Monday, November 25, 2013

Bako National Park

Our second fantastic day-trip from Kuching was to Bako National Park. As a result of the previous problems we had encountered with the local buses we arrived at the bus station a full 30 minutes before the bus was due to depart. However, an Italian/Spanish couple informed us that they had been waiting for well over an hour and not seen a bus going to Bako, so we opted to share a taxi with them to the park. This had the added bonus that we were able to share the cost of the boat journey from the park reception into the jungle.

After arrival we arranged our return boat journey for later that day. After carefully negotiating our way past some wild boars we registered with the visitor centre, selected a suitable route for our trek and set out into the jungle. 

By this point in our trip we had spent a fair amount of time trekking through different types of jungle, and had seen all sorts of wildlife en route. However, what had attracted us to Bako National Park specifically was the possibility of seeing proboscis monkeys which are easily identified by their pot-bellies and huge wobbly noses.

We chose to explore the area of the park in which it is most common to see the proboscis monkeys, and even before we had entered the jungle proper we had our first sighting (albeit a sighting obscured by tree branches) – a family of two adults and a baby proboscis chilling out in the trees on the far side of a narrow river. They are really fantastic looking creatures.  They look a bot like a caricature of a middle-aged man!

After watching for a few minutes we decided that if we had seen some proboscis monkeys already then the park must be full of them, so we headed into the jungle.

As we crossed the boggy area around the mouth of the river we found lots of bizarre looking crabs with colourful markings and just one giant pincer.

For a while that looked as if it may have been a mistake to leave the family of proboscis monkeys so soon; we trekked through the jungle for well over an hour without seeing any wildlife apart from a huge colony of ants.  We saw and heard plenty of movement within the trees, but couldn't see anything at all. The nice thing about having spotted them early on, however, was that the trip had already been worthwhile, so the pressure to spot wildlife was off and we could enjoy the jungle itself. 

Eventually our luck changed and we spotted a small group of proboscis monkeys high up in the tree canopy.  We also discovered that they sound almost as remarkable as they look, because the calls that they were making to one another were unlike any that we had heard before. Unfortunately we weren't able to get any decent photos, but we watched until they moved out of sight, before heading on through the jungle. After about two and a half hours the jungle ended suddenly, and we found ourselves in a beautiful rocky bay. It was really quite bizarre to see jungle and beach right next to each other.

It was a hot day, and clambering up and down through the jungle had taken it out of us, so we took a well deserved rest in the shade before exploring the bay and searching the rock-pools for sea-critters. The most remarkable animals we came across were some strange little fish-type things which had two front legs rather than fins, and lurched around on the sand. It was like looking at some sort of evolutionary link.

We then made our way back into the jungle to return the way we had come. Almost immediately we came across a huge bright green snake making its way through a tree just off the path.

Once again, as we walked we scoured the tree-tops for wildlife. We stopped at various points to investigate movement or sounds in the trees, however it looked like the proboscis monkeys had gone in to hide from the afternoon heat. It therefore came as quite a surprise when we came across this fella sat in the middle of the path dead ahead of us (NB: if you don't want to know how I know he's a fella please don't look too closely at the photo).

After focusing so much on the tree-tops it was completely unexpected to see a huge proboscis monkey sat on the path, so much so that it took a few seconds for either of us to realise what it was. We stood for a few more seconds while he looked straight back at us, before he casually climbed up into the tree next to him. He then seemed happy to sit in the tree not far from us, although frustratingly our view was obscured by branches. In fact, he was so relaxed that he promptly fell asleep. It was a really quite bizarre encounter.

After that, we made our way back through the jungle without any further wildlife encounters. We soon discovered that this was because all the local wildlife seemed to be hanging out near the visitor centre. First we encountered a big gang of rhesus monkeys terrorising some of the park accommodation. We then passed some more wild boars before coming across a group of proboscis monkeys hanging out in a tree right next to the path. After trying so hard to spot them in the jungle it was slightly underwhelming to see that we could have seen plenty of them just by hanging out at the visitor center. That said, it was really great to see such fascinating looking creatures so close up.

That wasn't the final encounter of the day - as we approached the visitor centre we witnessed a truly bizarre scene. The gang of rhesus monkeys we had seen a few minutes before marauded into the cafeteria, and one of them grabbed a bag of potato chips from a table; as the monkey fled the scene he was mugged by his monkey friends and a fight ensued over said potato chips; the fight was resolved by a wild boar who ploughed right through the monkeys, grabbed the potato chips and ran off with the monkeys unsuccessfully chasing after him. It was completely surreal! It also appeared to have riled all of the monkeys in the area, as they started to stare at us menacingly as we passed by them to make our way to where we were due to board our boat back to the mainland.

There was still time for more, as on the way along the beach towards our pick-up point we came across a final group of proboscis monkeys. Unfortunately we didn't really have time to watch them for long because we were running late for our boat.

Monique also discovered a hermit crab who didn't take too kindly to being picked up.


This succession of encounters made for a thrilling end to our visit. Even getting soaked in a torrential downpour on the boat-ride back didn't dampen our spirit. At pretty much any other time the experience of getting soaked whilst hiding behind life-jackets to protect ourselves from the painful rain would have been quite a miserable experience, but neither of us could help but laugh after having such a great day. The only downside was that we both wished that we had enough time to have stayed a night in the park so that we could explore more of it and see more of its fabulous wildlife.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary

One of the main reasons for visiting Borneo is that it is one of only two places in the world that is home to wild orangutans (the other being Sumatra in Indonesia). Borneo orangutans are endangered, and so the best bet to see them in the wild is at one of Borneo's orangutan sanctuaries. One of those sanctuaries, Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, is just outside of Kuching, so we headed there at the first opportunity.

First we were taught an important lesson about public transport on Borneo. Perhaps we were a little too casual as a result of our experiences of the reliable transport system on peninsular Malaysia, but we arrived at the bus-station 10 minutes before the bus was scheduled to depart, onto to find that it had already left. With no other option that would get us to the sanctuary in time for the afternoon feeding, and no spare days before flying out to the Sabah side of Borneo, we paid up the hefty price for a taxi to the sanctuary and made a mental note to get to the bus-stop well in advance of the bus back into Kuching.

We arrived at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre and walked up towards the sanctuary. The sanctuary takes in orangutans that have been injured, orphaned or kept as pets, and rehabilitates them to be released into the wild. After being released into the wild a number of the orangutans continue to return to the sanctuary on a regular basis to be fed. Consequently the chances of seeing orangutans at feeding time were pretty high, albeit far from guaranteed.

We didn't have to wait long, because as we walked through the car park towards the feeding station a young orangutan was heading the same way along a rope over our heads. Whilst we had spent plenty of time observing orangutans at Singapore Zoo only a few days before, it was still pretty thrilling to see one in the wild.

After taking up our position on the viewing platform alongside the other tourists one of the park rangers gave us all a safety talk. Apparently the “big male” was on his way to the feeding station. He informed us that the “big male” was extremely dangerous, was known to become aggressive (especially if food wasn't already placed out for him when he arrived) and cannot be controlled.  The strong advice was that if we saw the ranger run, then we should run as well.  He repeated this warning several times in an extremely serious tone. Given how relaxed attitudes to safety are throughout Asia in comparison to the attitudes in Europe and America (after all, we had already tracked rhinos through the Nepalese jungle without any real indication that it was a risky activity) this was about as serious a warning as we were likely to receive.

Shortly after the safety talk a large orangutan swung through the trees towards us, and proceeded past the viewing platform and made his way to the feeding station. Upon first seeing him we both turned to one another to say something along the lines of “blimey, he is big isn't he!”.

What we didn't realise was that he was actually the beta male. The alpha male, who we later learned is named Ritchie (or “Big Daddy Ritchie” as we like to call him) crashed through the trees a few moments later. He was MASSIVE! The moment when he landed on the ground and knuckle walked directly towards us was a moment I will never forget. He didn't hang around either – that big ol' boy can move. For a split second it looked like we might have to take heed of the safety warning and run for it, but thankfully he quickly changed direction towards the feeding station.

Big Daddy Ritchie made his way to the feeding station where he proceeded to plough through bunches of bananas and coconuts like they were M&Ms.



The nervous manner in which the sanctuary employee threw additional bananas and coconuts up to the feeding platform without getting too close made it clear that Ritchie was a real threat. Apparently he has been known to attack people and smash windows if he isn't provided with sufficient food as soon as he arrives.

While the Ritchie held court on his throne other orangutans waited for their turn. While some patiently waited high up in the trees, others (including the beta male who we had initially confused for “the big male”) made it clear that they wanted to eat, but would not risk getting too close. There were probably 7 or 8 other orangutans who came and went while we were there. Periodically Ritchie would give a loud grunt in the direction of another orangutan who he deemed was getting too close, and that was sufficient to make them back away. I guess that's how Ritchie got so big!

When Ritchie was finally finished eating he left the feeding station as quickly and gracefully as he had arrived. There was then a free-for all for the small amount of food that Ritchie had generously left for them. There was definitely a different atmosphere between the remaining orangutans once the alpha male had left; as well as eating they began to interact much more and became much more playful.  It was like being at work when the boss has left for the day.

The whole experience was absolutely fantastic. We had hoped to see two or three orangutans, so to see many more including such a huge male was much more than we had anticipated. Not only were each of the orangutans fantastic creatures in their own right but to see the way in which they interacted, and a clear hierarchy functioning, was fascinating. On top of that, Ritchie was possibly the single most impressive wild animal we have seen on this trip; to put that comment in context we have seen multiple wild elephants and rhinos on this trip, as well as a wild tiger.

After the food had all gone, the remaining orangutans gradually dispersed back into the jungle. We had to make our way quickly back down to the entrance to the nature reserve in order to get the bus back to Kuching. It was only as we made our way down that what we had just seen started to sink in.

Reality kicked in pretty hard, however, when we arrived back at the entrance to the park 20 minutes before the bus was due to leave only to find out that, once again, the bus had left early. Luckily we managed to hail a taxi as it passed along the main road, and we shared the cost with another tourist who had also missed the bus. Even though the two taxi trips had made the day significantly more expensive than it should have been, I would gladly have paid much, much more to see Big Daddy Ritchie & co.