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Published: November 30th 2015
As I stand waiting for an Ankot (minibus) to the bus terminal in Banjarmasin, an old toothless man turns up, seemingly out of nowhere. Or to be more exact he climbs over a fence and through some bushes, a rather interesting approach I have to admit.
‘Where are you going sir?’
‘To the bus terminal.’
‘I want to buy a ticket to Pangkalan Bun.’
‘Ah, for Tanjung Puting. For orangutan.’
And so our monkey business starts. The old man knows another (old) man, who knows another man, who can arrange a cheap tour of Tanjung Puting. Am I interested? Not really, I confess. Nevertheless he gives me a number and a name in Pangkalan Bun.
You might wonder why I am not interested in Tanjung Puting and its orangutans. So let me clarify that. It is not that I am not at all interested in it, but it is not the reason I wanted to get to Pangkalan Bun. I needed to be in Pangkalan Bun because I was hoping to catch a bus from there towards West Kalimantan, to Pontianak, which is the only region of the island I haven’t covered
yet. That makes me different than every other tourist. They all come to Pangkalan Bun to visit Tanjung Puting. And they do this because it is advertised by the Lonely Planet, and probably every other guide book and travel agency, as the
place to see orangutans. They are not interested in the rest of Kalimantan. In fact, they fly into Pangkalan Bun without even visiting Pangkalan Bun itself, but get straight onto a boat which brings them to the park. You don’t see tourists in Pangkalan Bun proper, and I didn’t see any tourists in Banjarmasin in the five days I stayed there. Kalimantan gets no tourists. Tanjung Puting gets them. Derawan Island gets them. They happen to be part of Kalimantan, but for all intents and purposes they are isolated outposts on a tourist-less island.
Now Tanjung Putings orangutans didn’t hold much appeal to me. The orangutans you get to see, you observe at the feeding platforms, which is a bit like going to the zoo to watch the monkeys. These are semi-wild rehabilitated orangutans. Don’t get me wrong, I think the work that is being done is good, but as far as spotting orangutans is concerned, I
rather like the thrill of finding them myself in the jungle, with all the luck it involves and the rewarding feeling you get when you finally see them. Besides I saw orangutans in Sabah. The only alluring part for me to visit Tanjung Puting was the fact that most tours consist of a three day/two night boat ride into it. Now that sounded quite nice. Watching the jungle from the river, waking up in the mornings to the sounds of the forest dwellers. But was it enticing enough for me to spend the money required for such a venture? I didn’t know. And so I told my toothless old man that I wasn’t interested in orangutans, but gracefully accepted the contact details he gave me anyway. My plan was to just get to Pangkalan Bun and see what happened. If somebody offered me a tour for a good price, sure I would go, if not, well it didn’t matter. That’s how I do my monkey business.
And so I got on the bus to Pangkalan Bun. The bus-ride was… Interesting. First a chicken bus to Palanka Raya, where, being the only white man I got all the attention. Among
Greedy orangutan with her baby
that attention, one in particular grabbed my arms. Literally. A lady who was… how to put it? Very keen. At lunch she sat with me, and after lunch she started stroking my arms and tried to hold my hands, as if we were a couple. I discreetly disentangled myself, this was not the kind of monkey business I was in for. I was relieved when she got off the bus an hour later. Another lady was sweeter. She gave me a prayer card for good luck, and more importantly, she didn’t try to seduce me. She told me she had struck gold. Again literally. She had sold the gold and was now travelling around with a heavy platinum bar. I wasn’t sure what she was going to do with it. What do you do with platinum bars?
In Palanka Raya we had to change buses. The bus to Pangkalan Bun had large speakers above the bus driver. It was a sign of loud things to come. Our bus driver was fond of hardcore rave, one billion beats per minute were pumped out of those speakers at a noise level which defied reason. Needless to say, the ride was not
The only male orangutan I saw. He was hanging out near one of the ranger camps.
particularly pleasant. I arrived in Pangkalan Bun at 3 in the morning, exhausted and slightly deafer.
I found myself a hotel called Bahagia which means ‘Happy’, and as I stood there checking in at this ungodly hour, I heard some shuffling behind me. I turned around.
‘Are you Mr. Ralf?'
‘Eh, yes?’ I said slightly confused, how the hell did this guy know my name?
‘We were informed about your arrival, you are interested in going to Tanjung Puting?’
‘I don’t know yet?’
‘We have one other tourist. This is low season, so there are not many tourists around to share a boat with. If you take our tour you can share the costs. Can my boss come tomorrow and talk with you.’
‘Sure.’ I said slightly tired, looked at my watch and said, ‘how about 10?’ that would give me about 6 hours of sleep.
‘The tour leaves at ten, can we come at nine?’
I sighed and agreed. Monkey business had found me at half three in the morning checking into a hotel. I could only assume it was the toothless old man who had concocted this. How he
Proboscis monkey at dusk
knew where I would be staying, I can’t imagine.
At nine the boss came. A lady. The negotiations were short. She quickly realised that I didn’t care what the outcome would be. Tour, no tour, it was the same to me. That gave me a rather strong bargaining position, as she certainly was
interested in getting me on that boat. Within five minutes two thirds of the price was dropped and I accepted. I never expected I would be able to afford a tour, but she made me an offer I couldn’t resist. Monkey business can work in your favour sometimes.
By eleven I was cruising down the river with my companion for three days, Chantal from France, mother of three grown up kids and a husband who doesn’t like travelling. Every now and again she gets the itch and just goes! Good for her! Our guide was called Dewati, just shy of twenty, she used to work in a pharmacy but got bored of her job, studied English and became a guide. Good for her too! The tour was excellent, the food amazing, I had great company, and the staff were lovely. The orangutans did their part.
Hornbill's flying over the jungle
Feeding platforms give you the chance to take close range photos. But the best part for me was the journey itself. Relaxing on the boat, watching the birds, the monkeys in the trees, an occasional crocodile. Well we only managed to spot one crocodile, but it was one I had never seen before, a gharial. Obviously by the time I had my camera out we had cruised way beyond any chance of immortalizing it.
And so my monkey business had come to an end. But not my trip. A few days later I got a direct bus from Pangkalan Bun to Pontianak. A surprise. On the internet there was little information on this route, and what information there was said it involved several buses and taxis over rough roads, or alternatively, buses, boats and taxis. Either way, it seemed hard. Times have changed seemingly. There is now a direct bus, and the road is good. Winding but good. Newly built as far as I could tell.
More nice locals, offering me rides to my hotel in Pontianak and handing out telephone numbers. Such friendly folks those Indonesians.
Pontianak, capital of West Kalimantan, is bustling and sits smack
bang on the equator. They have a monument to prove it. I’m a celebrity here. When I visited the old Sultan’s palace I was quickly adopted by a busload of locals who were visiting the palace as well. Every one of them had to have their picture taken with me. As a reward I got some cakes and an ice-tea. It works for me.
Celebrity or not, now it is time to move on again. To nature. To the monkeys.
Monkey business, it never ends!
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