Thursday, June 18, 2015

Borneo: Jungle fever

Wiping off hunks of gibbon poo from a khaki-ed shoulder may not be every traveller's cup of tea, but the tropical rainforests and mist-cloaked peaks of Malaysia's Sarawak are dream destinations for tourists with a taste for adventure and a love of wildlife.

A one-and-a-half hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, the state of Sarawak stretches along the western and northern edge of the island of Borneo, meeting the South China Sea at the coast. One of two of Malaysia's Bornean states, Sarawak encircles the Nation of Brunei and rubs shoulders with Indonesia along its southern border.

Sarawak is fast earning a reputation as Malaysia's eco-tourism hub. The semi-autonomous state is rich in national parks, with 30 strewn across the state and many new parks and reserves in the pipeline. Standouts include Mulu National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site that boasts the world's largest cave chambers (it's rumoured that 10 Boeing 747 planes could lie side by side in the chamber), and Niah National Park where, in 1958, archaeologists unearthed a 40,000-year-old skull of a modern human.

At 37km from our base in Sarawak's capital, Kuching, Bako National Park is the oldest (gazetted in 1957) and one of the smallest national parks in Malaysia. To get to the park, we wind up the mangrove-fringed river, through Bako village, a tiny settlement first established in 1953 by a descendant of the Brunei Royal family, whose economic mainstay is anchovy fishing. The trip affords glorious views of Santubong's mountain peaks, and precarious, sea-carved sandstone cliffs that jut into the South China Sea. The 30-minute journey costs 94RM ($33) a boat, which fits four people.

Within 10 minutes of our arrival we've already spotted mud skippers (small fish that hop across the sandy mangrove flat), bearded pigs snuffling around the chalets and a lime green venomous Bornean pit viper, resting its enormous, distended stomach on a branch. In the treetops above us, docile silver langur monkeys with David-Beckham-esque mohawks laze around.

We also catch a glimpse of a family of proboscis monkeys, with their hilarious-yet-obscene saggy noses, webbed feet, and honking "danger calls". Unique to Borneo, they are one of the few primates that survive mainly on leaves. Their protruding, pregnant potbellies teeming with digestive bacteria, is proof. More than 200 individuals live in the park.

The park also achieves the sizeable feat of showcasing 25 different types of vegetation and seven different ecosystems, including beach vegetation, mangrove and peat swamp forest, and heath forest (known locally as kerangas). It's a botanist's delight offering ancient, cycads that evolved 17 million years ago, bizarre spiky palms, looping vines that corkscrew up into the canopy and an assortment of strange mosses and ferns.

With long treks for seasoned trampers, or shorter 30-minute jaunts, the park caters for all levels of fitness. Bako is easily day-trip-able but overnight stays come highly recommended and allow for more flexibility for the tidal access.

The park offers guided night walks for overnighters to catch a glimpse of the illusive tarsier (part monkey, part mouse with huge round eyes), bats and the bizarre scaly pangolin with its hexagonally plated body.

The real drawcard, though, is the beautiful, coppery-coloured monkey that shares 97 per cent of human's DNA and possesses five times the strength of a human - the orang-utan (literally "person of the forest").

A population estimate about 10 years ago guessed that 59,000 endangered Bornean orang-utans remained in the wild. Numbers have declined by more than 50 per cent over the past 60 years and available habitat has shrunk by 55 per cent in the pasts two decades.

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