Ever since I first became an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Indonesia, I have wanted to go on the riverboat tour in Tanjung Puting National Park to see the orangutans of Kalimantan (the name for the Indonesian potion of Borneo). Typhoid led to my deciding not to go on the trip during my first grant, and last year because of a broken plane my trip to the jungles of Kalimantan turned into a completely unexpected but equally wonderful trip to Solo with two other stranded ETAs. I was hoping against hope that this year I might finally make it to Borneo, an island I had not had a chance to visit at all during my time as an ETA.
And finally, the little bit of luck I keep in my back pocket came through. My housemate had family visit recently, and one of the places they wanted to visit while here was Tanjung Puting. When she asked me if I wanted to accompany them, I jumped at the chance.
The trip was magical.
We were greeted at the airport by our absolutely lovely guide, Rini, and immediately whisked away to our boat, where we met our lively crew and the adorable cook’s son, whom Reni put right in my lap as we pulled away from the dock.
Having not escaped the smog of Jakarta in over a month, I was overjoyed to find that I could already breathe so much more easily. And while we thought that we would merely stay on the boat our first day, we actually went almost directly to our first orangutan feeding.
Seeing an orang hutan (orangutan, or literally jungle person) gently passing from tree to tree above our heads was simply surreal. During my time in Indonesia, I have come across smaller primates, and my mind can wrap itself around their existence in the pohon (trees). But orangutans are so much larger, that I found myself convinced that at any moment the branches would break and they would come crashing down onto the jungle floor. But they never did.
We went to three feedings during our trip. Many of the orangutans that come to the feedings were what the guides called semi-liar (semi-wild), as they are the offspring of rehabilitated orangutans. We saw mothers with babies, adolescent males, single adult females, and even the occasional older male. Not matter how many orang hutan came our way, we never grew bored, but stayed enraptured by the privilege of bearing witness to such amazing creatures.
I was also incredibly impressed by the conservation education present at each station. There were explanations of the dangers of the palm industry, especially regarding the slash and burn techniques that pose such a threat to the jungles of the area and that were a major cause of the horrible haze of smoke in 2015. Animal trafficking was also heavily discussed at many of the stations. All throughout the trip, I was impressed by how conscious of these issues our crew were, and how eager they were to make us aware of mankind’s negative effect on the area. When we came to a fork in the river, for example, they were quick to point out where the water changed from the deep black that was natural, to a muddy, polluted brown, caused by a gold mine farther up river.
Orangutans weren’t the only animals we came across on our trip. We saw several other primates as well: long-tailed macaques, gibbons, and monyet belanda (Dutch monkeys, also known as proboscis monkeys). A family of babi hutan (jungle pigs, or wild boars) came to one of the feeding stations and fed on the bananas that fell from the platform, and we even saw a crocodile one night, lurking in the reeds alongside our boat. Our first night Rini also invited us on a night trek, and we came across all sorts of creepy crawlies, including a tarantula.
While on our night trek, we also came across a glowing fungus, which I had never heard of before and was completely fascinated by. The ranger guiding us through the forest asked us to turn off our flashlights, and while I was a bit hesitant in doing so, I was so glad he had us do so. Once the lights had dimmed, we could see the fungus all around us, like tiny bits of galaxy peeking through the leaves.
As impressive as this celestial fungus was, the actual night skies were perhaps the most beautiful part of the trip. The milky way was draped above our heads as we ate a candlelit dinner on the deck of the boat, and I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw stars shining so bright.
The time to leave the boat came all too soon: none of us were ready to leave. But our adventures in Kalimantan were not over just yet, as we still had a day in Pankalanbun before flying back to Jakarta.
After first stopping at a place where we could buy local fabrics, Reni took us to Istana Kuning (Yellow Palace), where the raja (king) and his family lived and ruled until Indonesia became an Independent Republic. The palace was filled with fun relics from the legacy of the raja, including a painting of one king who supposedly had a black tongue that created wounds when he licked people, and who always gestured to people with his thumb because he could cause someone to fall ill simply by pointing at them with his index finger.
Lunch was delicious ikan bakar (grilled fish), and as we drove through the city on out tour, Reni happened to notice a banner at the entrance of the local army base, which announced that a bird competition was happening that day. No one was entirely sure what this entailed, so we stopped to check it out. It turns out it was a competition for pet songbirds, in which the burung (birds) were judged by how frequently they sang. I had certainly never seen anything like it. Reni did worry that many of the songbirds had most likely been taken from the jungle, and I’m sure she was right. It was yet another reminder of how mankind’s interests tend to so negatively shape our planet.
Our tour ended with a visit to an English Community, where we were able to spend a little time with a group of seven- to eleven-year-olds, who gathered each week to study English together. The group was run entirely by volunteers, and the course was free for the children who joined. I loved the opportunity to work with young people again, even only for a brief moment, and it was a joy to meet the people running the program. And after having gained so much from our experience in the area, I was glad we had the opportunity to give something back, however small.
It took me almost three full years in Indonesia to finally visit Kalimantan, but it was well worth the wait. I can’t wait for the opportunity to return, and learn more about this beautiful place.
Caitlin, who took some of the wonderful selfies and other people pictures that I used in this blog, also wrote about out trip to Tanjung Puting, as well as her other adventures in Indonesia. You can find her blog here.