I only realise I’m caught in Borneo’s monsoon season when the first rain hits. Not ‘first drop of rain’. First rain. It all comes at once. Stationed in Bako National Park, surrounded by monkey-infested jungle and a sea blocking me from the mainland, shelter is out of the question. I arrived yesterday, on a sputtering boat caught in low tide. Back then, the sky was clear and the sun made the sand glitter. Now, the rain envelops everything; it’s like looking through the static of an old television set.
We wake from our threadbare cabins (sticky mattress, shuddering fan) when the rain rattles the tin roof. The hike we intend on carrying out, in spite of the downpour, is the longest trail available in season. 5.5 km of Bako’s infamous shifting geography. Ordinarily, the trail would take us through the thick green wall of lush wilderness, up to the sun-scorched savannah-lite terrace, and back down through mud and rock to a golden sweep of sand. In this weather, every environment melts into one: wet. The rainforest is now a river, the terrace a waterfall.
The trek doesn’t become less enjoyable; it’s now just enjoyable for a different reason. There’s an ugly beauty to the monotone grey, a thrill to the climb up gushing rapids and drenched footpaths. It’s more of a challenge, but this competition of man versus weather is in good spirit.
I take off my shoes for better grip, and slip over twice on the clay. My trekking partner keeps his on, and remains upright. The rain breaches our clothes, seeps into our socks, threatens the impenetrability promised by my daypack’s ‘waterproof’ labelling. After three hours comprised of a short amount of walking and a substantial amount of slipping and sliding, we make it to the golden sands, now a monochrome canvas.
As our reward, the monsoon eventually gives way, and the sun spreads its arms across the stretch of beach. Monitor lizards scurry into the rock pools as we make our way to the sea; in low tide, the surroundings are rendered alien, a vast sheet of unspoiled shore.
We walk back the same way, to the chorus of primates, and return to bearded hogs and Proboscis monkeys. My towel is soaked so I shower and dry off with a pillow case instead. My shoes, too, are soaked. They won’t dry for another few days, and I won’t ever get the smell of vegetation and mud out of them.
But an ordinary hike was turned into something extraordinary with the added ingredient of unexpected, unrelenting downpour. I’ll remember Bako National Park for the landscape, sure, and the first sighting of Proboscis monkeys too, but it’ll hold a special place in my heart for the rain.
Bako National Park is a national park in the Sarawak region of Borneo. To reach it, take a public bus from Kuching to Bako Village, where you can then take a charter boat across the sea to the park HQ. To make the most of the nature reserve, spend at least one night; there are many trails and you’ll only scratch the surface in one day. Accommodation must be booked online beforehand: you can do that here, the most basic accommodation starting from MYR15 (£3).