Perched on the far-western tip of Sarawak, Tanjung Datu is only accessible by boat. It has pristine rainforest and its gorgeous beaches are an important sea-turtle breeding ground. Accommodation is through a homestay program in a local Malay village, where fishing and pepper growing have been a way of life for generations. This makes visiting Tanjung Datu a real cultural experience as well.
Tanjung Datu is Sarawak’s smallest and (at the time of writing) newest National Park. It occupies part of the westernmost tip of Sarawak, a thin strip wedged between the corals of the South China Sea and the mountain range which marks the border with the Indonesian state of West Kalimantan.
Tanjung Datu is a beautiful area, where rainforest comes down to the sea and small collections of hard coral reef can be seen while snorkelling off the beach. The ocean here is much clearer than many other parts of Sarawak, and is warm and calm. The beaches in the park are some of the most beautiful and least disturbed in Sarawak. These beaches are sometimes used by marine turtles as nesting sites. Sarawak’s turtle islands, Pulau Talang-Talang Besar and Pulau Talang-Talang Kecil (yet to be gazetted National Parks), are located 18km off Tanjung Datu, and are clearly visible on most days.
At the time of writing there were 3 short treks within the Park, with a more extensive trail network being developed.
This 1½-3hr trail starts at the village of Telok Melano and finishes at the Park HQ. It is undulating and steep in parts. From behind the beach at Telok Melano, the trail initially passes through abandoned farmland with an interesting variety of formerly cultivated trees, including the melano palm (sugar palm), after which the bay and village are named. The trail then undulates around the coastline, dipping into bays, and traversing some steeper slopes. There’s some interesting beach vegetation along the shore, and you may see pig-tailed macaques and Bornean bearded pigs. The trail emerges at Telok Upas (‘Palm-shoot Bay’) which has a pleasant white sandy beach, and patches of hard corals just off shore. If the water’s clear, snorkelling here is a pleasant way to pass the afternoon. The trail continues for a further 5-10 minutes, from the northern end of Telok Upas, to the Park HQ. You can walk back to Telok Melano or arrange for your boat to take you back from here or pick you up from Telok Upas.
This 1-2 hour loop trail is mostly quite flat. The trail starts at the Park HQ, and passes parallel to the beach and through foreshore vegetation, to Tanjung Antu Laut, a picturesque beach where a clear freshwater streams flows around big polished granite boulders into the ocean. The trail then turns inland, and then back through mixed dipterocarp forest parallel to the beach, crossing several small creeks . The trail ends back at park HQ.
This is a short but steep 15minute walk to a viewpoint built on the southern arm of the bay at the park HQ. There are pleasant views from here north and south, towards Telok Melano.
Within its 14 sq. km, Tanjung Datu Park contains surprisingly varied topography and vegetation. The steep, hilly backbone is covered in mixed dipterocarp forest, with ridge-top forest along the peaks. The highest point on this backbone in the Park is Gunung Melano, at 542m. Slightly further north is Gunung Batu Datu (‘Grandfather Rock Mountain’), a bit shorter at 536m. These mountains form the catchment for several cool, clear rainforest streams, which work away at massive smooth granite boulders, before emerging onto the beach and emptying into the ocean. Around the HQ is an area of secondary forest, with many clumps of tall, spiny nibong palms. There is a thin strip of very specific beach vegetation along the beaches themselves, including some amazing large weather-gnarled trees.
Although extensive studies have not been carried out, Tanjung Datu is reputed to contain a wide variety of wildlife – many bird species, including several types of hornbills; as well as a number of mammal species, including civet cats, squirrels, bearded pigs, macaques, silver langurs, and possibly deer.
Visitor facilities at Tanjung Datu National Park are currently minimal – there’s a park office with staff quarters, a workshop, toilets for visitors and a couple of pondoks (shelters). There is no accommodation, and camping is not permitted.
Visitor numbers are deliberately kept low. This is largely achieved by default – through Tanjung Datu’s inaccessibility and lack of facilities, which mean that it is only possible for most tourists to see by going through a tour company. Borneo Inbound Tour and Travel is the only company which arranges trips to the Park. Borneo Inbound has an agreement with the Government allowing it access to the park. In exchange, Borneo Inbound developed and organises the homestay accommodation at the nearby Malay village of Telok Melano, as part of a rural development program aimed at improving the lives of local Malay villagers.
Telok Melano is the nearest kampung (village) to the National Park, situated in the adjacent bay to the south. It’s a picturesque, and very rural place. Approximately 50 Malay families live here, and 40 of these families participate in the homestay program.
For anyone familiar with the cartoons of Malay artist Lat (his delightful series of books provide a real insight into Malay culture and heritage), visiting Telok Melano is like stepping into the pages of some of his more nostalgic images of kampung life. There’s a beautiful golden sand beach, thickly fringed with tall coconut palms. Bright pastel coloured wooden houses are scattered beneath the trees. There’s pungent wafts of pepper as women rake at huge piles of it, spreading it out on tarpaulins to dry in the sun. Chickens, goats, cattle and lots of children roam free (unusually for a Malay village, there are also lots of dogs). Everybode knows everybody, and most people are related somehow. Colourful weathered wooden fishing boats pull up on the beach, while ladies with wide brimmed hats scrape oysters off the rocks. The pace of life here is slower. There are the odd modern intrusions – a narrow concrete laneway provides a makeshift highway for motorscooters (no cars though!), and there’s electricity in the evenings when the generators come on (and so TV and karaoke!). A large modern concrete school down one end of the village occupies prime beachfront, in what must be one of the hardest locations to stop children from staring out the window.
Telok Melano is very close to Indonesia – the border is behind the hills which form the backdrop to Telok Melano. It takes just 15 minutes on motorscooter, and just over an hour on foot, to cross. There are many farms located in the hills behind the beach, as families in this kampung generate income mostly through pepper farming, which is supplemented by fishing and tourism.
In Malay, tanjung means “cape”, and datu means “grandfather”. Local legend tells that many many years ago, the people of Telok Melano had to flee from a conflict, further around the coast to the West (in what is now Kalimantan). The community’s spiritual leaders made offerings and prayers at the rocks at the tip of the cape, to ensure their safety and that they would not be pursued. Prayers and wishes accompanied by offerings of betel leaf (sireh), cigarettes and iron nails, were always granted. Word that Tanjung Datu was a sacred place spread. To this day, boats passing by the point slow down as a sign of respect.
Tanjung Antu Laut (‘Sea-spirit cape” in Malay) is the northern point of the beach at the Park HQ. A mysterious phenomenon is said to occur here: mata hantu (“ghost’s eyes”) are reputedly seen some evenings. These are balls of light which levitate up and down, high above the ground, perhaps a similar phenomenon to the ‘min-min’ lights reported in parts of Australia, or the ‘will-o-the-wisp’ of Northe America and Europe.
Tanjung Datu has probably been settled for a long time, but records prior to European settlement are hard to come by. The area around the park HQ had been farmed at least 50 years ago – cleared areas, planted fruit trees and coconut palms are testimony to this. In the 1960’s, during Konfrontasi, this area and the surrounding kampungs, including Telok Melano, where evacuated to Sematan. As with most of the border areas, some fighting took place in the mountains of Tanjung Datu Park.
The Park was officially gazetted in 1994 and opened to the public in 1998.
Marine Turtle Research
Marine turtles are imprinted with an astonishing memory of the beach where they hatched, returning to the same place on reaching maturity (30-50 years later) to breed and lay eggs. Turtle populations around the world are highly endangered, and their numbers have declined steeply in the last 50 years. This is a result of a number of contributing factors, including, including over-fishing and getting caught in fishing nets, pollution, natural predators and a long and complex life-cycle, and disturbance of nesting sites and harvesting of eggs for human consumption.
The beach at Tanjung Datu National Park is an occasional nesting site for some species of marine turtles – particularly olive ridley and hawksbill turtles. A turtle hatchery program operates at Tanjung Datu – this is a fenced-off area close to the beach which is protected and monitored by park staff. Eggs from nests which would be susceptible to predators (eg pigs, monitor lizards) are relocated here, aiming to reduce the high levels of natural mortality. Hatchling numbers and sex are recorded. In addition, some green turtle eggs from nests on the ‘Turtle Islands’ are being relocated to Tanjung Datu National Park, with the aim of hatching green turtles, and imprinting them with a memory of this protected beach, to which, hopefully, they will return and breed.
18km offshore from Tanjung Datu National Park are Sarawak’s ‘Turtle Islands’ – Pulau Talang-Talang Besar, Pulau Talang-Talang Kecil and (further along the coast) Pulau Satang Besar. These constitute major breeding grounds for several species of marine turtle, including the green and loggerhead turtles. These islands have one of the oldest turtle management programmes in the world, dating back to 1951. However, the records from this programme have shown that turtle population levels, judged by beach landings on these islands, have dropped drastically (about 90% since 1950).
With these islands yet to be designated as Totally Protected Areas, and because many nests are susceptible to predators, or washed away by tides, most eggs laid on these islands are relocated into hatcheries. Some nests are left in the original state but guarded continuously, including when hatching takes place, and predators are actively deterred. This is in keeping with what is viewed to be the most effective management strategy in turtle breeding, which is to allow breeding and nesting without human interference.
Other Trails & Destinations
Belian Trail to Gunung Melano
This trail (under construction) is 1200m long but ascends 542 m up to the highest point in the park, Gunung Melano.
Transects across the park are being marked, and it is hoped that some of these trails will provide good opportunities for seeing wildlife, such as silver langur (leaf) monkeys, which frequent particular places within the park.
Trails around Telok Melano
Sematan to Telok Melano
It is possible to walk from Sematan to Telok Melano and on to Tanjung Datu. This is reputed to be a very long (at least 8 hours), hot tough walk, mostly along beach. Some murky mangrove river crossings are involved as well, and while crocodiles are not very common here, it’s a concern.
The beach at Telok Melano is quite long – and at low tide can be walked for several kilometres to the south. It’s also a lovely walk to do on a moonlit night.
Walk to the Border
There’s a concrete laneway behind the kampung. This is, at some times of the day, a highway for scooters. If it’s not too busy, it’s a nice walk. The path continues perpendicularly back from the beach for several kilometres to the border. It takes about 1½ hrs to walk there. There’s some picturesque scenery along the way – the forested hills behind the kampung, wild orchids and pitcher-plants alongside the path, and the pepper farms themselves.
Unless you have your own boat, Tanjung Datu National Park can only be visited with a guide. Borneo Inbound (and their senior guide Edward Mansell) have done a lot of work in developing the tour to Telok Melano, including extensive research on the natural and physical environment, and have long-standing relationships with the local people. Edward is a veritable walking encyclopaedia, and can probably answer any question you could think up (he was Malaysian Tour Guide of the Year 2002). As a consequence, you probably don’t need to do much pre-reading – which is just as well, because there is precious little information available about Tanjung Dato.
The only other source of information specifically on Tanjung Datu is National Parks of Sarawak, by Hans Hazebroek and Abang Kashim bin Abang Morshidi (full reference in Further Information), which has a brief chapter on it.