Bako National Park, the most popular park in the State of Sarawak, is one of the easiest places to see mammals in Borneo. Home to endangered proboscis monkeys, flying lemurs, and bearded pigs, it is a great place to see a lot of animals in a short time. Since our mammal sightings in Borneo have been rare – gibbons in the tree tops, the backside of porcupines, and the eye shine of civets – we decided to spend five nights at the park. This turned out to be a great decision and our enthusiasm for the park was only slightly dampened by the 95 degree weather and the 100% humidity.
To get to Bako, we took a quick taxi ride and then a 30-minute boat ride out to the park headquarters. Built on a beach, the park has a number of hostels and lodges and is surrounded by a great system of hiking trails. We stayed in a nice private room for around $25.00 per night and ate in the canteen provided by the park.
Although the trails are extensive, we did not have to go far to see wildlife. In fact, we had most of our best sightings immediately around the park headquarters. Each evening between 3pm and 6pm, a group of proboscis monkeys would sit in the trees near the canteen, munching on leaves and taking naps. After they had their fill, they would leap over our heads, swinging off to other trees for the night. The beautiful silvered langurs also stayed near park headquarters, their sleek silvery fur offset by the red fur of their young. On our first night, while distractedly making a cell phone call, I was even interrupted by a giant bearded pig. He was ambling up behind me when Rick pointed at him, looking both amused and alarmed.
Bako is also home to at least six species of pitcher plants (Nepenthes), which were often found in the most open and muggy areas. The main loop hike took us up a steep hill, which was covered in stunted trees, shrubs and bare rock. It was there that I found wild orchids in bloom and four varieties of wild pitchers. One afternoon, I hiked up alone and spent an hour photographing Nepenthes rafflesiana – my favourite species. I watched closely as large drummer ants balanced precariously on the lip and lid of the pitcher, foraging for nectar. When disturbed, they would drum their abdomens against the plant. Despite their wild movements, they managed to eat without falling into the watery and toxic mix of juices below. Interestingly, a common name for these plants is “monkey cups” since they were once believed to be the goblets of thirsty monkeys. Although there were lots of monkeys and lots of pitchers, we never saw the two interact.
At Bako, we also spent hours looking for vipers (to no avail) and went birdwatching on the trails. One night we chased the sound of a hooting bird up and down the beach until we caught a brief glimpse of the buffy fish owl. Another day I observed the display of an eager male olive-backed sunbird as he courted an uninterested female. Puffing up his little chest, he hopped back and forth, chittering in an agitated manner and flashing her with the iridescent blue on his throat. One of my favourite sightings of the trip was a pink bridal veil fungus (Phallus multicolor) that we found in a very fresh state. These mushrooms grow and deteriorate in less than a day. While taking photos, a butterfly just happened to land on the top, coming back and forth to feed on the slime-coated cap.
For me, the only bad part of Bako was the bands of long-tailed macaques. Unlike the amusing proboscis monkeys or the shy langurs, the macaques are both aggressive and cunning. One day I walked down toward the canteen with a bag of almonds tucked into the side of my backpack. A corner of the package was poking out and this was enough to provoke three macaques to pursue me. I was actually jumped by monkeys. With one barking at me from the front and two actually hanging on to my backpack, I was soon relieved of my almonds and, unfortunately, my audio recorder. After they figured out that the audio recorder was not edible, it was dropped, unharmed, on the ground. The almonds however were quickly consumed and created some tension among the pack (quite understandably – they were honey roasted).
I would recommend Bako as a destination to anyone interested in wildlife or in botany. We only explored a small part of the park and we still saw an impressive number of creatures. Borneo continues to amaze me – the landscapes are so varied that I would need a lifetime to truly explore this place.