Bukit Keruing & Bukit Gondol

Difficulty
8/10 (long, hot and tough)
Distance
12.5 km return (including Bukit Gondol)
Scenic value
8/10
Walking Time
8-10 hours return (full day)
Flora & Fauna
9/10
Trail Markings
Lintang Trail – Red
Tajor – Red&White
Bukit Keruing – Blue
Bukit Gondol – Yellow&White
Paya Jelutong – Blue&White
Ulu Serait – Blue&Yellow
Lintang Trail – Red
Summary

So you’ve got romantic notions about jungle trekking the interior of Borneo, but you don’t have 6 months. Well, this full day trek into the interior of Bako may be just what you’re looking for, to give you a taste of adventure.Branching off the Lintang trail, this walk takes you past Tajor Waterfall, a tannin-tinged oasis where you can have a refreshing swim. The trail drops into and out of creek beds before climbing steeply through mixed dipterocarp forest near Bukit Keruing. The trail skirts around this peak, and rapidly descends into lush freshwater swamp, where you have the option of climbing Bukit Gondol (a small peak but the tallest in the park at 260m) or bypassing it on the easier Paya Jelutong trail.

The small loop trail up to Bukit Gondol summit is a challenging walk, in what feels like the very interior of Borneo – it’s wild, hot, sweaty and muddy. You’ll feel dwarfed by towering trees and clingy rattans will hook into clothes and skin. If you persevere you’ll ascend into drier, open vegetation on the summit where there are views to the east of the park and a broad expanse of coastline north of Kuching. The walk downhill to where the Paya Jelutong trail intersects at a tributary of Sungai Serait, is much easier going.

From the Sungai Serait, you follow the Ulu Serait trail, which undulates through kerangas forest and over more tributaries, before meets back up with the Lintang trail. It’s another 1-1.5 hours back to park HQ. If you’re lucky, the proboscis monkeys may be munching in the mangroves by the time you reach the boardwalk at Telok Assam.

 

Trail Description

This tough trek commences on the Lintang Trail. From park HQ, go northwards, following the path over to the mangrove boardwalk and up the sandstone escarpment onto the sandstone plateau. From here it’s approximately 10 minutes to the junction where the Lintang Trail separates from the trails to Telok Pandan Besar and Kecil and Tajor Waterfall. Take the latter trail, which after a further 5 minutes branches again.

Tajor Trail

Turn onto the Tajor Waterfall trail (there appear to be two – the red and white marked trail on the right is the official trail, the other being closed because of erosion). Proceed up a small rise, where Bukit Tambi, accessible only from the Lintang Trail, can be seen to the right.

The scrubby fire padang vegetation here gives way to kerangas forest as the trail descends. In contrast to the open plateau, this area feels closed and much wetter, and there are many palms (stemmed, variegated big fan, and crocodile-tail palms) and rattans. As you leave the forest, note the clusters of Nepenthes ampullaria – there are many more to come!

A boardwalk carries you over bare sandstone and more fire padang vegetation, with numerous pitcher plants of different types and sizes, before you trek back into kerangas forest and head gradually downhill.

The next 25 minutes’ walking undulates through kerangas forest criss-crossed with creeks. Large pantu palms (Eugeissonia utilis – wild sago – a traditional food staple extracted by felling the palm, grating the pith and soaking out the starch) are common here, as well as casuarina trees and one species of conifer (pine). Around the creeks, you might notice large pandanus plants, and the vegetation is generally denser as more palms, herbs and mosses appear.

Approximately 35 minutes from the previous junction, you’ll climb up into open kerangas forest. There are several selunsor trees here, resembling Australian gum trees with strands of peeling bark at the base of smooth trunks. This brings you to a signboard marking the turnoff to Tanjung Rhu. A sign shows Tajor Waterfall to be another 1.1 km ahead.

From this point, the trail re-emerges from the forest into open scrubby vegetation and proceeds up an eroded muddy clay/sand slope. At the rise, there’s a boardwalk, and from here there are good views out to the north east of the park, especially the island of Pulau Lakei (which is opposite Telok Limau, around the far point). The trail continues mostly through this open country for another 10-15 minutes before cutting across an open creek eating into the sandstone plateau. From here it’s a descent into more kerangas forest, which becomes progressively wetter and mossier. Pantu palms, Licuala (fan) palms and dipterocarp trees are common. A sign which points right to the waterfall – this says it’s 10 minutes, but it’s more like 5, and you can hear the creek below the falls off to the left. The forest through here is noticeably lusher, with several keruing (Dipterocarpus spp) trees adding height to the canopy.

 

Tajor Waterfall

tajor waterfall

The trail crosses the Sungai Tajor (sungai is Malay for “river”) at its narrowest point, below and above which are picturesque waterfalls. In the wet season with higher volumes of water, you may have to get your feet wet to cross. This is a pretty area – the dark tannin-coloured water pans out into several cool, wide pools, framed by lush palms and mosses,  bright orange selunsor trees and red sandstone. The richness of dark orange – red colours in this area is somewhat unexpected after the walk along the sun-bleached sandstone plateau.

Plunging into the water here can be a little unnerving – visibility is not great, and it brings to mind swimming in cool, strong tea. Tannin is not the only compound in this water – naturally soapy plant compounds create a thick layer of suds in areas of turbulence .

The trail continues on the other side of Sungai Tajor, and after a few minutes reaches the side-trail to Telok Tajor, which branches off on the left. (This track is a 20-30 minute steep descent through forest rich with pitcher plants, to reach a tidal beach. The Sungai Tajor empties its molasses-brown waters into the sea on the right end of the cove which bears its name.)

Continuing the Bukit Keruing/Gondol Trail, marked by blue paint on trees, the trail is narrower and less used than the previous section. It trail climbs and the forest thins out again, into fire padang. The walk undulates and the vegetation changes from fire padang to kerangas to thicker forest in and around creek gullies.

About 25 minutes from Telok Tajor Trail junction, there’s another trail signboard, just in front of a pretty open creek which separates the kerangas forest you are in from fire padang on the other side. The creek has a reasonable flow of clear water even in the dry season and is a good place to fill water bottles (treat the water before drinking). There are some very shallow pools which you can splash about in if you need to cool off. Tiny freshwater prawns/shrimps may nibble at your toes. The trail that crosses the creek is the start of the very long walk to Telok Limau and Telok Kruin; the trail to Bukit Keruing turns right.

The Bukit Keruing Trail continues with the creek on its left hand side for a little way, before veering away from it. The trail continues upwards through moister kerangas forest with slim dipterocarp trees and conifers. There are a few trickling creeks through here. The tree canopy is low but the forest is quite dense. About 15 minutes from the last junction, the trail ascends in dipterocarp forest. The trees are obviously larger and you may notice the forest floor carpeted with large numbers of stiff, ridged leaves, and maybe petals or seeds of the keruing (Dipterocarpus sp) trees that make up this forest. Sometimes the forest smells strongly of camphor – this is damar, the resin from certain dipterocarp trees, which is used commercially for varnish, as well as for incenses such as frankincense and myrrh.

The trail continues up through dipterocarp forest, dotted with palms and pandans, crossing several tiny but flowing creek beds. There’s a steep, eroded slope around which you’ll have to clamber using tree roots for hand and footholds. The trail continues to climb in a pretty creek valley between two hills (Bukit Keruing is on the right). There are lots of flowering herbs amongst the rocks through here, including begonias. It’s a short way to the top of the saddle between these peaks – the trail doesn’t actually go to the summit of Bukit Keruing.

From the saddle, the trail immediately descends down a steep, badly eroded creek, and past the scar of a large landslide on the left. It’s about 15 minutes from the saddle down through this progressively lusher creek gully and into freshwater swamp forest. A turnoff to the left, marked by the trail network signboard is the Bukit Gondol summit.

 

Paya Jelutong Shortcut

 

To by-pass Bukit Gondol, continue straight ahead, where the trail continues as the Paya Jelutong Trail, through freshwater swamp (paya means “swamp”; jelutong is the name of a type of softwood tree – Dyera sp – which grows here).

The Paya Jelutong Trail is the easier option – just over 10 minutes of swampy walking to get to the Ulu Serait Trail, which re-connects with the Lintang Trail in 2.7km. The Paya Jelutong trail is an interesting walk – it’s very humid, and boggy. There are large meranti (Shorea spp, a type of dipterocarp, and one of one of the most sought after tropical timbers), jelutong trees, and huge pandanus trees through here. There may also be lots of hooked rattan tendrils dangling over the trail, so be careful not to get caught. The trail dries out a little and crosses a pandanus-fringed creek over a single narrow log.

After crossing the log, you’ll meet up with the return limb of the Bukit Gondol Trail, where some scruffy shelters have been constructed. The creek forms a small pour-over here, which the trail crosses. Fill up you water bottle if you need to (as always, treat the water).

Bukit Gondol

If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous and want to add another 1-1.5 hours to your trek, then the Bukit Gondol is for you. The view from the peak (it’s actually more of a molehill than a mountain at 260 m) is nice, but it’s not spectacular – the real highlight of taking this trail is the opportunity that it gives you to plunge into freshwater swamp forest. And you’ll literally put your foot and maybe all your other body parts in it, as this is a slippery, waterlogged trail.

If this slog through swamp sounds too tedious, but you still want to see the not-so-Bald Hill, take the Paya Jelutong trail, then go up and back on the return arm of the loop (see below).

It takes about 20 minutes to pick your way through the first, swampy, part of the trail – it’s not as obvious as the rest of the trails; and tree-falls, bog and groping, clinging rattans make walking slower. It may require wading knee-deep in muck, or scrambling over tree roots. This amazing riverine/swamp forest contains some large buttressed trees, which are likely wild durian (the fruits litter the ground in season – and you may not want to dawdle underneath if this is the case, as the large spiky fruit could do some damage if they fell on you). There’s a very pretty, but swampy creek to the right hand side of the path, and a profusion of wild herbs, ferns, pandans, fan palms and huge variegated fan palms.

You can really let your imagination run riot here – the heat, humidity, profusion of plants and remoteness of it make you feel like you’re a million miles away from civilisation (you half expect Yoda to appear from behind one of the trees).

Over the next 25 minutes, the trail rises out of swamp, and passes some large dipterocarp trees. A steep 10 minute climb then takes you through progressively drier forest and into kerangas forest at the top of Bukit Gondol. There’s a clearing in the top and enough breaks in the vegetation to get some good views towards the coast north east of Kuching as well as the eastern part of the national park. Gondol actually means “bald” in Malay – although this is a bit harsh a name, because at the time of writing there was still a receding line of trees around it. Perhaps there’s a cure for thinning roots in the forest here?

From the top, the trail continues in front. The descent is more clearly marked and less steep than the route up. It follows the ridgeline through keruing forest. After ten minutes the trail downhill becomes steeper and opens out onto a collection of rough shelters. The trail leads downhill past these, and across the creek (a tributary of the Sungai Serait) at which point the Bukit Gondol trail ends and the Ulu (‘interior’) Serait Trail starts. The Paya Jelutong trail intersects on the right. The creek here is similar to Sungai Tajor – tea coloured – but is smaller volume.

 

Ulu Serait Trail

From the creek and shelters, the trail goes upwards into open scrubland then descends into swampy kerangas. The creeks here are indistinct – large sections of the trail are immersed under dark pools of water. There are lots of Nepenthes ampullaria on this region. This pattern becomes a repeating theme – kerangas vegetation, greener and more diverse around creek beds, into patches of fire padang vegetation around the sandstone plateau. There are small but flowing creeks throughout this section.

About 35-40 minutes from the last junction, you’ll come up a rise through kerangas forest to a signboard and some arrows as this trail joins the Lintang Trail. Turning right along the Lintang Trail is the shortest route back to park HQ. It threads up and down the sandstone plateau, at times in open padang vegetation, at times in kerangas forest. There are several expanses of sandstone which are criss-crossed by trickling creeks, and there is a good view out to Santubong peninsula from here. If you’re feeling inclined to visit another view point, the trail contours up and over Bukit Tambi – the viewpoint here is an easy couple of minutes off the Lintang trail, and looks out to Gunung Santubong and the south-western Sarawak coastline. It takes just over 30 minutes to get back to the junction with the trail to Tajor waterfall.

At the junction of the Lintang Trail with the Pandan Kecil and Besar Trail and the Tajor Waterfall turnoff, turn left and head home. Depending on time of day and weather, the sandstone plateau may be bathed in photogenic golden afternoon light. After about 30 minutes walking, you’ll get back to the mangrove boardwalk; while you’re descending the escarpment move and talk quietly. Be alert for the honking of proboscis monkeys as they make their afternoon trip to the mangroves around the boardwalk. If you’re not too thirsty and famished, the pondoks attached to the boardwalk are great places to sit back and rest your tired feet while looking for wildlife. There are lots of birds in this habitat, and if the monkeys aren’t already visible, you may be able to pick their presence from the motion of tree canopies on the steep forested slope facing these vantage points.


Special Considerations

This is a long walk. Large parts are very hot and exposed, and not carrying enough water is dangerous as well as torture. Carrying a water filter or water purifying tablets is the way to go if you want to minimise the weight you have to carry. There are flowing creeks all along this trail, the major ones being at Tajor, at the turnoff to the Telok Limau Trail, and on the return route at the end of the Bukit Gondol loop.

Sections of the trail are permanently wet and slippery, and the trail in the more remote sections may be overgrown, undermined or difficult to see.

Bako, despite its proximity to Kuching is remote – depending on tides it may be inaccessible for 3 hours or more at a time – so if you need help in the event of an emergency, it may be a long time coming. Please notify park authorities if you are planning to walk this trail.