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11 March 2020
The trail is narrow, and lumpy with tree roots and rocks, which makes it a continuous negotiation. It rises up on the right and drops down on the left. We’re hiking through a tropical forest on a cliff. Suddenly we hear Don call out. I turn immediately and rush toward him, our guide right behind me. Don is on the ground, in pain, and saved from rolling further down by some small trees. There’s that sinking feeling as my stomach plummets, and images of broken bones and rescue helicopters flash through my head, but Don assures us he’s okay.

Fortunately the trees that save him are not like this:

Don had a minor trip and instinctively put a hand out to steady himself when he noticed at the last second what he was about to grab onto. He chose to fall instead. Good choice! He’s mildly shaken and has lost a chunk of skin from his forearm, but that’s it.

I cannot count the number of day-hikes we have done, all over the world in all kinds of conditions, but never once have we carried a first aid kit with us. I have no idea what prompted me, but that morning before we left I mindlessly tossed the first aid kit into my daypack. Thinking about it now, it seems that it’s exactly this kind of happenstance that we should regard as a miracle. I do anyway. I dress Don’s wound, wrap it up and we continue on with our hike.

We are in Bako National Park on the island of Borneo in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It’s the first time in Borneo for both of us.

Here’s a little family mythology: my parents were pacifists. Sometime during World War II, one day after work, my dad and his buddy enlisted in the army. Dad announced it to mum when he got home that night. There was, I believe, a bit of a volcanic explosion in our house that night. Mum wasn’t that much of a pacifist. Of course I wouldn’t know anything about it because I wasn’t even a twinkle yet. He was not a combatant, but was involved in logistics, or supplies, or something like that. At some point during the war he got leave and my mum travelled (with my oldest sister, still a baby) from Melbourne to Brisbane to see him. Even today that train journey is over 27 hours. He made jokes about the army custard, which followed him around wherever he was stationed; he swore there was a pipeline to every Australian army base. I think dad was stationed for some of the time in New Guinea. But the point of all this is that I know for sure he was stationed in Borneo. Borneo! As a child it took on mystical, mythical dimensions, probably in part because of this photo:

The original photo is about 2.5×3 inches (6x8cm) and may not even still exist. The inscription was part of an attached letter or on a card. This is a photo of a photocopy of the original photo so whatever clarity there was has long since been lost, but still, there he stands, legs apart, in his army fatigues, in the Borneo jungle. I wonder who took the photo, and how and where and when the film was processed. At some point he received this photo of himself and mailed it to my mother. Note the way the vines are strangling the tree behind me Dear. That is typical of the jungle. You can get some idea of its density from the growth on the other side of the road. If he were still alive I would ask a million questions, but this is all that remains. This, and the way that Borneo, just the mention of it, lives in my heart as this mysterious magical place where my daddy went in the war.

And here I am, finally, in Borneo, and the reality is as magical as in my imagination.

If you take the red public bus number 1 from the town of Kuching after about an hour you’ll arrive at Bako Bazaar on the Bako River. Bako is mainly a fishing village

with the river at its front door and the jungle at its back. Every house has a jetty with boats parked out front, their bright colours shining in the morning sun.

This is a town that lives on the water, ruled by its moods, its tides, its changing depth.

We don’t actually take the bus. We’d read online that the bus goes from the wet market in the centre of town and asked at the hostel how to get to it. We were told we could just go to the bus stop around the corner. So here we are, early morning in plenty of time for the 7am bus. While we’re waiting we take note of prominent landmarks around us – a tall building, a billboard – so that we know when to get off the bus on the return journey. Suddenly a van pulls up asking if we want to go to Bako. It’s more expensive than the bus, but not by much, so we hop in and are on our way. Not only are we ahead of the bus, but travelling faster, and so we arrive quite a bit before everyone else.

Since Bako National Park is only accessible by boat, we’re first ushered into a shed where we buy tickets for the boat ride, then we’re taken to another place to buy tickets for the national park, and then we’re asked if we want a guide for the day (yes), and we pay for that, and finally we are told that because of the tides the last boat will be coming back at 3pm. And then we wait with our guide who introduces us to a breakfast snack of fermented rice wrapped in banana leaf. One bite is enough.

When the bus arrives with more people we all pile aboard the boats and head down the river.

The sun is shining, the sky is blue, the air is warm, the smell of the sea fills the air. It feels like the beginning of an excellent adventure. After twenty minutes, some distance before the river spills into the South China Sea, we arrive at Teluk Assam Beach and the official entrance to the park.

This is a place where rocks, seemingly solid and impenetrable, have succumbed to the persistent power of the sea. Over millions of years the sandstone has been eroded by the waves coming and coming again, and leaving behind them a shoreline of fantastical shapes. The relentless impact of the water has created rocky headlands and steep cliffs, in places coloured bright orange by iron deposits, interspersed with numerous sandy beaches.

Up from the beach, scattered in amongst both grassy and treed areas, there are several low weathered wooden buildings – park headquarters, a restaurant, and various levels of accommodation. Our guide initially doesn’t take us beyond this area. Instead he is immediately engaged in looking for vipers. Clearly he’s done this before, and in short order he finds one. I peer and peer into the bush trying to see it. He knows what to look for, and of course doesn’t want to disturb it, but it is so well camouflaged that it takes me a minute to pick it out from the leaves. It’s small, and highly venomous. I don’t want to disturb it either! It’s a Bornean Keeled Pit Viper. They live in trees and barely move, waiting for their prey – birds and arboreal rodents – to come close enough to become lunch.

Proboscis Monkeys are endemic to the jungles of Borneo, and are now listed as endangered. There are approximately 150 of them in Bako National Park, and our guide says that one of the best places to see them is here, close to all the buildings. Sure enough he soon spots a couple of them up in the trees.

Male Proboscis Monkeys use their fleshy pendulous noses to attract mates. I’ll just leave that factoid hanging there without further elaboration.

As we continue searching for monkeys suddenly our guide points out a wild pig. It’s the ugliest pig I’ve ever seen. This is not your cute pink farmyard pig. Nor does it even have the questionable appeal of the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. It’s big and brown with tiny eyes and a grotesquely long hairy face ending with a fleshy pink snout. The Universe was not handing out the pretty on the day it created this animal.

We watch it amble into some low bushes and flop down in a puddle of mud.

It’s a Bornean Bearded Pig, and it may not be pretty, but it has a part to play. These wild pigs wander far and wide in family groups foraging for food, and as they do so they disturb the forest undergrowth thereby accelerating the decomposition of organic matter and improving access to nutrients for tree roots. Just as importantly, the Bornean Bearded Pig is highly revered by the indigenous people. The hunting of wild boar goes back more than 35,000 years. Probably because it was so essential to their survival, providing nearly 100% of the meat in their diet, it was believed to be a mediator between people and the spirit world, a deeply venerated animal totem. So, not just an ugly pig after all.

With one last look out to sea at Teluk Assam Beach

we set off on a short hike, initially walking over a boardwalk leading away from the buildings and lifting us above the mangrove swamp near the water. Looking down our guide points to dozens of tiny fiddler crabs. Nature is full of astonishments. The male Proboscis Monkey may have a big nose to entice a mate, but the male fiddler crab has a huge claw! It waves the claw around to show off to the ladies and to scare off the competition. But what I want to know is how does it keep from going round in circles?

These tiny creatures feed off the mud in the mangrove swamps, and dig burrows in the sand up to 23cm (9in) deep. They escape into their burrows at high tide. When the tide goes out they come to the surface again leaving behind works of art as they scatter tiny pellets of sand in a starburst pattern. 

Soon we are in the shade of the rainforest. The trail becomes gradually more rocky and uneven. We clamber up and down some fairly steep grades, hugging the side of the hill, all the while looking for more monkeys. This is when Don falls. After I’ve dressed his wound we slow down a bit and become a little more cautious. It’s enough excitement for one day. After about an hour we come to a small, secluded beach.

And now we’re back in a boat

cruising past small beaches, towering bluffs, and fishing boats,

past cliffs worn away at the base creating shaded areas for the fishermen to work,

past the ragged coast where sandstone succumbs to the relentless power of the waves,

until at last we turn around and return to Teluk Assam Beach.

We’re hanging out at the restaurant after lunch, looking out at the grassy area towards the beach when this long-tailed macaque wanders nonchalantly by.

I watch as he walks to a tree, climbs it, and begins to eat.

There is no purpose here, no thinking, no planning, no justification or judgement, just pure awareness, pure survival, pure Life living itself. The moment is drenched in harmony.

It is followed with one of the most interesting and exciting parts of the day for me. Don stays behind, but I follow the guide off into the forest again. He takes me to a small hidden pond telling me that there might be soft-shelled turtles there. I merely follow obediently. I’ve heard of soft-shelled turtles though never seen one, and they certainly were not on any mental list of must-see creatures. And yet, here we are at a small orange coloured pond in a tropical jungle staring at the water. Suddenly there it is!

I had no idea that they would have webbed feet, or that they have sharp claws for digging into the mud. I watch fascinated as it rhythmically lifts it snout to breathe.

As Don says: turtles turtles yeah yeah yeah!

It’s getting late and the tide will not wait. Returning to the beach we gather at the water’s edge for the boat back to Bako Bazaar and the bus back to Kuching.

It’s been a magical day.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.