Wild Borneo...

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September 26th 2009
Published: October 23rd 2009
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The bus ride to Bontang was officially our scariest yet.. yes we know we do go on our about transport a lot but it plays such a huge role in travelling it's hard not to! The bus driver really did seem to want to scare the bejesus out of us and literally flew round corners virtually on 2 wheels, this was bad enough in daylight but a million times worse when it was pitch black and he was flying down the equivalent of narrow country roads back in the UK with a constant flow of oncoming traffic. We always use the locals on the bus with us to judge how bad a journey is.. if they don't bad an eyelid then you can assume it's normal, but on this occasion even they were closing their eyes and grabbing onto the seats in front of them to stop them flying into the aisle so we knew it must have been really bad!

We managed to get there in one piece and were quite shocked with the town itself. We'd both imagined some very small Indonesian town with a few houses, no shops and one dodgy restaurant but Bontang is anything but!
Chameleon in BorneoChameleon in BorneoChameleon in Borneo

We weren't convinced it was a chameleon but the guide insisted!
We had a bit of a faltering start trying to find a room when the first guesthouse the locals sent us to was fully booked and we didn't have any idea about any others. Thankfully through very broken Indonesian, the girls on reception managed to call round a few other hotels and found us a room. They also helped us get a minibus which were surprisingly non existent at this time of night (8pm) and we went on our way. What we didn't realise was just how big Bontang was, we thought it would be a 5 minute ride up the road to the hotel but it turned into a 25 minute ride right the way across to the otherside of town passing KFC's, huge supermarkets and numerous other hotels & restaurants on the way. Thankfully we weren't fleeced for the fee in the same way a Balinese Bemo driver would do and he dropped us at the hotel for a reasonable 20,000Rupiah.

Oh and what a hotel this was! When we pulled up we were a little nervous because the front was no back street losmen that we were used to.. it was a proper hotel with a
Tarantula in her holeTarantula in her holeTarantula in her hole

This was taken at nighttime as they sleep deep in their holes in the day
proper front and everything! Dale went in to suss out the situation and when he came back all smiles Sophie knew something had to be good! This hotel was amazing.. for 128,000Rupiah ($US12.80) we not only got air con but a hot shower, tv and wait for it... a bath! oh and breakfast was included too so we both felt like the cats who got the cream for once! Ok so we didn't use the bath as there wasn't enough hot water but the thought was there and we liked it! By the time we'd danced round the room and checked the tv to suss out the channel it was getting quite late so we ate at the restaurant opposite the hotel which seemed to double up as a brothel and retreated to our room to make use of the facilities! We were very temped to stay a few days to make the most of this fabulous deal but with not much to do in Bontang and the Orangutans calling we left that morning.

Our next mission was to find the National Park office in town which is where we needed to register before we headed up to Sangatta, home to the area of National Park we'd planned to visit. We flagged down the first minibus that passed and gave him the address, as they always do he said he knew exactly where we were needed to go and off we went. After driving up and down the same high street about 4 times we realised this was a complete lie! He stopped at virtually every shop asking if they knew where it was and we started to get a little frustrated with the whole thing, the lady he'd also picked up to take to the market was getting even more annoyed, especially after 30 minutes went past and we were still driving around and around and he refused to take her to the market first! In the end we passed a police station so we took it upon ourselves to go in and ask where we needed to go, they weren't particularly helpful either and directed us to the military police who actually managed to tell us it was just round the corner from where we were. What should have been a 15 minute journey took 45 in total... needless to say we only paid him for the distance we should have gone.. the poor market lady had already got out in a huff and got another ride! We had little sympathy for the wages he had lost because if they were more honest in the first place rather than being dazzled by the $$ signs that roll up in their eyes when they see Westeners he wouldn't have lost out.

The people at the office were really nice and we registered with ease, booked ourselves into the lodgings at Prevab Research Centre for that evening, booked a guide to take us on some walks and off we went to get the bus from Bontang to Sangatta where we needed to catch a boat for the remaining 20 minutes to the centre. Simple enough you may think!

Before going to the bus station we made a quick detour to the equator line which sits just outside Bontang town. We'd seen it on the way though and although we'd crossed the equator around 4 times on our trip so far we hadn't yet had a chance to actually be anywhere near it to stand on either side of the earth so when we saw it was just outside town we couldn't miss out on this opportunity. We got a minibus driver to take us up there so we could take a few snaps and are now able to say that we have crossed the equator around 20 times in our lifetime.. cool!

When we got to the bus station we were approached by a Kijak (4x4) driver telling us that there would be no buses to Sangatta today and we would have to go with him.. yeah yeah we thought, we've heard this one before so made our way to the seats to wait for the next bus. The people in and around the bus station were really nice and we managed to have a basic conversation in our broken Indonesian and their broken English so had a jolly nice time while we were waiting. After rushing around in the morning to get to the bus station to catch a bus we were actually there for around 5 hours before someone informed us that there really were no buses today and we'd have to go by Kijak. By this time we'd given up hope of going to the jungle today so called our guide to postpone our trip until the next day. A small group of locals had also formed to go to Sangatta so luckily we had a 4x4 full of people and our ride cost the same as it would have in the bus anyway so we weren't too annoyed. The ride there was a little squashed as they fit 10 people plus the driver in the car, meaning that we had to share the passenger seat which wasn't so good on a road entirely made of huge potholes! We got there in one piece with sore bums and got dropped at yet another really nice hotel that again we thought would be way out our budget. After a little negotiating.. read Sophie telling them we only had 100,000RP to spend but we really wanted to stay in their 170,000 a night hotel... they relented and let us have a room for 120,000 so everyone was happy!

After a night in Sangatta watching tv we made our way to the Papa Charlie meeting point the following morning to see our boatman who'd take us the remaining 20 minute to Prevab Research Centre which was our base while we were in the jungle. The lodgings here are very basic but suited us fine for one night and we were keen to get out there and try to see some of the 25 wild orangutans who make this their home. Even while enjoying a cup of tea we made a few local wildlife spottings as our guide pointed out a stick insect and a chameleon just in front of the kitchen so we got off to a good start.

Whilst at the centre you can choose how many jungle walks you wish to go on for your stay, we opted for a lunchtime, afternoon and evening walk to maximise the opportunity for spotting the varied wildlife that lives in this area, particularly the wild orangutans which are obviously what makes this area most famous. Our guide Uji was fantastic and had obviously done this many times before as he kept cupping his ears so they were like speakers and he could hear all the noises.. it looked good anyway even if it was just for effect! We also kept our eyes fully peeled as we were so keen to spot anything that may live in this awe inspiring area in Borneo. We didn't have

he came to rest on a tree right outside our cabin. He was there all night and only left the following morning.
to wait long and after about 1/2 hour we had our first sighting and got to see 2.5 orangutans high up in the treetops, we say 2.5 because one of the them was a tiny baby attached to his mum and he was so cute. These orangutans are completely wild so it is quite difficult to spot them and it would have been useless going out on our own as we'd have completely missed them. They live very high up in the trees and obviously have no human contact so they are not like the rehabilitated ones we'd seen in Sumatra who come quite close up to you. We were told that these ones won't even accept a banana from you.. quite how they found this out we didn't ask!

To see these animals in the wild was amazing, it was a fantastic experience to see the one in Sumatra but this was just one step up from that and we spent ages peering up at them just eating away minding their own business. Our guide told us that there are thought to be 600 here in Kutai with 25 females of them living in this particular area. The males live deep in the jungle only visiting the females during mating season and then returning to their area. What was not so great was the constant background noise of chainsaws from across the river, this area is outside the national park boundary and logging is prevalent here, as it is across Borneo which is very sad.

In the afternoon we managed to spot yet another hairy orange one and were both very content with being able to spot so many. Our guide demonstrated his excellent tracking skills by hearing the Orangutan from quite a way off when we could hear nothing at all. It was only when we were directly underneath that we could hear the noise he'd followed as they make a funny crunching/popping noise when they munch away on their dinner. Again we were captivated to be lucky enough to see one of these here in her natural habitat and stood in silence taking it all in. We actually read in the visitors book that people had even managed to see Orangutans having sex before which would have been something unique to say you've seen! Aside from these we also spotted lots of amazing insects, tarantula nests, strange elephant nosed moths, beautiful butterflies, a pygmy squirrel a beautiful red & blue bird who was too fast to take a photo of, and lots of orangutan food leftovers scattered all over the floor. Our guide was a wealth of knowledge throughout the 2 walks showing us all kinds of plants and trees including bamboo you can cut and drink.

There was a huge thunderstorm during the afternoon and we were glad we'd chosen that time to rest in the lodge to drink tea and play cards. Even while we were doing this we got to see another of Borneo's locals when an eagle flew onto the tree right in front of us to shelter from the lightning. He enjoyed the rest and even had a shower while he was there staying all night and through to the next morning.

Back at the lodge we had a yummy Pot Mie dinner(?!) and chatted to Uji for the evening while he got drunk on a strange wine.. he did offer us some but it wasn't particularly tasty so we only had a few glasses while he polished off 2 bottles! He'd promised to take us out for our 3rd walk in the evening to see the tarantulas that had been sleeping in the day. We thought he'd forgotten about it but at around 9pm he told us to get ourselves ready and we followed him stumbling out into the jungle excited to see these huge spiders.

We all had torches but it was still quite scary walking along, especially if you were at the back and we kept checking over our shoulders to make sure nothing would creep up on us! After wandering round for a while we found a nest with a big black tarantula poking out her hole. The guide was keen to show us how quick they were so got a piece of grass to replicate a small insect crawling around. She was indeed very quick and flew out the hole then back in almost before we had time to blink, Sophie squealed in shock while Dale moved a step backwards.. he isn't that scared of spiders but these were very big and he didn't fancy one crawling up his leg! Walking further round the trail we spotted lots of fireflies and a strange white butterfly who was very attracted to us all so kept landing on us to say hi! This walk was great and brought back memories of our night walk in the Bolivian Amazon when we also spotted similar animals and scared ourselves silly thinking what lay out there that was watching us but we couldn't see it!

We decided to leave the following morning having seen everything we'd wanted to see the day before so said goodbye to the local eagle, cat and our fabulous guide and caught a boat back to Sangatta to try and get a bus North to Berau that day. On the way back with our friendly boat driver we casually asked if there were any crocodiles that lived in this river, "oh yes" he said "we have many" as if it was nothing to worry about, which in all honesty it is as he goes up and down every day with no problems. It was only a couple of minutes later that we saw this shape swimming along by the side of the bank and then we realised that we were looking at our first croc! We only saw the top of his head but it was quite exciting as it was our
Sophie and her bus station friendsSophie and her bus station friendsSophie and her bus station friends

The lady on the left was her new best friend because Sophie gave her a bag!
first spotting and so close to our little canoe boat too! This spotting made a nice end to our fabulous time at the research centre and we would definitely recommend people to go there if you are up this way because it's very rustic and not at all the shiny package that you would get if you booked a fully fledged tour from the main tour, you really did get a sense that we were the only people out here when we were walking around.. well we were apart from one other Belgium couple and it only added to our experience.

Back in Sangatta the locals were as helpful as ever and although they managed to tell us where to get the bus from, no one could tell us what time it was with answers ranging from 12pm to 9pm. This is really frustrating because it effectively means that you have to sit at the bus stop from the first time to ensure you don't miss it. The bus stop in this case was a restaurant and even they didn't know what time it would come but at least we had somewhere to sit in the shade which was a good job as we had to wait 5 hours in total. In this case the old saying about all the buses coming at once rang true because at 5pm 4 buses pulled up all going to Berau. They were all pretty crappy buses so we picked the best of the bad bunch and settled down on the back seat with no leg room for the supposed 12 hour ride to Berau that lay ahead...

Additional photos below
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Dale spotting OrangutansDale spotting Orangutans
Dale spotting Orangutans

He's looking the wrong way!

24th October 2009

Hey guys, been following your adventures for a little while now and have been really enjoying your blog. Your writing always draws me in and your pictures are often stunning. We visited some similar places on our last trip (Borneo being an absolute highlight) so reading of your encounters with wildlife transports me from cold and rainy Brighton (enjoy a smug smile) to the steamy pleasures of Borneo. We were lucky enough to see wild Urangutan and can relate to your joy, it takes me right back. Oh, that strange moth you have a pic of is a lantern bug! Thanks again and happy adventures! Scott
24th October 2009

Great photo's
I don't know if somebody already told you, but your 'strange Borneo moth' appears to be some kind of 'Lantern bug'.
25th October 2009

Thank you!
for letting us know what the strange bug was, much appreciated.

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