We were a group of 20 wildlife enthusiasts, eagerly huddled in the dimly-lit lobby of the lone, government-run forest lodge-and-camping facility inside Bako National Park in Sarawak, Malaysia. Outside, it was pitch-dark, and the rainforest on Borneo island was ringing with the calls of insects, frogs and owls. There was a certain freshness in the air, the scent of June rain still lingering and the moon shining bright through the clouds. Led by three savvy guides, we began our trail in the rainforest, armed with flashlights. Walking quietly, we carefully peered into bushes and trees, looking for who-knows-what nocturnal wonders. Suddenly, one of our guides stopped in his tracks, pointing his flashlight at a palm frond. “Here’s a pit viper.” I looked closely to see a slender body and tiny head just visible on the leaves. It was a young pit viper, gleaming white and pale green under the flashlight but otherwise well-camouflaged among the leaves. Venomous as they may be, our guide assured us that these nocturnal species prefer to stay put on trees, so the chances of visitors getting bitten are slight.
To reach Bako National Park, you need to take a bus from Kuching (city) bus stand to Bako village, followed by a boat ride from Bako’s government-run booking station to the jetty at the forest lodge, which serves as an entry point to the park. In course of the 40-minute boat ride, I crossed bare cliff faces, their tops gleaming with lush rainforests; dense, deep-green valleys; staggering trees jutting out of mountains; white beaches and crystal waves in all hues of aqua. The forest, which appears impenetrable when seen from the sea, has well-marked trails. You can tread independently on these trails, skirting around additional fees, or can hire naturalists for guided walks—for better understanding of the ecosystem and better chances of wildlife sighting. The forest lodge also offers a complementary guided night trail to limited guests on a first come basis. However, one can also choose to venture out by themselves within the forest lodge’s private land, expansive in itself. I had booked a safari for the night, and having kicked off with the serpentine sighting, was brimming with thrill barely contained.
Our guides, it would seem, had magical eyesight—one time they pointed upwards to what looked like a mottled branch to us. It was a flying lemur also called a colugo, a rare nocturnal primate, endemic to South Asia. The lemur was facing away from us, and we realised that it was using its patagium (the skin flap used to glide) as a blanket. A few moments later, we spotted another—and this time it slowly turned around on the branch and looked at us with its curious tennis ball-sized eyes. It was surreal, to have spotted two lemurs in such a short span!
Another guide could spot the slightest gleam of snake scales even though they were at a considerable height on the trees. She pointed us to two other species of snakes, including a bronzeback snake and a stunning water snake. As we were walking, we came across a natural, cliff-like mud wall on the side of our trail, at the base of which was a small puddle. There, on a pair of twigs lay said water snake, with a patterned back that appeared encrusted with jewels. To our delight, this puddle was teeming with life. We saw a cicada shedding its shell, a pond turtle, frogs of different species and even a tarantula, on the mud wall. The frogs were glittering in the light from the flashlights, their eyes an eerie golden; a white-lipped frog was perched as the definite cynosure, flaunting its hip lipstick.
As we walked deeper into the forest, the air got damper, and the path ahead, darker. At a stream crossing, the guides stopped us and told us to switch off our flashlights. Once our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we spotted a gorgeous cluster of bioluminescent mushrooms. The fluorescent pigment was visible only in the piercing darkness of the forest, where moonlight cannot penetrate. With this unearthly sighting, we ended the trail that had opened us up to a whole new world which exists only under the peels of inky, Malaysian nights. As we made our way back to the lodge after two adrenaline-pumped hours, everyone was wide awake. Like some of the night-time denizens of the wilderness we had left behind.
There are direct flights to Malaysia from major Indian cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, and Bangalore. There are frequent domestic flights between capital Kuala Lumpur, and Kuching, the capital of the East Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo. Kuching is the gateway point to Bako village, which lies an hour’s bus ride away. From Bako, a 40-minute boat ride through the South China Sea leads one to the jetty at the forest lodge of the Bako National Park.
The night trail is free for those staying at the lone government-run forest lodge (where the writer stayed), hostel, and campsite in the area; the walk can be booked on the spot. A night’s stay here is essential, since the last ferry leaves the island for Kuching at around 3-4 p.m. daily, depending on the tide. It is also possible to do the walk solo (ebooking.sarawak.gov.my/eBooking; lodge doubles from RM50/Rs880).