The history of Sarawak, sprawling across northwestern Borneo, reads like Victorian melodrama, ruled from 1838 to the start of World War II by “white rajah” descendants of British adventurer James Brooke who was awarded it by the Brunei Sultanate in gratitude for his quelling tribal rebellions and driving away Bornean pirates.
GUNUNG MULU NATIONAL PARK
Premier among Sarawak’s excellent national parks, this is also the largest, 203 square miles (526 km2) deep in the rain forest. Some 20,000 faunal species include 67 mammals—sun bears, western tarsiers, macaques, leaf monkeys, and Bornean gibbons—262 birds, 281 colorful butterflies, plus 3,500 plants, 170 kinds of orchids, and one of the largest limestone cave systems in the world, dominated by razor-sharp 164-foot-high (50-m) limestone spikes known as the Pinnacles.
Over 150 miles (250 km) of caves have been explored—believed to be only about 30 percent of the total—including the largest cave chamber in the world, Sarawak Chamber, described as equal to 16 football fields, and 32-mile-long (51-km) Clearwater, with marvelous limestone formations and an exquisite clear river with scorpions, giant crickets, frogs, and centipedes. Waterseeps outside it attract superb butterflies, sometimes huge chartreuse-and-black Rajah Brooke’s birdwings, usually residents of the high canopy.
Deer Cave is home to nearly a million free-tailed bats which stream out en masse each evening to return at dawn minus a few picked off by waiting bat hawks, their routine duplicated in reverse by daylight-foraging cave swiftlets famous for their saliva-constructed nests, prime ingredient in bird’s nest soup. (Similar bat and swift colonies are present in the huge Great Cave in Niah National Park near Miri, noted for evidence of human life dating back 40,000 years.) near Miri, noted for evidence of human life dating back 40,000 years.)
Eight species of prehistoric-looking hornbills are here, including two of the rarest and largest—helmeted and rhinoceros.
The Pinnacles, an awesome stone forest halfway up Gunung Api, is a three-day trek, only for the fit, rewarded by spectacular scenery. A little longer—perhaps four days—and equally rewarding is the climb up 7,800-foot (2,377-m) Gunung Mulu.
The park, with accommodations (often booked well ahead), is reachable by air daily from Biriand Limbang.
Threats include continued logging, especially along riverbanks, despite international publicity describing vigorous protests by local tribesmen. But loggers have strong political support. Hunting,especially for large animals, also is a major threat. Few remain in areas within a day’s walk of park headquarters.
ALSO OF INTEREST
An exciting new conservation area is Lanjak-Entimau adjoining Batang Ai National Park and,across the border in Kalimantan, Bentuang-Karimum National Parkin an international joint venture covering altogether some 2.47 million acres (about 1 million ha) of mountainous virgin rain forest, home to more than 1,000 orangutans, more than 20,000 Bornean gibbons, important rhino and clouded leopard populations, and other rare and endangered flora and fauna. More than 1,000 tree species have been found of such value that several sites have been set aside as gene banks and seed sources for the future.
More than 200 bird species include half of all known Bornean endemics, with rare Bulwer’s pheasants, gray-headed fish-eagles, Wallace’s hawk-eagles and seven kinds of hornbills, including the wrinkled, helmeted, and rhinoceros. Preliminary inventories have found more than a half dozen new species of fish, crabs, and frogs alone, including a tiny adult frog just 0.4 inch (1 cm) long.
Of some 140 plant species used in traditional native medicine, ecologists are investigating some used for birth control, infertility, and varied disorders, including two found to be AIDS inhibitors.
Bako National Park is an accessible reserve in Sarawak, with beautiful scenery and excellent chances to get good views of proboscis monkeys, bearded pigs, silvered leaf monkeys, colugos (aka flying lemurs), and otters. Bako also has spectacular forest formations, including tropical heath forest with many pitcher plants.
Best places to get a good look at orangutans are at three centers where orphaned, injured, or otherwise needy individuals are rehabilitated for release in the wild: Sepilok Forest Reserve in Sabah, 45 minutes by bus and minibus from Sandakan which is on the local air network; Semenggok, reachable by bus 12 miles (20 km) from Kuching in Sarawak; Matang Wildlife Center, 15 miles (25km) from Kuching. Other species are rehabilitated at these as well, and there are walking trails.