The only way to arrive at Bako National Park is by boat.
Our captain pulled his skiff around, the outboard buzzing anemically. The four of us stepped on and were off, passing a colorful village on one side and a mesh of mangroves on the other. The strait widened to an expanse of tides and currents, the ongoing negotiations between the Sarawak river and the South China Sea.
The mangroves gave way to higher ground, tall tree trunks seeming to share one tangled top, and rock cliffs, steep walls thickly stacked, the exposed bones of Borneo.
We pulled into a crooked wooden dock system, sun and water-rotted splinters of wood held together with trust. A couple sat on a bench, waiting for their ride out, and just in time; the tide was going out and would render the area around Bako an unnavigable mud flat.
There were signs everywhere warning of “naughty” Macaques, and sure enough, they greeted us almost immediately, blasé and yet still slightly threatening. They knew they owned us.
(There are two collective nouns for monkeys: Troop and tribe. More specifically, a group of chimpanzees is a cartload and multiple baboons make a flange. Apes in number are a shrewdness. There doesn’t seem to be a collective noun for Macaques, but there should be, and it should be intimidation.)
The park headquarters looked like any other park headquarters: A one-story wooden lodge with a welcome desk, maps, and a person in a khaki to answer our questions. There was an announcement and sign-up sheet for a guided night hike and our names were added. The prospect of the night hike terrified me.
We got the keys and went to check out our housing. The cracked concrete path in front of the little cabin crossed thick mud and still, rust-colored puddles, a troubling sight to anyone who has, by chance, just read about the myriad mosquito-borne illnesses one might contract in this part of the world. Two bedrooms opened to a shared porch, and a third door led to an inexplicably large bathroom. This little lodging may have seen better days, but it was now a creaky cracked construction. We opened the door to our room and were bombarded by the smell of mildew. Three twin beds were squeezed into the room. I sat down on one of them, a thin sheet over the plastic-covered mattress, and my heart sank as it gave deeply under my weight and poked me rudely.
“Well, it’s definitely an adventure,” I said, my own spin doctor. “Anyway, the idea is to be outside, right?”
We left on a hike that would take us up and over a ridge and down to a beach. The trail head was on the other side of the dock where we had arrived. The water had receded when we walked the weak planks again, and tiny crabs scattered here and there in the muck below. In a tree above was a Proboscus monkey, looking relaxed and regal, and also completely ridiculous.
And then we entered the jungle, quiet but also filled with noise. We climbed and were instantly drenched with sweat. The ground was held together by serpentine roots and vines that I expected to start slithering with every step. They didn’t. We came upon an intimidation of Macaques and kept walking.
The light was like water. Clear streams trickled down rock walls. Delicate roots hung above our heads and drank the air. Ancient thick vines wound up even older trees. Leaves stirred on an unfelt breeze. An army of ants followed an invisible highway home.
(Ants, I had recently read in an article about crowd disasters, have the ability to send and receive signals that let them know what’s going on at the other end of the line. People are not so lucky.)
“What? What is it?”
Our bags had been opened and the contents spilled across the floor and one of the beds. I saw my passport and open wallet and my heart started racing. I checked. Nothing had been taken.
On the dresser, a tube of moisturizer sat in an oozy mess. It looked as though it had been bitten.
“Monkeys,” I said, and laughed so that I wouldn’t cry.
“But we didn’t open our windows.”
I pulled the curtains open. The screen had been punched through, an easy break in. “I think they were already open,” I said. “We just didn’t notice because the curtains were closed.”
We went to the headquarters and told the two men there what had happened. The looks on their faces said that they had heard what we were telling them approximately one million times before. The followed us, without urgency, back to the cabin.
“Monkeys,” they said, and then walked away.
Before the night hike we went to the canteen for dinner, a stagnant and possibly hours-old buffet of rice, noodles, and soggy vegetables, neither hot nor refrigerated. A pair of precocious twins, the sons of the woman who ran the kitchen, I think, ran around, fully aware of how adorable they were.
Wild boars (only two, not enough for a sounder) trotted through the yard.
With a little time to kill before nightfall, we walked onto the beach. A spectacular sunset was forming.
“I don’t think I’ll stay here another night,” I said. “It’s beautiful here, but I don’t need to stay two nights. The walk tonight, a long hike tomorrow, I think that will be enough for me.”
A rag tag group started to gather at the headquarters for the night hike. We took of on a flat path into the jungle, and almost immediately came upon a yellow green snake.
We saw tiny frogs, a kingfisher bird, a millipede of some kind, almost fake looking in its size and color, and a scorpion. The guide shined his light on them and I took a good look.
The final prize was a flying lemur, in a high tree branch, all alone, which is probably for the best: A group of lemurs is called a conspiracy.
Read more about Bako National Park.
Consult Wikipedia’s list of collective nouns.
See all my photos from Kuching and Bako on Flickr.