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Ready Trek Monkey business

In a blatant attempt at trying to catch up, though with good reason that will become apparent later, this ‘ere diary entry what you are reading covers both Sunday and Monday in Borneo.

Sunday, October 13th 2019

As with 2 of the prior 3 full days on this trip, Sunday started with an alarm set for 0630. Outside, something’s going on down by the riverfront. There are announcements being made, and a lot of people with umbrellas, occasionally applauding whatever’s being said. Is it some kind of race? Not sure, but it’s definitely something.

Just like on Friday, we grabbed a buffet breakfast, then got picked up by someone from Borneo Adventure. An extremely friendly man named Paul was waiting for us, with the surprising news that on this trip there were other people to pick up. Two English lads, a Leodensian and a scouser, were staying at the Hilton and joining us on this trip to Bako National Park.

Bako is the big hitter in this region when it comes to wildlife. There’s a 40-odd minute drive through pouring rain as we all chat about stuff already visited, and then we’re deposited next to a small ticket office and shop. Upon his arrival from parking the van, Paul sorts out tickets and gets us to fill out some kind of register before leading us past a few shacks down to the riverside, and into a very small boat.

It’s still absolutely pissing down. A proper SE Asian rain, warm and unpleasant and a constant through the moderately bumpy boat trip. There are numerous other boats ahead and behind us, in fact we seem to operate some kind of peloton - occasionally we’ll overtake some, then pull the brakes and let others take the lead. Water splashes over us from the side of the boat, and down on us from the flimsy canvas cover. By the time we reach our disembarkation point I’m absolutely utterly drenched from head to toe.

Amusingly (and I mean that), because the tide is low, we can’t go all the way to the jetty. Rather, we have to take our shoes and socks off and walk across the muddy beach. It’s so hilariously unpleasant.

My trousers were a lot lighter when I put them on. Still, the new rain jacket is doing its job so far.

Helen is, mercifully, equally as amused as I am by this experience.

It’s only about 0920, and the day has barely started. At Bako park HQ we wash the sand of our feet and dry them off, put our shoes back on, and are led along one of the boardwalk trails. Within just a few yards we join the other intrepid tourists who are pointing at a proboscis monkey up a tree.

There’s no point using phone cameras to try and get a shot, and Helen’s attempt at using her real camera is rendered pointless by the humidity and pissing rain. Did I mention yet it was raining? Because it was, a lot. Still, cool to see another proboscis monkey.

A few more yards up and the scouser exclaims “there’s a wild boar!”. That’s a bearded pig, don’t-you-know.

Them things are supposedly quite vicious in the wild, but friendly around here because they’re used to all the humans that aren’t hunters, just photographers.

Anyway. Enough with the stuff that’s virtually next to HQ, we’re off on a proper trek. Paul hasn’t actually given any of us a hint on what we’re going to do or see, nor asked how fit we are or comfortable with whatever. He’s just gonna lead us and we’ll see what happens.

The first thing to happen of note is that he jumps over the fence about 800 yards further on, taking us to a boardwalk that’s closed off because it’s unsafe and derelict at the end. But that’s OK, because just before the derelict bit he’s leading us down a slope onto a beach. I sound more aggrieved by this than I am or was, and it was very good that he took us there: this particular beach has lots of plastic litter on it, which he wanted to show us. He explained that this is just a few day’s worth, as volunteers (of which he is sometimes one) come here to clean it up weekly, but still it comes in from the sea. This pollution is horrible.

Further around the coast, a few birds are visible. In particular we spot the raquet tailed drongo (IIRC), a bright blue bird with spectacular tail. Obviously there’s no chance of getting a pic, but just the impossible exoticism is nice.

We all thought after that bit we’d head back to the real path, but no. Carrying on around, with another couple of bearded pigs visible foraging in the sand, we go past some nice rock formations and then Paul points to Helen: “you were talking about caves, yeah?”. Um...

Next thing we know we’re climbing through a gap between some rocks. The two young fellas are much fitter and carrying much less than either of us, but even they’re a bit surprised by this turn of events. Despite our extreme trepidation, Helen ascends through the gap like a champion, and even I’m not too clumsy. Not sure I’ll enjoy doing it in reverse, mind.

From here it’s a long, strenuous trek through amazing rain forest. It’s still tipping it down with rain the whole time, and there’s precious little wildlife to see, but the landscape is quite incredible.

Mangroves.

Up and down and up and down. After just a couple of minutes there is some more boardwalk section, so I can quell my inner panic that Paul’s taken us 100% off-piste. Indeed, many of the trees are labelled with white paint signifying that we’re (back) on one of the proper marked trails.

Most of the walk is not boardwalk though. We relentlessly ascend and descend with either slippery rocks or tree roots underfoot, often necessitating grabbing onto slimy vegetation for balance or to pull ourselves up. Many steps are particularly deep. In 30ºc heat, with hot rain, a jacket on and carrying two heavy bags (main rucksack, and camera equipment) I make the claim with reasonable confidence that this is the sweatiest I have ever, ever been and perhaps ever will be.

After a while we reach a beach. It’s still raining, but there’s a small hut where we can at least take our bags off and leave them. Paul hangs around and gives us all a fifteen minute break.

There are a couple of boats hanging around. They’re taxis, basically. It’s common for people to walk here and then get the boat back, or vice versa. Paul offers us that opportunity, he’ll tell them to take us to HQ so long as we have money to pay (and we do). The other two lads are off rock climbing for a bit while we debate this, eventually deciding no: in for a penny, in for a pound, we’ll walk back with everyone.

It’s not a circular route, we go back the way we came. Thus some of the trickier steep climbs are now perilous descents and stuff. I’m seriously enjoying it all, and apart from maybe once or twice neither of us come close to losing our footing, despite everything being so damn wet.

Throughout the journey, in both directions, we’ve encountered other walkers. It’s a popular place. The rain starts to calm down, and on one slippery bit of boardwalk without a bannister, Helen could do without a nearby monkey letting out a shout.

The route back is not exactly the same: we don’t do the off-piste bit and haven’t got to clamber through the hole in the rocks. And as we emerge into a clear bit, from which the rest of the walk is on boardwalk, looking back at the tree tops we see a monkey. No, two - three - four - hang on, there’s loads of them. Indeed, there are 8 silvered leaf monkeys up and about. Fantastic!

A small lizard decides to stand very still on a nearby plant, posing for photos. Nearby there are crabs.

A group of girls walking in the opposite direction to us ask if there are “more monkeys” that way. Of course there have been, but we like them saying “more” as it means they’ve just seen some back near HQ. Sure enough, with the rain having now stopped, more proboscis monkeys are having lunch. They are wonderful things and it’s properly special to see them. I believe Borneo is the only place on earth where they exist in the wild.

At HQ it’s time to sit down and have lunch. This is a self-serve buffet cafe with standard Malaysian fare: a couple of types of rice, some veg, some chicken, some eggs. We all chow down on a bit except for the Leeds fella, who chows down on a LOT. Oh, but before we even got inside another bearded pig decided he was going to flump down on the grass.

My favourite pig.

We are SOAKING wet, the lot of us. Even when rain stops, the humidity in this part of the world is such that you don’t dry off, you just stay wet. Carrying the most weight both in bodily terms and with the bags, I have burnt the most calories and find it hard to state just how exhausted I feel. But! No rest for us, once lunch is done Paul’s going to take us on another, shorter trek in a different direction. Not before a brief macaque encounter though.

Turns out he’d been told that there was a viper on one of the trees nearby. Sure enough, this evil thing was hanging around. Really quite deadly, so we’re told.

Carrying on further, we go past a colugo – also known as a flying lemur, despite not being a lemur. It’s asleep and clutching a tree, looking mostly like a big ball of moss. But it’s an animal, damn it.

Also weird mushrooms, and a billion termites forming long trains doing who knows what.

The end of this mini trek is at a small water pool where Paul had hoped we might see terrapins, but unfortunately not. Never mind. No emotional or mental injuries were sustained. Good job too, with the lack of available recourse.

The weather was against us today in terms of having a full bounty of wildlife, but then again there’d be no guarantee even if it were sunny. It has been spectacular nonetheless, and best of all the tide has come in such that we can walk along the beach to the jetty rather than go shoes off to the boat which is to take us back.

Actually, that’s not the best bit. The best bit is that during this walk we see YET MORE proboscis monkeys!

Love it. Love those animals.

The boat ride back is considerably more pleasant than the morning’s one, what with the lack of rain. A bit faster too, I reckon. And then it’s the van back into town, with profuse thanks given to Paul for showing us around such an amazing place.

It’s about 3.30pm when we’re back at the hotel and I feel like I could sleep forever. It would be a bad idea to do so, so after showering and putting all our sodden clothes in a pile we decide to head out, for some more substantial food and a well earned beer. Our calves and thighs are hurting from the main trek so I also claim it would be a good idea not to let them seize up.

Back at the James Brooke bistro, there’s beer and laksa and green curry. Helen has to nudge me to stop me falling asleep mid-meal even though it’s only about 5pm. Oof. Also there are cats resting in the nearby cat statue.

Heading back to the hotel we think we’ll drink in the bar, though would still very much like an off-licence to magic itself into existence. And then it does! The minimart called “Wonder 8”, which I had suggested we visit on our first night, has a beer fridge at the back. Woohoo! They don’t take cards so I get cash out from an ATM in the nearby mall, then return to grab 8 small cans of beer.

In the hotel room I start writing up our Friday adventures, repeatedly falling asleep mid-sentence with a finger pressed down on a key. Also I’d made no notes - indeed, my notepad was now quite a state since I’d kept the pad in an outer pocket all day.

I’m SO EXHAUSTED that finishing the one 330ml can of beer I opened is a struggle. Climbing into bed with all my remaining energy I sip the last sip, and fall asleep a split second later.

Monday 14th October 2019

There’s one good reason why going to bed so early wasn’t a terrible idea on Sunday, and that’s because Monday involved our earliest alarm yet. 5am! Except we were up even earlier than that, since a) we’d slept so much already b) Helen was ill. Very ill. Oh dear.

Something had played havoc with her insides over the last few days, to the point where she thought she wouldn’t be able to leave the hotel all day. Another reason for that is that her legs were barely working. Likewise mine. Yesterday’s trekking had been a cracking workout for our calves and thighs, and today we each felt like we’d run a marathon (I’ve run half marathons and not felt DOMS like this before!).

After considering calling our morning excursion off, then sending me alone, a shower and some Coca Cola made Helen feel a bit better. Furthermore, what we had in store was nowhere near the kind of loo-free trips of previous days out. So at 0630 we’re down in reception and meeting Yeo, from Borneo Birding. This morning he was taking us to Kubah park, the best place for birdwatching in the vicinity. He gave us a book to glance through en route.

Awesomely, this also completed our compass points collection. Semenggoh had been south, Santubong north, Bako east, and now Kubah was out in the west. I find it pretty incredible that so much amazing scenery and wildlife is there just 40 minutes or so in any direction from what is a pretty big well-to-do city. Quite a special place, Kuching.

Kubah doesn’t open until 8am, but we arrive at 7am and are allowed in because Yeo is one of the registered birdwatching guides/experts. There’s a loo near the car park, which is good, and having told him of Helen’s woes he’s reassured us that we’re only going to walk a maximum of 1km, and would always have taken it super-slowly because that’s how birdwatching works.

We have no pics of birds from this trip, which is sad. Basically they were all too far away, or moving too quickly. But with Yeo’s expert help we saw 15 types of bird that we’ve never seen before, 3 of which are endemic to Borneo and one we should feel particularly proud/lucky to have seen: he says when serious birders come here they take 14-day trips and still sometimes never see the Bornean blue flycatcher. The other two only found round here are the Bornean black magpie and banded kingfisher.

Our binoculars come into their own, but without Yeo we’d have seen virtually nothing. He had a digital dictaphone with over 300 bird calls recorded on it, connected to a small speaker. He’d recorded those calls himself, and played them whenever he either heard a similar one nearby, or knew we were at the likely habitat. This was all mixed up with his own whistling for some of the easier calls, and it really worked: we’d hear something, he’d play a response call, and we’d hear the wild bird nearer. A few seconds later after peering into a forest comprised of 1000 shades of green, somehow he’d spot a bird behind a leaf and point us to them.

Occasionally an interesting fern grabbed our attention

We saw bulbuls and barbets and kingfishers. Magpies, swiftlets, flycatchers, spiderhunters, sunbirds, leafbirds. Flower pickers, babblers, bee eaters and broad bills. All this to a soundtrack of numerous other birds, plus repeated hearings of the giant squirrel (sadly, never sighted). A privost squirrel scampered across the road and up a tree too.

It was a great morning thanks to having an expert guide. The only real problem was that our gentle and slow 1km walk was ENTIRELY UPHILL, and not gently so either. Grr. Our calves and thighs did not thank us for it, especially on the faster descent. But hell, I enjoyed the exercise. Absolutely best of all, Helen got through the trip without further illness. We were back in Yeo’s car at 1030, and back at the hotel by 1100.

... and that’s it for Monday. Upon returning to the room, Helen’s dodgy stomach kicked in double time and we confined ourselves to the room for the rest of the day. There was actually nothing more on the itinerary anyway. I was glad to have time for a kip, and should have written up previous days stuff but, well, didn’t. We had a bunch of snack food to eat, plus a fridge full of the 6 beers we’d failed to drink the previous night.

Best of all, no alarm was set for Tuesday.

Created By
Darren Foreman
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