Where the wild things are

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am

Daybreak comes with thick mist and drizzle in Kampung Bako. The inhabitants of the languid fishing village, perched on the muddy banks of the Sarawak River's mouth in western Borneo, grin and say the rain is a gift from the gods. Bad weather means good business: rainproof ponchos are in big demand among the ill-prepared tourists who pass through the village on their way to the jungle. The cause of all the dampness is Bako National Park, a vast tract of towering dipterocarp rainforest that sprawls across the Muara Tabas peninsula, a region that remains pristine and relatively pollution free thanks to the Sarawak government's decision not to let hotel developers in or extend access roads.

'Forget the camera and pack the binoculars if you really want to savour the rainforest experience,' advises Stephan Veiss, a Swiss wildlife filmmaker spending two months documenting the feeding habits of Bako's most famous resident, the bizarre-looking proboscis monkey. Endemic to the island of Borneo, its numbers have dwindled to an all-time low of about 1,000 (from an estimated 6,400 in 1977) owing to a loss of coastal and riverine habitat caused by logging and human migration.

For zoologists and wildlife filmmakers, Bako is one of the few places left in Asia where this large, bulbous-nosed tree leaper can be glimpsed at close quarters, along with the abundance of other rare wildlife that inhabits the park's seven distinct ecosystems. Not surprisingly, the professional creature-watchers outnumber tourists by two to one and camouflaged viewing hides lend the coastal mangroves the strange air of a covert operation.

After a frantic, vertebrae-jarring bus ride from Sarawak's capital, the sleepy river port of Kuching, the journey becomes more of a Conrad-style river adventure at Kampung Bako. Beyond the poncho sellers, an assortment of marine craft awaits with willing (and not so willing) crews of clove cigarette-puffing boatmen to carry you an hour farther along the coast to Bako National Park headquarters at Telok Assam beach.

Weather conditions can deteriorate rapidly across the Bornean land mass and I suddenly find myself buffeted by strengthening sea winds and staring up at a darkening sky. Joseph Raman, the village's only available boatman, is not keen to take passengers out in a squall.

A change in mood, unlike weather, can be tempted, however, and 10 minutes (and M$10/HK$22) later I sit hunched in a coffin-sized boat bobbing violently at the river mouth. My hands grip the gunwhales and the old man's huge outboard engine catapults us out into the ocean.

To anyone watching from the river bank we must look like two desperate souls heading into oblivion aboard little more than a piece of motorised driftwood. But with deft timing and the odd mumbled prayer, Raman weaves the boat between wayward logs and zigzags to avoid the swirling eddies.

Hugging the mangroves, we speed out towards the Muara Tabas peninsula and some of the most dramatic coastal landscape in Borneo. Thick rainforest spills over the craggy sandstone sea cliffs, coloured pink and orange by iron oxide and 75 million years in the making.

Nearing Telok Assam beach the coastal vegetation grows intensely green and quiet coves appear between the craggy outcrops. Troupes of grey leaf monkeys forage along the high-tide marks here on most evenings.

Unlike in the highland provinces of Borneo, tourists are assured by their tour agencies in Kuching that there are no swollen rivers to ford or sausage-sized leeches to fend off. Malay-style lodges - some private, others shared, but all with balconies that push the rainforest's edge and lie only five minutes' walk from the beach - allow visitors to ease their city senses into the jungle surroundings without too much trouble.

Large animals roam the park headquarters freely. From the restaurant balcony that overlooks flooded lawns and groves of coconut palms, passing bearded pigs and monitor lizards provide regular entertainment for the afternoon-tea crowd.

More than 50km of trails take hikers through the national park's ecosystems, from the coastal mangroves and rainforest, with its towering 100-metre-tall trees, to the high pandang grasslands. Exploring these requires only medium-level fitness, a sun hat, a full water canteen and, for sporadic downpours, that overpriced poncho you picked up in Kampung Bako.

The impact on the park of increasing numbers of tourists has prompted the National Parks Department to construct a 400-metre boardwalk to minimise damage to the mangrove forests, the foundation of marine life and an integral part of the coastal forest ecosystem. To this, five spotting platforms have been added that also allow birdwatchers to approach many of Bako's 150-odd recorded species. Just before dawn, as the sun is burning off the last of the morning mist, is the perfect time to watch the birdies.

While there are wild things aplenty to ogle in Bako, the highlight of a visit for many is a glimpse of one of Borneo's shyest creatures, the proboscis monkey. Its grey legs, white backside, orange kettledrum stomach and permanent erection make quite an impression in the forest gloom, but it is at its most flamboyant when feeding among foliage over the mangroves.

I set out one morning with Veiss for the half-hour hike to Telok Delima beach, where he had spotted a

large troupe of proboscis monkeys the previous day. Entering the rainforest at this early hour feels like stepping into a Rousseau painting: metallic-coloured beetles the size of minibuses whir across our faces, leaf-cutter ants stream over the forest floor and tree frogs stare back at us goggle-eyed from their lofty perches in the dripping canopy.

'After heavy rain you can almost hear the forest breathing,' whispers Veiss, stopping every few minutes to listen for the tell-tale crash of monkeys leaping about the canopy. Recent high tides at Telok Delima force us to wade knee-deep into the muddy mangroves and we accidentally startle a pair of large monitor lizards. They slither off noisily into the gloom. According to Veiss, proboscis monkeys retreat at the sight or slightest sound of people pushing through the undergrowth.

Just as the sun rises above the morning mist, Veiss spots six white tubular tales dangling from the treetops less than 20 metres away. The troupe has heeded the dominant male's breakfast call and its members are gorging themselves on leaves high above the mangroves.

Even Bako's brooding storm clouds play in our favour, withholding their showers just long enough for us to catch that rare glimpse of one of Asia's rarest creatures.

Getting there: Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com/hk) flies from Hong Kong to Kuching via Kota Kinabalu. Bako National Park lodges offer rooms from M$100 a night. Call Kuching Visitor Information Centre on 60 82 24 8088 or e-mail ebooking.com.my.corr