After our time with the orangutans, our next wildlife adventure took us to a much more remote area, requiring a road trip, a boat journey down river to the sea and then up coast to the shores of Bako National Park. We had researched how to access the park a few weeks ahead and had booked three nights in a park service bungalow right on the edge of a rainforest inhabited by several species of rare and endemic monkeys, flying lemurs, wild boars, and a whole host of creepy crawlies. We were very excited to see the abundant wildlife and gaze at the stars from the park beach. However, two days prior to departing for the park we did a bit more in depth research on the facilities we had booked and become alarmed as we read through dozens of lurid Tripadvisor reviews. Several of them started with “DON’T STAY HERE!” It seems the accommodations were a trifle primitive for the standards of many travelers. For example, several reviewers reported that the gaping holes in the floorboards invited swarms of biting insects into the lodge to enjoy night-long blood meals. Others took a dim view of the plumes of mold that apparently decorated virtually all surfaces within the forest bungalows. A few others felt that it would have been nice to have linens and towels that had not obviously been just used by the last guests. You know, lots of picky little complaints like that. We huddled together and decided a single night in the forest would likely provide enough “roughing it” for us so we altered our booking to one night and headed out of town with trepidation for what lay ahead.
Getting to the park was pretty straightforward and we were really happy to arrive to the jumping off point, a well run dock area staffed with friendly employees and littered with a dozen or so fellow travelers all either coming or going from the park or other destinations down river. We had arrived with plenty of daylight left in which to make the two hour boat trek to the park shores. We were operating on the good advice of our Lonely Planet guide book which suggested it would be relatively easy to secure water passage to the park and a local guide to highlight the wildlife. What that venerable publication did not provide insight about was the fact that recent trips into the park had been interrupted by the presence of a cranky crocodile. In fact the menace had grown to the point that local authorities had taken the time to post a sign declaring…
“Dear visitors, regretfully please be informed that swimming at all beaches in Bako national park is not allowed for now due to a sighting of a crocodile. Efforts to catch the croc is ongoing. If you do still want to swim then you swim at your own risk and the inconvenience caused is regrettable”.
That was not all that worrying since we really had no plans to dip into the sea as our exclusive focus was terrestrial wildlife and forest. We did get a bit more concerned though, when subsequent to purchasing boat passage, we were told the tide was really quite low and that would require a beach landing as the rather short dock at the park would be landlocked at the time of our arrival. Upon hearing this news we stared at our boat’s first mate and pointed to the bulletin on the wall that had forecast bad things happening in the shallow beach waters for those foolhardy enough to dip a foot in. As a point of perspective, I must say that I am a big fan of the Planet Earth videos and have a vivid memory of one of the most dramatic sequences in the the series, where a herd of exhausted wildebeest arrive to an unknown watering hole looking to slake their intense thirst. One after the next they dip their noses to the water, quaking with fear and staying alert for any movement, when WHOOSH up emerges in froth and fury a huge Nile croc, snapping its vice like jaws on the neck of a large antelope, dragging it helplessly into the water, rolling as it descends into the murky depths drowning and devouring all at the same time. All of this flashed through my mind in a split second, no doubt causing my face to contort a bit as I inquired about the bulletin with the gritty looking first mate. His reply was poignant but with tongue firmly in cheek “Don’t worry, no one has died yet this week”. With that he spun about, grabbed one of our bags and off we all trailed down to the waiting boat and knowing that our journey into the true jungle had begun.
On arrival to Bako we were deposited onto the beach and I am happy to report we were able to splash our way from the boat to shore without any crocodilian interactions. We trudged up toward the check in area in the main park centre where we were provided the keys to our lodge and a freshly washed bundle of towels by the pleasant and efficient staff. So far so good. Our concerns with the state of things in the park were beginning to ease up as we happily headed off to locate our forest home. It did not take long though to have our worry levels amped up again when upon exiting the arrivals area we were confronted by a sign asking visitors to “…please not put any kinds of food and stuff inside your lodge or tent. If ignored means inviting the disturbance and attacks by macaques and wild boars”. None of us had ever encountered a boar, wild or otherwise, so this new information had us on the alert. Right away of course, we turned a corner and there wallowing in some muck was a huge boar tusks and all. He was blissfully asleep and seemed inert enough for us to scuttle by him. Not so much as single of his ugly bristles stirred as we moved stealthily past his slumbering form. Had he awoken and taken a run at us it would have been crazy frightening as the thing looked to weigh in at least at 200 lbs. This was a big boar equipped with a pair of razor sharp tusks gleaming in the equatorial sun.
Turns out our accommodations were not nearly as horrific as the scaredy cats on Tripadvisor would have had us believe. We went into the park with visions of a horror movie set. What we found was a bungalow that had definitely seen better days but for the most part was at an acceptable standard given we were in a boat-only accessed National Park on the edge of a huge stretch of intact rainforest. Yes, there was prodigious mold growth, not surprising given the 90% year round relative humidity, and yes the floor boards did have gaps, but the linens were clean, the floor swept, the fans worked well and the small refrigerator kept our food and drink cool and safe. Furthermore, the shower provided immediate cooling (cold water only), each of us had a reasonably comfortable bed and the roof kept out the daily deluge of rain. Also to its credit, the lodge included hot buffet meals, that while not award winning, were largely vegetable based, flavourful and ample. Our only real complaint, besides the proximity of venomous vipers in the nearby shrubbery, was the state of the pillows which judging from their inordinate weight were burdened with the excreta of countless generations of dust mites.
Actually, the biggest downside to our time in the forest was the filthy head colds we had all managed to come down with the day before our arrival. Carolyn and I were particularly hard hit and while we enjoyed our guided tour through the wildlife we were forced to move at glacial speeds because of depleted minds and bodies. Our hearts just weren’t in it as we trudged down trails in formidable heat and humidity with snot dripping and throats raw. Pounding headaches and overall malaise prevented us from absorbing most of the details our pleasant guide was offering up as we passed under the immense jungle canopy. We did marvel though at the fascinating looking proboscis monkeys as we were able to get within several meters of these strange simians, with their extravagantly elongated noses and deep set eyes. They lounged and went about their business with a relaxed air as we giggled and jabbed fingers in the direction of their distorted nasal features not caring a bit about our unkind observances.
Gabriel was feeling slightly better off than the rest of us and therefore retained more of the interesting interpretations offered by our guide, a fellow we had enlisted on the docks prior to our boat trip into the park. He had been raised in a nearby community and was well acquainted with native flora and fauna. He had a knack for locating retiring animals and was able to spy a very reclusive flying lemur whom I had mistook for bark on a random tree. It was very rewarding when, after many minutes peering in vain through the foliage, the small creature shifted around a bit and opened its eyes, revealing its position and affirming my wise career decision to not become a wildlife guide.
Later that night, Gabe and I took in a night hike put on by the park rangers, as Nora and Carolyn crashed hard with illness. We joined a group of about 20 other night-time hiking enthusiasts, including a mum and her infant who jostled along on the ride quite as a mouse, happily strapped to her mama’s back. The guides really knew where to find the interesting creatures and with laser pointers and flashlights they discovered darting scorpions, giant ants, darting bats, glow in the dark tree fungi, armies of busy termites determinedly consuming a giant tree, and our old friend the flying lemur. This time though, the shy creature revealed her pint sized offspring, clinging to her belly while mum sipped nectar from nocturnal flowers. The night time forest was hugely alive with chirping, singing creatures big and small. It was great fun to see and hear the contrast to the daytime jungle with its more serene, steamy stillness. The night air, cooler and safer for small creatures teemed with life including swarms of insects, bats, and leaping frogs. The tour was a great part of our time in the park and it allowed us to enjoy the natural wonder the island offers visitors.