Among monkeys

Trip Start Jan 25, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Malaysia  , Sarawak,
Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"You have food! The monkeys will attack you." One of the park guides greets us as we walk in the door of the Bako National Park Visitors Centre in Sarawak. It is a little late for that information however, as we have just hopped off a twenty minute boat ride and left civilisation behind. Despite the crocodile warning signs, the boat driver was forced to drop us in the knee deep brown waters off the main beach due to the low tide. We made it ashore though, and now explain to the guide that we are hoping, albeit a little less now, to camp the night and will need our food. No problem, he shows us a baggage room where we can leave our food for the day. We ditch our heavy packs there too and go to find some trail information. We find we have a little over six hours before the last boat, so we can squeeze in two trails if we hurry and avoid camping, which now seems even less appealing as a cloud resembling 'The Wall' from the Game of Thrones series rolls across the sky.

Given the current tide, we decide the first trail should be to Teluk Paku, a small bay commonly crowded by the endemic proboscis monkeys, sporting their bizarre long noses and protruding bellies. These features have led them to be named ‘Dutchman’ in the local language due to their resemblance of the colonisers of the area in the 19th century (I can’t help but notice that my fifty per cent Dutch ancestry has left me with similar characteristics). The low tide attracts these monkeys as they feed on the leaves of the mangrove trees, so some speedy trekking is required if we are to get there before the water rises.

Around one minute into the trail, we meet a few excited tourists going crazy with their cameras pointed at what we assume is probably another group of macaques, of which we have already seen plenty (luckily without our food and with a trusty monkey stick in hand). We are mistaken however, and are presented with the sight of a huge male proboscis monkey about three metres from the trail. This must be an attractive specimen and very popular among the ladies as his nose is a good deal longer than most of the large leaves around him. Realising immediately that this is quite a rare opportunity, we take a break from our hurrying to appreciate what may well be the best sighting of the day. Our time with our bright orange friend is quite short however, as he soon recedes from the trail, with a bored and disappointed look on his disproportioned face that suggests he doesn’t find us nearly as interesting as we do him.

Not much further along the trail we find ourselves spotting big bearded pigs amongst the mangroves, more macaques (everywhere) and dozens of silvered leaf monkeys casually munching on some of their favourite foliage, quite indifferent to our presence. Looking at these cute creatures with their black and silver mohawk hair-dos, you half expect to see them wearing a studded leather jacket, proudly brandishing the phrase, ‘Punk’s not dead’. Some quick snaps here and we scurry on our way as the overhead storm appears to be clearing and thankfully not soaking our bones.

Hurrying to the bay proves to be rewarding as we briefly spot several more proboscis monkeys around the cliffs above, apparently already departing for the day having had their fill of greenery. Though smaller than our last sighting, these monkeys are just as awesome to watch leaping from rock faces and clutching at trees, sending the jungle into disarray around them. Based on their smaller snouts and general size, we take these to be mostly females or youths, and are glad once again to have glimpsed the large male earlier at such close distance.

We trek back and stop for a hasty lunch, and a quick inspection of the campsite which, due to very rocky ground and an abundance of loitering macaques, leaves us certain we want that last boat out. The next trail we choose to take on leads to Teluk Pandan Kecil, a reportedly beautiful and empty beach around the north end of the peninsula. This trek is around twice the distance of the last, so once again, despite our depreciating energy levels, we find ourselves in a rush. The trail leads us through a variety of terrain, including boardwalks across swampy mangrove landscapes, steep climbs through lush jungle, exposed rocky outcrops and sandy tracks through sclerophyll bushland somewhat reminiscent of Australian coastlands. The destination lives up to the hype. A final rock flat reveals to us a view worthy of overdoing the photographs; rusty jungle-smothered cliffs surround azure-blue waters fringed with earthen-brown eddies supposedly caused by rain runoff from the earlier storm.

Following a rather steep descent, we take one final hop to land on fine, soft white sand and the beach is indeed clean and empty. We head for some shade among the rocks at the far end and waste no time discussing whether we have time for a quick much-needed swim. The water is refreshing and despite the brown colouration feels perfectly clean, making me reluctant to leave until I recall the crocodile warning signs not far around the point. Grudgingly, I pull myself from the small waves and decide we had better hurry for the tenth time today if we are to catch that last boat. Rejuvenated from our swim, we make good time on the trail, and perhaps because we now know what to expect it seems relatively easy. With no hindrances besides a dazing bump on the head issued by a bough that escapes my vision, we arrive back at the Visitors Centre much earlier than expected. Our German companion offers to find us a boat at the jetty while my fiancée and I head back to load up with our packs and food, and say a heartfelt goodbye to our monkey stick.

With ample time to spare for the first time today, we begin the short stroll to the jetty, thankful that the higher tide will allow us to jump straight into a boat without wading offshore. Feeling very relaxed now and looking forward to a comfortable bed tonight, we find ourselves in high spirits. As we walk, some last friendly macaques approach to bid us farewell – wait, not friendly but rather aggravated and hostile. We are quickly surrounded by the little beasts before we realise what is happening and are frantically swinging towels and bags at the attackers as they lunge hungrily at our ankles, bearing sharp white teeth and growling like feral dogs. Caught in the short stretch of jungle between the Visitor’s Centre and jetty, we realise no one is coming to our aid despite my fiancée’s panicked screams. As the severity of the situation dawns on me, I also realise I am not the target; she is! I find myself separated from her, helplessly shouting at her to run, but she is cornered on all sides and rapidly losing ground into the thick of the forest. I search desperately for a stick, but every hopeful thing I grab transpires to be a tree root. As I begin to despair I find an old ant-eaten piece of timber about eight inches long, completely useless but it suddenly seems enough to give the monkeys pause. My fiancée manages to make a break, runs straight toward me flanked closely by the vicious pursuers, who now seem unperturbed by my pathetic weapon, and reaches my side just as my hand closes around what I’m wildly hoping is something of use. As I raise it up, I find I am holding a metre-long hardwood post, or perhaps a wand which appears to have magic monkey repelling properties. The onslaught has ceased, the assailants unwilling to cross an invisible line between us. A tap of the stick on the path makes them flinch away slightly and we turn and run.

We almost leap off the jetty into the boat where our German friend waits for us cheerfully, oblivious to our trauma. We pull away thanking the guide, rocky ground and storm clouds for guiding our decision not to camp, clutching at our towel and, of course, with the deepest of gratitude, the new monkey stick. And only then does the reason for the attack register: the food.
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