Fringed by a beach, Tanjung Datu National Park offers access to lighthouses and idyllic fishing villages, writes Zulkifly Ab Latif


THE sand of Tanjung Datu burns my feet as I scramble across its sandy white beach carrying my backpack and camera gear. Donny Prayudi, a fellow writer from Indonesia, utters a yelp as he too feels the extremely hot sand under his feet. Both him and I, as well as three fellow writers have just arrived by boat to Tanjung Datu National Park, a pristine coastal forest reserve located at Sarawak’s western-most tip. Our guide Nina Kholeads us to the park’s main accommodation which is a hostel building consisting of four bedrooms with two beds each.

Having arrived around midday, the temperature is almost unbearable and the ceiling fans of the hostel barely have any cooling effect. Hoping that the jungle huts near the beach will be more cooler, three of us opt instead to spend the night there. “Good. So I just cook there and we all eat there too,” says the somewhat gruff Nina, referring to the cooking facilities near the campsite and jungle huts. Encompassing an area of under 14 sq km, Tanjung Datu is the smallest of Sarawak’s national parks. The park is actually a narrow strip of lush forested hills fringed by a pristine white sand beach. The water is near crystal clear, so much so that it feels that I am on a tropical island rather than on the mainland.


THE TRAIL TO THE LIGHTHOUSES

Boarding the same boat that brought us to the national park, we head towards the cape that the park is named after 20 minutes away. The boat stops near a small cove where I spot a small fishing vessel flying the Indonesian flag, which further reminds me how close we are to the Indonesian border.

From the cove’s beach Nina guides us towards a trail that leads up into the forest hills. “We’re going to the lighthouse and where Borneo begins,” says Nina enthusiastically. Fairly wide and well maintained, the trail is moderately challenging with a steady incline. It takes 50 minutes of hiking before we reach a large signboard on a wooden platform nestled amidst tall rainforest trees. Built as a tourism landmark in 2012, the signboard implies the visitor is standing at the very beginning of Borneo or the western-most tip of Sarawak. Although it does make for a nice travel photo opportunity, I am far more interested with the lighthouse that is still a few minutes’ hike away.

Making our way farther up the jungle trail, we finally come across the sight we were searching for. Even so, I was not expecting the sight of two lighthouses.

Interestingly, Tanjung Datu is the site of two “duelling” lighthouses, with one being on the Malaysian border and the other on the Indonesian border. What is more interesting is that somehow, after making our way through an opening in a fence, we are now standing on the Indonesian side of the border near a tall skeletal frame tower centred on a two-storey station building.

Naturally I am slightly concerned that we might be breaching some unknown border or immigration law, but upon meeting the Indonesian lighthouse keeper who nonchalantly welcomes us, these concerns are put to rest.


STARRY NIGHT

Similar to any jungle in the nation, night falls quickly and soon, the camp site is illuminated with headlamps and hanging oil lanterns. Mattresses and mosquito nets have been brought out by the park’s rangers and set in our jungle huts. Although it is possible to do a night walk at any of the four short trails around Tanjung Datu National Park, the hike to the lighthouses as well as the hearty meal prepared by Nina seems to have sapped the strength from all of us.

Mark, a member of our group, suddenly points up towards the night sky exclaiming “Look at the stars, man!”. I look up and see a black satin curtain draped across the sky, sprinkled with countless tiny dots of ember white brilliance. Remotely located and far from major sources of light pollution, the night sky above Tanjung Datu is indeed a sight to behold and cherish.


TELOK MELANO’S IDYLLIC FISHING VILLAGE

After breakfast Nina takes us on a short hike through a trail named Viewpoint Trail.

Taking 20 minutes, the trail ends at a small wooden watch tower structure where supposedly, one can take in a view of the South China Sea below. Disappointingly, the view is not much to write home about since the vegetation and trees slightly obscures the view. Even so, it is a nice excuse for a walk in the jungle and breathe in the crisp morning air.

Immediately after the hike, we bid Tanjung Datu farewell and embark towards the second destination of our three day tour organised by Sarawak Tourism Board, the state government agency responsible in promoting Sarawak’s varied tourist attractions. As the boat plies the water, I spot a settlement near a long stretch of beach.

According to Nina the settlement is Telok Melano, a Sarawakian Malay fishing village. My interest piqued, I asks if we can make an unplanned stop there, just tolook around and take some photographs. Nina agrees.

Situated next to a cove named Telok Serabang, Telok Melano is an idyllic coastal village that is a 40-minute boat ride away from Sematan town. Inhabited by Malay families who predominantly fish for their livelihood, there is also an ongoing homestay programme where visitors can live with host families and experience their way of life. It is even possible to hike all the way from Telok Melano to Tanjung Datu National Park, although the trail will require up to two hours’ hiking.


TURTLES OF TALANG-TALANG

Although it is not yet noon, the sun’s rays are beginning to sting my skin when we finally reach Talang-Talang is land, which is perhaps the highlight of this trip. Located within Sarawak’s first marine protected area known as Talang-Satang National Park, Talang-Talang is one of four islands that make up the national park.

Disembarking the boat, I wade through knee deep crystal clear water that shimmers under the sun. Having long associated Sarawak more with its jungles, Orangutans, river crocodiles and long houses, it’s a curious experience to be standing on such a beautiful island as this and know that it is in Sarawak. This and the knowledge that it is a privilege to even visit Talang-Talang island since a visit is only possible by special arrangement with Sarawak Forestry makes me beam with excitement in anticipation of what’s to come later in the day.

What makes a visit to Talang-Talang such a privilege is that it is one of the main nesting areas for marine turtles within Sarawak. Due to the sensitive nature of these animals, visits to Talang-Talang are restricted to research purposes and specialised volunteer work only, namely its four-day Sea Turtle Volunteer Programme.

After settling in at the visitor’s hostel, I and the group meet Jason, one of the park’s rangers. He is visibly tired after staying awake all night looking out for turtles that come up the beach to nest. As part of its conservation programme, the eggs from these nests are relocated to a hatchery by him and other rangers, which also protects them from predators such as monitor lizards and even humans.

Welcoming our group to the island, Jason proceeds to give a briefing on the work done as well as some of the tools used. He shows us tags made from

Titanium, an extremely durable alloy that is sea water corrosion resistant which is ideal for tagging marine turtles. These tags, when attached to the flippers of the turtle, help to specifically identify it as an individual and provide researchers information about its life history and habits. “ We have information that the tagged turtles have been spotted as far as the Philippines,” remarks Jason.

Before leaving our group to rest, Jason leaves behind a hand-held portable radio receiver and says: “Listen carefully. We will inform you of any turtle landings tonight. Be ready.”


LANDING

It is around midnight and after many cups of coffee that the radio-receiver finally crackles to life with a distorted voice saying “Turtle. Come here.” I am almost running on the beach in near pitch black night towards the signaling flashlight.

There, barely visible in the soft white sand is a large female Green Sea Turtle, ready to lay eggs into the chamber it has dug. Jason tells me that there are several stages for sea turtle nesting, namely choosing a nesting site, digging a body pit into the sand with its four flippers, digging an egg chamber with its hind flippers, egg laying until the clutch is complete, burying the eggs and finally covering the nest with dry sand to conceal it from predators.

A clutch of Green Sea Turtle eggs can vary from80to100 eggs, and although this may seem a lot for one turtle to lay, it is estimated that only one in 1,000 survive into adulthood. Watching the animal struggle to lay its eggs and continue the survival of its species, I feel a pang of sadness and guilt. Sad that only a few if any of its clutch will survive, and remorse for how human beings have threatened its kind through hunting and pollution.

I am fast asleep when I am rudely awaken by Donny, yelling “Wake up! More turtles.” Grabbing my camera, I run down the stairs towards the hostel’s verandah.

It is barely after dawn and the sun has yet to rise but out on the beach, I can see the rangers sitting down on a wooden fence, watching four turtles slowly and awkwardly crawl across the sand. “There’s even one down there,” exclaims Mark, pointing to a Green Sea Turtle that has just dug a body pit right next to the hostel building’s verandah. It is a surreal sight, and one that speaks volumes about the importance of Talang-Talang island as a protected habitat for Sarawak’s marine turtle population.

Even if it requires volunteering for four days on an almost deserted island, a visit to Talang-Talang is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.


FAST FACTS

There is no road access to Tanjung Datu. Access is by boat from the coastal town of Sematan, 2 1/2 hours drive from the capital city of Kuching. Those attempting independent travel to Tanjung Datu may find it difficult as boats only cater to the local community and is infrequent and unscheduled.

It is advisable to use designated tour operators that offer transport and guided tours to the park. For bookings and enquiries, contact:

National Parks Booking Office

Tel (+6) 082 248 088

FAX (+6) 082 248 087

ONLINE BOOKING ebooking.com.my

WEBSITE www.sarawakforestry. com/htm/snp-np-datu.html

For details on the Sea Turtle Adoption Programme, visit: www.sarawakforestry.com/seaturtle-conservation-program/

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