My mum was going to visit, and I wanted her to meet my then girlfriend Tata, with a view to a marriage proposal if my mum said she approved of the match. This was Mum’s first trip to Indonesia, Tata’s first time to meet Mum, and Tata and my first trip together, so the stakes were high. We decided to see orangutan and meet Dayak people in Kalimantan. I have also been to Bukit Lawang, but after Kalimantan
Tour guide success and ticket disaster
Tata had identified a good tour operator in Tanjung Puting, called orangutandays.com and I was to arrange flights. My part started badly when, pushed for time, I took a quick look at the map and booked tickets for the large city of Banjarmasin. My triumphant announcement was met with disbelief and I realised both the size of Kalimantan and also the distance we would have to travel by road to the wildlife reserve. Luckily, Tata came to the rescue and cancelled the flights and then rebooked to Pangkalan Bun.
Boarding the klotok in Kumai
On arrival, we met Mas Yomie and drove to Kumai to meet the klotok. A klotok is a smallish slow boat, with two decks, which was to be our home and base for a couple of days.
We set off down the river. Along the bank we saw strange tall buildings with no windows, which turned out to be for making bird’s nest for export to China.
We crossed over the large river and went up a brown tributary lined with nipi palms. Suddenly, someone cried, “Look!” and there, in the trees by the side of the river, was our first orangutan. Our guide, Yomie, said it was probably feeding on the edible central stem of the nipi palm.
The river started to narrow a bit, and tall trees lined the right hand bank. This was the reserve area and we saw Probocis monkeys and macaques.
In Indonesia, they called Probocis monkeys, Monyet Bellanda, which means Dutch monkey. It was easy to imagine how similar the colonial Dutch must have looked to these animals, with their strange long noses and pale fur.
Soon we arrived at Tanjung Harapan Camp, a research centre and got a look at a baby crocodile and went for our first jungle walk characterized by large insects ants, beetles and fungi.
Meeting the ancestors
Next we went to a feeding station at Pondok Tanggui Camp and the orangutan show started in earnest. I have always maintained a level of nervousness with large animals and orangutans are no different. There were signs all over the place with rules and ropes to keep the viewers back from the feeding platform. The reserve workers spread bananas on the platform and we waited in anticipation. Of course, 80kgs of great ape doesn’t swing gracefully through the trees so much as bend and break everything in it’s path. So a crashing in the branches announced the arrival of the hungry beasts. Unfortunately, apes can’t read, don’t follow instructions, and approach from any direction they like. The waiting watchers suddenly realised they were between the bananas and the beasts. The trees bent and the orangutan started to swing in, giving scant regard to gravity or the normal laws of physics. It turned out that they were a lot less threatening than I thought and were accustomed to humans. They spent the next hour or two showing off their young, rolling around on the forest floor while a group of about 20 tourists took their photos and oohed and ahhhed in appreciation.
A night on the boat
After that, it was getting on a bit so we went back to the klotok and had a good evening meal and went to sleep on the deck of the boat with the sounds of the forest at night all around.
Big bad alpha
Next day day started early when we went to Camp Leakey. It turned out to be very exciting. He was built like a miner’s daughter and hung from the tree like a bright orange flag made from hair. His face was like a blacksmith’s leather apron and his hands and feet were like human, but much stronger. He watched as we approached and yawned nonchalantly, displaying a set of teeth like woodworkers chisels. He was pretty scary and walked with a rolling gait that underlined his local dominance.
We followed him to a feeding platform where he scared the other orangutans, and hogged the milk drink and bananas until he was full.
Forest Restoration Project
We went to Pesalat and took part in some of the forest restoration. Tree saplings can be purchased and planted in regrowing area. I planted an ironwood tree, but I doubt I will be around to see it reach maturity.
On the way to Kudangan
We slept on the boat again and then headed back to Kumai for the next part of our trip. It was to be a long car journey so we loaded everything on the roof and jumped in. Kalimantan experiences fuel shortages in many places, simply because demand outstrips supply and the queue at the petrol station was immense. We ended up buying fuel from one of the many re-sellers who line the roads. You take your chances with these guys because there is no guarantee that the fuel has not been ‘blended’ with something else. On the road, I was surprised how much palm oil production was taking place. We drove for about 4 hours until we found the edge of the plantations and the start of the forest.
Traditional village en route
On the road, we crossed a large metal bridge, and looked down on a washing platform with a few kids jumping into the river. When they saw our car stop, they melted away into the trees, but we drove a little and came to a small village. There were stilt houses, so we got out and wandered around until the village head appeared. He invited us into his longhouse and chatted with Mas Yomie about this and that. It was cool to see people living normal village lives in their traditional way, but the village was really quiet and there weren’t many people around.
Arriving in Kudangan main village
We stopped at a roadside warung and filled up on food. Even a long way from the sea, seafood was on offer, underlining how the region is opening up to trade and transport. After eating, we drove the short distance to the main village of Kudangna region and met the village head. He introduced us to our host, who took us to his house. We sat in the entrance area, chatted and organised the sleeping area. Then it was time to wash. Although there was a village toilet block, it was a concrete version of a long drop, and had no running water. The shower was in the river so, mindful of crocodiles we had a bath in the river and freshened up for the welcome ceremony.
Kundangan welcome ceremony
The welcome ceremony was something that is both hard to remember and hard to forget. My mother went first and joined three locals in a square around a tray of drinks. Opposite her was a lady of similar age and between them two men, to make two pairs. My mum put up a couple of excuses about not drinking much these days, but they were brushed aside. The toasting started things off and soon they were away, doing the hornbill dance to the accompaniment of the gamelan players. The hornbill dance is done by stretching your arm out like wings and doing a jogging, wheeling movement. Suddenly it was my turn and, having been toasted several times with tuak – a local spirit – I was right up for it and danced with the grace and style for which I am well known across the world!
Shaman forest blessing
Next up, the guys in the hut started the shamanic part of the ritual. An elephant’s tusk that was slung under a roof beam was uncovered and we all took turns to fill it with tuak and then drain it. We were given a talismanic bracelet of blessed rice, wrapped in a leaf and tied round our wrists with string. This might be connected to a Dayak ceremony described here,
“the dignified tari kancan, the ayah ritual hornbill dance, in front of the keranda. While dancing, they repeatedly emptied small bamboo vessels filled with tuak…in order to make the soul resistant to the influence of the lurking death ghost…participants in doa also drink tuak from elephant tusks. Two large inherited tusks were part of the equipment”
Only the brave can survive
The party/drinking contest continued and things started to get extremely fuzzy. The locals were crawling drunk and the visitors were matching them all the way. One guy was sat down, but folded fully forward with his head touching the floor between his legs. Another guy had passed out on the steps of the longhouse, offering a free meal to the mosquitos. One of the women was drunk enough to vomit through the floor of the longhouse and to mutter obscenities and dark threats to passers-by. Obviously, something had to give, and luckily it was the end of the tuak that killed the party. People drifted away and finally we were left with the resident family.
Noises in the night
Sleeping that night was impossible. There was a lot of mammal noise in the longhouse. A cat had attempted to eat, and just wounded a giant cricket and it was buzzing around in the roof space. Eventually, I tried to catch it, but only succeeded in chasing it into the host’s part of the house, coming nose to nose with him as he rose to challenge the noise in the dark!
The next morning, suitably blessed with an angry hangover, we went for a trek in the jungle.
Trekking in the rain forest
The guides had expressed reservations about mums ability to manage a jungle trek, but on seeing her strength and vigor, changed the route length and destination. We climbed up through the forest, and passed an abandoned settlement with a rotten longhouse. Our guides showed us how the people scattered fruit seeds near where they lived, which encouraged trees that brought food to grow.
We crossed many rivers, and passed from valley to valley. The guides slung a rope to help prevent losing balance while crossing the rivers which were stronger than I expected. Tata was enjoying ‘getting back to nature’ and dropped a large log in the forest. It was raining and the droplets of water were dripping from the canopy far above. On the forest floor we climbed over and past several large branches and fallen trees and it crossed my mind that if one of these should suddenly fall, people underneath would have no chance of survival. Tata spoke to one of the guides, who said, “It’s not far, just a one cigarette walk.” but when she shared this with the guy who was carrying the heavy water load he laughed and replied, “Yeah, but he doesn’t light it until we get there!”
Bloodsuckers and how to prevent them
A more pressing worry however were the leeches. The guides had equipped themselves with an anti-leech technique. They folded a crushed up cigarette into small pieces of cloth, and attached it to a forked twig. When it was moistened, the tobacco juice started to flow and they daubed their legs regularly, using the twig to avoid bending down. The juice repelled the leeches and could be reapplied often. This seemed like a great idea. My insect repellent had been washed off during the river crossings and rain, but luckily I was towards the rear of the party, and so most of the leeches had been dislodged by the time I got through. Mum was near the front, and when we stopped for lunch she raised her trouser legs and found a good number of fat leeches hanging of her. In all, we removed a dozen or so.
Lunch in the forest
At lunchtime the guides brought us to a beautiful location at an intersection of two rivers. I looked up through the trees and saw a waterfall. We ate our packed food and then headed up for a splash about and a swim. It was a magical moment and all the adults became like children again. We splashed in the water and stood under the flow of the waterfall which was surprisingly strong.
A river, a slip and a broken bone
On the return journey, mum slipped in a river and let out a string of curses. We gathered round anxiously while she confessed to osteoporosis. Luckily, she’s a tough old girl, and so she walked back out of the forest unaided. Later, we discovered she had actually broken a bone in her foot. That night, Yomie gave Mum a massage in the longhouse and we all slept pretty well after the previous 24 hours of travel and exploration.
Returning to Pangkalan Bun
Returning to Pangkalan Bun was a fairly sobering experience. Despite logging having clearly occurred in the Kudangan region, it still felt a lot like untouched forest. Crossing the line between forest and clearance meant that we passed through the zone where the trees had been recently cut. It was all burned tree stumps and bulldozer tracks and it was hard not to feel sad at the loss of habitat.
We arrived back in Pangkalan Bun, took a hotel and a hot shower, had a final meal, slept and then flew back to Jakarta.
The success of the trip
This trip was a success in many ways. Most importantly, it paved the way for my marriage to my wonderful wife Tata and indirectly to our building a family. It was a great introduction to Indonesia for my mum and she has visited several times since then. Finally, we made some great friends with the tour operator Yomie and his family, and my family have visited there again. I heard that Tanjung Puting had been heavily affected by the forest fires in 2015, and I hope anyone reading this can donate to orangutan.org
If you want to see orangutan and meet Dayak people in Kalimantan, you can talk to me and I’ll put you in touch with Yomie and Yofie or you can contact them directly at orangutandays.com or myorangutan.com
Fly: Pangkalan Bun
- Tanjung Puting Wildlife Reserve