Finding Rastapopoulos: Scouring Sarawak for the Proboscis Monkey

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From proboscis monkeys to Irrawaddy dolphins, Sarawak in Borneo is a paradise for lovers of wildlife, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

Bako National Park-Proboscis monkey IMG_6215

It was a Tintin comic set on a volcanic island in the Far East that introduced us to the proboscis monkey. In ‘Flight 714,’ its bizarre pendulous nose reminded henchman Allan of his mobster boss Rastapopoulos. As we flew in from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching, we were excited to encounter the fascinating creature in flesh and blood.

Called bayou in Malaysia and bekantan in Indonesia, it is also nicknamed monyet belanda (Dutch monkey) or orang belanda (Dutchman), after Dutch colonisers who often had similar large noses and potbellies! Marooned in Borneo’s wilderness, creatures had evolved anatomical oddities to adapt to their environment – pygmy elephants, bearded pigs, finless porpoises, gliding lizards and swimming monkeys with webbed feet.

Bako National Park-Proboscis monkey IMG_6171

The proboscis monkey is an endangered Old World Monkey endemic to Borneo, Asia’s largest island whose 140 million year old rainforests are among the oldest in the world. The flagship species was present in all three nations that shared the island –Indonesia to the south, besides Brunei and the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah to the north. Little wonder that the monkey was chosen as the mascot for South Kalimantan and Visit Malaysia Year 2014 and Malaysia’s Year of Festivals 2015.

The drive from the airport to Kuching’s historic riverfront was short and our room at Hilton Kuching overlooked the Sarawak River, Fort Margherita and the Legislative Building. We gorged on local fare like beef rendang, kari ikan (fish curry), nasi lemak (coconut rice) at live laksa counters, ahead of our wild adventure.

Kampung Bako-Boat ride IMG_5617

Borneo’s jungles are home to just 6000 proboscis monkeys and the best place to see them in Sarawak is the coastal area and riverine stretches of Bako National Park, home to troupes of 275 or more. The park’s location at the tip of the Muara Tebas peninsula at the mouth of the Bako and Kuching rivers made it the ideal habitat.

We drove past the legendary Mount Santubong shaped like a reclining lady to the fishing village of Kampung Bako. Over a cup of local coffee we watched tiny blue mangrove crabs flit about in the mud, and took a 20-minute boat ride to Telok Assam beach, which fronts the park. We disembarked to a jaw-dropping landscape of dramatic cliffs and marbled sandstone formations.

Bako National Park-Accessed by boat IMG_5954

Nearly 75 million years ago, this area was submerged under the sea. Tectonic movements led to the formation of sandstone hills which underwent erosion over millions of years, creating magnificent geological shapes along the rugged coastline – rocky headlands, white sandy bays and steep cliff faces with pink iron patterns, veins and honeycomb weathering. Wave erosion at the base of the cliffs had carved out fantastical sea arches and sea stacks. One looked like a gargoyle, another like a cobra’s head.

We waded through ankle high waters and reached the Park Headquarters after a short walk. Established in 1957, Bako is Sarawak’s oldest national park. At 27 sq km it is also one of the smallest parks in Sarawak, yet packs a lot for its size – jungle streams, waterfalls, bizarre rock formations, secluded beaches, nature trails and varied biodiversity.

Bako National Park-Nature walk trail IMG_5713

Almost every type of vegetation in Borneo can be found here – rainforests, mangroves, padang (grasslands) and peat swamps. In the forested patch around the park headquarters we spotted silvered langur, long-tailed macaques, Bornean bearded pigs and Grass green whip snake.

Bako has a network of 18 walking trails marked out for visitors – ranging from 700m/30 min to 12.8km/6-7 hours. Teluk Delima and Teluk Paku are the best trails to spot the proboscis monkey. Their 3.5 to 5.5 inch long nose helps them attract suitable mates! When threatened, blood rushes to their nose, causing it to swell into a resonating chamber that amplifies warning calls. We spotted our first proboscis monkey with great difficulty on a treetop; its appendage silhouetted against the sky.

Bako National Park-Sunda colugo IMG_5850

Our guide Sam also pointed out a ball-like creature hanging upside down from a branch. Soon, a baby emerged from the mother’s shroud-like sac. This was the Sunda colugo or Malayan Flying Lemur. Being shy, nocturnal and solitary creatures, colugos spend most of the day curled up in tree hollows or hanging inconspicuously under branches. To reach distant food sources without encountering terrestrial or arboreal predators, it can glide up to 100m over the rainforest canopy using its patagium or expandable membranous skin!

Besides plantain squirrels, monitor lizards, otters, Bornean Terrapin and nocturnal creatures like pangolin, tarsier, slow loris and palm civet, Bako has over 150 bird species including endemics like Bornean Bristlehead and Bornean Peacock Pheasant. Though a popular day-trip from Kuching, visitors can stay overnight in forest bungalows. The area also has estuarine crocodiles which feature prominently in the culture and beliefs of the Sarawak people.

Sarawak Cultural Village IMG_5242

Sarawak Cultural Village, site of the Rainforest Music Festival since 1998, is a unique award-winning ‘living’ museum that offers an insight into local culture. Stretching around a lake in a sprawling 17-acre site, replica buildings represented every major ethnic group in Sarawak – Bidayuh and Iban longhouses, sword-making shed of the Orang Ulu, Penan jungle settlement, Melanau tall-house, Malay town house and Chinese farmhouse.

In each dwelling, costumed tribesmen carried out traditional activities. We crossed a Bidayuh bamboo bridge, watched the vibrant 45-min cultural performance at the theatre and sampled ethnic Sarawak cuisine at Restaurant Budaya. A small souvenir shop stocked masks, instruments, clothes, collectibles and sapé (Bornean lute) music CDs.

Sarawak Cultural Village-cultural performance IMG_5293

From Damai Beach Resort we left on a boat cruise around Mount Santubong to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphin, Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins and more proboscis monkeys, their orange fur glinting in the afternoon sun. After exploring typical kampungs or Malay coastal villages, we drove to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre.

For over two decades, young orphaned orangutans and those rescued from captivity, have been rehabilitated here and now survive and breed in the wild. We watched them trapeze and spar in the branches as their whoops and calls echoed through the forest. Sarawak was alive…

Semenggoh Wildlife Centre-Rescued orang utans IMG_6362

FACT FILE

Getting there
Malaysia Airlines flies via Kuala Lumpur to Kuching International Airport, Sarawak. From Kuching, drive 37 km to Kampung Bako, from where the park entrance is 20 minutes by boat. Semenggoh Wildlife Centre is 24 km from Kuching.
www.malaysiaairlines.com

When to visit
May to September is peak season at Bako. The Rainforest Fringe Festival (6-15 July 2018), which started last year, is a 10-day spectacle of art, craft, music and design. www.rainforestfringe.com The famous Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival is being held on 13-15 July, 2018 http://rwmf.net

Tip
Wear long pants, hiking shoes or sandals. Carry a bug spray and a light rainproof jacket for the rainforest microclimate.

What to Do
Bako National Park
Ph 082-370434, 082-248088
www.sarawakforestry.com.my

Sarawak Cultural Village (SCV)
Daily cultural performance: 11:30am, 4pm
Ph +60 82-846 108, 846 078
www.scv.com.my

Semenggoh Wildlife Centre
Ph +6082 618324/5
Timings 8am-5pm

Sarawak Cultural Village-Ulang uru longhouse IMG_5468

Where to stay

Hilton Kuching
Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak
Ph +60 82-223 888 www.hilton.com

Hotel Pullman Kuching
1a Jalan Mathies, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak
Ph +60 82-222 888 www.pullmankuching.com

Merdeka Palace Hotel & Suites
Ph +60 82-258 000 www.merdekapalace.com

Damai Beach Resort
Teluk Bandung, Santubong
Ph +60 82-846999 www.damaibeachresort.com

Damai Puri Resort & Spa
Teluk Penyu, Santubong
Ph +60 82-846900, www.damaipuriresort.com

For more info, visit www.tourism.gov.my and www.sarawaktourism.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 18 June 2018 in the HT Cafe supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper.

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