The Wild and Dangerous Bako National Park

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April 25th 2012
Published: May 3rd 2012
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There are very few places on Earth that are free of the heavy hand of human life, we are able to infiltrate even the most wild of places. Bako National Park is one of the places that has managed to resist the expansion of civilisation. If you become lucky enough to land on its wild shores you may find a roof over your head and may even find a cafeteria but do not expect comfort and don’t bother bringing your soap.
Unreachable by land the only way in is via boat. This has enabled wildlife to rule and it is hard not to respect this fact when you arrive. Wildlife remains wild and unlike other National Parks they will dictate what you see, when you see it and how comfortable they want your stay to be in their home.

If you are unlucky you may have to pitch your tent in a patch of land surrounded by forest, they will decide if the tent remains intact or if its is ravaged, if it is inhabited by you alone or by monkeys, lizards and snakes and will decide when it is time for you to leave. Slightly less unlucky and you may get a bungalow; you may have a roof over your head but expect an invasion from insects and reptiles of all sizes.
We arrived tired and harassed from the typically stressful trip to get to Bako and threw ourselves onto the flimsy beds. Almost immediately we sprang back off the bed as the thousand strong army of ants that had swarmed the mattress began nipping and invading. This was a sign of the things to come and we would have it no other way. The windows may be meshed up but that doesn’t stop the geckos crawling under the door and if they can do it what else can crawl or slither under. Bako is wild, just how you want it.

Outside the accommodation areas the locals have built a dozen BBQ pits for the visitors to use but they remained completely unused. There was a good reason; every time we passed various species of snake were darting in and out utilising these dark pits as a safe haven to rear young snakelets. No wonder man had resisted the urge to BBQ; snakes in Bako tend not to be friendly.
The flying snake, as the name suggests, has evolved the ability to glide from tree to tree, as if the fact it's mildly venomous, skittish and dangerously quick wasn't enough. The oriental whip snake has the ability to inflate its head to double the size and in intimidating fashion can also be seen lying with its tongue protruding for minutes. The real danger lies in the form of the Wagler’s Pit Viper, the most venomous of the island’s snakes. This bright green viper coils itself around branches disguised amongst the similarly coloured foliage. It has heat receptors which detect the presence of warm-blooded animals such as humans and will attack if threatened. A ranger in the park either bravely or insanely reached into the foliage yards from the park cafeteria to expose one viper poised to strike. Another pit viper sat on a spindly twig overhanging the boardwalk that carries the tourists; perched alarmingly at head height but perfectly camouflaged. To pass the snake we had to go single file, squeezing tight against the far edge of the boardwalk. These were just the snakes that we saw; undoubtedly we brushed very close to many, many more. Your fate is not in your hands regardless of the precaution you take.

Further afield from the camp and the reptiles multiply although they are often harder to spot. Skinks and lizards dart over the rocks and branches, but it’s the bigger lizards in the mangroves that you want to look out for. The monitor lizard can grow to 2 meters long and is practically prehistoric. One such lizard we spotted in the distance menacingly striding through the wet mangroves on the hunt for food, it is carnivorous and will eat almost anything, not good news when coupled with their speed; they are exceptionally fast and running away would be fruitless, they also are surprisingly adept at climbing meaning clambering up the nearest tree would be no escape. Fortunately they tend not to attack humans; mostly.

In the mangroves the two species of otters are a light entertainment. The hairy-nosed otter and the oriental small-clawed otter can often be seen scampering around the banks of the rivers searching for crabs, frogs and snails. They would want to be careful of the blue fiddler crabs though, with their comparatively huge individual claw which they use to bash around during fights and courtship and the hermit crabs, these shell-carrying crustaceans grow to such a size you could easily trip over it.

The bearded pigs are a common sighting around camp. These harmless pigs with their scraggly whiskered face can be found snuffling around in the earth for worms and roots or lingering under the trees awaiting something to be dropped by the monkeys above.

It is within the matted jungle that the rest of the wildlife resides, often venturing into the camp area, but always retreating to the safety of their natural home in the trees. It would be unlikely if you visited Bako and didn't run into one or more of the primates that terrorise the camp area. The long-tailed macaque appears friendly but don't be fooled; these macaques have learnt every trick available to exploit the presence of man. Whilst in the cafeteria I caught sight of a male macaque unlatching a window, reaching in and grabbing a bread roll. Another time one grabbed, from a dining table, the bowl of sugar sachets and scampered into the trees, once there, one sachet at a time he held the sachet, shook the sugar down, ripped the top off and ate the contents. Beside him another macaque had a can of fizzy drink that he was busy draining onto his hand and licking. Beware of these lovable macaques, they may seem amusing and even tempting to lure them closer but they can be vicious; never look one in the eye or bare your teeth, this is seen as a threatening signal and may provoke attack. If you hear their high pitched alarm call you could be in trouble, they are rarely alone and commonly in large family groups.

The more docile silver leaf monkey we found effortlessly moving through the lower branches of the trees near the shore line. These calm langurs don't pose the same threatening and cheeky behaviour as the macaques, they are primarily tree dwelling and will be seen feeding on young leaves, shoots and wild fruits. The group we spotted must have been 15-20 strong and one female had a newborn hanging tightly. The infants are very easily identified by their distinctive bright orange colour; it would seem more sensible that they were not so bright but it is thought maybe it is a reminder for the rest of the group that there is a baby to care for, or it is an aid for the mother to spot them as they venture into the trees, another thought is that many predators are unable to distinguish between orange and green making them strangely camouflaged.

As you trek along the various tracks through Bako don't be surprised to hear crashing sounds from above. High up in the canopy the proboscis monkey may be seen leaping in the most ungainly fashion from one tree branch to the next. With arms and legs spread they throw themselves along. We needed a keen eye to spot them as the canopy stretches high above; for a closer encounter and a great view of these most magical creatures we ventured to the mangroves just before dusk. They retreat to the cliffs beside the mangroves after a day in the jungle and will likely pass close by. We were mesmerized by these elusive, rare and quirky looking primates. With bloated round stomachs, strong rear legs and a curious bulbous nose you will be unlikely to see anything like the proboscis monkey anywhere else, they are truly unique.

Crashing sounds from above are less of a worry than the crashing sounds at ground level. Prowling the forest floor could be any of the wildlife mentioned or even, if rumour is to believed, the clouded leopard. This almost mythical creature would not want to be confronted.

All these species are active during the day but it’s at night that the jungle really comes alive. Humans have not evolved to see well in the dark but many wild creatures are night specialists. We gathered under the protection of the rangers HQ waiting to be led into the jungle on a night trek. As is often the case in Bako come evening, the weather seemed to be closing in and the last rays of sunlight were rapidly disappearing. The nerves built up as we neared the time to venture into the dark forest.
We sat talking to a ranger who had been working at the park for the last several years, Bako was his domain and he knew it as well as his own home. He was hopeful of seeing flying lemur, pangolin, tarsier, bats, slow loris, palm civet and snakes and lizards aplenty. If not in body then certainly by the reflections of their eyes as we scan by torchlight. This talk did little to calm nerves. To heighten the experience the wind picked up and began to howl through the wooden shelters, we knew that the rains would likely follow the winds and it wasn't long before heavy drops began falling. Before long the ever increasing wind was blowing the rain at almost horizontal. Anything not tied down was blown away and the feeble buildings rattled and shook. The weather didn't abate and after an hour of waiting the rangers called off the night walk.

If the wildlife doesn't leave its mark on you the weather sure will. Bako is wild. Bako is unforgiving. Bako is unforgettable.


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