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Published: August 10th 2007
An Inside View
A Look inside Rafflesia - the World's largest flower.
© L. Birch 2007
Sarawak. It was another one of those exotic sounding places that you almost felt compelled to visit - simply for the name alone. We knew too, that it would give us a perverse sense of satisfaction to be able to say that we had visited Sarawak and see the look of puzzlement cross people’s faces. “Sarawak”, they would say, “Where’s that?”
Most people have heard of Borneo of course, and probably have pre-conceived ideas of what it is like; dense jungles, head hunting tribes, weird and wonderful wildlife. Far fewer people however, actually know where it is, or that it is carved up between three separate countries. Lying almost at the heart of South East Asia, Borneo is laterally dissected by the Equator and is stickily hot and humid all year round. Two thirds of this huge island belongs to Indonesia, while the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah hug the northern coastline - separated by the tiny Islamic Sultanate of Brunei.
Though part of Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah are semi-autonomous and a visit to either is like entering a different country. Arriving in Sarawak from Peninsula Malaysia, our Malaysian visas were cancelled and we were issued new, 90-day
On the Waterfront
Tambangs wait to ferry passengers across the Sarawak River in Kuching. © L. Birch 2007
visas for Sarawak. At last, after numerous setbacks, we had made it to Borneo. The Man Who Would Be King
The city of Kuching - state capital and home to 496,000 people - provided our first taste of life in Borneo. Flying in the face of our expectations, Kuching is a large modern city with shopping malls, two cinema complexes and a number of western fast food outlets - McDonald’s and Pizza Hut amongst them. The colonial district, dominated by a number of fine old buildings, sits beside the winding Sarawak River at the very heart of the city.
The founding of Kuching and the story of how it grew from an insignificant kampong surrounded by jungle to become an important trading post and sizeable town, reads like something from a boy’s own annual. In 1883, British adventurer James Brooke arrived in Borneo to find the Sultan of Brunei attempting to fend off a tribal rebellion. Brooke promptly waded in and helped subdue the rebellion and in return, was granted power over Sarawak as a reward. Like ‘Peachy’ and Danny in Kipling’s story, “The Man Who Would be King”, Brooke set himself up as Rajah
Towerblocks and malls crowd the red-tiled rooftops of Kuching's colonial district.
© L. Birch 2007
of Sarawak, laying the foundations of a dynasty that lasted for 100 years. Sarawak prospered and grew under the rule of the Brooke family - who became known as the ‘White Rajahs’ - but shortly after WW II, the third Rajah of Sarawak, Vyner Brooke, realised that he couldn’t afford the region's upkeep any longer and ceded Sarawak to the British (who at the time governed Peninsula Malaysia - then known simply as “Malaya”).
Since independence from British rule, Malaysia has tried hard to distance itself from what it sees as the ‘stigma’ of colonialism. However, Sarawak seems to regard the Brooke years with a degree of both fondness and pride. The memory and achievements of the White Rajahs live on to this day and are immortalised by the architecture and monuments that you stumble across as you explore the older parts of town. Not that James Brooke would recognise Kuching now with its high-rise hotels, bright lights and 20ft high billboards. All the same, he would probably feel a sense of pride in seeing how successful it had become.
Turning our backs on those same bright lights and expensive hotels, we found lodgings in an old rest-house
In Palin's Footsteps
Viv studying the Brooke Memorial in Kuching's colonial district. Michael Palin also stopped off here and did the same during the making of his Pacific rim series, "Full Circle".
© L. Birch 2007
that was once a retreat and study centre for Christian missionaries. Attached to the church of St. Thomas, it was something of an anomaly in a Moslem country - a relic from the colonial years before Malaysia gained its independence, 50 years ago. The 170 year old building stands on the edge of the colonial district, just a stone’s throw from the Sarawak River where little boats called “tambang”
ferry passengers across to the other side - much as they would have done in Brooke’s time. Set in spacious grounds and surrounded by stately old trees, their branches festooned with epiphytes, the rest house proved to be a little oasis of tranquility amid the chaos of the city.
The accommodation itself was nothing special and was - in keeping with its former life as a religious retreat - decidedly austere. But for someone who grew up as the son of a vicar, there was a certain familiarity and resonance to the place that was somehow rather comforting. Besides, how many other places in Kuching offered the chance to sit out on a wide verandah where you could drink tea, be serenaded by church bells and observe a pair of
A vow of silence was once observed in this room during the days when our guesthouse was a Christian mission.
© L. Birch 2007
woodland kingfishers at the same time? Jungle Adventures
After a few days acclimatisation in Kuching, we finally felt ready to get out and tackle what Borneo was most famous for - its jungles. Early explorers portrayed Borneo as a fearsome wilderness, infested by nasty tropical diseases and populated by head hunting tribes and carnivorous plants. There were still carnivorous plants - perhaps not as exaggeratedly large as those depicted in Victorian illustrations but still capable of eliciting surprise and astonishment. As for the head hunters, they all had satellite TVs and four-wheel drives now. The only time they changed out of their jeans and t-shirts were when the tourists showed up in town.
During several previous trips to S. E. Asia, one of the things we had most wanted to see was a Rafflesia
flowering in the wild. Now it looked as if Borneo was going to give us the chance to see one. Rafflesia
are deep jungle parasites whose hosts are certain kinds of trees and bamboos. Most of the time, you don’t even know they are there until they bloom. When they do, their huge flesh-like flowers - reputedly the world’s largest - announce their
In a dark corner of Borneo, the World's largest parasitic flower (this one measured 68cm across) spreads its pungent message to the jungle.
© L. Birch 2007
presence with a pungent smell, somewhat akin to rotting meat. We learned of the imminent flowering of a Rafflesia
in a jungle reserve west of Kuching, following a visit to the National Parks and Wildlife office. The bud had been forming over the last 9 months and - for once - we were in the right place at the right time. Daily visits to the NPW office were finally rewarded when we were told that yes, the bloom had opened!
Hardly able to contain our excitement, we made our way out to the reserve using a combination of mini-van, local bus and taxi. We had to hire a guide for the final part of the journey, walking through dense jungle to the flowering site. It was not a long walk but we were soon soaked with our own perspiration and being bitten repeatedly by big black Aedes
mosquitos. In truth, there was little to recommend life in jungle climates. The heat was stunning, everything was always wet, clothes wouldn’t dry properly and began to smell after a few days, you always felt exhausted and - to cap it all - the diversity and number of biting insects could make
The flaring, buttress bole of a Shorea tree rises up from the forest floor at Bako.
© L. Birch 2007
life truly miserable. It was about this time that Viv began to mutter a tongue-in-cheek phrase that I was to hear frequently during the next two weeks… “I hate the jungle," she said, batting away a cloud of mosquitoes.
Our discomfort was momentarily forgotten however, when we finally came upon the Rafflesia.
It was amongst a tight grove of small trees, wedged up against a rock face. There was very little light under the tree canopy but being parasitic, Rafflesias
were not dependant on sunlight to survive, drawing all their nourishment from a host plant. Rare and restricted to S E Asia, eighteen species of Rafflesia
have been recorded - at least three of which, may now be extinct. Our plant was Rafflesia tuanmaude
and measured 68cms across; large certainly, but not the biggest ever recorded. That prize went to Rafflesia arnoldii
which bears massive blooms measuring up to 1m in diameter. Rafflesias
were named after their discoverer, Thomas Stamford Raffles, an English naturalist and adventurer who stumbled across one during an expedition in Sumatra in 1818. Raffles and close friend Dr Arnold, were making an exploratory east-west crossing of Sumatra at the time and are credited with being
The sun sinks over Santubong after another busy day at Bako.
© L. Birch 2007
the first western naturalists ever to see a Rafflesia
in bloom (Raffles of course, later went on to make his name as the founder of Singapore).
Taking dozens of pictures, we studied our own find, experiencing some of the awe and wonder that Raffles and Arnold must have felt - all those years ago. A brilliant orange-red, the spiky heart of the bloom seemed to glow with an unnatural light and the petals were thick and rubbery. With its disturbingly alien life-style, it was like something from another world. Rafflesias
were not the only unusual discovery that Borneo had to offer; there were other, equally curious plants and animals lurking in its jungles and a few days later, we went in search of them.
Bako was one of Sarawak’s oldest national parks and was said to be one of the best places in Borneo to see proboscis monkeys. We had only ever seen these rare primates in documentary films and were now hopeful of catching a glimpse of one in the wild. Borneo was to be our one-and-only chance of seeing a proboscis monkey for they are found here and nowhere else in the world.
Pandan Kecil Beach - Bako
The reward for a 3-hr walk through hot kerangas forest... last one in's a pansy!
© L. Birch 2007
Bako involved a bus journey, out through suburbs and into the countryside, where houses on stilts stood in forested swamps bordering the road. From the edge of a mangrove fringed river where mudskippers (curious fish that ‘breathe’ and walk on land) scattered at our approach, we chartered a small boat for the final part of our trip to Bako. There were no roads, so taking a boat was the only option. Not that it mattered, it was a pleasant trip and as we motored upriver and out into a wide bay, the boatman grinned, telling us to keep our hands onboard and to watch out for crocodiles.
A 4-bed dorm at Bako (complete with lots of mosquitoes… and a few bedbugs) was our home for the next three days. In the last few years, the running of Sarawak’s national parks had been pushed out into the private sector. Money was obviously tight these days. Either that, or the operational contractor was out to squeeze maximum profits from the business with minimum input. Things were starting to look a bit run down. In the dorms, doors didn’t close properly, lights and toilets didn’t work and cleaning standards seemed - poor
One of several species of pitcher plant to be found at Bako.
© L. Birch 2007
at best. Out on the trails, erosion was a big problem and broken boardwalks were going un-repaired, loose and missing boards threatening to trip the unwary… or the preoccupied. But to be fair, you didn’t come to Bako for luxury facilities and what it lacked in amenities, it more than made up for in wildlife. On that first day, we saw a flying squirrel, a monitor lizard and, best of all, proboscis monkeys.
There were macaque monkeys too, entertaining perhaps but also something of a pest and anything not locked away was likely to disappear - a lesson that we learned early. Although basic meals were available at the park HQ, we had taken some supplementary supplies with us; bread, biscuits, tea, condensed milk, cheese slices and fruit - which we stashed in the fridge of the kitchen attached to our dorm. Of course, the door didn't close properly and on our first morning, I responded to a call from Viv in the kitchen - "Laurie, come and look at this." It was obvious from the tone of her voice that it was bad news and I entered the kitchen to find Viv surveying a scene of carnage. The
A Plethora of Pitchers
A clutch of terrestrial pitcher pots belonging to Nepenthes ampullaria nestle on the forest floor at Bako.
© L. Birch 2007
fridge door was wide open and the remains of our supplies lay strewn across the floor - mostly, empty plastic bags and a few scraps of half eaten food. A scattering of wet, monkey footprints completed the scenario and it didn't require a forensic expert to see what had happened. Hands on hips, Viv shook her head. "I hate the jungle," she said.
Cheeky monkeys aside, the rewards of a trip to Bako far outweighed any minor inconveniences. For one thing, we managed to see rare proboscis monkeys - with their comical pot bellies and bulbous noses - everyday of our stay. We sometimes heard other visitors complain that despite walking several trails, they had failed to see any of the elusive primates. The secret however, was to know a little about their habits. Proboscis monkeys live almost exclusively on a diet of mangrove leaves (one of the few terrestrial plants to be able to survive in a salt water environment). Those enormous pot bellies hide a powerful alimentary system, packed with bacteria and enzymes capable of digesting the toxic leaves. Low-tide among the mangroves was the best time and place to see them. With patience and
Oi, Big Nose!
Proboscis monkeys are extremely rare and only found in Borneo. Bako National Park in Sarawak is one of the best places to see them.
© L. Birch 2007
a little luck, you could sometimes catch a glimpse of a big male - resplendent in a red and cream coat that resembled a waistcoat and breeches.
Away from the coast, walking trails fanned out into the park, passing through a variety of habitats including kerangas
forest - a thin, impoverished scrubland that grows up on the tops of Bako's sandstone plateaus. It was here that you could find another of the park's trademark specialities.... pitcher plants. Belonging to the genus Nepenthes
, pitcher plants grow in nutrient deficient soils where they supplement their poor diets by catching and digesting insect prey. 5 of Borneo's 25 recorded species can be found growing at Bako where the sinister looking pots lurk among leaf litter or dangle at head height from a tree. Unsuspecting insects (and even mice on occasions) are lured into the pots by nectar secretions, only to lose their grip on the pot's slippery-sided interior before being drowned and digested in the enzyme rich broth at the bottom of the pitcher; clever and at the same time, delightfully shuddersome!
Up on the kerangas
plateau, Bako's pitcher plants were so numerous that a walk scheduled to take no more
Wagler's Pit Viper
Yes it's poisonous and No, it wasn't in a cage!
© L. Birch 2007
than 1½ hours took us nearly 3. But that was what a trip to Bako was about after all. Our only complaint was that there never seemed to be enough time. Even so, at the end of three days, our tally of wildlife sightings looked like this:
• Flying Squirrel
• Long-Tailed Macaque
• Silver Leaf Monkey
• Proboscis Monkey
• Bearded Pig
• Monitor Lizard
• Wagler's Pit Viper
• Forest Gecko
• Various bird spp inclu - hill mynah & hornbill
• Pitcher Plants (4 spp)
Beyond Bako, we explored caves in limestone country and poked around the national parks of south western Sarawak. Hooking up with Stephen and Imogen from New Zealand, we made runs out toward the Indonesian border in their hire car - indulging a shared passion in our search for new species of pitcher plant (Imogen regaling us with her own version of A Stranger in Paradise
... "Take my gland, I'm strange and you're paralysed...").
Viv was relieved to escape the heat and humidity of Bako's jungles but getting back to the bright lights of Kuching, we both realised that we felt - not just tired but exhausted. We were beginning to experience the physiological and psychological problems that sometimes surface when undertaking a protracted journey far from home; fatigue, periodic bouts of illness, a loss of interest in our surroundings. In short, we were becoming jaded. Drastic measures were called for. It was high time we found somewhere to rest and recuperate.... and we thought we knew just the place to do it.
To see a larger version of any image on this page and to run a slide show, position the cursor on the image and right click using your PC's mouse.
We apologise for delays in the posting of this entry. The site has been experiencing server problems and we have spent the past week simply trying to retrieve lost articles. We appear to have everything back under control now and would like to thank all those who provided help and assistance during the recovery process.
To see more on proboscis monkeys and their conservation, click on the link below. The site also features a short video presentation of wildlife to be seen at Bako National Park. Proboscis Monkeys in the Wild
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