Every two years the International Palm Society (IPS) has a biennial member get-together in some palmy part of the world. Two years ago it was in South Florida. Before that, Thailand. This year, close to 150 palm tree lovers would get together in Borneo and Singapore for the IPS 2016 Biennial. Usually not a fan of group travel, I have skipped the prior biennials. However, now a Board of Director of the International Palm Society, the option to skip one wouldn’t be a wise decision. Before the members of the Palm Society got together, my wife and I would spend the first week in Sabah, Borneo, where we climbed Mount Kinabalu. Starting the second week of our vacation we took the short flight from Sabah to Sarawak, Borneo. It was in Kuching, Sarawak, that the IPS would hold its annual board meeting and where we would go on two great palm adventures into the jungles of Borneo. One to Kubah National Park and the other to Bako National Park—the subject of this week’s post.
Broken into small groups, our IPS Bako National Park adventure would begin with an early morning 25-mile drive from our hotel on the Sarawak River.
Once at the Bako National Park visitor center and boat jetty, the most popular and scenic way to get into Bako National Park and explore involves a 20- to 30-minute boat ride.
Bako National Park is found at the mouth of the Tabo River. The boat ride gave us a great opportunity to see local fisherman making their living.
Jellyfish are a popular delicacy in Malaysia. While I wasn’t a big fan of the taste or texture, there is a demand by the locals. The waters around Bako National Park are loaded with jellyfish and you could see fishermen bringing them onto their boats. These were not your average-sized jellyfish, mind you. They were big jellyfish. You can see an example as the fisherman below is hauling one in.
One of the many attractions to Bako National Park is the limestone cliffs and rock formations found in the waters and in the park itself. Erosion has created many unique arches and stacks that could be seen along the way. Can you find the dolphin in the limestone rock formation below?
The island of Borneo is truly a nature lover’s dream. The oldest rainforests in the world reside in Borneo, so the plants and animals have had a lot of time to evolve. Some very unique plants and animals were waiting to be seen in these untouched rainforests shown below.
Established in 1957, Bako National Park is the oldest national park in Sarawak. As one of the smallest national parks in Sarawak, it only covers an area of 10.5 square miles. Thanks to the many things you can do and see in such a small area, Bako is now one of the most popular national parks in all of Malaysia.
Before you even step foot off the boat you can’t help but notice the predominant palm of the area. The entire coastline landscape of Bako National Park is filled with Oncosperma tigillarium. The droopy leaves of Oncosperma tigillarium make it appear much more delicate then its spiny trunks tell us.
The first thing we saw getting off the boats were these mudskippers. Big ones at that.
While Bako National Park may be small compared to other parks around Borneo, it is well represented by a large trail network. Sixteen jungle trails give you choices from as short as a 1-hour stroll to as long as an overnight journey. The IPS biennial coordinators chose the Lintang Trail to take its members on. The Lintang Trail is one of the few circular loops found in Bako and the only one that will take you through almost all the major vegetation types found in Sarawak. This includes “beach vegetation, cliff vegetation, heath forest (kerangas), mangrove forest, mixed dipterocarp forest, grasslands vegetation (padang) and peat swamp forest.” The 4-5 hour trek was perfect for crazy plant lovers like this motley bunch shown below.
Along with Oncosperma tigillarium, another palm found throughout the park was Eugeissona insignis. Viciously spiny, Eugeissona insignis is monocarpic and dies soon after sending up a beautiful flower like shown in the second photo below.
Licuala bidentata is another palm that could be found in abundance early on during the trek. Not a fast growing species, the jungles of Bako had some old, tall plants to show off.
The first hour or so of the Lintang Trail involves climbing up to the unique Kerangas Forest. In native Iban language, “Kerangas” means “land which cannot grow rice.” Certainly fitting, as Kerangas Forests are usually lacking in nutrients thanks to the acidic, sandy soils. These “forests occurring on sandstone” are usually stunted compared to the common lowland rainforest but also are inhabited by highly specialized plants found nowhere else in the world.
This is what a Kerangas Forest looks like. While walking through it I was having a deja vu experience, as this forest was quite similar to the white sand forest of Île Sainte-Marie on the other side of the world on Madagascar.
The Kerangas Forests are home to four species of Nepenthes (Pitcher Plants). Nepenthes is a carnivorous plant which has adapted to grow in these nutrient-poor soils. The way it works is that Nepenthes secrete a nectar that draws insects to the pitcher. Once inside they find the walls too slick to climb out and eventually drown in the belly of the pitcher. Digestive enzymes then break the insects down into soluble nutrients to make up for those nutrient-poor soils they grow in.
The first Pitcher Plant we would find was Nepenthes albomarginata (White-collared Pitcher Plant). Easily distinguished by its white band of trichomes.
The small Nepenthes gracilis (Slender Pitcher-Plant) can be found as far away as Thailand.
The largest Pitcher Plant of the 4, and certainly the most attractive, was Nepenthes rafflesiana (Raffles’ Pitcher Plant). Highly variable, Nepenthes rafflesiana is usually green with beautiful dark purple or brown-colored markings. The first photo below shows the upper pitcher of Nepenthes rafflesiana, while the second two show what the lower pitchers look like.
The last of the 4 was Nepenthes ampullaria (Flask-shaped Pitcher Plant). It is missing something that the other three have. Can you see what it is?
Did you figure out what was missing? The answer is that it doesn’t have a lid that covers the top of the pitcher. Lids are used on Nepenthes to shield the pitcher from rain, which can dilute the digestive liquid. Nepenthes ampullaria is not carnivorous, but rather acquires most of its nutrients from digesting leaf litter that falls to the ground. If Nepenthes ampullaria had a lid over its pitcher, leaf litter couldn’t fall into it to be broken down.
Along with Nepenthes, the Kerangas Forest was home to many other unique epiphytes. Closely related to Hoya, Dischidia was likely the most common. Below we see Dischidia nummularia and Dischidia rafflesiana.
Myrmecodia (Ant Plant) is another epiphyte found throughout the Kerangas Forest. It is called the Ant Plant because of the symbiotic relationship the plant has with the ants that live in its network of chambers. Myrmecodia feeds off the waste the ants leave, which provides needed nutrients that the ground can not provide.
The king of the Kerangas Forest is a palm tree known as the Joey Palm (Johannesteijsmannia altifrons). It is one of the primary reasons why the IPS came to Bako. To witness its large, undivided, leathery leaves shooting out of the forest floor was a sign not soon forgotten. Johannesteijsmannia altifrons is truly one of the most spectacular palm trees in the world and to see it in situ was worth the long journey from San Diego alone.
Also growing in the Johannesteijsmannia altifrons grove was Areca insignis. Poor picture, but what makes Areca insignis unique is that its leaflets closest to the rachis are angled backwards and the leaflets are just as long at the tip of the leaf as they are at the base.
Pinanga salicifolia is an attractive understory palm found in Bako National Park. Mature, it has large drip-tip leaflets but in the juvenile stage the leaflets are thin and closely spaced. The palms look nothing alike at these different stages. Below, you can see the juvenile leaves at the base of the mature plant.
The red emerging leaves of a mature plant and a juvenile plant are shown below.
The brownish slender stems with a white-colored crownshaft are also attractive feature of Pinanga salicifolia.
Calamus are found throughout Southeast Asia. They have never found a place close to my heart due to their climbing nature and thorny disposition, but some are actually quite attractive. I don’t know which species this is, but I liked the look.
About halfway through the hike we entered into another open-forested area. Not expecting to be hiking out in the full sun, I didn’t put on any sunscreen. I would eventually pay for that mistake with a serious sunburn. It was ridiculously hot on this sandstone plateau.
This section of the Kerangas Forest had many pockets of water and colorful streams flowing through it.
This is also where another carnivorous plant could be found – Drosera spatulata var. bakoensis. This variation of Drosera spatula (Spoon-leaved Sundew) can only be found here in Bako National Park.
Patrolling the waters of the Kerangas Forest, this brightly colored dragonfly wasn’t any larger than an 1-1/2 inches is size.
The remaining part of the trek would see us work our way back into the mixed dipterocarp forest and eventually the swamp forest. Larger trees meant more roots in dipterocarp forest.
Along the way we would see a few more beautiful palms of Borneo. First up was Licuala furcate. A lot of hoopla was made about this palm prior to my arrival. I found it to be quite ordinary as far as Licuala goes. Sorry, Licuala furcate fan club.
A palm tree for which I had no expectations for prior but came away amazed by, was Pholidocarpus majadum. When the group first came upon one, most thought it was another Licuala species, as it looks similar to juvenile Licuala.
The farther we walked, the larger and more impressive Pholidocarpus macadam became.
With the highlight being this ancient sentinel of the forest.
You can’t see it from the picture, but Pinanga pachyphylla had very thick, stiff leaflets. Distinctive for the Pinanga’s of Sarawak.
Now on to the most noteworthy of all the palms of Bako National Park and one of the rarer palms in the world – Pinanga rupestris. Pinanga rupestris can only be found growing on the sandstone rocks of Bako National Park. You will never find it on the ground or in soil. It has evolved into a highly specialized palm and is phenomenal to see in person.
Pinanga rupestris appears to defy gravity, rooted to the side of sandstone cliffs. This palm can not be found in cultivation, and to my knowledge in researching it, no fruits have even been found in the wild. Another mystery is how the seed is dispersed into crevices on these rock walls.
The stems on Pinanga rupestris usually have aerial roots as well as branding shoots like you can see below if you look carefully.
The sandstone rocks in this area had some interesting erosion going on. Not sure how these round holes formed.
The last section of the Lintang Trail before arriving at the swamp forest is steep and involves walking down many wooden steps.
Once at the bottom, the trail flattens out for the rest of the journey as you make your way through the swamp forest and eventually beach vegetation.
The swamp forest is loaded with nasty, spiny plants. Staying on the trail here is well advised. Large Pandanus could be found scattered in this part of Bako.
The spiny trunks of Oncosperma tigillarium were everywhere.
The palms in the swamp forest just kept getting uglier the farther in we walked. Salacca zalacca is a cultivated palm in many parts of Malaysia and Indonesia and fruits of this palm can be found for sale in most local markets. The “Snakefruit,” as it is called, has a white pulp with a sour/sweet taste. To me it tastes like a pineapple that has lost a lot of its flavor.
Salacca zalacca is distinguished from the other Salacca species in the area by its grouped leaflets.
To me the ugliest palm I saw on my entire trip through Borneo was Eleiodoxa conferta. Found in large colonies, the fruit of Eleiodoxa conferta was the only appealing part of this palm to me.
Making our way back to the boats for our return home, we passed by the accommodations Bako National Park has to offer. These forest lodges are very popular and sell out well in advance. If I was not traveling with our group, I would have chosen to stay here two nights and explored the many other trails Bako offers.
A few cycads could be found growing around the forest lodges. I believe they were all Cycas rumphii.
So where are the wildlife photos? Truth be told, I was not as lucky in this department as I usually am. The group of IPS members that went to Bako the day before saw a Bornean Bearded Pig, a Wagler’s Pit Viper and a bunch of Macaque Monkeys. Those Macaque Monkeys even stole some members’ lunches right when they got off the boat. Our group was warned to keep lunch in our backpacks ahead of time. By the time my boat arrived, the Macaque Monkeys had come down and, seeing no visible lunches to steal, they actually headed back up into the forest. So would I never get a photograph. I have seen Macaque Monkeys in other parts of Southeast Asia, so it wasn’t a big deal really. However, there was one animal which I was really hoping to see in the wild. The Proboscis Monkey (Nasalis larvatus), famous for its unusually large nose.
Our day had been drawing to a close. The group had started the short walk back to the beach to board the boats. It was then that I spotted a small group of Proboscis Monkeys in the trees. The Gods of Bako were kind to me. Right in front of me, just above my head was this large pot-bellied, long-nosed male.
The big nose on the male Proboscis Monkey has evolved because females prefer their males with the larger nose when selecting a mate.
The female Proboscis Monkey has a much smaller nose, but older girls, as shown below, will still have a pot belly like their male counterparts. Proboscis Monkeys are pretty large for monkeys in general and are also quite colorful. I was extremely grateful to have seen them in Bako, where approximately less then 150 live.
After watching the Proboscis Monkeys for a good 30 minutes, it was time to head back to the boat. The tide was out, so we had to walk out to the boat from the beach. My time in Bako National Park had come to an end. However, I made myself a promise. A promise to return and spend much more time exploring this amazing place.