Letter from Bali – IV – Borneo
A month since the last update and while Indonesian mail does move at its own pace, I have other excuses. Dreadful Vancouver weather would be of no concern to me except that our house was flooded as a result, three feet of muddy water in the basement, and since all our worldly belongings were stacked in cardboard boxes down there, this was not good news. My thanks again to all who helped in the weeks it took to shovel and clean and restore the place to normality.
Back in Bali there were 24 hours to rest up before it was back to the airport and off with the tribe into the wilds of Borneo!
Our goal was Tanjung Puting National Park which lies on a peninsula in Central Kalimantan that thrusts out into the Java Sea. This is the Indonesian side of the island of Borneo (practically uninhabited by local standards with a population of only 20 million). Camp Leakey is 30 KM up the Sekonyer river, the road into the park, and consists of an Orangutan research and rehabilitation station which is financed entirely by charitable donation. Their site can be found here.
The Sekonyer is a tributary of the much larger Kumai River. In the town of Kumai, near the mouth of the river, tour companies have established a four day boat route to please the tourist eco-trade. From the same dock craft leave stocked with provisions for illegal mines that threaten the same habitat! A bit more of that at the end.
We flew Trigana Air (motto: ‘Safety is reasonable!’ – hooray for that!) into the town of Pangkalan Bun, a short car ride then took us through a commando base to Kumai where we were introduced to our home for the next four days – the M/V “Monkey Mover”. It actually didn’t have a name, which is a cunning ploy to avoid citations. The holes in the thing were stopped with pages from the International Maritime Safety Code which was the only thing the captain had apparently used it for. The rails were two feet high where there were rails at all (we had 6 children on board in crocodile infested waters), there was no life ring or life jackets (we did have that bit corrected before leaving) or life boat or ship’s radio or fire extinguisher. These features did not distinguish the craft on those waters – on the contrary, she was the largest and most sturdy and seaworthy of all the tourist boats we saw! It is all a matter of expectation in Indonesia – expect a fair chance of survival and everything else is a charm! Ten of us and five crew would live on her, sleep on deck under mosquito nets and dine and wash and play for the next four days as we putt putted along, up and into the Borneo jungle.
Home sweet home.
The mighty Sekonyer. The crocodiles come at no extra cost. Swim at your peril, the last tourist eaten was in 2002 – an Austrian! Our guide was present during the incident – “How bad was it, Putue?” “A tragedy. He hadn’t paid anything up front.”
Law and order, such as it is.
A standard tourist boat (they have windows, lucky lucky buggers!).
Our destination – Camp Leakey. There are trails into the jungle from the Camp and other stations it maintains along the river’s length.
This one is called Ben. Uncanny.
Dropped fruit did not go unattended. There were butterfly and dragonfly in a a rainbow of colours but only the brown ones would sit still for a photo.
The wildlife did not always stay on shore.
And another one…
To make a bacon sandwich…
There were a large number of juvenile and infant orangutan among the thirty or forty we saw. The threat to the species is entirely due to habitat loss.
Gibbon. These bastards are not quite so friendly but are very tasty.
A big momma.
This boy came down for a bath beside the boat. At least someone had a wash on the trip.
200 pound primates get right of way on boardwalks.
An old girl. Notice the house on stilts. The area regularly floods which is a nice touch.
The plight of the orangutan has been well documented. Check out this American veterinarian’s photo diary here which contains more wildlife shots and some interesting ones of illegal mining. It is 20 years old now but not much has changed!
There is illegal gold mining. There is illegal logging. Authorities turn a blind eye for a bribe and because they make jobs and the local people are poor. From what I saw and heard, however, such threats are relatively trivial, locally very destructive but not species ending. The real culprit is the government and their licensing of palm oil plantations. Palm oil does not need to grow on this land, it is tolerant of a broader range of climatic and soil conditions. It is simply convenient and cheap for companies to butcher virgin rainforest and the government is complicit in sanctioning such behaviour. Until very recently new palm oil concessions were being granted within park boundaries and in February Jakarta sought to reclassify palm oil plantations as ‘forest’ to meet international carbon targets.
Demand for oil palm (used in processed food and for biodiesel) is huge and growing and Indonesia should do well from it. It would be a madness and an evil if the parks were ruined in the process. There is much doom and gloom but I am an ape who prefers to see his cup half full. It is surely good news that this issue is an issue. See here for news on Indonesia and the climate change fund.
Still, if you are an ape of the cup half empty variety, and you want to see these distant relatives for yourself before they are confined to zoos or museums, you could do a lot worse than to write to our guide and all round decent bloke Isy Iskandar (firstname.lastname@example.org) – he’ll sort you out. The all inclusive trip (start and end at Pangkalan Bun) cost around C$2000 for ten people. Bring your own booze, don’t forget the insect repellent, and don’t worry about the radio – there isn’t a coast guard anyway. The leeches and mosquitos and insects and malaria and dengue and crocodiles will get you long before the boat sinks and you’ll have a fantastic time, one the kids won’t forget for a long while.