By Travis Nielsen
The boat motor was humming in the distance. You could hear it through the gentle patter of rain that greeted us at as we paid for our tickets. Our group had one last chance to grab anything we needed. Lacking a jacket, I grabbed a rain poncho in the event it continued to rain, not that I really needed it though, the rain was slightly refreshing in the extreme heat and humidity.
We were at the visitor’s center for Bako National Park, our guide, a retired school teacher who has been coming to Bako almost daily since his retirement, brought us here from our hotel. It took 30 minutes by mini-bus to get to the visitor’s center, and we had now paid for our tickets to enter the park and were now beginning to board the boat that would take us on another 30-minute ride to our destination – the beachfront entry dock to Bako. Bako national park is a peninsula outside of Kuching; however, there is no road access, so the park must be accessed by boat!
Our guide stands by a map of the Bako National Park, preparing us for the wonders ahead to see! (©Travis Nielsen)
Along the way, we spent most of our time entranced with the gorgeous scenery. The steep cliff sides stood hundreds of feet above the water coated with a dense cover of foliage of exotic plants and trees, interspersed with cracks and isolated beaches only accessible by boat. The view was the kind of thing you would expect to be narrated by Sir David Attenborough. Simply stunning!
As we passed a large point of land, we made sight of the beach of Bako National Park. There, on the beach, wandering lazily as if king of the park, was a wild boar. In a later conversation with our guide, he would note that particular boar has been at the park for many years, and is now a semi-permanent fixture, only leaving the area when food was scarce.
The boar of Bako National Park. A longtime park-resident often seen wandering the beaches. (©Sarawak Tourism)
Upon arriving we came to a narrow waterway with a short concrete dock. The boatman brought the bow to the dock and cut the motor hard, swinging the boat alongside the dock so we could exit. Once onshore, a short walk down a large, clean boardwalk passed a series of bungalows, which can be rented by the night if one desires, to get to the park headquarters (HQ).
A large concrete building with food and drinks available, the park HQ would be the only stop for toilets before we began our day of hiking! However, our quick start to the day was almost immediately halted when we were welcomed by a party of proboscis monkeys. These rare, elusive monkeys are only found on the island of Borneo, living in and amongst the mangrove trees. Male monkeys are highly notable and photogenic because of their round bellies and tell-tale bulbous nose! Thrilled, we quietly watched this group of six monkeys feed and play amongst themselves until they melted back into the woods.
A male proboscis monkey munches leaves in Bako National Park. (©Sarawak Tourism)
After getting our tour group in order, we began our hike. It was not the easiest hiking conditions, but our group was in reasonable physical shape, so the trip wasn’t impossible. It took us through the dense jungle of Borneo along the coast so that periodically you could see deep ocean blue bursting through the foliage as we hiked. At several different points along the trail, our guide would stop to point out exotic plants and animals as he noticed them, including some beautiful pitcher plants, which have cultural significance to the area, and are used regularly in local cooking. When we arrived at the beach, we boarded another boat that took us on a short trip to the “Cobra Head” sea stack; a limestone pillar that has eroded over the millennia to look eerily similar to the head of a cobra. It jutted out of the sea at least 10 meters high. As we sat soaking up this stone serpent, I spent that time staring at it with fascination, trying to commit the stack’s every precious curve and crevice to memory.
After 15 minutes, which only felt like an instant, we were on our way back to the park HQ for lunch. We made landfall at the beach and walked onto shore in our bare feet, soft sand gently squishing between our toes. The HQ has a small cafeteria on site that had a buffet style lunch. “Please be careful when you are eating.” Our guide announced, “there are long-tail macaques that live here, and they are naughty monkeys that will steal your food if you don’t watch.” Our group must have been watchful, as our lunch was relaxing and uneventful. After clearing our plates, we went back to the trail map and began planning our second hike of the day. However, I decided the beautiful allure of the beach was too much, and I let the group hike on without me.
The famous Cobra Head limestone rock formation of Bako National Park. (©Sarawak Tourism)
I took this time to extend my lunch and sit in the chair on the outer deck of the park HQ nursing a glass of water. As I sat there, a commotion sprang up! A macaque dropped from the rafters of the park HQ, making a fast assault on an unsuspecting tourists plate, grabbing a few handfuls of Chow Mein noodles and stuffing most of it in his face before climbing back up into the rafters. The event took 30 seconds at most and ended with shock and laughter from the small group of tourists as the monkey sat in the rafters finishing off on his prize!
After taking a moment to halt my laughing, I got up and headed for the beach. On the beach as we had returned for lunch, I had noticed a series of patterns and tiny balls of sand all over the beach. These patterns were unique, and I had seen them before, but I could not remember where. Arriving at the patterns, I noticed they radiated out from a central hole… I suddenly realized I was looking at the home of the Sand Bubbler Crab! I had studied these during a university course and seen them in videos, but never in the wild. Sand bubblers are the size of your average garden pea and eat the bits of food found in the sand. As they eat, they slowly roll up a ball of the sand they have picked clean. Once they get too far from their home, they head back to their home and start again. I must have watched these crabs work away for 40 minutes before I realized what time it was. Between my crab watching adventure and the Chow Mein Caper it had been just over an hour and it was time to head back to park HQ.
It wasn’t long once I arrived at the HQ that the rest of our group and the guide were back, and we packed up to leave. I had relayed the story about the monkey I had now named Mad-Jack Macaque to our group and guide. Our group lamented the missed event and our guide chucked impishly at the naughty antics of the macaque.
A pair of silver leaf monkeys, also known as silvery lutungs, sit with their baby clad in orange. A rare, but possible sighting in Bako National Park! (©Thomas Marent)
We headed back for the dock during the afternoon high tide, allowing our boat easy access to the dock. As we made our way for the boat we were given a surprise send off. A group of silvered leaf monkeys materialized from the forest! Considered the shyest and most elusive species of monkeys living in Bako, the silvered leaf monkeys get their name from their grey-tipped hair that gives the monkeys a silver, almost elegant appearance. The group of eight monkeys, a family unit with adults and babies, were taking a moment to rest along the edge of the boardwalk. Though this delayed our departure, it was a welcome delay indeed. Bako is known for three species of monkey, and we got to see them all!
As we said farewell to our monkey friends and boarded our boat to make the journey home to Kuching, I knew it that it would be quite some time before I would be able to top such an experience as this afternoon!
Travis Nielsen is the Meeting Manager for IMCC5 and founder and CEO of Azurigen Management and Consulting Solutions Inc. A STEM project management firm that specializes in linking conservation based science to business and government. He is a published Marine Biologist with 10 years experience in STEM, and 10 years of experience in management and leadership. He has been responsible for projects with budgets up to $500,000, working with multiple stakeholders, large public engagement mandates, and with staffs up to 100 people in locations all across the globe.