Thieving Monkeys With Mosquito Bites

Trip Start May 28, 2008
Trip End Jul 31, 2008

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Where I stayed
Bako National Park

Flag of Malaysia  ,
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Thieving Monkeys With Mosquito Bites -
Bako National Park

We're back at the Singgahsana for a
quick overnight after four days and three nights of hiking and
camping in Bako National Park. We took our first public bus (no
chickens or sacks of rice) approximately one hour out of Kuching and
then climbed onto a boat with two British kids and a lawyer from San
Francisco, the first American we've run across so far. We motored for
twenty minutes through the most densely populated salt water
crocodile habitat on the island of Borneo. "Don't worry," said
the ranger. "They don't mess with people - mostly dogs and
monkeys". He then added as an afterthought, "There was a young
boy taken from the river bank about one month ago, but he was with
his dog and it was almost night. Sometimes during the handover from
day to night animals get confused". This same ranger when later
asked about the presence of leeches in the swampy areas of the park
said, "We've had no "reported" cases" and then went on to
tell the story of a woman that after returning from a hike with blood
soaking through her pants looking as though "she didn't know what
is tampon". It turned out to be leeches that had collected in the
folds of her crotch and "exploded" from overfeeding. Welcome to
the freaking jungle!

We arrived at the ranger station/camp
in the afternoon welcomed by the screeching of macaques from the
trees and the soft sounds of the ocean. Due to the late hour of our
arrival and looming storm clouds in the distance we decided it wise
to share a dorm with our new friends from the UK and head off first
thing in the morning for our sojourn into the wild.

We did a short hike on one of the close
trails and within minutes happily found ourselves surrounded by the
towering tangled trees and leafy verdant growth that shrinks one to
insect proportions and blocks out the sun. A few minutes later we
ended up lost as the trail melted into a newly formed bog from two
days of heavy rainfall. With our clothing soaked through with sweat
we decided to call it a day and retraced our steps back to camp
stirring up a large whip snake (non-poisonous), a small green viper
(poisonous!), and a monitor lizard the size of a basset hound along
the way. We returned to camp and devoured the bony canned curry
chicken and cold rice they served at the canteen like only those who
have traveled all day and hiked through the wilderness can. After
which we retired to our musty room and slept like royalty.
We awoke to the sound of pouring rain,
it's sedative quality making it difficult to get out of bed. We
started our day slowly sitting on the porch first sipping green tea
then Indochina instant coffee while we stuffed our packs, shooing
away klepto macaques and acquiring our first mosquito bites of the
trip. We ate a late breakfast of the same bony chicken and rice from
the night before as the rain calmly came to a stop. Brooke finished
her gruel and got up from the table to use the bathroom and I sat
pondering whether the calories I would need for the day warranted me
choking down another Heimlich inducing piece of this mystery meat
(What part of the chicken is this anyway?). Lost in thought and
unprotected by my mate left me vulnerable to a ninja macaque that
bounded up the stairs and over my shoulder silently snatching the
last morsel from my plate. I heard only the clink of the spoon on my
plate and saw only a blur from the corner of my eye. I turned to go
after the thieving bastard, but then realized he had done me a favor.
We put on our packs and headed into the jungle.

Our goal was to reach the Tanjor Falls
a few kilometers inside the park, not because it was known for it's
beauty or size, but a because we had a late start and it looked like
a good stopping point with access to fresh water. We left out of the
ranger station and navigated the myriad of elevated wooden walkways
that carry you over the tidal swamp that surrounds the park entrance.
Within minutes we turned a corner and came upon a proboscis monkey.
These strange and fascinating primates are only found on the island
of Borneo and have been spotted walking long distances on two legs
and carrying their young on their hips, a behavior not even seen in
apes. The males have large Jimmy Durante noses and potbellies giving
them a comical appearance and earning them the Indonesian name orang
Belanda, or "Dutchman", reflecting their love for the Dutch. They
are usually only seen high in trees, but this one was just above eye
level in a tree downhill from us and he hadn't spotted us yet. We
were prepared for jungle hiking in the rain - not for picture taking,
but this was a golden opportunity. I slipped out of my pack, peeled
back the rain cover, unzipped the main compartment, extracted the dry
bag that held my camera, unrolled it, pulled out the body and was
putting on the lens when two tourons (tourist/morons) came crashing
down the trail making more noise than an oil drum half full of empty
bottles rolling down a flight of stairs. The proboscis was as
startled as we were and quickly scrambled off into the tree tops. I
managed to get a couple of decent fleeting photos, but as is often
times the case in the wild, the best images are visible only in our
mind's eye.
We walked up staircases of massive tree
roots and across mossy earthen floors in dense dripping jungle. We
strolled in the sunshine through corridors of carnivorous plants that
grew above our heads and under our feet. We navigated slipping and
sliding through washes of cascading kaolin clay and waded through
warm tannin streams carving through soft limestone. As the sun began
to settle the forest changed once again. Leaves grew to the size of
umbrellas, grasses wider than gun belts with serrated edges, spiny
bamboo, and vines like ship yard ropes crisscrossed the trail with
fallen trees. Wandering grey stone walls reached out from the bottoms
of massive trunks blocking the trail and forcing us to climb with
hands and feet under looming massive obelisks rising into the
darkening sky. All the while the cacophony of buzzing, howling, and
screeching and the occasionally painful bite was all that reminded us
that we were not completely alone.
We arrived at the falls with barely
enough time to pitch camp before the curtain fell and the blackness
swallowed us whole. We sat on a flat rock near the water with lights
off and rested our tired legs and backs. We could see nothing at
first. It was the kind of darkness that hurts your eyes and causes
you to speak softly, but whispering was not an option. There was no
chance of reading lips and between the rushing water and our
awakening nocturnal neighbors. We had to shout at one another so we
mostly sat quietly. Whether it was our rods finally kicking into
overdrive or the earth spinning us further from the sun we began to
make out the faint jagged outline of the night sky through the
canopy. We watched as a pair of lightning bugs cautiously floated
through the air searching for one another by alternating flashes like
a ship and a distant lighthouse growing closer until they found one
another and joined the darkness together. There would be no fire for
us or even a hot dinner. We were tired and the mosquitoes were biting
through our chemicals and clothing, so we ate a can of sardines and a
handful of crackers and crawled into our netted tents.

The morning came quickly. It's amazing
how a little physical exhaustion can help you sleep anywhere. We had
pitched our tents on the only relatively flat dry space we could find
and to be honest it was neither flat nor dry, but it was definitely
narrow. The lines that held our tents and tarps had sagged after a
night of gymnastic frivolity from our forest friends. I've spent a
few nights inside mosquito netting and awoke to find fresh bites,
but no probing culprit to squash. I've always wondered whether it
was one stealthy sucker that snuck in and out again or if they were
biting me through the damn net. Well, I now have my evidence. Due to
the sagging of my tent and the coffin-width of my sleeping space,
when I turned on my side my knee was in contact with the netting. I
awoke with ninety-six bites on my right knee and sixty-three on my
left. Fortunately there is no malaria or dengue in this region and
all I had to do was suffer through the itch.

Our first day in the jungle was
glorious. We had a nice oatmeal breakfast (oatmeal is tough to find
in these parts) with dried figs and cashews. We sipped on jasmine
green tea and instant coffee, soaked our sore legs and backs in the
bubbling pools of tannic water, and bathed in the beams of sunlight
that filtered through the massive leaves and flowering vines. We
talked of breaking camp and continuing further along the trail when
our first visitors arrived.

Since we were technically camping at a
landmark along the trail we figured people would walk through our
camp all morning, but it was afternoon before we saw the the first
human faces of an attractive French couple who were living and
working in Thailand and were now three months pregnant and traveling
around Indonesia before having their baby. What inspiration for
future travels! First Will and JC and Destiny and Jay with family in
tow to Costa Rica, then Jess and Jeff in Vietnam with baby Avonlea,
and now this couple traveling through the remote isles of Indonesia
while pregnant. Our perspectives truly are our only limitations. They
joined us and we sat and talked of family and politics for awhile
before they continued on their walk and we started to break camp.
Our next and only other visitors came
as we stuffed the last of our belongings into our packs. A young
couple, both tall redheads from Australia, who had been abroad for
nearly a year and were actively seeking a way to stay on the road for
at least another. They had just finished up a teaching gig in Vietnam
and were now applying for jobs as tour guides in Singapore. They were
not the average youth traveling aimlessly on a trust fund trying to
escape a life of responsibility. These two had finished degrees,
worked along the way, and decided rather than staying home and
working, they would travel and work along the way. We sat and whiled
away our afternoon talking about consumerism, the vanishing
wilderness, and how when we walked through the jungle we couldn't
help but compare it to movies, video games, and theme parks. We
talked about the fate of the world today and of course we talked
about what is on everyone's mind - politics. We closed on a positive
note. We spoke of a generation that would focus on conservation and
healing rather that productivity and growth at all costs. We left the
falls together and separated as we came to the trail. Just as we came
together from opposite sides of the globe in this place and shared
our visions of the future, we separated and took new paths in
opposite directions, leaving this place with a renewed sense of hope.
Serendipitously, our friends from down
under had also left us with a golden suggestion. Our loose plan was
to head for the nearest patch of sand and set up camp for the night.
We needed to dry out and were looking forward to sleeping on flat
ground. We suspected the only beach head we might reach before night
fall was tidal and therefore not a good place to sleep without a pair
of pool rafts. The Aussies suggested a place they had stumbled onto
earlier that "wasn't beach, but had a nice view and might be a cool
spot to camp". We thought this might be a good backup plan, but we
were set on a little beach blanket bingo. The first beach we came to
was underwater and it wasn't even high tide yet. We continued hiking
and as the afternoon wore on we spotted the turn off they spoke of
and decided to check it out. We sloshed through the muck up hill
until the thick vegetation gave way to dry forest and a widening view
and the trail ended in a beautiful clearing of grey volcanic rocks
perched gently nearly a hundred feet over the ocean. Perfectly round
blue pools littered the ground; craters left millions of years ago
from what was bubbling mud now filled with rain water reflecting the
evening sky. We were surrounded with large carnivorous pitcher plants
whose deadly sweet fragrance filled the air, a welcome respite from
the rotting smells of the jungle. We had a 180 degree view of the
South China Sea and a cool breeze. We set up camp under a magnificent
sunset reminiscent of home, collected an armful of dry wood, made a
fire, and cooked a hot dinner of rice noodles and fish. We laid out
on the flat rocks letting the fire go to embers and fell asleep
watching the stars rotate through the clear night sky.

Brooke awoke first, filtered rainwater
from the pools and made tea, then went exploring. She found a place
to scrambled down the rocks and discovered a private little cove
exposed by the lowering tide where she could get into the ocean. She
had her own Leilani yoga session on the rocks with the ocean crashing
in the background. I awoke and had my morning tea sitting on the
cliff's edge dangling my feet and watching a school of yard long
needle fish swimming below. I was thinking about whether I could reel
a fish up this high when I spotted a pale green figure, the size of a
wheel barrow, rising to the surface just below me. It was the largest
green sea turtle I've seen to date. I yelled for Brooke, but she was
outside of shouting distance and lost in yoga bliss, so I sat quietly
and watched as the turtle paddled around the rocks feeding on algae,
until she dove out of site. I then climbed down the rocks and joined
Brooke for our first swim in the ocean. When we returned to camp we
walked to the cliff edge where I had seen the turtle, hoping she
would return, but only the needle fish remained. We gazed out onto
the ocean and within minutes spotted a pod of dolphins, then another,
and another. Twenty or more dolphins, pink and pale grey in color, in
pods of six or eight, cresting and jumping through the seas. They
were maybe a half mile out, but our view was exquisite. It was the
perfect ending to our time in the park. We hiked back to the ranger
camp that afternoon and caught a boat and bus back to Kuching. We
suffered some bumps, bruises, and bites along the way, and will need
a few days to recover, but we were able to share experiences with a
few wonderful people and nature shared a few of her secrets with us.
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