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Published: February 11th 2017
When I was a little boy growing up in India, I remember the monsoon days when I used to cuddle with my father in the evenings and pestered him to tell me the stories of the jungles around the world, the tigers, the lions and other animals. My father was awesome storyteller. He used to tell me the stories of Jim Corbett and the man-eating tigers, lions in Africa, dense forests in Borneo and his own experiences in the jungles in India. Lying close to him and curled up, I used to listen to those amazing stories while it rained outside. With the symphony of torrential rains on the tin roof, my childhood dream used to roam around in a make-believe world of animal kingdom, in the vast savannas of Africa, in the dense forests of Borneo. Slowly, I used to drift into my fantasy world, and go to sleep. So many years have passed since then, but whenever I walk down the memory lane, I remember my childhood dreams. And I realize that my dreams are still alive and my desire to travel Borneo never died.
The Kalstar flight from Semarang landed in Pangkalan Bun in Central
Borneo in a cloudy morning on 3rd
December 2016. It was an early morning flight leaving Semarang at 6:00 am. Yes, we wanted to start the day early. It’s a long boat ride along the Kumai River before we stop for trekking in the jungle to spot Orangutans. And guess what! Desi and her boyfriend Kadek joined me in the trip. If you recall from my earlier blogs, Desi was my trip planner and we planned the trip together.
Borneo is split in two parts. The smaller part of Borneo is part of Malaysia in Kotakinabalu. The larger part of Borneo is known as Kalimantan and its vast land and forests are a part of Indonesia. I have never been to Kotakinabalu, but I heard that the place is well designed for the tourists. No, I wanted to travel in natural and unspoiled forest. I wanted to experience the wilderness of Kalimantan. My childhood images of Borneo were very much alive in my mind.
My initial plan was to reach Balikpapan in East Kalimantan and then take a boat to travel along the Mahakam River. The mighty river runs close to 1000 km through the vast wilderness of
Borneo. I was planning to stop from time to time, meet the Dayak tribes and trek through the jungles to catch the boat to the next stop. But I calculated I would need a minimum of 7 precious days which I didn’t have. Three days max, I figured. Keep Mahakam for another day, I told myself and started looking for alternatives. And I was fortunate.
I read about anthropologist Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, a Toronto born Canadian scientist with Lithuanian background. Dr. Galdikas traveled to Tanjung Puting Reserve in Central Borneo in 1971 to study the Orangutans. The motivated and dedicated scientist was determined to study the Orangutans in the wilderness of Borneo. Dr. Galdikas persuaded her guide Dr. Leakey in the US for funding this project. Facing a plenty of odds she finally succeeded to set her foot in the swamps of central Borneo. No roads, no electricity, no TV, but endless swamps filled with crocs, snakes, mosquitos and spiders, you name it. People told her, “Don’t go, Orangutans are too elusive and the place is too dangerous to survive”. Did she listen? Of course not. She spent 40 years of her life studying the Orangutans, established the
Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting which spans hundreds of kilometers in jungles and blackwater swamps. Today, undoubtedly, she has been an authority on the life and behavior of Orangutans, received many prestigious awards and still calls Indonesia her home. Tanjung Puting is a National Park and the credit for preserving the ecosystem here goes to Dr. Galdakis. In her dedication I saw the reflection of Dian Fossey who gave her life in pursuing the dream of preserving the Gorillas in the mountains of Rwanda. I thought what could be a better plan than this. I still can pursue my dream of traveling to Borneo while witnessing the wonderful creation of one dedicated living scientist. To be honest, it would be my little tribute to her life and her legendary work.
“You have two options, Tab. You could stay in Rimba lodge at the end of the first day, but it costs more.” Desi told me.
“And what is the other option?” I asked.
“Spend the night in the klotok, the wooden boat. And it’s cheaper.”
The lodge is away from the civilization and nestled in the forest and the swamp. But, still it’s the hotel comfort.
I didn’t want that. I wanted to experience the nightlife in the middle of total wilderness. And so I decided to spend my two nights in the boat.
“Are there other tourists in the boat?” I asked Desi
“Nope, it’s all yours. But I have a proposal,” Desi told me.
“Neither Kadek or I visited Borneo before. Can we come with you? We share half the cost.”
Wow! What could be a better arrangement than that? Not only my cost comes to half, but the fun doubles!
“Pack your bag, pronto” I told Desi.
The Kumai River is wide at this point near Pangkalan Bun. We sailed along the river for a while until the river joined with the Sekonyer River. There the river starts becoming narrow. Both sides of the river are covered with palm trees, grassland and swamps. Beyond it, it is dense forest with tall trees. Saw some Proboscis monkeys on the tree tops, but no Orangutans. They are elusive. River water was dark and muddy, surrounded by the black swamp, tall grass and the palm trees. A snake swam through the water towards the grassy swamp. It’s
hard to say how far the swamp ran inside. That reminded me of my journey by boat to Tortuguero in Costa Rica. Once I asked the boat captain while traveling to Tortuguero,
“How far the swamps run inside?”
“Hard to say, may be a mile or two,” the Captain replied
“Do people go for trekking inside?” I was itching to explore.
“Some go but never come back.” He flatly replied.
The swamps on both sides of the Sekonyer River reminded me of what the Captain told me on my way to Tortuguero. I wondered how Galdakis managed here.
Our guide told us, one side of the Sekonyer River is occupied by the industries making Palm oil and the other side is part of the National Park, hundreds of square miles. And it was endless effort from Dr. Galdikas to preserve this area for the Orangutans. I was awed whenever I thought how a person can live and work into this swamp and jungle day after day. It’s not only difficult but extremely dangerous. Crocs are ambushing in the swamps, red ants in the hidden mounds can eat you alive if you place a wrong
step and God knows what kind of snakes and other types of creatures are out there. I wondered what intense dedication and motivation can drive a person to live through this. My head bowed out of respect to Dr. Galdikas.
It was noon and I was hungry! I just had a croissant and a coffee before boarding my early morning flight. Oh My! I drooled when the lunch was served. Steaming rice, beans with mixed vegies, fried eggplants and large prawns, cooked fish! It’s a gourmet meal alright! I dived in! No, I am not a big lunch eater…just a sandwich is good enough for me; (I must add a disclaimer here, USUALY!). Oh, I have to point out that generally people in Indonesia are fond of eating rice. It’s one common item in most of their meals that I have observed, similar to many provinces in India.
We reached a part of the Tanjung Puting in the early afternoon. We were lucky there was no rain. Usually, this part of the world gets downpours in the rainy season. And November-December is rainy season. By the way, Indonesia has only two seasons – wet and dry.
Well, it was time to trek Orangutans. The wooden boardwalk from the jetty runs only up to a certain point. Then the path runs through the wilderness and often it’s not easy to navigate. Sometimes, the path was water logged and we had to detour. Sometimes we had to walk on some make shift overpass made with tree trunks. We had to balance and cross the water logged area. We had a couple of slips and got our running shoes wet. I wish we had the rubber boots. Sometimes the guide warned us to avoid the red-ant mounds. I haven’t seen such large red ants before. And mosquitoes! Oh boy! Unless we had the repellents, they would have eaten us alive.
We were trekking towards a feeding point for the Orangutans. And finally we arrived. A rectangular table was placed in a small opening inside the woods and couple of folks from the camp dumped sackfull of banana. Then they started calling the orangutans. The animals are generally very elusive in nature. We had to wait a good twenty minutes before they started appearing one by one on the tree tops. And soon there were around 10-15 of
them on the tree tops. It was interesting that they didn’t climb down the trees all at a time to get the bananas. They have hierarchy. A large male first came down and consumed quite a bit. Once he was done, he grabbed around 8-10 bananas in its mouth and climbed up the tree. Then the smaller ones climbed down and grabbed their share. A female came down with a child clinging to her and she put 8-10 bananas in her mouth, grabbed some in one hand and climbed up the tree using another free hand. Then it jumped from one tree top to another. It’s amazing how much strength it can have in one arm.
It started raining and orangutans disappeared. They don’t like rain, our guide told us. I was wondering, whether they have chosen a wrong place for permanent settlement.! We were wearing ponchos…thanks to Desi. But my running shoes were soaking wet from the slips earlier. It was a fair bit of hike by the time we returned to our boat.
The upper floor of the boat was reserved for us. On one side there are three mattresses for us to sleep. On the
starboard side, a small dining table is placed where we used to hang around when we were sailing. Sometimes, we used to climb up the deck with our camera. View from there was the best and we set the videos for time lapse motion shots. It was getting dark and we had a long day. We relaxed a bit, Desi and Kadek took shower. After the dinner, they went to bed early. Oh yes, you need mosquito net for sleeping. Besides, there were hundreds of insects flying around us who got attracted by the light. I turned off the light and climbed up the deck. I took a chair and sat down amid the complete darkness. The boat was anchored near a grassy land in a swamp. I could hear the sound of utensils, crews talking downstairs. Soon all became quiet. As the evening turned into night, the sound of creatures in the woods and swamps around me became louder. Hundreds of creatures became alive and informed the world that they do exist. A night bird was chirping non-stop as if it has a duty to tell the world, “Forget-me-not”. As long as I was there, it never stopped. The
whole swamp, jungle around me came to life more than I felt in the daytime. It was pitch darkness, rest of the world has gone to sleep and I was absorbed in the ‘sound of silence’ in every molecule of my very existence. Yes, I came to Borneo for this; yes, I won’t get this in my urban life where the cacophony of hundreds of car engine will fill up my daily life. I sat there motionless and remembered the eternal truth “life is not a dress rehearsal, this is it”. So embrace the wilderness! I was there in a complete trance, symphony of the night concert ringing through my head. When I opened my eyes, it was past midnight! I climbed down the stairs. Tomorrow is another day!
Stay tuned for the next blog, my last day in Borneo!
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