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Browsing Through Bako

Bako National Park, Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo)

By Liz Price

Bearded pig, Bako © Liz PriceThe bearded pig came right up to the camera and put his snout against the lens in his quest for food. Discovering it was inedible, he reversed a couple of paces and then stood and looked at me, hoping for a titbit. The inhabitants of Bako are certainly friendly.

Bako National Park is unique with its amazing variety of flora, fauna and formations. Sandstone cliffs, secluded bays, rain forest, mangroves, bushland, pitcher plants, proboscis monkeys and hornbills. These are just some of the attractions of Bako National Park, Sarawak, which lies just 37km north of Kuching. The Park covers some 27 square kilometres, and provides a green lung for the city folk. Both locals and foreigners visit the park, which is particularly popular at weekends, and provides a good place to relax and enjoy the beauty of the varied terrain.

Bako was Sarawak's first National Park and was gazetted 1957. Although it is a small park, and has no high mountains or spectacular caves, it is famous for its unusual geology, and amazing range of natural habitats which include seven major different types of vegetation. These range from mixed dipterocarp forest, peat swamp forest, cliff vegetation, kerangas forest, scrub and padang, and mangrove and beach forests. Many well marked trails have been laid throughout the park, ranging from short strolls to seven hour treks. From these trails the varied vegetation and rock types can easily be seen.

Overlooking Bako Bay, SarawakBako is easily accessible from Kuching. There is a regular bus service to Kampung Bako where one transfers to a boat for the half hour ride to the park. There are often good views of Mount Santubong to the west. Permits for the park can be obtained from the Visitors' Information Centre at Padang Merdeka in Kuching, or else at the boat terminal. The headquarters and visitors centre is at Telok Assam, where there is a very informative interpretation centre with a wealth of information available. And of course all the trails start from here.

Telok Assam is open, dry beach forest with casuarina trees. Just 100 metres away from headquarters is a soggy and virtually impenetrable swamp forest and also areas of mangroves. The mangroves thrive standing in 2m of sea water, and have adapted to this life by secreting salt from their leaves. Spiky roots which protrude above the mud help supply oxygen to the submerged parts of the plants.

Crossing the swamp on plank walks, the visitor can then begin the climb up the hill to the plateau with its padang vegetation, which is shrubby and dry. Walking across the padang it is easy to imagine oneself to be in the desert area of Australia, and to forget that this is actually tropical Borneo. The local Iban people call these areas Kerangas, meaning land unsuitable for growing rice. The open countryside gives good panoramic views. In places plank walks have been installed to avoid areas which are boggy in the wet season.

Pitcher plants and ant plants can easily be seen from the trail. The pitcher plants trap and digest insects, whilst the ant plants are a good example of cooperation between animal and plant ­ the ants having built a nest on the host plant. These plants grow on the low, spindly trees and shrubs which grow in the sandy soil.

Sandstone headlandApproaching the coastal areas the vegetation thins and becomes very sparse, resulting in the delicate plants clinging to vertical rock faces. The trail suddenly comes out onto a cliff top as the land meets the sea, and these cliffs often overlook secluded beaches. The coastline is much indented with bays and coves, and the beaches are sandy and generally deserted ­ a delight for European and Australian visitors who are often used to crowded beaches.

Bako is formed mainly of sandstone which is some 75 million years old, and over the years has been weathered down into unusual formations which today make Bako a remarkable place. There are features such as delicate pink iron patterns on cliff faces, honeycomb weathering, iron skin, solution pans, sea arches and stacks. One of the most famous sights of Bako is the sea stack off Telok Pandan Besar, which resembles a cobra's head.

For more variety in scenery, it is good to walk back to HQ through the through tropical rain forest with the typical giant trees such as the Dipterocarp. This is Sarawak's most widespread forest type, with the tall canopy some 30m above the forest floor.

Animal life is abundant. Being a National Park the fauna is protected and has become less wary of man. Bako is probably best known for being home to the rare Proboscis monkey. This long nosed primate is only found in Borneo, and only in and around mangrove forests. It is quite common in Bako, and a good place to observe these monkeys is from the forest on the Telok Delima trail less than 1km from Telok Assam. They can easily be seen in the evenings.

Regular visitors to the park headquarters are the silver leaf monkeys and the long tailed macaques. The macaques are always scavenging for food around the chalets, and have even learnt to open the windows and enter bedrooms in their search for food, as we found out to our cost. One morning when we returned to our room after breakfast we found the window open and our sweets, muesli bars and fruit had gone ­ the monkey thief had taken our trekking food.

Wild pigs have become quite tame and are commonly seen around the chalets, especially at the rubbish bins. And there are plantain squirrels and small birds also looking for a free meal. As in other national parks in Malaysia, more animals can be seen around the headquarters than actually out in the forests.

The more shy animals can sometimes be seen when out walking. The most common are the large monitor lizards, which grow up to 2m in length. They are harmless despite their dragon like appearance, and feed on insects and small mammals. Crabs and mudskippers abound in the tidal areas. Fiddler crabs live among the mangroves, and the air breathing mudskippers are often seen on the mud banks. Occasionally an otter can be spotted, or the shy mouse deer, which are the smallest hoofed animals in the world. 150 species of bird have been seen in Bako including two types of hornbill, the pied and the black. The hornbill is Sarawak's national bird. Many migrant birds pass Bako, especially in September to November when they are travelling south to escape the cold northern winters. Flycatchers, pipits, plovers, shrikes, wagtails and warblers are all easy to see.

Once at the park there is a range of accommodation from camping through to deluxe rest house. But whatever your choice of room, beware of the monkey thieves. Although many people go to Bako just for a day trip, it is worth staying overnight to see the proboscis monkeys, and also, if lucky one of Bako's stunning sunsets.

Further information


Photos (from top): Sniffings of a Bearded pig (© Liz Price); overlooking the bay of Bako and close up of the sandstone headlands - © WILDBORNEO.net


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