We are spending a few days on the Sekonyer River Kalimantan visiting the Orangutan Research Stations in the Tanjung Puting National Park (TPNP). Borneo and Sumatra are the only two places in the world where you can see Orangutans in the wild.
Denpasar Bali to Pangkalan Bun, Kalimantan
We island hop our way from Bali through Java to Borneo and land in Pangkalan Bun in the late afternoon. A sizeable tidy town with a University, hypermart, really friendly people and the many colourful mosques are alive with locals celebrating the first day of Ramadan. We overnight at the Arsela hotel, pleasant enough with a Kalimantan traditional architectural style. It’s a dry town so we dine on fried chicken and black market Bintang.
The African Queen – Kumai Port
Morning and we head to Kumai, a decent sized local port a few kilometres down the road. We spot a couple of decent concrete statues (patung beton) and amuse the driver and the locals when we stop for some photos, the guide is infected with my enthusiasm for patung beton and instructs the driver to detour so can he can show us a couple of lesser known hidden gems. At Kumai we wander down an alleys, navigate a few planks, step through a couple of ferries and finally board our very own African Queen ‘klotok Klotok’ river boats that have been converted into houseboats. We slowly chug down the river past some impressive cargo boats and turn into the much smaller Sekonyer River and the Tanjung Puting National Park, a tannin coloured river, lined with jungle and forest. We lunch and nap on the top deck under shade as we gaze at the sky through the jungle canopy.
At the Tanjung Harapan rehabilitation centre we tie up with a couple of other boats and hike half an hour into the feeding station. A handful of international tourists gather around and watch Orangutans descend from the treetops as the Rangers deliver a buffet of bananas and corn to the feeding platform. The daily ritual demonstrates the pecking order – alpha male followed by senior females with young, then some cheeky teenagers who use the grab-and-run technique. We are fascinated with our first view of these animals – so very human-like in their stature and behaviour.
We wander back to our houseboat, cold drinks and snacks are served and we meander further up river watched by proboscis monkeys. The captain finds the exclusive mooring he has been looking for, why this bend? Well it seems his wife is about to give birth and this bend has the only bit of a phone signal on the river…he spends the evening waiting for the text. We dine on squid, jack fruit curry, fried chicken and vegetables, and more black market Bintang as we watch a thunder and lightning spectacle over the horizon.
Sleeping on the River
We sleep in the open on the top deck on a nice mattress cloaked in a mosquito net, it reminds us of camping, lulled by the occasional rocking, it’s dark and silent except for the jungle noises. We wake at sunrise and enjoy breakfast of eggs, pancakes, fruit and coffee as we motor upstream to our scheduled morning feeding station. There is an early turn out of Orangutans, the alfa male has already taken up his position sitting majestically on the platform waiting for the rangers, the others lurk nearby in the surrounding trees. As the rangers deliver the smorgasbord a similar routine begins, the alfa male munches his breakfast while calmly surveying the crowd of gawking humans, mothers feed their babies as they dangle haphazardly by their limbs, the juveniles cautiously sneak down, grab some food and quickly scamper back up the trees. They pay no attention to those of us sitting quietly, mesmerised by their antics as the sound of cameras click..click..click echoes through the trees.
We hike back to the African Queen for lunch and some quiet time, the river narrows as we move further upstream. It’s a long slow trip to Camp Leakey, one of the original rehab and research stations. It’s now a hot, humid and sticky jungle. At Camp Leaky we catch up with a chorus of Europeans dressed in look-a-like Jungle Jim khaki outfits and sporting my camera is ‘bigger than yours’ lenses. The light is fading under the jungle canopy, there are few orangutans as the rangers drop off the pay load and we wait mostly silent, sweating in the late afternoon heat, and we are starting to think about that cold beer back on our houseboat.
Later that evening we glide slowly downstream as we head into an amazing sunset, the river mirrors the sky and it seems we are sailing on the reflected clouds. It’s getting darker, slowly, slowly the captain searches the banks, occasionally flashing his torch – he’s looking for a firefly performance for us. He moors within metres of the palms and soon the amazing twinkling performance begins. In silence we drink cold beer and enjoy the show. Then we are treated to an impromptu meteor shower dancing over the sky, it seems this is a very good omen for the captain’s new baby!
Idling away the day
Moored amongst the Nipi palms we are woken by the stirring jungle to a beautiful still morning. It’s a day of leisure as we float back down the river to Kumai. Starting with a traditional breakfast we lollygag around on the deck, engage the captain and the deckhand in idle gossip. We take a hike into a small river village, it’s hot and steamy, and a local climbs a tree machete in hand to cut down a coconut to offer us. He demonstrates the drinking direct from the fruit technique but we are mere novices and it mostly goes down John’s shirtfront much to the villager’s amusement.
Back on board we float down the river and like Alice we pop back out of the rabbit hole into the bustle of the river and Port Kumai, followed by the car, the airport and the flights and a few hours later we are back in our villa in Seminyak.
We are constantly amazed how big but how small Indonesia is, in a couple of hours you can go from downtown Seminyak to the watching Orangutans in the wilds of Kalimantan, it is such a privilege. Thank you Tanjung Puting National Park for your beautiful waterways, fabulous jungle and wildlife, your rustic klotok klotok houseboats and most of all thank you for your wonderful Orangutan rehab and research stations.