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Crocodiles & Beaches
Wayne Tarman avoids getting eaten alive at Similajau National Park
Similajau National Park is one of the least known of Sarawak's parks, and for me that's as good a reason as any to head there. The park is located 20 kilometres north-east of the natural gas boom town of Bintulu. It was gazetted in 1976 in order to protect the unique geographical features of the coast, and the flora and fauna of the surrounding area. Similajau essentially consists of a strip of beautiful coastline containing deserted beaches, punctuated by small rocky headlands and jungle streams, all bordered by a forest of green. The park covers 7,067 hectares and the main trekking trail hugs the coast so that visitors are never far away from the central attraction of the park. The trail begins at the park HQ and leads to two secluded "Turtle Beaches" and then on to "Golden Beach". Its best to visit Similajau during the dry season (approximately February to September) when the coastline is at its best, with calm emerald green waters which are ideal for swimming.
From my brief stroll around the information centre I had learnt that Similajau is home to a particularly nasty looking creature - the estuarine or saltwater crocodile. These crocodiles live near the river mouths of the larger rivers and streams in the park, and feed on fish, small mammals, birds, lizards and even turtles. The information centre also told me that estuarine crocodiles can sometimes be spotted amongst the mangroves and nipa palms at the park HQ and also at other larger rivers in the park. "Use the bridges or boats provided" was the warning. I looked around and saw a small rowing boat that could be used to cross the Sungai Likau. It didn't look as though it would provide much protection from a hungry saltwater crocodile.
After dinner I went for a walk around the HQ area and spotted a huge bonfire by the river mouth. I went to investigate and found a fisherman painting his boat with a monster fire providing protection from the direction of the river. It didn't take much to work out that the fire was to keep away the crocodiles, so I asked him about this. He smiled a toothless grin and then told me a few crocodile stories including a tale about a huge croc that swam past his boat a few weeks earlier. He said that the crocodile was longer than his boat, which I figured was 24 feet long. Discounting the fact the fishermen have a tendency to double the size of anything seen but not caught at sea, this still put the croc at a healthy 12 feet. I quickly picked up some drift wood and threw it on the fire.
Got Bridges Lah!
I woke early the next day. The game plan was to hire a boat and get dropped off at Golden Beach and then trek back to the Park HQ along the jungle trail that hugs the coast. With "Awas! Ada Buaya" firmly imbedded in my mind, I headed to the office to quiz the park wardens about the trail. They handed me a brochure to thumb through. I scanned the information and the following words leapt at me. "Please do not attempt to wade across the larger streams as some of them have crocodiles". I looked at the map on the wall. The trail crossed a worrying number of streams and rivers. "You see these rivers, are there any crocodiles there?". What seemed like a sensible question caused some amusement and everyone gathered around for a session of wind up the dumb tourist. "Yes, got, especially there, this one. Big crocodiles sleep near river. But don't worry lah, got big red sign. Ha. Ha. Ha." Yes very funny. Next question. "Are bridges provided to cross the rivers?" "Of course lah! Every stream got bridge. Small ones got tree trunk bridge, big ones got expensive wooden bridge."
Up The Coast - Dolphins & Turtle Eggs
That's all right then. I headed to the jetty, passed the "Beware of the Crocodiles" sign, and boarded a wooden speedboat for the short hop along the coast. After negotiating the estuary, we sped off, the 40 horsepower engine screaming for mercy as the toothless boatman gave it all. You don't have to go far to appreciate the beauty of the Similajau coastline; after 10 minutes or so, small beaches appear, as do rocky outcrops, wave-cut platforms and rock pools. If you look back towards Bintulu you see the gas flares of the LNG plants, man's mark on the coast. Look forward and you are meet with emerald green sea, white sand beaches and a strip of protected forest. I focused on the beaches ahead and switched to dream mode. But not for long as the boatman started shouting and pointing towards the shore. I saw nothing but he didn't give up and kept on pointing. Then I saw what the fuss was and grinned with delight. Two dolphins were swimming parallel to the shoreline. They hung around for a while and then raced off out to sea, perhaps disturbed by our noisy outboard.
After 20 minutes or so we passed the first Turtle Beach, a sun seeker's dream of a bay with a gentle slope of white sand, lined with Casuarina trees. The second Turtle Beach was the same, picture postcard beautiful, nature at its best. Another few minutes and we reached Golden Beach, a long stretch of sand lapped by gentle waves. I'd found paradise and unlike every other beach in Asia, this paradise wasn't populated with hundreds of Lonely Planet travellers. The boatman dropped me off. Then I had an awful thought. My idea of paradise does not include a bunch of hungry crocs scampering up and down the beach. "Any crocodiles" I asked. As luck would have it he told me that they prefer to stay near the river mouths some distance away. And with another grin he was off, gunning his outboard like only a toothless fisherman can.
Similajau's beaches are fantastic. They are not beautiful perfect creations like those found in South Thailand. Instead their beauty is derived from their rugged feel. The sand is yellowy-white not powder white, and the sea is emerald green not deep blue. However, its the presence of the surrounding forest and the sense of isolation that makes them so great.
After a quick swim it was time to hit the jungle trail. I made by way through the Casuarina trees and beach vegetation until I reached the trail. The trail passed through heath forest with occasional patches of mixed dipterocarp forest.
Twenty-four species of mammals have been recorded at Similajau, including gibbons, long-tailed macaques, banded langurs, mouse deer, barking deer, squirrels, shrews, wild boar, porcupine, and civet cats. I saw zip. Not one single mammal. Mind you, I did spot a few shotgun cartridges on the forest floor. A link perhaps?
On the bird-watching front I had more success. Don't bother going to Similajau to see wildlife but do go if you are keen bird watcher. 185 species of birds have been recorded at Similajau. You don't have to go far to appreciate that too. I am no expert but I saw heaps of colourful birds whilst walking along the coastal trail.
Awas! Ada Buaya
The trail crossed a number of small streams where single log bridges were provided. After two of the log bridges collapsed under my weight I approached every mini-crossing with caution and made sure the log bridges were not rotten. After trekking for about an hour I came to a small hill which looked down to a murky brown river, maybe 30 feet across.
I stopped and looked down and the first thing I saw were a number of bright red signboards and those famous words - "Awas! Ada Buaya. Beware of Crocodile" . The words of the brochure immediately sprung to mind. "Please do not attempt to wade across the larger streams as some of them have crocodiles". OK, fair enough, where's the bridge? The bridge that all these nasty rivers are supposed to have according to the park wardens. I scanned the river, left and right. No bridge in sight, not even a strategically placed log.
As I approached the riverbank, I saw something move in the undergrowth. I froze and peered through the bushes, ever ready to sprint away. There was more movement and then it appeared. You couldn't see me for dust, I Linford Christied straight out of there, shouting to myself, "Shit! Its a croc, a croc..." as I raced back up the slope, grabbing at vegetation to assist with the climb. At the top I looked back, thankful that the croc was still mooching around in the grass. My head was spinning. Could crocodiles climb? I doubted it, but looked around for some boulders to hurl, just in case this particular croc had somehow acquired rock climbing skills, and was game for a bit of 'chase the tourist'.
This was not funny. Where was the bridge? I vented my anger at the wardens back at HQ, cursing them for telling me there where bridges over all the rivers inhabited by estuarine crocodiles. Then I calmed down. Hey, maybe it was it a monitor lizard. It was about 4 feet long. Could be. Nah, I'd seen monitor lizards before, and this was not a monitor, it was a small but vicious looking reptile with big teeth. OK it was a small crocodile, but surely it had a mum and dad and maybe a couple of elder brothers. The fact of the matter remained, I was stuck on the wrong side of a crocodile infested river. The "Awas! Ada Buaya..." signs were clear for all to see but there was no bridge. There were no boats out at sea, so no chance of hitching a ride back. I had to walk back. The bridge must be there, I thought. It must be further inland.
After a gulp of water, I decided that I must go back along the river away from the obvious trail to see if I could find a bridge. I continued to calm down and tried to think in a more positive manner. What else was good? Well, it was still light, so time was on my side. I was on a ridge above the river, therefore out of harm's way. That was it though; the rest was grim.
I decided I needed a weapon and went in search of a good cosh. I had recently read about an old Iban fisherman who survived a crocodile attack. The crocodile appeared from nowhere and bit this guy's leg. Despite having his leg locked in the croc's mouth, this brave man managed to pull out his trusty parang and hack the croc repeatedly about the head. Not surprisingly, the croc got tired of having its head chopped up with a massive knife and swam off. The fisherman survived and the croc was found floating belly-up in the river three days later.
I knew I was no where near as tough as the Iban fisherman. Furthermore, I didn't carry a parang. I needed a weapon though. I fully realised that a stick was no match for a saltwater croc but I felt too naked. I had to have something, my 1.5 litre mineral water bottle was no match for 400 pounds of carnivorous swamp dweller. After a rummage I found a long sturdy pole. I felt better already and pictured myself poking the croc in the eye. I even rehearsed a few lunges, yeah I was good at this. With my trusty stick I no longer felt like crocodile bait.
I ventured inland in search of the non-existent bridge to safety. I soon realised that there was no bridge. In fact I began to suspect that the park wardens had never trekked along the coastal trail. If they had they would have known about the many rotten log bridges in need of replacement, and the non-existent bridges over crocodile-infested waters. The wardens probably always travelled around by boat.
I headed back to check if the crocodile was still there. It was, but now it had company as a second beast was sunning itself on the opposite bank. The recent arrival was slightly bigger than the first one. Things were not looking good, so I cursed the wardens again and headed back to the safety of the hilltop. By now I had spent an hour or so faffing around. I figured I had a two hour trek remaining once I crossed the river, and that was if I didn't come across another croc. So, I was looking at arriving back at the HQ at dusk. Not a pleasant thought, but with two crocs lurking around there was no way I was going to swim across the murky river. I had no choice but to wait.
I waited another hour or so, getting more and more stressed as time went by. The crocs had not moved at all; they were just sitting there. Then when I went back for a quick peek, the four-footer looked up at me and made a run for the river. The commotion woke the second beast and it too made a dash for the river, making an almighty splash as it dived in. I couldn't believe my luck. The crocs were scared of me and were now swimming away.
It was now or never. I waited until the crocs had disappeared upriver before sprinting down the hill towards the sandy river bank. So far so good. Then as I ran across some rocks I lost my grip, slipping on the mossy surface. My legs were swept up from under me and my body shot into air. I was airborne for a painfully long period before I landed at the edge of the water. The almighty crash was loud enough to awaken the Gods let alone a few crocodiles. My trusty stick was 10 feet away. I was petrified. I was croc bait. I had banged my head on a rock and felt a bit dizzy but my lanky legs were already moving into gear and lifting my whole body up. I waded into the river up to my chest, and then started to swim like mad, scanning the opposite bank for crocs. I dare not turn round. I was two thirds of the way across when my legs hit the ground so I reverted to wading before a final sprint up the sandy bank and into the forest. I sat down exhausted by the burst of energy and panic attack. Then I burst out laughing. I was soaked through, had a nasty bump on my head but I had crossed a crocodile-infested river and survived.
The trek back was a piece of cake. Nothing could stop me now. I reached another river with no bridge and crocodile warning signs, but by then I didn't care. I scanned the banks for danger and then waded across the murky river. As darkness approached and the mozzies emerged, I arrived at Sungei Likau and jumped in the small rowing boat. I rowed to the jetty at the park HQ and then checked out the office.
The wardens were still there drinking coffee. I marched in, intent on giving them a mouthful, but I didn't. I was too tired. I just told them that next time they drop tourists off at Golden Beach, they should make three things clear. First, that there are red crocodile warning signs. Secondly, that some crocodile-infested rivers and streams do not have bridges. And finally that they may well meet a few nasty looking crocodiles. After that I told the wardens that they should then ask the tourists if they want to wade across dangerous rivers or would they prefer to have a boat pick them up at Golden Beach. Only then is Similajau worth a visit.