Thursday, October 13, 2011

Orangutan's of Kalimantan

Rene and our Polish friends (Alicia & Andrew) negotiated a bonza deal for a three day, two night tour onboard a local boat into the wilds of Tanjung Puting National Park. We all only paid 1million Rp per person (which is about $100 each) which included all meals (freshly cooked by the cook Mama Tebe), an English speaking guide (Jo, a 52 year old Javanese man who is a master of many trades), a deckhand and the talented  Kapitan Suleimon who drove the Batavia. It was a rush to get ready on time as we’d arranged to leave at 11 but in true Indonesian style, they showed up at 8 to collect us! We packed and locked up Anima in a flurry and part of our amazing deal was that a local man stayed in our cockpit to guard our home while we were away. Please note, many of the photos in this post were taken by our Polish friends as they had better equipment than us. Check out their blog: (it's in Polish but has great photos and layout...!).
Setting out on our tour - Rene, Jo, Alicia and Andrew pictured. Kapitan Suleimon likes Penguins.
We set off into the jungle – well… almost. The first part of the Sekonyer river is mainly farming land with a fringe of palm trees along the shore. This section is quite polluted with heavy metals and silt from the palm oil plantations and gold mines further upstream. The southern part of the river marks the boundary and is the national park (which still contains some 90 or so hectares of cleared farming land). Batavia’s propeller jammed up a few times with bits of Pandanus palm that seemed to be floating about everywhere. The crew dealt with the problem with practiced ease. They simply tied the boat to the shore (looping a rope around any convenient branch) and the captain dove overboard in his underwear, knife in hand to cut the stuff free. The toilet/shower area soon contained a row of his underpants hanging up to dry as a result of this repeated operation.
The Batavia
It was so pleasant to be onboard a boat that we weren’t responsible for! My favourite part of the tour was simply motoring along the river, watching the jungle pass by. We were offered tea, coffee and fruit on the top deck. Sipping tea on deck as we steamed up a river into the wild Borneo jungle, we all felt positively post colonial. 
Jolly good!
Flying Proboscis! 
Gradually the landscape changed to become more jungle-esque. The trees grew thicker, we turned off into a side arm of the river and the water changed colour to a clear, dark brown (apparently this water is pure and not polluted). The river thinned and we spotted wild Orangutan’s, Proboscis monkeys, Macaques, a freshwater crocodile and a variety of Kingfisher birds. The most amazing of which was the long-billed Kingfisher whose colouring is so bright they look like a cartoon with a red beak, yellow head and blue body. As we steamed along, we were served a freshly cooked lunch of fish, rice, tempeh, veggies, chips and fresh fruit. 

We disembarked at a jetty with a  bunch of other similar tour boats and walked into Camp Leaky – number 3 feeding station. Within minutes we had our first close encounter with a female Orangutan and her child. ‘Princess’ was sitting on the raised wooden path and our guide had to bribe her with fruit so we could all pass by. She held her hand up in front of me as if to say, ‘no, not you!’ but I managed to get past anyway… my heart thumping in my mouth! These animals are HUGE! Their strength is obvious – her head sat low against her massive shoulders, and her hands alone are at least twice as large as Rene’s and probably 8 times as strong.
Princess walking with Andrew, Rene and Jo.
We encountered more Orangutan’s along the path to the feeding platform to the sound of rangers making loud bellowing calls to announce the arrival of the bananas. A curious experience followed – as about 20 tourists sat in the sun to watch the Orangutan’s feeding. It was exhilarating to spot them appearing as they swung from tree to tree through the jungle. The ease with which they hold their massive frames so effortlessly in the air is incredible. I can’t remember how many Orangutan’s visited the feeding platform because some kept returning to grab as many bananas they could carry while others stayed, gorging themselves and others barely collected any. One boisterous female (with small baby clinging on) decided to be a drama queen and made a big display of her strength by shaking the information sign, blowing raspberries and making loud kissing noises. The babies are really cute and somehow manage to cling onto their mothers as they swing from tree to tree. I could see that these animals are good at yoga – some of the positions they held were quite yogic.
Borneo jungle Orangutan's feeding on bananas.
Look at that flexibility and strength! 
Rene: The Orangutans we saw at Camp Leaky have been rehabilitated into the protection of the national park and are fed almost daily by the rangers. It was pretty special to be able to get so close to these unique and rare relatives. However, the relationship definitely revolved around food and not really any genuine curiosity on their part. Some of them will play games with the food - the guides have a much better relationship with them and tended to bring out the more interesting sides of their personalities when we interacted.  When they look at you or approach you, the rehabilitated Orangutans are most of the time looking for food that might be on you. All of the Orangutans have names, and the extensive family trees are recorded on a wall in Camp Leaky.

While we were coming up the river we saw one truly wild Orangutan eating amongst the thick rushes on the bank, but it was very shy and quickly ambled back into the jungle when we stopped to get close. Dr Birute M Galdikas did an amazing job of tracking them in seventies and building much of our knowledge of their way of life. The people running camp Leaky continue the research - when a wild one is spotted, they follow it for 3 weeks, recording all the various encounters it has.

The most striking feature physically was that the relative sizes of their arms and legs are opposite to us. Many similarities exist with humans in other respects - the birth cycle and emotions like love, jealousy, contentedness, fear which we witnessed while they were playing in the trees. The mothers have a massively strong bond with their little ones, who hold onto them for the first 8 years of their life, learning where to get the food. 

They were a pretty relaxed bunch in general. These ones t

Orangutan mother and very cute child
Back onboard Batavia that evening, we ate another freshly cooked meal and showered in the river water (they simply turn on a generator which runs the water pump). I tried not to think about the pollution. We lathered ourselves in mosquito repellent and slept under nets out on deck. This is the first high malaria risk area we’ve visited and I decided against taking the preventative drug Doxycycline due to the side effects, though Rene is taking it. I’m pretty sure I managed to evade being bitten but we’ll see!
Alicia and I, ladies of leisure safe inside our mosquito nets.
Rene brought along his guitar and the captain turned out to be quite a talented musician. Rene tried to learn their songs and all the crew of the Batavia were musical, singing as they worked.
When I shut my eyes that night and listened to the sounds of the jungle, I could imagine that I was back at home where I grew up in the Australian bush. Apart from the occasional monkey and a different toned cicada call, all the noises were the same. People had spoken of how incredible the jungle night sounds were… I guess I’ve been spoilt for nature experiences growing up in Australia because it sounded normal to me!
Sailbirds with Alicia and Andrew in the Tanjung Puting National Park. This was the only big tree we saw. 
Next morning we set out on a three hour trek into “primary” forest. (I’m a bit cynical here as, having been to virgin/primary forests in Australia, the Borneo jungle was too sparse, lacking in the density and large trees of an old forest. It has probably been logged illegally and sold overseas in the form of furniture in places like ‘Loot’).
The forest was pretty cool regardless of my cynicism – and maybe this forest is indeed untouched. We were led by ranger Ranto who pointed out different plants and insects to us along the way. We saw plenty of carnivorous trap style plants. The liquid inside these, once the plant has captured some prey, is used for stomach upsets. 
Malaria treatment in the jungle.
Our playful guide, Jo, convinced us all to try eating some ‘sweet root’ which was of course incredibly bitter, being the local medicine for malaria. We drank water from cut vines which is also a treatment to stomach problems (and left my mouth feeling like sap).
Drinking vine water in the jungle. 
The boys had fun pretending to be Orangutans by swinging from vines and climbing trees. This was a pretty cool way to explore a forest – it was very interactive and our guides were very playful in their job. We got to smell sandalwood freshly cut from the tree, taste jungle berries, use giant leaves as fans and rest under tiny sleeping bats in a wooden shelter. Some of the paths were made from single or double planks of wood, connected end to end over marshy ground. We saw a few Orangutans, heard some Birds of Paradise, stepped around many giant Tarantula holes and even saw where a bear had climbed a tree to eat some honey! 
Rene tries to fit in with the locals.
The information centre at the conclusion of our trek contained plentiful depressing information and horrific stories about how humans are impacting upon the Orangutan’s livelihoods. The biggest threat currently is deforestation for palm oil plantations.

The boys went along to the same feeding station that afternoon – they just couldn’t get enough of the Orangutans! I stayed on Batavia and watched Macaques run about, foraging for scraps that the cooks were all throwing off their boats to prepare their guests evening meals. Alicia learnt how to weave in the local style and we were all given bracelets from the guide made from thin strips of leaves.

Tom, a large male visits the feeding station.

Jo, Siswi and Andrew getting all close and personal. 
While sitting in the oppressive humidity and sun on the final day of our tour at a different feeding station, watching different Orangutan’s eating more bananas, I voiced to Rene that I’d seen enough. He and everyone else however, had not. This got me thinking inwardly to figure out why I seemed to be the only one not having a life-changing experience? This feeling of not really enjoying myself as much as those around me has been emerging more often lately. I’ve been living in the future – looking forward to when we arrive in Malaysia / Singapore, to when we’re working again (can you believe that I’m actually looking forward to working!!?). While we’re sailing, I’m impatient and often a bit unhappy. I find myself thinking of home, of the good things about Australia, of my dear friends and family who we’ve left behind and who I miss. Is it all worth it? With these thoughts and feelings swirling around my mind, it’s no wonder I’ve had difficulty enjoying the present! This is not good and I don’t wish to live this way: always looking towards something in the future (or past) which will bring me happiness / fulfillment (and which inevitably probably won’t for there will always be something else to aspire to or long for). Yet again, I’m afflicted by that cursed ‘grass is greener’ mentality which has plagued me for most of my life!! This really annoys me – that I can’t shake it. Here I am, living “the dream”, spending months cruising around Indonesia, having an amazing adventure… and I’m thinking of the future!! This really won’t do. I’m going to have to work harder at shaking this bad mental habit. My current solution is to focus on living more fully in the present. Eckhart Tolle’s ideas about living in the now are helpful and inspiring. I guess none of us are perfect… but this is one thing I need to improve! NOW!
Amazing beauty here in southern Borneo.
Eventually we left the feeding station and continued our journey back up the river. Rene discovered that Jo, our guide was also a healer and he carved a wooden acupressure tool from some jungle wood when we returned to Batavia. Unexpectedly, he told me to lie down to receive a healing treatment which was quite intense and lasted about an hour. He used 13 pressure points on each of my feet, massaged my feet, legs, shoulders and head. Afterwards I did feel much more energized and positive about life. I gave him an Australian Custom’s beanie as a gesture of thanks.
Healing acupressure on Batavia.
Everyone but me was afflicted by strange black spots on their hands/face - we think as a result of touching too many strange plants in the jungle. Out guide, Jo, thought it was from touching a special poisonous rubber tree! 
Jungle disease.... hopefully it's not too serious!
We stopped off at a village on the way home and had a tour through it. I feel a bit weird about that element of the tour. This village gets thousands of tourists walking along the specially made path through the centre of their community. I can’t imagine that it would impact very positively upon their local lives to have so many voyeurs staring at them and taking photos of ‘village life’. The river here is polluted and it was sad to see the villagers still using their water to wash in. What impact will the heavy metals present in this water have on future generations here? Pollution became the end of our tour’s theme. As we re-entered the main river to return to our boats, we were faced with thick smog that reduced visibility considerably. Our decks were painted grey with the smoke – as were our lungs. This smoke resulted from the Palm Oil companies who burn the forest to make way for their plantations.
Polluted Kumai anchorage.
Kumai was an interesting experience. For many cruisers in Indonesia, seeing the Orangutan’s is their highlight. For me, seeing the Orangutans was pretty amazing as was getting to tour a jungle in an Indonesian boat. It was a life-changing experience – but not really for the normal reasons. I wouldn’t say it was the highlight, but it was definitely an experience I’ll never forget. 
A memorable experience!!


  1. I love the last picture of the African Queen! Thankyou Cerae for a wonderful read. I feel as if I was there with you guys.

  2. You will find the balance Cerae. Your integrity continues to inspire.

    Thank you for the continuing armchair traveller experience - it is most enjoyable!!