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Published: December 7th 2015
‘Orangutan!’ my guide excitedly shouts, pointing up a tree, where a shadowy ape looks down on us from up high.
The sack full of ants which had fallen down on me from a low hanging branch, when we had glided with our rickety longboat through the flooded forest, was quickly forgotten. Just a minute ago, I had shrieked like a little baby because ants were crawling all over me. Nasty little biting ants. On my head, on my arms, my legs, my shirt, and in my shorts. Ants everywhere, which I was frantically trying to brush of my body and clothes, while simultaneously keeping my balance on the now dangerously wobbly boat. Longboats, I contemplated were not made for lumbering Dutchmen fighting off ants. My guide and the captain of this glorified hollow tree trunk, which we were using to steer our way through the dense underbrush, were laughing hysterically at my antics. Ah, the pleasures of jungle adventures!
Danau Sentarum National Park, a jewel in the jungle, a seasonal lake which grows during the rainy season flooding nearby forests. Located in the heart of Borneo, skipped by most tourists, this could be, this probably should be, a top
Lanjak to Meliau
Starting the trip to Meliau
tourist attraction. But as I commented in my last blog, Kalimantan doesn’t get any tourists outside two specific hotspots. The better for me, and the few who do make it out here. A long bus ride away from Pontianak or a short hop on a flight to Putussibau, from where you can find buses or longboats to take you to the lake. Or to nearby longhouses, the oldest in Kalimantan. Or to Betung Kerihun National Park, part of the World Wildlife Fund’s Heart of Borneo initiative. Yes, there is so much to do around here, it is a wonder it hasn’t been discovered yet. Perhaps it is because there is little tourist infrastructure as of yet. Or perhaps it is because it is out of the way. Or maybe because getting to the various parks around Putussibau is expensive.
Betung Kerihun can only be reached by boat, and there are no public ones, so you have to charter one and that costs! The lake can be reached by bus, but that only brings you to it, and if you want to see some of it, which you do (believe me), than you need to find a boat. And that
Lanjak to Meliau
Entering Danau Sentarum
costs! Still, if you are with two or more it isn’t too bad, only for the lonely travelers, like me, it is a bit of a nuisance. In the end it is about choices. I chose the lake, instead of Betung Kerihun, because the lake was cheaper, and it sounded nicer. My source of information on this were some Germans who were working in Putussibau. They helped me along and I am thankful to them.
I was especially thankful to them as my speedboat was gliding over the lake to my destination, Meliau village, deep in the jungle along one of the rivers that drains into the lake. But at this time, the lake and the river are one. The jungle a watery paradise. The water a mesmerizing mirror. It had an Alice in Wonderland quality to it. At times I felt that if I jumped into the water I would end up in an upside down world. The speedboat only briefly touched the lake proper, most of the time we cut through the forest itself, snaking our way through dense foliage, quiet reflections surrounding us. The captain picking his way carefully, twisting and turning to avoid obstacles along
Lanjak to Meliau
Hills around Danau Sentarum
the way, such as trees, bushes, logs and branches. Above us birds whistled. It was amazing how he found his way through the forest. There were no clear paths, it was like trekking through the jungle, but on water instead of on dry land. And then suddenly we hit the river again, arriving shortly afterwards in Meliau, a small Dayak community and my temporary home. With the help of the World Wildlife Fund they have set up homestays in the longhouse. Several families have offered up their compartment to visiting tourists. I was lodged with a nice old lady and her daughter. No English is spoken and the accommodation is primitive but clean, and that is all you need. Children run and play in the hallway of the longhouse, while women quietly weave baskets, mats and various other utensils out of strips of wood. The men fish, and when a tourist like me comes along, they act as guides and boatmen.
Two nights I stayed, and one full day. Not enough, but as I said, the transport to and from the village was expensive, more than I had expected, and with no ATM’s in the jungle, two nights was
Lanjak to Meliau
Skies and trees reflect in the lake
all I could afford. But I made the most of it. Luckily accommodation, including full board, which in my case meant rice with fish and vegetables three times a day and loads of tea and coffee, was cheap. And so was the full day tour. A tour in the longboat, the tour which eventually brought me up close to an orangutan. I hadn’t expected it to be honest. And I wasn’t looking for one. Had I not seen it I would have still found the whole experience fantastic. Even the weather couldn’t put me down. As we slid off into the brush that morning it started to pour down. For three hours we picked our way through the jungle in our boat, every now and again hitting open patches, in search of birds, monkeys and whatnot. In the rain we saw precious little. But the feeling of gliding through the jungle was indescribable. I felt like some adventurer of old, fighting his way through unyielding tropical forests. In a canoe! Pushing away branches that flapped in my face as we tried to squeeze through impossibly tight and ever shrinking spaces, using paddles and our hands to force our way to
where? Who knows, but it was fun.
Eventually we gave up for the time being. The rain got heavier and heavier and it was decided that we would return to Meliau and try again in the afternoon, hoping that by then the heavens would be more merciful on us. And so it was. The God of Rain moved on to other parts and we set off for the second time. This time, without the rain, the water took on its mirror like form again. Still and black, reflecting the world around it, an upside down world of trees and bushes, stretching your sense of reality. It was about an hour into this journey, as we were squeezing our way through a particularly dense area of foliage, and I pushed a branch out of my way, that the ants fell on my head, and the screamy part happened. Shortly followed by the sighting of the orangutan, which promptly made me forget the ants crawling all over me. Wild orangutans are hard to find, and when you see one, adrenaline rushes through you, euphoria sets in, and you get excited like a little kid. Not just me, but also the captain
of our floating tree, and my guide. Three giddy little boys, shouting excitedly to each other.
I later heard that spotting an orangutan from a boat in the lowlands around the lake is exceedingly rare. If they are spotted it is mostly in the hills surrounding the lake during treks, not on the boat tours. So, I was extremely lucky. The photo I took might not show the glory of the moment, the orangutan was high up in the tree hidden behind layers of leaves and branches, and my camera has next to no zoom capabilities, so I was happy to get anything of the fellow at all. This is no Tanjung Puting, it is infinitely better, even if the picture is infinitely worse. As a whole I can say that the photos don’t do Danau Sentarum justice, it can’t be captured in still life, at least not by one such as me. As for the wildlife. It is wild, and shy. I saw proboscis monkeys, but they skittled off as soon as we got near. I saw loads of birds, but they flew away whenever I pointed my camera in their direction. So, you will see none of
Lanjak to Meliau
Village along the way
that, and only a bad copy of the mirroring reality of Danau Setarum.
Finally, it wasn’t just the wildlife tour that was amazing, but also Meliau and its people. Sauntering over the wooden boardwalk outside the longhouse in the mornings and evenings, watching the friendly locals, talking with them, or just sitting with an old Dayak fellow smiling at each other as we watch the river glow red from a setting sun. Life is good!
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