Humans in the forest, Indonesian Borneo
Orang-utan literally means 'humans in the forest' and our trip to Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) was in search of these elusive creatures. We started in Palangkaraya and had hired a boat to take us up river, stopping off at traditional Dayak villages and looking out for wildlife, especially the orang-utan.
After an overnight stop in Palangkaraya we were picked up in the morning to board our boat, Edwina asked the driver if we can stop to stock up on some Bintang (Beer) before boarding, I got out the car and stock up and we then proceeded to the boat. When we arrived we all loved the sight of the boat and felt lucky to have the boat all to ourselves. The boat headed up stream to Bukit Rawi past the stilted and floating houses lining the river banks. The villagers had heard that we were bringing children, so the local school met us at the pier to provide a traditional Dayak welcome into the village. Musicians and dancers put on a performance for us and the kids got to play the local game of dancing between sticks.
We continued into the village to meet an old lady her name was Herta who weaved with a local plant "Rattan", she did not know here age but looked in her 80s and she remembers the Japanese invasion as a young child in her small village. Herta never married, lives with her brother and works incredibly hard to weave baskets, handbags, coasters and art pieces. We had to stop at her nieces' house where we felt compelled to buy something just because the lady was so sweet, we bought an art piece and 2 coasters for the girls.
The local costume reminded us of native American Indians, hornbill feathers in their hair and the use of totem poles, later in the bone houses the Dayak Ngaju People (Tuwung village) they use totem poles to sacrifice animals before encasing human bones into painted boxes, the guide explains that in the past they use to sacrifice humans and that head hunting was practised here.
Our boat was our transport, hotel and restaurant, all rolled into one. After a short trip down stream, we moored up for the evening. We enjoyed a nice cold beer and a very impressive meal, cooked in a very limited space. It was extremely humid on the boat and with only a fan to cool the air we were very pleased later in the evening to get some respite with an amazing show of thunder and lightning, so we battened down the hatches and watched through in the darkness the fantastic light show, but the kids didn't really like it that much as it felt too close to the boat it took a while for them to settle to sleep.
The next morning we visited the village of Katimpun, where we were greeted by the local teacher, Pery. He had just spent 6 months in the Green School in Bali where we visited back in November. Pery was there learning the basic principles that he could teach in his school in the village, it was great to see further what the Green School are doing and expanding their principles further into Indonesia. Pery took us on a tour of the village, leading us along a succession of wooden planks including the library he is building for the village. The local children were excited to see us and began showing off by jumping into the river and paddling their wooden canoes. Our kids became a focal point for the other children in the village who had never seen foreign kids.
In the afternoon we took a canoe ride in what is the traditional boat a dug out motorised canoe made from a solid tree, they are called a 'Alkun' with an engine (they are called 'Jukung' with no engine) to get into one of these boats takes a great deal of care, they are so narrow and wobble like nothing, we all sat very still and tense on our life jackets for comfort, it did cross my mind maybe we should have all been wearing them instead but as in Indonesia do as the Indonesians do. So we headed into the black water rivers to look for wild life, about 10mins into the trip the Alkun canoe engine breaks down, the drivers repeatedly tries starting the boat as we get paddled down river and every now and then hearing water being extracted from the inside of the canoe. With all this commotion on the river it was enough noise to scare the wildlife away, but the reflection in the water was just breath-taking, so after sitting on wooden planks with slight padding from lifejackets, not being able to stretch out our long legs both myself and Edwina experienced the worst soar arses on the whole trip. Although in the middle of a rainforest we were pleased to know mobile reception still worked, eventually the driver gives in and calls his son for a rescue, eventually another Alkun boat turns up, it's Pery the teacher from this morning, he pushes the canoe back to the main boat and we then moor up for the night. The poor man and his boat was towed back to the village by Pery, utterly devastated that he boat was in ruins as our guide was telling us that they can fix almost anything and are so reliant on their boats for trade, fishing and the odd tourist that shows up is a real boast to income. Luca was unwell with a high temperature slept the rest of the afternoon and had a very early night, not nice feeling ill in such a humid environment.
The next day orang-utans were on the agenda, this along with the eclipse were the main reasons for coming here. Our destination was the BOS Foundation on the Rungan River, where orphaned orang-utans are rehabilitated and then released back into the wild.
The rehabilitation process has a number of stages. The first is quarantine, where the orang-utans are checked for diseases, then a forest school where they are taught how to survive in the wild. The next step is the socialisation centre, which in effect looks like a zoo, Orang-utans are by nature solitary animals, but with the rapid destruction of the rainforest there is less room in the wild to share, so they need to learn to get along. In the last stage they are then taken to pre-release islands, where their progress is monitored, before they are finally set free in the wild. The visit to the centre was both inspirational and sobering for the children. The centre is doing great work, but the sad news is that the orang-utans' habitat is being destroyed and they are still hunted for meat and their babies sold as pets. After the centre we were taken by canoe to the pre-release island, where the kids were able to spot a number of orang-utans, first in the trees, and then by the river edge. It's a memory that I'm sure will stay with the children for a long time.
Late afternoon we head upstream to another Dayak village, not connected by roads only the river. As we approached, the village elder Pak Anker greets us at the entrance to the village and bestows a traditional Dayak greeting, they bless your hands which work that gives you the money to visit them, the shoulders which represents the position in your job and your head for the thought of coming to visit them, they then place rice on your head to bring prosperity into your life and finally as an ice breaker they smear coconut milk on your face and are then invited to smear anyone else in the village, Luca chooses the elder and Arabella didn't want to do it but with the threat of the iPad being taken away she succumbs and smears it on the girl carrying the coconut milk. The elder then takes us into his village and to his house, Pak Anker was a proud man and showed us around his garden, he demonstrated rubber tapping, showed us coffee trees and make us taste the bark of a cinnamon tree, fantastic it tasted just like Big Red chewing gum. He then invited us into his home to sample his spiced coffee which we all loved. It was getting dark so we headed back to the boat to cruise downstream for a few hours to get close to where we needed to be for the total eclipse the next day, we all admired from the front of the boat a clear night with the milky way clearly visible overhead, hopefully the clear skies would hold on until tomorrow.
We woke the next day early in order to reach our viewpoint for the eclipse, we awoke to thunder and lightning and didn't want to look out but eventually I did and indeed the sky was cloudy. The plan was to walk up Tangkiling hill where we would get an easterly view of the eclipse. The guide on the boat asked if we still wanted to go, "We came this far" was my reply and optimistically I hoped it would clear, when it was time to get into the taxi to take us to the bottom of the hill the rain stopped but as we started climbing the hill the flood gates opened and even though they provided umbrellas a combination of the humidity and rain would mean we would arrive at the top soaked. The climb started off easily but turned into rock scrambling at the top. Eventually the rain stopped and we found a spot on the hill were we could observe the eclipse, since this was the only hill for miles quite a few other people also decided to make the journey to the top of the hill. We were right in the middle of the totality line meaning we would get the most time of totality at 2 mins. As the eclipse got closer the clouds didn't give way to the sun, it was still cool seeing it get dark, it was like dusk and the blue skies under the cloud lit up orange during the eclipse and was like a 360 degrees sunset. The kids really enjoyed their first solar eclipse but were keen to go to another one where it wasn't cloudy 2027 I believe is the next one in Europe in Spain so maybe then. A few minutes after totality everybody started to make their way down, the top part of the walk soon turned into a mud slide, I think everyone slipped over at some point and the kids trousers were covered in mud. About half way down the hill there was a break in the cloud and we all did get to at least see the moon in front of the sun.
After getting back to the boat we moved upstream as we were getting a motorised canoe to the 2nd release island, they had organised this time 2 canoes and asked us how we would like to be split, initially the kids would go in one and me and Edwina in the other, Maddalena was the most hesitate but felt she would go with it. As we prepared to leave, Edwina got out her hat, Maddalena pipes up "what about Daddy", "He can sort himself out" came the reply, Edwina adds to this "And I have an umbrella which I am not sharing". As I saw the canoes come in one had shade and comfy sponge seats and the other had no shade and wooden benches, the comfy one designated to the kids, after getting severe cramp the day earlier and combined that Edwina didn't want to share made me think of number 1, "I'll go with the kids" I shouted, Edwina looks cross, "Yes the kids will be better with an adult", so I sit on a nice comfy bench in our canoe with the kids as we watch mum in the sun on her own canoe with the guide, quite funny looking back now it was a little payback, but Edwina was not amused.
Unreal we spot our first orang-utan after 5 mins on our small boats, in a tree over the river, after that we find a feeding station where around 6 orang-utans are in the area, photos taken and time spent just observing these magnificent creatures, we head back to the main boat to head back down to the Palangkaraya it was time to leave the boat after a fantastic few days.
We were all pleased to get to an AC room and spend the rest of the afternoon in the hotel pool, the humidity in the rainforest is so intense.
The next day our destination was a flight to Tanjung Putin National Park, again on Borneo but in a different area, described as one of the best areas in the world to see orang-utans with over 6000 in the national park. I had booked this with hesitation as we would already be seeing the orang-utans on the first river trip but in the end I was glad I did. Edwina was not feeling good and was getting sharp stomach pains every time after eating, but we had a 4 hour drive to Sampit with a driver who enjoyed making sound effects going around corners and when he got too close to other cars, we also manage to get a flat tyre but arrived luckily on time to find that our flight was delayed meaning we would miss the first half day of our booked tour, a stop at an Orang-utan feeding station. At the time we were still very desperate to get up close with the Orang-utan as on the river trip you were observing from a greater distance. We catch our 28min flight to Pangkalanbun and taxi to the river where we boarded the Rimba Princess and headed to Rimba Lodge in the National Park our hotel for the next 2 nights, on the way we saw proboscis monkeys, we saw them back in Palangkaraya but not as close or plentiful, the monkeys can only be found on the Borneo island and the males have a distinctive long nose.
Edwina still not feeling well and limiting contact with food we headed back to the room, lying in bed all I could hear was "AGGGR, OOOH, That's good" coming from the toilet, Edwina stomach pains had not subsided, I know I shouldn't but I did have a slight smile on my face.
The next day we were woken up by Proboscis Monkeys running along and banging the tin roof, after breakfast we boarded the Rimba Princess and headed to feeding station number 2, the feeding station is around 15 mins walk and the excitement builds as you get closer. First a glimpse of an orang-utan high in the tree and eventually getting to the feeding platform. The rainforest runs for many km from here but even though an orang-utan has not been released into the national park since 1991 some although wild are still reliant on the rangers feeding them fruit. The bananas and fruit are spread out onto the platform and the ranger calls the orang-utans, slowly the orang-utans start appearing and eventually the platform has around 6 orang-utans on it, we can't believe the proximity we are around 4 meters, the kids are blown away by the experience seeing both adult and baby orang-utans in the area. Edwina gets a very close encounter with a mother and her baby Orang-utan when she is crouched down at the roped off area the Orang-utan came up and handed her a big silver bowl requesting it to be filled with fruit, the ranger obliged and the Orang-utan took off with the bowl up a tree and enjoyed the fruits. After about 1 hour observing it's time to head back to the boat, Edwina can't believe her encounter with an Orang-utan and we head further upstream to Camp Leaky.
After around 1 hour of travelling on the river we spot a completely self-dependant (wild) orang-utan in the tree by the river, you notice the difference straight away, whereas the orang-utans on the feeding platform were not fazed by humans, this one was quick to distant itself from us.
Camp Leaky is the most famous site and was the original camp where the orphaned orang-utans where released. The camp is named after Louis Leakey who mentored Biruté Galdikas who setup the camp, there are not many female role models out there and I think more credit should be given to Louis Leaky 3 main students he mentored, Biruté Galdikas who saved the orang-utans, Jane Goodall who worked with chimpanzees (We were going to visit her institute in South Africa) and Dian Fossey who saved the gorillas, I tried to explain the significant to the kids that I will reinforce when we visit the Jane Goodall institute in south Africa.
Camp leaky is not just a research centre, the release program is still ongoing but is now in the city of Pangkalanbun and the orang-utans are released further to the north as there is no more room for them in the national park. As we approached Camp Leaky the rain started, but we decided to head into the camp to view the museum, as we got off the boat an orang-utan was on the side on the boardwalk, we are told to ignore it and walk quickly past it, as we do the orang-utan starts to follow us, the orang-utan is called Siswi and is well known to the guide, on a previous trip he had followed the guide and robbed him taking out water and his bird book from his backpack, Siswi was a cheeky orang-utan. It's amazing seeing these primates and their resemblance to humans, unlike most animals you can see different faces and it's easy to spot the known orang-utans.
Camp leaky has a museum it's petty dark (no power so take a torch), wandering around it again highlights the problem of palm oil plantations, in the last 32 years in the rainforest, an area the size of the Netherlands and Germany combined has been destroyed, we also note that the EU is the biggest consumer of palm oil which is used in a variety of products from soap detergents to margarine, it's something we are defiantly going to be more aware of when back in the UK and try not to buy any products with palm oil in them. After the museum we headed to feeding station number 1. Not so many orang-utans where on the feeding platform this time and male orang-utan took centre stage on the platform and the others seem weren't allowed on until he finished, still many persisted and sneaked bananas off the platform and ran to the trees to eat them. We got really close to the orang-utans, a female with babies and a smaller orang-utan walk within a meter of the kids, "that's amazing" Maddalena whispers. At another point I was observing an orang-utan and baby on a tree next to me, she was high up but decided to slide down, I stood still and she almost brushes my leg as she walks past. Today was one of our highlights getting to understand more about orang-utans and getting a rare chance to get so close to them, the day was topped off by having dinner al fresco watching fire flies in the trees around us on the boat.
The good thing about visiting this area in March is that it's still rainy season and there aren't a lot of tourists around making our experience feel more personal.
The next day we woke and the plan was to get to Kuala Lumpur tonight, we had some time to kill before our flight, we had heard of a project within the National park that was planting trees to repopulate where the rainforest had been damaged by fire. Before heading off on our trip the kids school Pott Shrigley Primary had planted a tree for the kids and since the school were currently doing a project on the rainforest we felt it would be a fitting tribute to plant some trees in the name of the school. We took the boat up stream to the project area and walk down a tight board walk to the ranger station, as we approached there was no ranger present, the guide still allowed us to pick the trees and the kids planted them, our guide would send photos of the plaques when they had been made by the ranger.
Sadly it was now time to leave Indonesia and we head down the river approximately a 2 hr boat ride to the airport, today would be a series of unfortunate events staring with the engine on the Rimba Princess boat packing in leaving us stranded on the river with a flight to catch the guide phones for a speed boat, eventually a small speed boat arrives we manage to pack all of us in along with our cases although a tight squeeze. The speed boat was very quick and we soon made up lost time, but when we arrived at the airport we noticed our flight was not displayed, our guide went to find out what had happened, apparently they had decided to reschedule to 9am, we had no internet or phone coverage in the national park so we could not be reached, so the flight had departed with no further flights to Jakarta today. We had a connecting flight in Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur and then the following day a further flight. They checked around and the best option would be to fly to Surabaya and connect to Jakarta, we had a slim chance of making our connecting flight. Some positive news at last we thought but then the airport lost power and the backup generators would not turn on, we were told that if power was not resumed within 1 hour all flights today would be cancelled, it was starting to look bleak.
Whilst I am sorting out all the flights, Edwina and the kids sit on the bags waiting and being the local entertainment with several people coming up wanting photos with the kids, it seemed to be unusual to see three young children with backpacks. Our guide was still with us helping translate flight info, he noticed the kids were getting ratty so sent a friend of his off to buy a large box of doughnuts and bottled water and boy did it put a smile back on their faces.
After around 40mins the power was restored, a big cheer was made by all the passengers eagerly awaiting their flights, we were told that the flight going to Surabaya would be delayed and we would miss our connection, the best plan would be to fly to Kepatang, await on board and fly onto Pontianak, from there we should then find a connecting flight to Jakarta. We agree and are ushered for security checked and thrown into the waiting room with no idea of when the flight would leave or where we were going as neither of us had heard of Pontianak.
As we landed in Pontianak I headed to the airline offices, there a flight leaving in 15 mins to Jakarta on an airline I had never heard of Sriwijaya, "Will we make it" I said to the sales assistant, "Don't worry they are holding the flight for you", panic started to sink in "Will our bags make it, we can't be without our bags", the sales assistants calms me, "don't worry, we are holding", I dash out of the office to Edwina and the kids, "we have 10 mins I shout", we all start running to check-in, they kids feel like they are on the Amazing Race, as we approach the plane I see our bags being rushed to the plane, this allows me to relax a little. We land into Jakarta too late to get our connecting flight, so I again headed to the airline offices, the last flight leaves Jakarta at 9pm (in 90 mins) and I know an airport this big won't hold flights, we rush to Lion Air office, "can I get on the 9pm flight to Kuala Lumpur", "It's a bit tight" the sales assistant replies "Let me check………..Yes you can join", again I rush out to Edwina and the kids, there closing the flight in 10 mins, we rush off down to check-in, again the kids think they are in the Amazing Race a program will all love and watch recorded series on this year away and at home. We along with our bags make our way to Kuala Lumpur arrive at the booked hotel at 1am, we get little sleep and are up at 5.30 to get our flight to Kota Bharu and then transfer to the Perthentian islands where we have 5 nights booked at a beach resort, ahhhh and relax.