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Saturday March 3, 2012

Bako beckons

Pitcher plants, proboscis monkeys and patterned rocks – these and more are the star attractions of Bako.

YOU know how we sometimes travel the world over in search of new sights, when in fact those places can be found right in our own backyard? Sarawak’s Bako National Park is one such place.

Its secluded beaches, rugged coastlines, sandstone cliffs and bush country remind one of landscapes in South Africa and Australia. Its terrain may be foreign-looking but Bako is really a very accessible place.

It is just a 30-minute boat ride from Kampung Bako, which is an hour’s drive from Kuching, Sarawak.

At 2,727ha, Bako is Sarawak’s smallest national park but could easily be the most unique, for squeezed into it are almost every type of vegetation found in Borneo. Seven types, to be exact: kerangas, mangrove, mixed dipterocarp, riverine forests, open shrubland (or padang), beach and cliff vegetation.

We have the Colonial rulers to thank for recognising the importance of this site and preserving it as a protected area in 1957, making it the state’s oldest.

Many visitors do day trips but to do Bako justice, you need to stay a few days. And to really appreciate Bako’s uniqueness, you have to hit the trails. There are 17 in all, ranging from easy strolls to full-day treks to overnight camps. And best of all, most are self-guided walks.

The Bako experience starts during the boat ride to the park. Scenes of riverine homes, fishermen hauling in their catch and fish traps consisting of sticks laid across the river catch our attention. The boat hugs the shoreline of mangroves and weathered sandstone cliffs – one resembles a salmon head – before pulling up at the wide beach of Teluk Assam, the entry point to the park.

While waiting to check into our chalet, we spot our first Bako wildlife – a bearded pig. A friendly fellow and obviously used to people, it follows visitors around, waiting for handouts. We spot more of them over the next few days, foraging for food around the chalets and even on the beach.

After dumping our packs in our chalet, we hit the Ulu Palas trail. The first 30 minutes is an easy stroll on a plank walkway in a swampy forest overgrown with the signature tree here – the palas palm. Then, an uphill scramble for another 30 minutes reward us with a gorgeous view of Teluk Assam bay and Mount Santubong in the distance.

Later, a stroll along the beach reveals nature’s artistic handiwork – craggy sandstone cliffs sculpted by wind and water into wondrous shapes and painted with orange-hued swirls and lines. The colours come from iron in the sandstone which has undergone a weathering process of dissolution, precipitation and oxidation.

As we are admiring the geological structures for which Bako is famed, a crashing sound comes from the treetops nearby. We caught flashes of chestnut amidst the green – the proboscis monkeys are out. We stand quietly, and a while later, the primates emerge into view.

It might only be 6pm, but one adult male, perched on a branch with its eyes closed, is ready to call it a day.

Plateau of plants

Early the next morning, we venture onto the boardwalk that weaves around a thicket of mangrove trees on one end of the beach. Our timing is perfect, for birds and proboscis monkeys are all out for breakfast.

Probably used to people, the troop of large, red-nosed monkeys ignore us and continue stuffing their faces with the leaves; no wonder most of the trees are bald. The males, with their potbellies and bulbous noses, are a hilarious sight.

The receding tide exposes a muddy bottom filled with crabs and mudskippers. As we sit quietly in shelters found along the boardwalk, more and more birds fly our way: common sandpiper, ashy tailorbird, olive-backed sunbird, common iora, collared kingfisher, chestnut-bellied malkoha, a pair of common goldenback woodpeckers and hill myna.

Beyond the boardwalk, a trail ascends forested hills to reach a small beach at Teluk Paku. However, the place stinks and is littered with debris and logs washed ashore. We quickly dish our plan for a swim.

After two days of short trails, we are ready for a challenge on the third: the tougher Lintang Trail to Tajor waterfalls and Tanjung Rhu. As the route climbs, the hilly terrain of dense forest thins out into kerangas or heath forest. Kerangas is Iban for “land that cannot grow rice” – an apt name as the nutrient-poor soil here can only support skinny trees.

Further on, the terrain flattens out into a plateau of shrubland or padang vegetation. A wooden walkway forms part of the trail, having been built to prevent erosion caused by trampling tourists. We pass weathered sandstone flats, peppered with circles. It’s a harsh environment, and the vegetation is sparse and stunted, including such adapted species as conifers with needle-shaped leaves.

The place is a nepenthes heaven – there are so many different species. We’ve only ever seen nepenthes growing on the ground or clambering up trees – never a whole shrub festooned with them!

The padang is an unforgiving place. The sun bears down on us relentlessly and the scanty vegetation offers little shade. We are glad when the trail enters shaded forest again as we near Tajor Waterfalls. Though it is just a small cascade of tea-coloured water, clumps of reeds and bonsai-like trees around the waterfalls create a fairy-tale scene and a good spot for a break.

Scenic cliffs and bays

Beyond the waterfalls, the trail weaves in and out of scrubland and forest for an hour and a half before ending at Tanjung Rhu. At this headland, sheer sandstone cliffs plunge into the sea.

Because of the exposed environment, only hardy vegetation thrives here – plants which can withstand the searing sun and strong winds, such as the pandanus and the carnivorous sun dew, a rosette-shaped plant that feeds on insects.

The erosive forces of the elements have also created a fascinating sandstone terrain featuring wave-cut platforms, rock pools and beautiful iron markings and circles. A trail leads down the cliff to the rocky seashore. It is dotted with tide pools of almost perfect circles, some with fish and crabs caught inside. The rising tide, however, prevents us from reaching Bako’s iconic sea stack which is often depicted in pictures and postcards.

Though long and tough, the Lintang trail is definitely worth the effort as it traverses different landscapes – we get to experience a considerable variety of terrain which Bako is known for.

The next day, we opt for a less strenuous trek. For the walk to Teluk Pandan Besar and Teluk Pandan Kecil, we follow the route to the waterfalls part-way, then turn off into a sandy path lined with pitcher plants and the peculiar ant plant hanging from tree trunks.

The latter have swollen bases full of chambers inhabited by ants. The plant-ant relationship has evolved in a nutrient-scarce environment – leftover food brought in by the ants are dissolved and sucked up by the plant, which provides shelter for the ants.

The trail leads to two cliffs which overlook two secluded bays. On one of them, a 10-minute descent through cliff vegetation brings us to the secluded beach of Teluk Pandan Kecil, framed by more stunning weathered sandstone cliffs.

When not on the trails, we stroll around the lush garden surrounding the chalets, and are often rewarded with wildlife sightings: silvered leaf monkeys, a flying lemur, flying geckos, various birds and, of course, bearded pigs.

On our last evening there, we walk around the chalets in search of nocturnal creatures such as the colugo and slow loris, but fail to pick them out. We are, however, entertained by Bako’s natural light show: the synchronised flashing of lights from fireflies which congregate on mangrove trees along the plankwalk.

It’s a magical twinkling extravaganza, and a perfect way to bring our perfect trip to Bako to a close.

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