A Year in Asia 2006- 2007 travel blog

Enjoying the ocean again: at the viewpoint in Similajau Park

Strange fruit (I later learn they are edible, but very very sour)...

The boardwalk over the mangroves on our short afternoon walk

Crocodile country! The dense muddy forest close to the park office

Laura at Turtle Beach number one, 6 km along the trail to...

The large depression that might have been made by a turtle laying...

Finally! Golden Beach, 10 km from where we started four hours ago

Beautiful sand and warm water all to ourselves. What more could you...

The jungle comes right up to the beach

Monitor lizard tracks at Turtle Beach ... maybe it was looking for...

We arrive at the Bintulu bus station in air-conditioned comfort. Each Malaysian bus depot seems identical to the rest. Strange snacks are spread out on the tile floors (shrimp puffs, grass jelly drinks, flavoured Soya milk in tetra boxes, and dried salty sour red fruit-like things with Chinese labels) while an adjacent strip mall offers noodles, coffee, steamed buns, and rice. This mall is particularly large and, in retrospect, we should have stopped for lunch. We don't. Instead, we buy our onward ticket, load our bags into a taxi and bounce and weave our way toward the park, 30 km away.

There are a few cars parked in the lot when we arrive. We unload our bags while arranging for the taxi driver to drive us back to the bus depot in two days. We hope he'll remember.

We are welcomed by the distant roar and crash of waves. The air smells of the ocean, of salt and sand and water. Our bags bounce along the gravel parking lot toward the office as we wind our way beneath palm trees. On the beach, children are playing in the water. Families are having picnics at tables along the beach. Opposite is a line of buildings facing the water, the accommodation for the park. It feels like a park and a beach resort at the same time.

We eat lunch while waiting for the office to open. Like Niah park, there is only one canteen; unlike Niah, the woman greets us with a smile and is happy to take our order.

When the office opens, an enthusiastic woman gives us our room, opens the information centre (normally closed because of low budget, she tells us) and provides us with trail maps. There are some short walks nearby that we could do before sunset. In the info centre, we learn about the turtles that lay eggs on the nearby beaches (or used to, as its uncertain whether they're still alive). I read about rockfish, jellyfish, crocodiles, sea wasps, sea urchins, and other nasties that we may encounter in the water. We'll be hiking far from any possible help so we'll need to pack a proper first aid kit.

It is already mid-afternoon and there's little time for any lengthy walks. We head out toward a nearby viewpoint about 30 minutes away along an easy winding forest trail. Boardwalks cross streams and wet sections while beautifully built wooden bridges cross two large rivers. We stop for a while to watch the thick, muddy water in hopes of spotting a crocodile (I'm hoping to see one anyway, Laura isn't so sure).

The viewpoint turns out to be a beautiful gazebo built on a point overlooking the ocean, complete with tables and benches. It could pass for the makings of a beach restaurant (if only there were margaritas!). We watch the waves crashing against the rocks and, further out, look for ripples from the dolphins that are known to swim nearby.

In the distance, bright orange flames glow against the horizon like massive birthday candles. A large oil refinery is built there, an ugly contrast to the beauty of the park.

On our way back, we explore a short "educational trail" built on a raised boardwalk over the mangrove swamp. The air smells dusty and sweet from the mould and mud. A triangle of roots is exposed beneath each tree, forming a dense maze of roots amid thick mud. It would be almost impossible to cross on foot. The water is muddy and opaque. I can only imagine the creatures concealed within. Again, I watch for crocodiles, but see none. Instead, we hear the quick splashes of frogs and the ever-present sounds of forest insects.

Light is fading as we return to our room, a two storey bungalow large enough for four or more people. We quickly change and head to the beach for a brief swim. It is hot even in late afternoon, and I'm eager to cool off.

Tiny crabs scurry along the beach, leading the way to the ocean. The water is warm though muddy from recent storms. I wish I could see what creatures might be swimming around us, but am happy to relax in the water nonetheless. Laura leaves more quickly, having felt something like a sting on her shoulder. She watches and waits ashore while I enjoy the water, the rise and fall of the breaking waves, and relaxing after our travel day. I float for a while in the water, letting flecks of sand and dirt gather on my stomach before being washed away by the next wave.

Our evening is spent getting ready for our hike the following day: we will walk 10 km along a rainforest trail to reach a long stretch of beautiful sandy beach. On the way, we will pass beaches where turtles lay their eggs, as well as cross many rivers and streams where crocodiles might be seen. Then we will return the way we came: a total of 20 km of walking! In our bags, we have our sandals, bug repellent, sun block, a basic first aid kit, a rain poncho (to spread on the beach when we eat lunch), our small camera, and 3 litres of water each.

At 7:30, we're eating breakfast at the canteen. By the time they cook and pack our lunch, however, it is close to 9:00 and later than we would have liked to start.

We start with a good pace; a father and daughter are walking ahead of us but we soon pass them. The trail winds through a different, dryer sort of forest than we've seen before in Borneo: the undergrowth is less dense, the trees not as lush, and there is some -- though not much -- resemblance to our forests at home. I take my designated role as spider-web clearer; Laura claims that this is the responsibility of the tallest hiker, apparently. I admit to feeling somewhat guilty for destroying what must have taken the tiny spiders a long time to build, sticky-faced though I am. A quick scurrying movement on the trail catches my eye, but there is nothing. Then I see them: snail-like shells hidden amidst the rust-brown leaves. Hermit crabs scurry along the trail, then quickly hide as our footsteps approach. I'm surprised to see them so far from the beach (at least 50 metres). We walk through sections of path where they are everywhere.

We've been walking for two hours when we reach the 6 km mark. We're starting to doubt our trail guide's advice that the 10 km walk to Golden Beach will take only 3 hours. We stop at Turtle Beach I, a strip of soft, fine sand rimmed with crashing waves. Sadly, its beauty is marred by the litter of plastic water bottles scattered wherever people have sat to rest or waves can wash them ashore.

There is a large depression in the sand near the log where Laura and I sit. Could it be where turtles have laid eggs? It seems too wide and deep to me, but I'm at a loss to explain what else might have made it. Maybe it is.

We rest a short while before continuing on toward Golden Beach. We have a long walk ahead of us and not a lot of time to complete it!

We continue for another 2 km to Turtle Beach II: its the same as the first beach but longer and without turtle "depressions". We scan the beach optimistically in search of turtles but see none. Onward to Golden Beach!

The almost perfect walking trail becomes rougher almost immediately upon passing Turtle Beach II. I guess not many people continue this far. Wooden stairs are broken, bridges are crooked, and a couple large trees have fallen over the path. Nevertheless, it is still a very good trail.

I turn a corner and see a wide shallow river in front of us. A wooden bridge leads over it. I step forward. Suddenly there is a crash of branches and leaves, then a splash. I just manage to see something greyish and about a meter long moving over the partially submerged debris. I freeze, both startled and curious. Whatever that was, it moves FAST. Maybe a monitor lizard? A small crocodile? I'm not sure whether either could move that quickly. I stop on the bridge and watch the water closely for signs of movement. Laura wants to leave. She heard the crashing and wants no part of it.

Over two kilometres later, we emerge at the sign for Golden Beach. I'm sweaty and overheated from the walk, the humidity, and the intense sunlight. When we emerge onto the beach -- beautiful fine sand all to ourselves stretching into the distance -- we are as hungry as we are hot.

We quickly change into our swimsuits -- I briefly consider such hilarious catastrophes as monkeys running off with our clothing, lunch and shoes -- and jump into the water. The monkeys do not appear. We float, paddle about for a while in the murky water, and retreat to the beach for lunch: rice and very little plastic bags of curried chicken. Its not nearly enough, but at least its something!

I return to the water after lunch, then wander in search of some interesting shells. On the beach I find some broken bits of coral and a couple of shells worth carrying back for souvenirs. Sadly, we soon have to start back. We've been only an hour and a half at Golden Beach, but we have a 10 km return trip ahead of us and we need to be back before nightfall.

Its already close to 3PM when we start the long walk back. I am incredibly tired. Perhaps it is the meagre lunch, perhaps its the relaxation, but my feet feel heavy and I have little energy left. Of course, it doesn't matter: we need to keep going! One foot after another, we plod onward. Soon, we fall into a rhythm, a good pace, and my energy seems to return bit by bit.

We turn a corner and, once again, hear a frantic breaking of branches and crashing through the underbrush. Without realizing it, we'd emerged into the same river crossing as before and, once again, startled whatever creature likes to rest there. I catch another brief glimpse of grey, a blurred movement of something about 1 metre long, and then nothing. If only we'd approached more quietly, maybe we would have spotted it! Probably just a monitor lizard, I tell myself. I don't think crocodiles move that quickly. But then, I don't know anything about crocodiles!

We continue along the trail stepping around the scurrying hermit crabs and through spider webs built since last they attached themselves to my face and arms. Overhead, a screeching high-pitched sound like a rotary saw grows then suddenly stops as we get close, only to start again further ahead. Whatever bug makes that noise, I wish it would stop!

I turn a corner. Branches break and leaves crackle suddenly, just metres away. Something big is running. I jump, startled. My thoughts dart through the possibilities: running away or at me? Big or small? Run away or stay still? Then I see it: a large monitor lizard disappearing into the underbrush, then up a tree. It was big -- at least a metre long with a body as wide as a cat's -- with the fierce look of a dinosaur about him. Poor thing was just as frightened as I was!

Onward we walk. Kilometres disappear behind us. We stop at Turtle Beach I for a snack. Laura has brought 4 Oreo cookies and we share them while watching the waves and listening to the ocean. Big clawed footprints have been left in the sand with a long, back-and-forth wavy line drawn behind. A monitor lizard! We follow its tracks past the large depressions in the sand where we suspect turtles might lay eggs. Was it looking for eggs to eat? From its tracks, it looks like it didn't find any, regardless.

It's too hot in the sun and we soon return to the trail. Just over 5 km to go. Uphill sections are difficult now. Our energy is really waning. My legs are tired. My feet ache. Still, we plod onward.

As we descend into a small valley, we hear movement in the forest ahead. We stop, listening carefully. Is it monkeys? Its the same cracking of branches and rustling of leaves, but the sound is somehow different. It sounds big, whatever it is. I move forward slowly. Laura follows. We descend into the valley. Then I see them: the shapes of four or five large wild pigs running through the underbrush. They have spotted us and disappear quickly. Nevertheless, it is an impressive sight.

The rest of our walk passes uneventfully, though our legs continue to fatigue, our pace to slow. By the time we finish, we're both exhausted and very very hungry. A quick shower and we rush to the canteen for a dinner of fried rice, sautéed eggplant and green beans, and ice cream bars for dessert.

After dinner, packing our bags takes extreme effort. I just want to lay down, rest, relax. Yet we must organize our things, get our bags packed and our dirty clothes dried out. Tomorrow, we will travel all day to get to Kuching.

We awake the next morning to the sound of the alarm buzzing. Its 6:15. Our legs are sore and we'd both like more sleep. However, our taxi awaits!

Our taxi is, indeed, waiting when we emerge with our bags at 7AM. We're at the bus depot 15 minutes later with enough time for breakfast: a steamed meat bun for Laura; instant noodle soup for me. I buy some muffiny things at a bakery and then we're off. Our bus will take ten hours to get to Kuching.

What we don't realize is that there will be no lunch stops during the 10 hour trip. The bus is comfortable enough, but sitting anywhere for 10 hours is too long. Laura is lucky: she can read on buses. I just feel queasy. I rediscover Buddy Rich on our IPOD and watch the scenery go by. Funny that 10 hours on a bus doesn't really seem that long anymore.

Similajau was worth the visit, though more time at the beach would have been nice. The walk was tiring, but also showed us wildlife, a different type of forest, and beautiful -- though plastic-covered -- beaches. There are not many places left where you can have a long beach completely to yourself.

Next stop: Kuching!

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