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Published: December 3rd 2016
Tanjung Puting National Park was one of the places to visit on my bucket list. I didn't think twice when I got the invitation from a friend who organised the trip. Prior to this, all I knew about Pangkalan Bun was the fact that it was located in Central Kalimantan, of which the capital city was Palangka Raya. Neither did I know the two airlines that flew direct from Jakarta: Trigana and Kalstar (Garuda flies via Semarang). I had associated old propeller planes when travelling to remote places in Indonesia, so it was a pleasant surprise when I boarded a jet plane. It turned out my friend was able to gather 24 participants, all of whom arrived safely at Iskandar Airport on Friday morning. After collecting our luggages, we were picked up by our Tour Operator, Orang Utan Days, and were immediately taken to town for lunch.
After lunch, we were shown to Istana Kuning (or Yellow Palace) of which Kingdom was established by the descendants of King of Banjar, Prince Adipati Antakusuma. He was accepted to become the King of the Dayak Arut under the condition that he should not treat the Dayak people as his servants, but as
his brothers and didn't require the people to bow to him. Unlike the rest of Central Kalimantan, whose majority population is Dayak, the population of Pangkalan Bun is primarily Malay descendants.
It was a scorching day, and by 3 pm, the sun seemed very close to us (yes, we were near the equator line). Our last stop was Hypermart to get our snacks before we were sent to Port Kamui, where four traditional double-deck wooden boats were waiting. It's design was different than the one I took during a Mahakam River Cruise a few years ago. This Kelotok has an open space at the upper deck which has multi functions: dining and living area during day time and sleeping area in the evening, with the service area in the lower deck. Soon, we were assigned to our boats. Along with four other friends, I was assigned to a boat called Otto, which was the average size of river cruise boats at Sekonyer River. We were lucky to have the tour operator owner, Yomie, joining our boat as our guide, accompanied by the captain and crew. Because we were travelling in a big group, cooking was centralised at the largest
boat; and we also had another cook travel with us in our boat.
As soon as the boat began to cruise, the cool breeze of the river hit our faces, and in no time, we spotted the Welcome Statue of Tanjung Puting. Along the way, we saw a group of Proboscis or long nose monkeys perching along the tree tops, preparing to sleep. Notably, one male Proboscis monkey is typically surrounded by four or five females. In the evening, they like to protect themselves by creating a nest on the tree tops above the swamp water. The best way to catch a glimpse of the monkeys is when they tide is low, because this is when they'd move closer to the river. Hornbills were also spotted flying across the river, but they were too swift for me to capture with my camera.
The boat cruised for about an hour before reaching our destination for an overnight stay. That evening, we had our candle light dinner at a pier, while listening to the sound of Cicadas. After dinner, we were pleasantly surprised to see the upper deck had been converted into a bedroom: a mosquito net-covered tent! The thought
of sleeping outdoors in the middle of nowhere was odd at the beginning, but in no time, one by one, we started to fade away.
When I woke up early the next day, I realized that the crew must have lowered down the tarp cover in the middle of the night while we were sleeping, protecting us from getting wet. Unlike other boats whose mattresses were neatly kept aside after breakfast, we requested ours to remain on the upper deck so that we could enjoy the greenery along the river bank while the boat cruised. Breakfast was served at 6 am as the boat started to move, we began heading to the first destination: Pondok Tanggui Camp. Along the way, we spot a few wild Orang Utans on the other side of the river (not part of the National Park).
Tanjung Puting National Park, an area of 3,040km2 (approximately four times the size of Singapore), was officially created in 1970 as the first and largest Nature Reserve for Orang Utan in Indonesia, consisting of three rehabilitation centres: Tanjung Harapan, Pondok Tanggui and Camp Leakey, the latter was established by Dr Birute Galdikas. There are 4,000 wild Orang Utan
estimated in the entire park whose ability to survive not only depending on its ability to live in the wild, but also from being poached and most importantly from living in the contained forest, surrounded by the oil palm plantations.
After a short walk, we reached Pondok Tanggui Camp at their feeding time and saw a few Orang Utan enjoying their food consisting of bananas and milk which were placed on the wooden platform. Interestingly, the Orang Utan didn't fight for it, and it looked as if they took turn in grabbing their food before heading off to the trees again. It was said there were 230 species of birds, including Cockatoo and Hornbills, in this area but I failed to spot any! We trekked back to the pier through the forest, and only then I realised I didn't see a single banana tree. It made me wonder about the ability of this Orang Utan to survive in the wild.
Back in the boat, I was literally soaked in perspiration. Even though the humidity average of Pangkalan Bun was similar to that of Singapore at 84%, somehow it felt warmer as there was not much wind. I did
envy those who wore Tshirts and shorts. Thankfully, the crew served us with cold towels and fruity cold drinks while the boat started to move deeper into the jungle towards Camp Leakey. The cruise took about one and half hour, which was long enough for us to take a nap while the enjoying the greenery along the river bank. Soon, the sight began to transform as the forest became denser, river became narrower and the colour of the river slowly changed from mocha becoming a rich brown, due tof the peat swamp water. Despite the appearance, the water was clean, and often used by the Kelotok for their bathing water supply.
The National Park is located on the right hand side of the river, while the left side remained uninhabited. In a few years, I would predict that this land would be used for palm oil plantations. As of today, majority of the oil palm plantations in Kalimantan do not necessarily adhere to the global environmental standard for land clearing, causing forest fires. Just a year ago, the entire province was badly covered by the thick smoke from forest fire, having the highest PSI level in the country, which
exceeded dangerously high beyond hazardous levels. Unfortunately, because of its marsh land nature, it was not easy to put out fires.
Reaching Camp Leakey, we were reminded not to swim or to touch water in this crocodile-infested river due to an incident that happened a few years ago. A tourist from the UK didn't obey the warning and ended up becoming the victim as he insisted on swimming across the river. That evening when we cruised back downstream, using our flashlight, we tried to spot "two red lights" along the river banks but when failed to do so, we blamed it on our poor eyesight for not spotting any. Camp Leakey didn't allow any boats to anchor at the pier as Orang Utan often walked all the way to this area. In fact, one of the female Orang Utan, called Siswi, proved so as she was happily relaxing at the pier when we arrived. There were a few other boats there which have arrived earlier, most of which took foreign tourists (interestingly majority of the visitors of Tanjung Puting are foreign tourists).
After half an hour walk, we reached the feeding area where a few Orang Utans were
spotted swinging in a few trees. The one that caught my attention was a huge female Orang Utan, called Peta, who carried her baby on the back and seemed happy posing for us up in the trees. Crossed eyes and often rejected by Alpha Males, Peta seemed curious too, staring at the crowds below her. Soon, her baby started to crawl, moving away from her, and immediately stole our attention with her acrobatic skills. The baby Orang Utan moved effortlessly from one branch to the other (it made me wonder if any of Orang Utan has ever died from falling), allowing the visitors to take great shorts of her in the move. Half an hour later, Peta reached her baby (it's like saying "enough, baby"), hung her up side down, swung her and landed her on the back. What a skill! She then approached the feeding platform and was joined by another teenage child of hers; the three of them started to drink milk using their hands. A few minutes later, she got up and literally walked upwards with her two feet towards the visitor area. With a few steps, she was outside the safety rope, a few meters away
from the visitors who immediately ran in fear. In no time, she reached a tree nearby and climbed it. Only then I realised the needs of having the safety rope distancing the visitors from the feeding platform as these are wild animals who move quite fast and powerful (it is said their power is eight times more than a humans).
Content with my shots, I decided to return to the boat, where I was immediately served with cold towel and fried bananas. Soon, the boat started to move, heading downstream for our over night stay. As the sun started to fade away, we noticed tiny, twinkling lights among Nipah Palm trees on the river bank. We couldn't hide our excitement to see fireflies and were pleased when the Captain agreed to dock our boat underneath fireflies-covered tree for the night. That evening, we had an unforgettable experience of having a candle-lit dinner near our natural "Christmas trees".
On the last day of our stay, our boat started heading towards Kumai Port whilst we ate our breakfast, and just when we reached the estuary, we were met with another pleasant surprise: River dolphins circling among our boats, as if saying goodbye to us. We were thankful that the nature has been kind to us, showing us these near-extinct creatures in the wild. After two and days living onboard, we stepped on Port Kumai a bit wobbly but with big smiles on our face. Reaching the airport, we half heartedly walking towards our plane, in wonder of the wild Orang Utan sanctuary and our trip.
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