"But there’s nothing there..." I said, of Bintulu.
"If there's something there, I would've probably read about it already," I added.
Azalia remained adamant as she continued scouring the Internet for things to do in Bintulu; ignoring my notion that the coastal town in Sarawak has nothing more than an airport and industrial plants. Home to a number of my friends who were involuntarily posted because their engineering degrees fit the plethora of positions there. Positions that were vacant because nobody wanted to be there.
I was of course, talking without any basis. I’ve never been to that part of Borneo. And my assumption was simply derived from the stories of friends who used to stay there. Friends who couldn’t live without MTV that is. Not to mention I was at the early stages of my affinity toward travel writing. I was blinded by the delusions of traveling to the great lengths of Petra and Machu Picchu to gather materials for our travelogue.
"Ahah!" she broke the silence, shattering the image of walking along the Great Wall I was having in my head.
She turned the laptop to me and showed its screen. It was displaying a website probably designed in 1995. The header read, "Similajau National Park".
The thing about our thirst for adventure is that there’s no quenching it. No matter where we go, there’s always this constant urge to squeeze an hour or two to move off the beaten path and take the road less traveled, and return immediately when things get creepy.
So when we had to be in Bintulu for work, where only tanks and turbines come to mind, the challenge of finding a place to escape to was ours for the taking. It had to be somewhere unheard of and nowhere near downtown. Somewhere for us to go and bring home something from our short stay there. Something in the form of a cherished memory and not an overpriced keychain from the airport.
I scrolled down the website and read briefly about Similajau. I was skeptical, still. While we wanted to go to a place nobody had heard of before, we wanted to know why nobody has heard of it as well. And what better way to do that than gathering information from a website made not too long after World War II.
Similajau did sound encouraging enough, nevertheless. It’s a jungle with a trail that’s right off the coast of the South China Sea. A jungle, by the beach. What’s not to like? The park supposedly provides habitat to 24 recorded species of mammals and 185 species of birds. That’s more species than Kuala Lumpur, at least. As we read further and reached the section on dolphins, we were sold. Just like UFOs, I thought they only existed in Western countries. We decided to give it a shot.
Azalia had already arrived in Bintulu earlier. I flew into Miri to meet my good friend Ali who will be joining us for the trip. All set to spend the weekend roughing it out in the wilderness, we drove to Bintulu at dusk in his Nissan X-Trail.
With the Miri – Bintulu road having more potholes than the Moon, our adventure seemed to have begun without us knowing it. After only 3 inches beyond the Bintulu district border, we were already moving into oblivion, driving in darkness along the bumpy road which never seemed to end. We were going off-road, on the road.
But we were in good hands, I thought. I’ve known Ali for long and he’s a pretty good driver. Plus, we had Stevie Ray Vaughan playing on the stereo. It felt like driving through the rough terrains of the Mexican border, flashing our lights to the oncoming traffic -- consisting of both vehicles with and without lights. Mostly without.
We arrived in Bintulu just in time for dinner and called it a night early. We needed the rest to wake up fresh for our journey into the wild. I had nightmares of riding a bike with Evil Knievel that night. Thanks a lot Miri – Bintulu road maintenance team.
We took off for Similajau after enjoying a serving of mee kolok for breakfast. Mee kolok is a staple in the Sarawakian diet. Made with what seemed like wantan mee, it is served with soup and eggs with bits of chicken on top. We had ours not too far from the Rancha Rancha Industrial Area. I thought it was nice to have breakfast alongside the local workers from the plants nearby. With most of them in their safety suits and boots, I did glance around to see if any of my friends were there. Maybe they had McDonald’s that morning.
The drive to Similajau from Bintulu took about 40 minutes -- a rather short trip. Leading into the beach area was a narrow road made of rubbles sandwiched by rows of pine trees. I rolled down the window for some fresh ocean breeze. After two unidentified insects made their way into my mouth, I decided to roll the window back up. And there we were at the entry point.
Admission was only RM10. And since it was a working day, I think we were the only people there. Which was great... the entire park to ourselves! Well there were probably 3 or 4 foreigners sunbathing on the beach, which I thought was pretty hazardous considering the amount of UV rays at the time was through the roof.
We drove along the chalets for nice parking spot under a shady tree. Azalia had earlier suggested that we stay at the chalets to get a real feel of the place. But that was in KL, when she was in her Camel Trophy mode. Judging by how empty the rows of chalets looked, and the "Beware of Crocodiles" sign not too far ahead, I suppose we all got a little creeped out.
As we settled down and geared ourselves for the hike, I had a good stretch and another unidentified insect made its way into my digestive system. I was good for lunch.
The sight was mesmerizing. For a city dweller like us, the view of the jungle adjacent to the golden sandy beach was refreshing. That’s right, the sand was gold in color. And if you go further up the track, the color gets brighter as it leads you to the ultimate destination for every trip to Similajau, the Golden Beach. Also known as a spot where turtles lay eggs, the Golden Beach is near the end of the 10km Similajau trail. It’s reachable by boat or a 4-hour hike on foot. Seeing no boats around, we duly crossed off Golden Beach from our itinerary.
There are seven stops along the trail, the main ones being Batu Anchau, Selunsur Rapid, Turtle Beach, Golden Beach and Sebubong Pool – every stop about 2km from each other. Already in his Oakley sunglasses, Ali seemed set to go all the way to Sebubong Pool and back by sunset. While putting mosquito repellant on, I said, "Bring it on, Batu Anchau!"
It was nice walking on a trail with the sounds of ocean waves and jungle creatures replying to each other in the air. Nature’s Orchestra, I would call it; where the sea meets the forest. Not too far into our hike, the sounds soon disappeared, as the sound of me and Azalia puffing and panting for air took over. The trail wasn’t that steep but with the fitness level of couch potatoes, we only have ourselves to blame. Ali on the other hand, was already leading the way by a good half a mile ahead. The spirit was still strong in that one.
We reached Batu Anchau after about an hour of hiking. The rest area is close to a surface made of black bare rock bordering water and land. I felt exhausted and thirsty, but liberated. Azalia was excited, snapping away photos to upload on Facebook. Ali was just sitting there, calm and composed as he lighted up a cigarette. All in a day’s work for the seasoned explorer.
"We’ve surely made quite a journey eh," I said, before turning my head around to notice the park administration office still only a stone’s throw away.
A sense of frustration crept into me after being led to believe that we were already deep into the tropical jungle. Alas, I ignored the sight and looked the other way, lost into the panoramic view of the South China Sea, wondering deeply, if there’s a vending machine somewhere.
We got back on to the trail after about half an hour later and reached a crossroad. Should we continue, the next stop would be another 2km away up and going back would be a 4km trip. Considering that we both only had 12% of the energy he had, Ali let me and Azalia decide. In a heartbeat, and full of determination, we said "Let’s go back."
Leaving Similajau wasn’t easy. We parted ways with so much more to discover. I probably only saw one of the many species of animals that were supposed to be there. It was a blowfish, forming bubbles on the surface of water underneath the suspension bridge as we made our way back. As if mocking us, for covering only a pathetic 1/4 of the trail. The dolphins we longed to see were nowhere to be found.
But Similajau remains a sanctuary. For those seeking serenity, devoid of commercialization, Similajau is a great place to discover and uncover its hidden charms. While the park management could do more in maintaining the place, there is this element of mystery in its abandonment that not many other places have. It’s probably not the ultimate playground for adventure seekers but if you’re ever in Bintulu and in need of some nature, take a short drive to Similajau.
Just don’t roll down the car windows.
I miss Similajau... we used to head out on our scuba diving trips from that river out to the sea... I think I only ever made it to Turtle Beach on foot, itupun nak pengsan dah kut *pant pant*... and maybe once to Golden Beach by boat. No dolphins though over the 3 years I was there. No crocodiles either despite all the signs. But a gazillion mosquitoes, and I fed quite a few of them!
Thanks for reminding me of the memories... walking on that beach... not a single soul in sight... munching sandwiches and fruit... lying down on my sarong and napping in the breeze, only to wake up to my sandals being carried away by the surf.
You were one of the few friends who only had nice things to say about Bintulu, Sakinah. Perhaps this place was one reason to love the town eh?
They should rename the place, Similajau Forgotten National Park though. It is quite incredible how a place so full of character, and close to town, can remain untouched. Hope it stays that way.
And despite its hiking obstacles, maybe I'll return someday... not without a boat. :-)
Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]
Busking Barefoot is the travel blog of Asrif Yusoff and Azalia Suhaimi.
Here's what happened.
Western Australia (Video)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Malaysia License.