Malaysian Borneo might seem like a distant destination, but from Kuching – Sarawak’s Capital of Cats – the wilderness is within easy reach. Watch orangutans feed, laze on limestone beaches eyeballing rare proboscis monkeys, or follow a jungle guide in search of the world’s biggest (and stinkiest) flower. Sarawak’s national parks protect some of the world’s oldest areas of undisturbed rainforest, estimated to be over 100 million years old, and three are accessible in easy, affordable trips from the city.
Bedding down in Bako: To find out what really moves in the Bornean jungle after dark, take a boat trip to Bako National Park on the outskirts of Kuching and bed down beachside at this sanctuary for some of Malaysia’s most rare and unusual wildlife. Bearded pigs, stealthy long-tailed macaques and shy silver leaf monkeys are easily spotted, but it’s the rare proboscis monkeys that lure a crowd.
Found only in Borneo, these elegant creatures with unusually elongated noses congregate at low tide to feed at Paku Bay’s mangroves by the sea, undeterred by onlookers and the trekkers passing by, bound for secluded swimming holes, waterfalls, jungle lookouts and remote beaches where those armed with a tent can relish utter seclusion.
The trail to Bako’s best beach climbs towering cliffs and passes carnivorous pitcher plants before dropping to Teluk Pandan Kecil, a perfect arc of white sand nestled in a clear blue bay (3hrs/5km return). For solitude seekers, the trail continues to Tajor where a magical waterfall drains onto a blissfully deserted beach (5hrs/7km return).
Bako National Park caters to adventurous travellers with a cluster of forest bungalows, a campground and a café. Although the bungalows looked far more comfy, we opted to camp (we’d been hauling that tent for far too long!), sharing our site with long-tailed macaques and dining on noodles by candlelight while bearded pigs foraged and the forest boomed with unfamiliar grunts, cries and calls.
It wasn’t the most comfortable sleep I’ve ever had, but it did allow me an extra day to peer at Bako’s primates. Next time I’d skip the park headquarters campground and carry my gear to one of the park’s distant beaches. If you do, pack a fuel stove and bring along fresh supplies from Kuching’s excellent Sunday markets.
Orangutan Time: At Semengoh Nature Reserve, less than an hour’s drive from Kuching, travellers and orangutans meet deep in the forest over a feast of tropical fruits. On any day, up to 20 orangutans might visit the reserve’s fruit feeding platform: mothers carrying wild-eyed infants and playful adolescents swinging hand-over-hand along vines and shimmying down tree trunks to the forest floor.
On our visit, the arrival of dominant male Ritchie ensured that other orangutans hovered on the fringes until this 120kg giant had sated his appetite and moved away. A curious orangutan casually strolling through the crowd delighted travellers (but panicked park guides) before climbing swiftly up into the canopy.
One of only four sanctuaries that safeguard the world’s largest tree-dwelling animals, Semengoh’s rescue-and-release orangutan centre operated for 20 years before the number of orangutans released into the surrounding forest reached full capacity. Rehabilitation activities were then transferred to Matang Wildlife Centre in Jubah National Park, and today, Semengoh serves only as a place study orangutan behaviours and biology, and to protect the primate habitat of wild and semi-wild orangutans living within park boundaries.
Debate rages amongst travellers about the merit of watching semi-wild orangutans at a feeding station, where hitting the trails in search of truly wild creatures provides a more authentic experience. Wild treks are undoubtedly rewarding for those who encounter orangutans, but it is too easy to dismiss the captivating experience on offer at Semengoh as ‘unreal’. It is what it is.
Semengoh’s twice-daily feeding sessions (9am & 3pm) are usually frequented by a handful of orangutans, except during forest fruiting season when the extra sustenance is not needed.
Stop & Smell the Flowers: When the world’s largest flower opens its enormous petals at Sarawak’s Gunung Gading National Park, travellers get there quickly because each rafflesia Gunung Gading blooms for just four or five days. Despite measuring a metre in diameter, you’ll smell this unusual flower long before you see it, lured to its location on the forest floor by a pungent odour that resembles rotting meat.
Nature’s ingenious ploy, the foul smell attracts carrion flies to pollinate each of the rare buds often located kilometres apart in the forest. To protect the flowers, park rangers usually guide visitors to the blooming rafflesias, but short-staffed on our visit, they simply pointed us in the right direction and we let our noses do the guiding.
Beyond the forest where rafflesias commonly bloom, trails follow the Lundu River upstream to reach Gunung Gading’s 965-metre summit (3 1/2hrs), and continue on to Berkubu Cave, (5 ½ hrs one way). Distracting us on our hot and humid uphill hike were the deep, sandy waterholes where we cooled our heels beneath waterfalls that dropped down the mountain.
Used by Indigenous Malays as a post-natal tonic for women, rafflesias bloom in the park year-round, but are most prevalent from November to January. The park has basic accommodation and a campground, but you’ll need to BYO food and a fuel stove or venture into nearby Lundu town for meals.
Essentials: Malaysian Airlines and Air Asia (www.airasia.com) fly Kuala Lumpur to Kuching. Less rain falls between March and October. Pack lightweight hiking boots and if camping, a well-ventilated tent, sleeping mat, stove, torch and insect repellent.
To reach Bako National Park (www.sarawakforestry.com), take a taxi to Bako village where boats leave on demand for the short trip to the park (RM47 for up to 5 people). National park entry fees are RM20/adult and RM7/child (6-18 yrs), campsites cost RM5/person, dorm beds RM15/person and an airconditioned forest lodge for two (with bathroom) can be booked online for RM150 at ebooking.com.my.
Three-hour minivan tours depart Kuching’s visitor centre twice daily for Semengoh and feeding sessions are held at 9am and 3pm daily.
Gunung Gading National Park is a two-hour drive or bus ride from Kuching. National park entry fees are RM20/person.
Don’t miss: the Sarawak Museum’s ethnographic collection, the Tua Pek Kong Temple, a stroll through the city’s Sunday Market and the Rainforest World Music Festival held annually each July. Get information on current festivals and events at sarawaktourism.com.