriend, and David their co-worker from their English school in Singapore. They'd just arrived and settled into our cabin, and were heading out to hit the trails before dark. They gave me a key and said they planned to do the night-time wildlife tour if I was interested. I decided to head back for a beer, a burger, and a nap. "Wake me up when you get back," I told them.

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One the way to the cabin I saw some more wild boar, and a friendly park guide pointed out the huddled, fur-covered shape of a flying lemur, sleeping high up in a tree. "He'll wake up around 6:00 and fly off for the night," he explained. I also got up close and personal with a wild boar who was snuffling through the undergrowth  by the path for tasty snacks.

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The cabin had three doors, two for the separate bedrooms and one for the kitchenette and shower facilities, featuring an amusing sign about monkeys possibly getting in. The beds were simple but clean, and I saw which one David had staked out for himself. I took the one by the window and fell into a light snooze as the sun went down. Twilight was a noisy period as all the nocturnal animals came to life in the forest, and the day-dwellers completed their final preparations for bed time. I quickly understood why the sign was on the doors as monkeys and other wildlife bounced off the roof.

At 8pm I heard footsteps on the deck, and wiped the sleep from my eyes. Time for the night-time tour! I got myself composed and David and I walked back to the headquarters where our guide was waiting for us, along with Anita, Elliot and some others. For 20 ringgit each, the guide took us along the Lintang trail by flashlight. At the end of the rows of cabins, a sign warned us to keep quiet and enter the forest with care.

The guide, who'd grown up locally with his tribe deep in the jungle, showed us a variety of habitats where we might find spiders, snakes, flying lemurs, tree frogs, bats, and other animals. In reality, we didn't see very much but it was informative. The extent of our wildlife spotting was a pair of singing tree-frogs, a couple swallows in a cave, and a small tarantula wedged in his hiding place on a tree trunk. The guide told us about growing up in the forest, and how lonely it could get doing solo treks for the park. "I really look forward to my weekends off in Kuching!" he said with a laugh, all the lights turned off to show us how deep and silent the darkness of the jungle could be. Phosphorescent fungus flickered on the edges of the path. I could see how it might be lonely, but it was definitely beautiful.

We went back for a quick beer, then off to bed. The monkeys and other night time creatures bounced off the roof, and strange cries and guttural snuffling noises punctuated the night, though it was restful. In the morning we had a quick breakfast together before the three teachers from Singapore headed off to enjoy their morning at the park, since they'd arrived later the previous afternoon. I sat and waited for the boat which would take me back and chatted with some other people waiting in the canteen.

The rest of my trip was basically heading back to Kuching and from there for one last night in Kuala Lumpur  with Waleed and Nada, my CS hosts from last year, to catch my flight to Nanning. We caught up, went shopping for exotic fruit and coffee beans for me to take back to China, and went for some delicious Indian food. A fine way to finish off a great trip.

Over all, Bako National Park was the best part of my trip. I want to thank Elliot, Anita and David for taking me into their group and letting me stay with them--it was so kind and really made my experience great! I would strongly suggest Malaysian Borneo to anyone who likes a challenge and a real adventure, though it's not a place for glampers (glam campers) and flashpackers (flashy backpackers)!

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Mar. 26th, 2014 10:31 am (UTC)
Glad you make full use of your last couple of days in kuching.

-noora
tauneystravels
Mar. 27th, 2014 01:29 am (UTC)
I definitely did! I had two really amazing experiences on my trip, one with you guys, and one in Bako! Such a beautiful place. It was exactly what I needed to unwind after the week's frustrations...I've learned my lesson about traveling with inexperienced backpackers! If you ever want to visit China or Canada, let me know! You're always welcome with me or my family ;)
(Anonymous)
May. 20th, 2014 12:22 am (UTC)
Thanks Tauney. I would really love to visit you in China soon. I'm trying hard to save but this year is not exactly my year. LOL! Will see. Keep in touch!!

Noora
tauneystravels
May. 20th, 2014 01:23 am (UTC)
China's pretty cheap once you get here, but getting here from NZ is another story! I figure most things are 30% of the cost that they are in "western" countries--which is why I can travel regularly! It would be awesome to have you here, and it's so nice to have a regular reader/commenter! :D
(Anonymous)
Mar. 30th, 2014 03:20 pm (UTC)
Tauney's Malaysia trip
I enjoyed reading this account on a cold winter morning on March 30 in Ottawa. A great way to pass an interesting session reading the descriptions and looking at the great photos of an exotic corner of the world that I could only dream about visiting. Thanks go to Graham for sending them on to us.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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