Borneo Bound

You will remember Dr Jutta-Teege's adventures in Central Australia. Now follow her to Borneo and meet 'Joey'.
Dr. Maria Jutta-Teege, Alwin-Mittaschplatz 12, D67063 Ludwigshafen
Chamaerops No. 17, published online 23-07-2002

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Above: Overlooking the cove of Telok Assam with a Nibung palm (Oncosperma tigillarium) in the foreground.
Below left: A ‘Joey’ (Johannesteijsmannia) in mixed Dipterocarp forest.
Below right: Mangrove ‘harbour’ at Bako National Park.

Our plane landed at Kuching, on the island of Borneo. This town is the capital of Sarawak, the biggest of the 14 Malaysian states, but the Malay population forms but a minority; it consists mainly of the Iban and other native tribes of Borneo, plus immigrant Chinese.

Our destination was Bako National Park, situated some 37km from Kuching, on the coast of the South China Sea. The park can only be reached from the Sarawak river, so we went to the little harbour in Kuching. The small open motor boat with perhaps 10 or 15 seats was navigated by an Iban mate. He took us downstream along the wide and quiet watercourse to a river junction, where we turned right. Thence to another junction, where we turned left, and so to another and so on. Thus we went through a labyrinth of tributaries, never losing our way, with no apparent sign or indication of which course to take. The river was edged by thickets of Nypa palms (Nypa fruticans) and Mangrove. After about an hour's travelling, we passed along the Mangrove covered shore of a vast bay and eventually reached the small and hidden 'harbour' of Bako Park. A wooden hut with bedrooms, kitchen and veranda was to be our accommodation.

Next morning we began to explore the park, the size of which is 6740 acres or 27.5km2. Our hut stood behind the sandy beach of 'Telok Assam', a cove with shallow water and a view across the vast bay to the conspicuous shape of the 2658 foot high Santubong Mountain. A walking trail along and behind the coastline brought us to a wooden bridge, then across a mangrove swamp, and then to a viewpoint overlooking our 'home beach', with a high sandstone outcrop at either end of it. Graceful Nibung palms (Oncosperma tigillarium) decorated the littoral fringe with arching pinnate leaves like veils; but their high stems were covered with rings of terrible black spines. They protect the tender apical palm buds from being eaten by climbing animals such as the grotesque Proboscis or Long Nosed Monkey (Nasalis larvatus) which are abundant in Bako Park.

From the viewpoint the trail led us through a shady coastal jungle with impenetrable vegetation, to some well-rounded sandstone rocks, and after climbing these we saw the beautiful white sandy beach of Telok Pandan Kecil' just below us. We soon climbed down the steep slope for a swim in the calm and warm sea, and the only footsteps in the fine sand were ours. Very few people seem to go down there and we were lucky enough to find a wonderful and undamaged shell of the Giant Horseshoe Crab (Tachypleus gigas) on the lonely beach. These animals, unchanged since prehistoric times, have characteristics of both crabs and spiders. The solid brown shell we found at Kedil beach was about 20cm (8") wide and 40cm (16") long, including the long thin tail.

Strolling around the beach we discovered a little freshwater stream flowing into the bay and on the river's edge, in the protection of a bend, there grew a beautiful tree, looking like a cross between a palm and a fern. The stout stem bore a crown of big and hard pinnate leaves which were well developed and of a lush green colour. It was a Cycad, probably Cycas rumphii, a member of a plant family older than most other land plants, including palms. It seemed that primitive plants and animals had somehow chosen this spot to live and grow undisturbed.

We left Kedil Bay and again, the coastal jungle absorbed us. Bushes, trees, vines, herbs and ferns were growing tightly together in a tangled mass of vegetation, almost impossible to decide which leaves belonged to which stem. There was one exception: the huge leaves of a stemless feather palm. They emerged straight out of the ground and reached 20 or 30 feet high, competing with the strong stems of the neighbouring trees. The short leaf-stalks and the rachis were armed with long black spines. It was Eugeissonia insignis, called the Wild Sago Palm, and the underground stem contains starch.

In contrast to this dense lowland jungle we then saw the main vegetation type of Bako National Park, the 'Kerangas'. This word, from the Iban language, means 'land not fit for rice-growing'. It is a heath forest on sandy, infertile soil on a horizontal plain 200-400 feet above sea level with low bushes and scattered trees. Walking there involves enduring the full tropical sun, but at least there are pitcher plants to see. They cover the ground or climb the slim stems of the heath trees and their little jugs' can be seen everywhere. These insectivorous plants supplement their meagre diet from the infertile soil lacking mainly in nitrogen, by the protein derived from insects. Five species of the genus Nepenthes have been found in Bako Park and they develop quite different pitchers, which are in fact modified leaves, in the shape of a jug. With an incurved palisade at the mouth and a slippery inner surface they act as a trap for insects and then digest their prey with a digestive fluid.

Pitcher plants only occur in the tropics. The evolutional origins of these plants must have been about 180 million years ago in India, which was at that time part of Gondwanaland. From there the genus then spread out to the then neighbouring Madagascar, but never to Africa. In the Cretaceous period, which followed from 120 million years ago, the landmass of India then separated from the rest of Gondwanaland and drifted in a north-east direction. Thus the pitcher plants were carried with India, far across the Indian Ocean. Some lost, broken pieces of continental mass with Pitcher plants are the Seychelles Islands and Sri Lanka, but the main distribution area of Nepenthes became Southeast Asia, after India joined the Asian continent.

Our trail left the flooded Kerangas and entered the gloomy 'Mixed Dipterocarp Forest'. Here the soil was deep and fertile and the trees formed a canopy 1(X) feet above us. A strange conifer (Dacrydium beccarii) could be seen here and there between the tall jungle trees. They are the only lowland plants in Borneo with needle-like leaves, and belong to the Podocarpaceae family. Most of the Dacrydium species are to be found in New Zealand and other regions of the southern hemisphere. The floor of the gloomy forest was covered with dead leaves and there were virtually no ground-covering plants. Many hi-winged, hard fruits of different species of tall trees belonging to the Dipterocarpaceae family lay on the ground. Only they, and some other seedlings and saplings can survive the struggle for light and life in this habitat. And here we saw a palm! Not just any palm, but one of unique appearance such as we had never seen before. Like some giant herb it bore its undivided, lance-shaped leaves, straight from the soil surface. They emerge with short petioles from an underground stem and can grow to more than 10 feet long. The leaf blade is ribbed and the upper part bends slightly down. Can you guess? It is the tongue-twisting Johannesteijsmannia (pro: joe-hannes-tays-mannia') altifrons. Sometimes you can see them in tropical botanic gardens, but if they receive too much sun, the leaves are short and broad and stiff, evidence of the high adaptability to living conditions of this unique palm. In Bako Park they are abundant on well-drained slopes of the escarpment but most of them are at some considerable distance from the trail and in deep shade, thus difficult to photograph.

After having seen Johannesteijsmannia in the calm forest in its natural habitat, protected from wind by lots of tall trees, there arises a question: in contrast to most other palm species the leaves of Johannesteijsmannia remain undivided. Is this a primitive characteristic or an adaptation to the environment? Or both?

In the same forest we saw a beautiful tall fan palm, Pholidocarpus majadum, the crown of which was some 90 feet above us in the canopy. Their leaves thus reached light and wind but to photograph them was quite impossible.

Bako National Park was established in 1957 but scientific research at the site and around Kuching dates back to the middle of the 19th century. After the British adventurer James Brooke had helped the Than in 1841 in a rebellion against Sultan Raja Mada Hassim of Brunei, he became Raja of Sabah and Sarawak, and he and his family ruled until 1847 as 'the white Rajas'. Their contact with British scientists was naturally very close, and the famous biologist Alfred R. Wallace spent more than a year from November 1854, 'hospitably entertained by Sir James Brooke at the town of Sarawak'.

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