Solo backpacking in Bako National Park

“Enjoy it, man”, T said as I walked past, a backpacker from Liverpool who was travelling with his New Zealander girlfriend, S. “Will do”, I replied, as I set off into the jungle. I had met them days earlier in Kuching, capital city of Sarawak, on the West Coast of Borneo.

Drawing of a man taking a break on a jungle walk
Taking a break from trekking

They were sitting on the dock, waiting to take the boat back to Bako Bazaar and back to Kuching. For me, however, it was my first full day in Bako National Park, and I had chosen a 3.5km hike through the jungle to find a waterfall buried high in the mountain. I had been chatting with them the previous night, they had done the hike the previous day, and warned me of the hard work, and litres of water, required to complete it.

Bako national park is only accessible by charter boat from Bako Bazaar. The visitor’s centre and cafeteria, flanked by timber hostel rooms were all that remained of civilization. It was idyllically located, on a stretch of muddy beach, facing pristine waters of turquoise, guarded on each side by giants, sea stacks of rocks, thousands of years of erosion poking holes through the sandstone.

The jungle was tall and green, palms and vines already swallowing the lodgings. From the visitor’s centre, labyrinthine trails snaked into the park, some less than kilometer, others taking over a day to finish and a speedboat to return.

Sketch of a stone pillar on the beach in Borneo
A stone feature on the beach

The first 30 minutes on my trail were hard. The path was unmistakably easy to identify, but that’s where the comforts stopped. Clambering uphill over boulders and ancient tree roots wrestling uncomfortably over the ground, this hike required all four limbs to finish. At the plateau, I took a long drink of water.

The terrain had changed to a rocky escarpment, the trees had thinned, and the sun beat down mercilessly. The humidity was 100%, temperature easily in the mid thirties, and I was bathed in sweat. I wiped my face, and droplets just as soon appeared. “Only 3 more kilometers of this. Plus the way back”, I thought.

A wild pig on the beach searches for crabs in the sand
A bearded pig searches for crabs in the sand

As the hours wore on, the landscape changed from steaming jungles of palms and roots, to decrepit boardwalks passing over dry scrubland, to white-hot sandy gullies, and enchanted forests of moss-covered logs, butterflies and beams of light shooting through the canopy. I reached the waterfall after about 2 1/2 hours.

It trickled down a cascade of rocks, collecting in a big brown pool. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was all about the journey there. Two Czech guys arrived, in an identical state of fatigue, disappointed with what they say. “I’ve seen better”, one of them explained.

Back at my lodge after the return journey, after a cold shower, at long last out of my singlet which had doubled in size from the weight of the perspiration, I sat on the porch and opened my book. The sky changed. An ugliness of grey filled the air and the trees in an instant. Strong winds lashed the treetops, testing the bend of the palms to their limit.

At the click of a finger, the rain began to fall in buckets. Lightning and avalanches of thunder accompanied the smashing of branches, breaking of trees, and the scatter of long-tailed macaques and bearded pigs to their shelter. I watched in awe with my dorm mates, at the fury of the Borneo wet, feeling lucky to be undercover.

That was day 2. I’m back in Kuching now, in civilization, after my 3 nights in Bako, eager for a hot shower and a cold ice coffee.