The name Borneo conjures up the idea of mystery, fascination and tropical uncontaminated nature. This is exactly what we had in mind when we planned a visit to one of Sarawak’s National Parks.
Gunung Gading National Park, in the Malaysian Borneo, is a beautiful expanse of mountainous primary rainforest located at the western tip of the state of Sarawak, only two hours’ drive from Kuching. Located near the pleasant little town of Lundu, the park started as a conservation zone for the spectacular Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world that can grow up to one metre in diameter, and ended up being designated as a National Park in 1994. The jungle-clad rugged mountains within the park sprawl across four peaks and provide a scenic backdrop to the whole area and to the clean and well-organized park quarters.
We were on a day trip to the park kindly sponsored by Sarawak Tourism Board (www.sarawaktourism.com) and were assigned helpful Wain as a guide during our minivan journey, and Antonia, one of the park’s knowledgeable tour guides, for the Rafflesia trek. Antonia is a very knowledgeable and informative tour guide, with perfect English and Chinese, some Thai, and “notions in a few more languages” as she modestly boasts.
We began our walk along a plank trail criss-crossed by clear streams that flow through huge rounded boulders that belong to the geological era of Miocene, dated at about 20 million years ago. Humidity was high but the canopy of trees shaded the trail from the scorching sun; Antonia made a few stops to give us useful notions on the park and on the Rafflesia flowers.
We had previously called the park to check whether there was any Rafflesia in bloom, and were confirmed there were a few at that time. Much of the flower’s biology remains a mystery to this day. It has no specific flowering season and it has no roots, leaves or stem. Rafflesia flowers are hard to see; they bloom after 9 months and only 20% of the buds on average manage to do so as they are susceptible to both drought and heavy rains, and then quickly blacken and rot after 5 days.
It is very unlikely you spot Rafflesia without a guide. Antonia took us off the plank walk into the forest, where we first saw the rotten aftermath of these flowers as well as the younger buds, before spotting a fully bloomed one-day-old Rafflesia that was 53cm in diameter. We were lucky to see the full life cycle of the flowering in its various stages of development, and our photographer went to great length to climb down the rocky slope that took us to look closely at a magnificent Rafflesia two days old and an impressive 75cm long from one tip of the petal to the tip of the opposite one. Mind you, both flowers were well off the beaten track and we would not have seen it without our guide. National Parks Department watches closely Gunung Gading to ensure that visitors get the best opportunities to view the flowering Rafflesia without causing any damage to the young buds and to other flora in the surrounding area. Our guide Wein reminded us that damaging a Rafflesia flower carries a fine of up to 7.000 US$ and up to 2 years in jail. Indeed not something we planned to do!
During the trek back, we contemplated the great job that the Sarawak local government is doing in order to preserve this corner of geological history that is the park; this has only been possible thanks to the fact that the local inhabitants, who have a background as extended families all living under one roof in traditional long-houses, have a communal interest to preserve the environment and the local resources. In the case of the Rafflesia flower, the government has taken locals by the hand and taught them a way to generate income through tourism, achievable only by protecting what tourists come to visit, and by training locals to take proper care of visitors. We hear that local guides are not only trained properly and extensively, but that they also given compulsory refreshment courses, four per year, in order to keep them up to the standard expected by visitors.
Overall the park is a good place for trekking, with a variety of trails of low to medium difficulty; don’t expect to encounter many wild animals though, except from a few squirrels and the elusive wild cats. The jungle trails, sided by thick lianas dropping from amazing heights and by trees’ gigantic roots embracing boulders in order to grow high and still be able to withstand the power of winds from any direction, lead to streams, cascading waterfalls and the mountains, with one path taking trekkers to the summit of Gunung Gading – 906m above sea level – a trek that should give visitors more chance to see wildlife.
Back to the park quarters, we visited the Interpretation Center hosted in a traditional wooden roundhouse on stilts, where there is a wealth of information on the park flora and fauna. The quietness of the natural surrounding makes Gunung Gading National Park a perfect place for a day’s trip or for a tranquil week-end with family or friends. The park is well-maintained, with different types of accommodation to suit all budgets, including wooden chalets, camping and lodging facilities; there are also a budget hotel and a lodging house in nearby Lundu.
It was only a short visit but well worth it, and we left seriously hoping that this well-organized National Park that today gets visited by relatively few people, can sustain its fragile ecosystem once the number of visitors grow.
HOW TO CONTACT
National Parks Booking Office – Visitors Information Center
Jalan Tun Abang Haji Openg – 93000 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia
Tel. (+6)082 248088 – www.sarawakforestry.com