Sunday, September 14, 2014

A riverboat on the Sekonyer River, Central Kalimantan

By way of a diversion from Sue's studies and my life of leisure in Makassar, we decided to make the most of our location and take a trip to Borneo to see our near cousins, the orangutans*. 

Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) is one of the best places to see this endangered species, which is only found there and in Sumatra. To see wild orangutans is actually quite difficult for the average traveller. Even taking a trek into the rainforest is no guarantee. Tanjung Puting National Park, however, is the home of a major conservation effort involving the rehabilitation and release of orangutans that have been injured or orphaned as a result of human contact. As a result, it's a very good bet that you will see the great apes at several places in the park.

Another thing about the national park is that there are no roads into it. This means that you need to access it by riverboat, which was certainly part of the attraction for me.

As usual, we booked with minimal planning by contacting some tour organisers online. I'd like to say we deliberated carefully over the available options, but, being the tail end of the peak tourist season, we pretty much had to go with the first operator that had a vacancy, Mr Ali Mashuri of Happily, as it turned out, we were in good hands. We erred on the generous side and booked a 4 day/3 night tour.

The next challenge was to get there. The airport nearest the national park is in Pangkalanbun, which unfortunately is not easily accessible from Makassar. In the end, the simplest way was to overnight in Surabaya, Java, then take the early morning Trigana Air flight to Pangkers.

We were met on arrival by Mr Ali, who drove us the 20 km or so to his office in the riverside town of Kumai, the leaping off point for all the boat tours of Tanjung Puting. We were early and our boat wasn't in yet, so we spent some time looking around Kumai's market and buying a few provisions. Towards midday we walked down to the docks to board our boat.

The style of boat used on the river trips is called a klotok. They come in a range of sizes, but essentially are narrow and have two levels: the lower one for the captain, crew and engine, and the upper one for guests. The upper deck has a roof but is open at the sides. The wash room is right at the rear of the boat. Sorry, the 'stern'. (See, I resisted making jokes about the 'poop deck'. How adult.)

Our klotok was one of the older style, as we later found out, and lacked the refinements of the newer breed of boats, but we were comfortable.

Sue boards our klotok in Kumai
On board, to make our trip possible, were our captain, Suma, his deckhand, Are, our cook, Uwah, and our guide, a young Dayak man named Sepon.

Getting underway

The Kumai River is wide and brown, a bit like the Yarra at Fishermans Bend. Kumai itself is a working river port, so not exactly picturesque. It also has a lot of buildings that look like 4-storey concrete walk-up flats with only tiny windows, but which are in fact bird's nest farms. The overwhelming sound you hear as you chug down this part of the river are recorded bird calls being played over loudspeakers, designed to lure the swallows to come inside and build their nests, which are then sold to the Chinese for ... you guessed it, Bird's Nest Soup.

Within about half an hour we had turned up a smaller tributary, the Sekonyer River. The water was still muddy, apparently the result of small-scale gold mining upstream, but now on one side we had the lowland peat forest of the national park. On the other side, beyond the riverside buffer zone, were plantations of palm oil, one of the main crops in the area, and the reason behind land clearing that has reduced the orangutans' habitat in Borneo.

Our first stop, about two hours upstream, was Tanjung Harapan, one of three orangutan rehabilitation sites in the park managed by Friends of the National Parks Foundation. A short walk into the bush got us to the feeding station where, at 3.00 pm every day, national park rangers bring loads of bananas to feed orangutans that have been released into the park. 

Bananas being uploaded at Tanjung Harapan

The bananas were distributed, the rangers made a series of loud hooting noises and within a minute or two we heard crashings in the tree canopy and got our first glimpses of orange as the apes assembled. 

Orangutans emerging from the forest

At the feeding platform. When the alpha male is present (right), other orangutans need to negotiate their presence very carefully, or just hang out up in the trees until he's eaten his fill.

After the larger males had eaten and left, this mother and baby got to pick through the remaining bananas. This seems to be a popular stance.

Having only ever seen orangutan in zoos before, being able to get this close to them in the wild and just stand and watch their behaviour was thrilling, and we stayed for an hour or so until they'd dispersed into the forest again. Back on the klotok we continued upstream to the second camp, and our overnight stop, Pondok Tanggui. Along the way, as evening approached, monkeys from the forest make their way to the trees at the river's edge, and we were lucky to spot lots of macaques and the odd proboscis monkey from our lounge chairs on the deck. We had to pinch ourselves (or at least I had to pinch Sue) as a reality check.

The morning feed at Pondok Tanggui attracted only three orangutans: a large male (notable for the cheek pouches or 'flanges' they develop) and a female with a baby. But you can banish any thought of a cozy family group. The adult males live solitary lives, only socialising to make babies. Sue made a video of the event, which has some wonderful behaviour and body language between the two adults. 

Camp Leakey, the third and largest rehabilitation area, was our next stop for the afternoon feeding session. This camp was carved out of the jungle in 1971 by Dr Biruté Mary Galdikas and has been the site of her lifelong research into orangutans, as well as a rehabilitation centre for previously captured animals, now under the banner of Orangutan Foundation International
Together with the better-known Dian Fossey (gorillas) and Jane Goodall (chimpanzees), Galdikas is the third of the 'big three' scientists inspired by anthropologist Dr Louis Leakey who have devoted their lives to studying apes.
Camp Leakey was by far the most popular of the orangutan visitor sites. Here we encountered 'klotok jams' as dozens of boats tried to tie up at the jetty or offload their passengers by boat-hopping. It was all negotiated with typical Indonesian patience and good humour, and some wise-cracking from the older boat captains on the sidelines. Apart from one day-tripper boat carrying around 20 Indonesians, the majority of the other visitors were Spanish. According to our guide, Sepon, this has been the case for years now. Someone must have written an article in El Mundo. Whatever the reason, we felt slightly grungy in contrast with their brand new adventure-wear, smart haircuts and designer jewellery. (We were slightly consoled by Sepon's comment that they were dressed "like they were going shopping".)

The orangutans at Camp Leakey are the most habituated to human contact, but we were still surprised to be accompanied by a mother and child walking along the path to the afternoon feeding session, stopping regularly for photo opportunities.

Mother and child orangutan being very cooperative with some Spanish visitors

The big crowd and the 'tamer' orangutans led to a couple of very lively feeding sessions. Orangutans crashing through the trees on their approach to the platform, people straining to photograph them up close, while a ground-walking ape tries to squeeze through the crowd from behind. There was no crowd control of the humans, and the "Keep 5 metres away" rule was happily ignored by both species, but no harm was done as far as I can tell.

Some of the crowd at Camp Leakey

Heck, everyone else was doing it. Sue elbows in
with the 
Europeans for a close-up.

Sepon, our guide, had previously worked at Camp Leakey for 10 years, so was the perfect person to take us on a trek along some of the lesser-travelled trails there one morning. We caught glimpses of a kijang, a native deer, and a some kind of squirrel, but alas no up-close encounter with a cloud leopard or sun bear.

For our last night we decided to head for a quiet stretch of river, downstream of Camp Leakey. Captain Suma was keen to find us a crocodile along the way, just to prove that they were there. Apparently their numbers are down due to the amount of traffic on the river, but they did manage to spot a small one doing its best log impersonation. Cross swimming off the list.

Spot the croc (or more properly the false gharial). This one was about 1.5 metres long. I'm sure I could have taken him.

Once again, we tucked into a very tasty dinner cooked by Uwah in fairly tricky conditions: the boat's 'kitchen' was only about 1.5 metres high, so she had to do all her cooking on a small gas stove sitting down! Try that on Master Chef.

After dinner there's not much to do except go to sleep inside our mosquito net on the deck, listening to the hoots of gibbons and owls.

In the morning, Sepon and Captain Suma indulged in a little fishing, first catching the small bait fish, then threading a few of them (live) onto the hook and casting it out for 'the big one'. Meanwhile, Sue had her binoculars on a beautiful stork-billed kingfisher that had flown onto a nearby branch, a day-glo version of the kookaburra.

All was calm and serene, the day was fresh and still cool, God was in his heaven. Until the captain cast his line and the kingfisher spied the bait fish sailing through the air. It swooped and rose up again with the fishing line trailing from its beak. Before anyone could do anything except gasp the bird had dropped the line again, unhooked. A birdwatcher's worst nightmare narrowly avoided.

Despite this little drama, we were well and truly happy and relaxed as we hauled anchor and headed back downstream towards Kumai, feeling that we'd had four days in another world – Tanjung Puting National Park – and glad that riverboat was the only way to see it. 

For me, the icing on the cake was taking the helm for an hour or so as we re-entered the wider, muddier section of river taking us back to civilisation, feeling like Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, but remade in glorious technicolor.

*Orangutan' comes from the Indonesian/Malay words orang (person/man) and hutan (jungle/forest).


There are quite a few tour companies that do klotok tours of Tanjung Puting National Park. Trip Advisor is useful. We went with Ali Mashuri of

Our orangutan video:

Orangutan Foundation International:

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Wonderful post, Steve. Vivid in all kinds of ways.