Travel Features > National Park & The Great Outdoors > Bako National Park

Introducing Bako National Park

By Wayne Tarman

What's your idea of the perfect eco-experience? How about a checklist including dense tropical rainforest, arid scrublands dotted with insect-eating plants, vast mangrove forests, a rugged coastline fringed with deserted white sand beaches, and some of the rarest and most unusual animals and plants on Earth.

Bako National Park Beach
©Wayne Tarman
That's quite a tall order for a whole country, so it comes as quite a surprise to find out that all of this and more can be seen and enjoyed in a little corner of paradise less than half the size of Manhattan Island.

At Bako, a unique set of geological and climatic conditions has led to the formation of seven distinct eco-systems compressed into an area of only 10.6 sq miles (27.4 sq km). And with so many different habitats to choose from, Bako National Park is home to an enormous variety of Borneo's flora and fauna.

These eco-systems are easily explored thanks to the park's well-maintained trail system, and having been totally protected since 1957, Bako's animal inhabitants have little fear of humans. What's more, Bako is only 23 miles (37 km) from downtown Kuching, making it an effortless, enjoyable and accessible Borneo adventure.

Bako National Park Beach
©Wayne Tarman
Although Kuching is the jumping-off point for the park, Kampung Bako, a picturesque fishing village an hour's drive from Kuching is where a trip to Bako really begins. The half hour boat journey to the park HQ is an experience in itself. After passing the wooden stilt houses of the riverside village, the boat hugs the coastline, passing mangroves and fishermen tending their bamboo fish traps. The park HQ is at Telok Assam but from the coast you would never know as it's totally hidden behind trees. First time visitors are often confused when the boat suddenly turns towards the shore on what appears to be a collision course with the dense mangroves. But the skilled boatmen head for a narrow channel that leads to the small jetty at the HQ. From the moment you step off the boat it's quite clear that Bako is a protected area. For a start the wooden chalets and resthouses are surrounded by virgin jungle, and what's more, wildlife is everywhere.

© Dennis Lau

Before heading for the trails, it's a good idea to visit the park's information centre to learn about Bako's bio-diversity; the natural attractions that you are likely to see; the range of treks available and the time taken to complete the various treks. There are sixteen colour-coded walking trails and each one offers the visitor a different nature experience. Some trails offer excellent opportunities to view Bako's wildlife, some pass through areas with unique vegetation and others lead to secluded white-sand beaches.

With so many trails, it's perhaps best to opt for just a couple after deciding what interests you and what suits your level of fitness. For wildlife encounters, the Telok Assam area is unbeatable. The Lintang trail offers good trekking and a varied rainforest experience, whilst beach lovers should head to Telok Pandan Kecil, one of the secluded white-sand beaches mentioned above.

The best times for seeing wildlife are early morning and late afternoon. Troops of long-tailed macaque monkeys start to congregate at the Park HQ around 7 am and hang around for most of the day. Bako's macaque monkeys are so tame, they are constantly found patrolling the resthouses and canteen. When the tide is out they can also be found foraging for food on the mud flats in and around the mangroves near the boat jetty. Silver-leaf monkeys are also active in the mornings and large groups are usually seen in and around the accommodation area and amongst the beach vegetation at Telok Assam. Occasionally they are seen playing on the beach itself. Plantain squirrels are also commonly seen amongst the beach vegetation. Other animals found close to the HQ include bearded pigs, snakes, flying lemurs and a number of lizards. Water monitors, one of the largest lizards in Malaysia, are frequently spotted swimming in the stream near the jetty or wandering around the paths near the resthouses.

© Wayne Tarman
For small creatures head to the plankwalk over the mangrove forest at Telok Assam. Whether the tide is in or out you will be able to view life in the mangroves and the creatures that make it their home. A whole network of aerial roots anchor the mangrove trees to the mud floor. These roots trap nutrient-rich silt and mud that have been washed down by rivers, giving life to the mangroves which in turn give life to the small creatures that live in the area; creatures such as shell-dwelling hermit crabs, sky-blue fiddler crabs and mudskippers.

These mangroves, and indeed the whole of Telok Assam, are also excellent places for viewing Bako's bird life. Bird watchers have recorded over 150 species at Bako, including two types of Hornbill, the state bird of Sarawak. In addition to the residents of the region, Bako is also a good place for watching migrant birds. As with Bako's other attractions, you do not have to be an expert to enjoy them; Bako's birds, with names such as the velvet-fronted nuthatch, racket-tailed drongo or ruby-cheeked sunbird, are not exactly common or garden sparrows. From the names alone you know that the birds are going to be something special. You may not know their Latin names, but you'll certainly enjoy seeing these ornithological rarities.

© Dennis Lau
For many visitors the highlight of trip to Bako is an encounter with the bizarre Proboscis Monkey. This rare and protected animal is only found in Borneo. Of the estimated 6,000 proboscis monkeys remaining in the wild, 1,000 are found in Sarawak and 150 of these are found at Bako. Telok Paku and Telok Delima are the best trails for seeing proboscis monkeys. Another good place is the plankwalk over the mangroves at Telok Assam.

The best time to go in search of the proboscis is either early morning or in the hours before dusk. The secret is to be patient and keep as quiet as possible; the smaller your group the better. Get settled and wait. Usually, you hear something before you see something; listen out for the crash of branches and weird noises. Some of these grunts and roars sound as if they should come from a bigger animal. If you are hoping to get some good photos of a proboscis, take a telephoto lens (300mm plus).

© Wayne Tarman
For a rainforest experience and enjoyable trek, try the Lintang Trail. It's not surprising that this is one of the most popular trails, as all of Bako's vegetation types can be seen on this 3 1/2 hour circular trek. Another popular walk at Bako is the trek to Telok Pandan Kecil, undoubtedly Bako's best beach. This 1 1/2 hour trek leads through different types of vegetation and offers trekkers the reward of a swim at an isolated beach. From the park HQ you first cross the plankwalk over the mangroves at Telok Assam, and then follow the Lintang trail as it winds its way through the dipterocarp forest. The soil here is deep and can therefore support Sarawak's most common forest type. The scenery is pure Borneo with the rainforest giants rising up to form a jungle canopy 40 metres high. The path is steep and riddled with tree roots making the climb somewhat difficult, but no less enjoyable.

At the top you reach a plateau and the landscape suddenly changes from forest to dry shrub. It is hard to believe that you are actually in Borneo; the trail passes through an Australian-like, shrub-filled landscape which contrasts sharply with the image of green that is normally associated with this vast island. At the side of the sandy paths and plankwalks of the plateau section you are sure to see some of Bako's many species of carnivorous pitcher plants; some grow close to the ground and others hang from trees and branches.

After 30 minutes or so you leave the Lintang Trail and bear left onto a secondary trail which leads to a cliff-top overlooking Telok Pandan Kecil. The view from the top blows you away: looking down you have the beach, to the left the rainforest, behind you dry scrub-like vegetation, and in front a superb view of the coastline with a sea stack guarding the entrance to the bay. The view down to the secluded bay, and the thought of a swim in the cool waters, will undoubtedly have a magical effect on any aching muscles. The final stretch is a steep 15 minute descent through the trees and boulders that somehow cling to the sandstone cliff.

© Wayne Tarman
Telok Pandan Kecil is a small secluded cove surrounded by steep rocky cliffs. The beach is generally deserted; if you get there early in the morning you will have it to yourself. As the day goes by a few other hikers arrive, and you may meet some monkeys casually strolling along the beach near the tree line. Pandan Kecil has a small stream leading inland. This area is a great place to view crabs and mudskippers, both of which make a quick escape at the first sign of danger. The view towards the sea, through the tunnel of palms and mangroves, invites you back to the beach for a swim. The steep rock boundaries of the cove, the adjacent forest, the clear stream and the driftwood resting on the white sand give Pandan Kecil a rugged, Robinson Crusoe feel, and make you realise that Pandan Kecil is more than an idyllic beach. It is nature at its best, totally devoid of the tell-tale signs of human interference.

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