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27 September 2011

Simila-where?

By Asrif

“But there’s nothing there…” I said, of Bintulu.

“If there’s something there, I would’ve probably read about it already,” I added.

My wife 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 with AirAsia 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.

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.

This article was also published in our travel blog, Busking Barefoot.