An overwhelming sense of peace came over me as I set foot on the black sandy beaches of Telok Assam. With waves lapping softly at my ankles, I stood rooted there, admiring God’s work. Huge sandstone cliffs rose up from the ground like a solemn cathedral, weather-beaten to reveal fluid lines on its flat iron and rock surface.
Heavy drops of water fell from the high cliff edge to carve pools of clear liquid in the ground on which clingy barnacles made their home. Years of wind and water erosion have hollowed out parts of these cliffs, leaving behind cool cavernous interiors.
I was in Bako National Park. All was still and quiet. A stark contrast from the bustling Kampung Bako jetty I had left just minutes ago. A far cry from battling the high surf of the muddy waters in the tiny fishing boat. A different world altogether from the touristy Kuching town just 40 kilometres away.
It almost seems like I was standing on the edge of the world, and in a way, I was, for Bako sits right at the tip of the Sarawak peninsula facing the incredibly vast, raging South China Sea.
It is so remote that there are no road systems that lead you to its front doors. The only way to get here is on a boat maneuvered at top speeds by highly skilled boatmen as you hang on for dear life, bobbing against the waves.
To get to the stillness of Bako, you must leave everything behind – city comforts, tech gadgets, assumptions and presumptions – and travel light, in mind, heart and being. For someone who grew up in the jungles of concrete walls and ground, who knew only the buzzing of heavy traffic and chatter of human noise, I welcomed the change of pace and the lack of industrial din.
For seasoned adventurers, Bako might seem amateurish, but it remains among the popular national parks that are visited every year. Its appeal lies in the fact that it is easily accessible from Kuching – a short drive and boat-ride away. The other reason it attracts people to its shores is that it packs in, it seems, the sights of the whole Borneo island within an area of a mere 27 square kilometres. This humbly small national park, gazetted as such in 1957, is home to Borneo’s diverse wildlife, forests and vegetation including peat swamp forest, mangrove forest, dipterocarp forest, cliff vegetation, beach vegetation, kerangas or heath forest, and padang or grasslands.
Criss-crossing trails that run inland takes visitors from one ecosystem to another offering short strolls for first-time trekkers or up to eight-hour treks for those with energy and time to spare.
All trails begin at Telok Assam where the park’s headquarters, visitor centre and canteen are situated. Telok Assam itself is an example of the beach ecosystem with its dry beach forest and casuarina trees.
Here sightings of the elusive proboscis monkeys have been reported. Keep an ear out for the sounds of something heavy crashing through the trees and vegetation and chances are it would be a troop of these pendulous-nosed monkeys in search of food.
At low tide, a walk along the beaches of Telok Assam reveals inspiring geological structures – nature’s artwork on sandstone cliffs. Having stood some 75 million years of wind and water erosion, the cliffs have become a canvas of art with beautiful pink and orange iron patterns on their surfaces. What were once solid stone structures have now succumbed to the elements, reduced to fantastic sculptures in honeycomb designs, arches and stacks surrounded by water.
The paved trail along the beach leads visitors to the mangrove forest where plank walkways have been erected with resting areas or observation points every few metres. Here is another vantage point to sit quietly and wait for the proboscis monkeys to make an appearance.
Here the ground is soft and muddy, into which the big trees seem to have sunk their trunks for good. Circling them are the spiky roots that shoot up from the ground for air. This sparse landscape of spindly trees by the water’s edge gives way to a dense forest within the cool interiors. Here, age-old trees standing in close proximity tower high into the air, offering exposed sturdy roots for support to negotiate the steep inclines.
The thick dipterocarp canopy, some 30 metres above, is a welcome shade and shelters beautiful wild orchids, carnivorous pitcher plants and brightly coloured mushrooms sprouting from the forest floor. The air here is damp and cool, the ground beneath is scattered with fallen leaves and roots that either trip you up or save you from a potential fall.The higher up you go, the less dense is the forest. The temperatures rise a little and under your feet, the ground is sandy and dry. You breathe a little harder, you perspire a little more.
At one stop-point, a large signpost warns visitors to put out cigarettes before ascending any higher. It is an indication that the arid padang vegetation is not much further up.
Pushing your way up the last few metres, you finally find yourself in a large, flat clearing. The shrubs on this plateau are dry and offers little, if any, shade. The padang is an unforgiving place. The sun blazes down with no mercy. Your shirt, by now, is soaked through, and your skin is parched. You look around for some shade but the pitiful vegetation in the periphery offers no respite.
Continue the trek a little more over barren sandstone and kerangas heath forest and you’ll be rewarded with views of the wild sea crashing against the rock. Below, the sandy beaches of Telok Pandan beckons and with the last of your energy reserves, you give in to the temptation and make a mad scramble down the trail. Here the sands are soft against your feet and the limestone and sandstone cliffs rising up all around offers a sense of seclusion.
Bako’s contrasting landscapes from sandy beaches to damp forest to dry, parched land is only part of its charm. Unlike some national parks, visitors to Bako are almost guaranteed of at least one encounter with wildlife -- and you don’t even have to venture far.
A patient wait at the canteen in Telok Assam will be rewarded with a welcome greeting by the local residents of Bako -- the bearded pig, the silver leaf monkeys and the long-tailed macaques. These animals venture to the canteen area to forage for food and while the bearded pig may be a little friendly, be careful of the mischievous monkeys.
Bako has recorded some 150 species of birds in the area including kingfishers, white-bellied sea eagles, flycatchers, warblers and wagtails. Over at the mangrove forests are the crabs and mud skippers lazing by the banks. Large monitor lizards, otters and even mousedeers have been sighted by visitors on their walks.
Though small by national parks standards, Bako proves that there is so much more within its intimate space -- the contrasting forest systems, the animal and plant life, the infinite peace within. It turns out that the humbling sight of the sandstones on the beaches of Telok Assam was just the beginning of an amazing journey into the heart of Bako.
Getting to Bako:
There are public buses that run from the Kuching waterfront to Kampung Bako. From here, charter a boat to take you to the park; it costs about RM30 for a boat and the cost is split among the passengers. Make arrangements with the boatman for the return-trip. It takes 30 minutes each way.
Permits are required to enter Bako. These can be secured at the Bako National Park headquarters at Telok Assam.
For more information, log on to www.forestry.sarawak.gov.my, or call the National Parks Booking Office in Kuching at 6-082-248088.