Our next excursion out of Kuching was to Bako national park. Bako, is proudly Borneo's smallest national park but it is still pretty big, with some walks taking two days to complete. It is home to some of the rarest species including the proboscis monkey (funny looking monkey with a big nose, which it makes honking noises through) and the monitor lizard (big massive thing not much smaller than an alligator) and countless other monkeys, pigs, spiders, snakes and bugs.
The park is entirely inaccessible by any route other than official boats, which carry up to 6 people at a time and leave from an official registration point. The boat takes 20 minutes or so, and then lands at the park centre which is a small compound with a camp site, various accommodation huts and lodges, a canteen and a further registration centre and souvenir shop. From here there are about a dozen walks which take from an hour to a couple of days to complete. Most walks take about a day to complete, including time to take in the area and maybe have a little swim too. The lodges and dorms provide enough accommodation for maybe about 50 people to stay at the park at any one time, either having a room to themselves or sharing with others. The rooms are basic, and so is the canteen food, but that's not really why anyone goes to Bako national park.
We booked one night before we left Kuching and ended up extending it to three nights in the end. No sooner were we off the boat than we were introduced to one of Bako's less popular residents, the macaque. Your typical grey, badly behaved cheeky monkey. The compound has attracted loads of these who now enjoy a life of stealing food, whether it's off your plate, out of the canteen, out of a bin or out of your carrier bags. They are not passive scavengers either, as we discovered when one came running at us, all claws and fangs and hissing, and leapt for our carrier bag, requiring vociferous shaking and beating to save our pot-noodles. Having met the 'naughty macaques' (as the warning signs call them), we went for a wander before dark to see if we could find any other wildlife. Just as we reached the point where the jungle walks began we spotted a family of proboscis who had found a patch of trees particularly to their fancy. Because of the number of well meaning people who come to Bako, a lot of the wildlife has lost any fear of man and this allowed to us to watch them for about 20 minutes, without them so much as blinking at us. It was great, you could hear them munching away on the branches as they chewed through the canopy. Then it was time to enjoy the sunset before pot-noodles and cards with our neighbours.
Next morning, it's breakfast on the porch, with the muesli we brought with us and another wrestle for the food as once again we're mugged for our provisions. This time the monkey only fled when I picked up a chair and chased it off the porch waving it about and shouting. They are incredibly audacious and fearless. I thought that clapping my hands hard, right in front of its face would have scared it off, but it just hissed at me with its fangs and claws ready if i tried that particular trick a second time. Following that incident, I made sure that I wore my hiking boots everywhere I went in the compound, resolved, that if they tried anything else, I'd simply run at them and if they didn't move, they probably would the second time after a good boot. As it turned out, my charging and stomping was sufficient and no monkey made contact with my feet. The canteen's staff carry a catapult and this also seemed quite a good deterrent.
After breakfast, we set off on our walk and very early into the trip we saw a long black tail ending in a thin point slinking off into the trees. At the time we thought this might have been a monitor lizard but a few days later we would be introduced to a cobra someone had caught and it's tail looked remarkably similar. Three hours or so later, we are now deep inside the jungle, having passed all kinds of bugs and insects that make such a racket it seems louder than a city centre. The most curious was the insect that makes the noise like a tiny grand-prix car racing up through the gears. And then we reached the spot where every shampoo advert tries to recreate. In a semi clearing, is a waterfall, which then fills a rocky pool which then flows over into another pool, this time smooth and that then feeds another pool. Hanging over the water is all assortments of palm leaves and vines and the air around is warm while the water is cool and deep. We promptly got changed into our swimming gear and spent about half an hour floating about wondering how we ended up in such a place. We had the place to ourselves too for about ten minutes or so before a few other people passed by but no-one else jumped in so we had the water all to ourselves.
After that we carried on our way and found a massive beach with fabulous sand and cliffs running around the perimeter with all kinds of tropical palms and trees hanging over the precipice, and the odd giant boulder on the beach with its own little jungle atop. We wandered along the beach taking a few photos and then decided we'd pop round a little rocky peninsular to see the beach on the other side. As the tide was starting to come in, and we were about 5 minutes away from it, we thought we best pick up pace but on arrival, the water was already a foot deep or so. We decided we must have just seen it wrong and that the tide must have already been in that far, but in the time we stood looking at this, and were then distracted by a photo opportunity, the tide had further risen to the point we were suddenly on a sand bar and we had to take our shoes off and paddle back across to the beach. All in the space of less than 5 minutes. So we got two swims that day.
Day 2 in Bako and it's up and out on another walk. This time the ultimate destination is another beach facing in a different direction and it's about twice the walk of yesterday, which we decided was a warm up. It's much harder going and takes about 5 hours to get there though only about 2 to get back as we came back a more direct route. The terrain changes wildly throughout the park. Some of it is like a forest walk back home, while other parts are most definitely jungle, then at other times you step out onto plateau and it's very open with low lying and thin vegetation and very smooth but stony ground, and beating sun. Then other parts involve a lot of scrambling as you have steep ascents and descents, clinging to roots and vines and squeezing between boulders. But through all of it, the path is very clearly marked with markers and the vegetation is very respectful of pathways so no machetes required. There are also little boardwalks and steps at odd intervals where it can get a bit boggy if it rains. When we reached the beach, we couldn't believe our luck, again it was plucked straight out of a movie set and again we had this little bit of paradise all to ourselves. This time the beach was quite a bit smaller and was much more of an alcove, again with cliffs and jungle clinging to it's perimeter. The beach faced out into the China sea, and the water was ridiculously warm. You would honestly be satisfied if your poured a bath and it was this temperature. While swimming about in it though, you would occasional find a cold current which would suddenly sweep passed you and that was of great relief. The water, was very sandy, not blue and it was quite disconcerting not being able to see your self in the water much below 6 inches. After swimming about a bit, I tried to climb a tree trunk which had fallen over and was making a bridge up to the top of a boulder, again just like a film set, I made it about half way until pushing through a bit of shrubbery I noticed a colony of fire ants, unimpressed at my presence and got chased back off.
That night we got rudely awoken when a storm passed over the jungle and our compound. It was great. At it's most intense the sky seemed to be lit up for longer periods than it was dark and the sound was so loud that our hut was shaking. I lay in bed, in the dry, deciding points were matched with the macaque.
The following morning we got the boat back to Kuching, and stayed for a day before we flew back to Kuala Lumpur to continue the trip through Malaysia.
Borneo was such a special experience. Never have either of us found anything that comes close, in the search for the ever-sought-after 'paradise'. It has an abundance of what so many resorts attempt to recreate, only it's all real and entirely accessible, and the forestry commission who govern it are doing a fantastic job of looking after it and making it accessible. There was so much more that we didn't get to see including some of the most spectacular cave systems in the world and other larger national parks who's jungles include the likes of Rhinos. If ever anyone was looking for a fortnight in paradise with beaches and a bit of adventure, I can't thing of anywhere better to recommend.