Friday, 27 December 2013

Tanjung Puting and the people of the forest

Back when we first started looking at our plan for travelling through Indonesia the line we drew through the southern archipelago of islands actually looked remarkably similar to the eventual path we took. This journey through the countless islands we decided to end in Kalimantan, the area of Indonesia on the island more commonly known as Borneo. It was the true highlight of our time in Indonesia. We were planning on visiting the lesser travelled Banda Islands in Maluku but our only travel options were either 2 days of flying and boats or 9 days on a freighter. Hardly ideal, so Orangutan river safari it was...

Our journey to Kalimantan and our experiences there also ensured a lasting impression of the genuine kindness of Indonesian people was made on us. Firstly we were having serious problems buying tickets for our flight to Borneo. As it's a different state the operator that works there has no offices East of Java, no use for us stuck on Bali, travel agents didn't even know our destination, Pangkalanbuun, existed. Step up the lovely young man working for another airline in Bali's airport who not only booked our flights with his airline but used his own personal Indonesian credit card (needed on the airlines website) to reserve us seats on our onward flight online. It ended up saving us almost £50, and helped us relax and enjoy our last few days on Bali. What a hero.

After consulting a few tour operators and agents that organize the Orangutan river safaris we settled for a local Indonesian independant organiser called Jenie Subaru whose blog we found. He met us at the airport, took us to the jumping off point, the small harbour town of Kumai, and we spent the night in a cheap hotel ready for the start of our 3 day 2 night tour starting the next morning. Finding Jenie was a stroke of luck as the next 4 days were perfect in every way and the genuine passion and compassion of Jenie, his brother Tores and all the crew made our time in the forest even more memorable.

The Orangutans that reside here were only discovered in 1971 when Lithuanian primatologist Dr. Birute Galdikas founded Camp Leakey and the Orangutan foundation International in order for her to research behavioural patterns of the Orangutan and in particular focus on the reintroduction of ex captive Orangutans in to the wild. Whilst Galdikas' work in setting up the four camps in Tanjung Puting has certainly brought much needed public attention to the plight of the endangered species of Orangutan her desire to hold some form of possession on the Orangutans, she names the apes that are released back in to the wild, and often refers to them as 'hers' infuriated our guide who spent his life in and around the park and the Orangutans forging relationships with them himself and learning of behavioural patterns through his own interactions and friendships with the great apes. In particular Jenie's relationship with his 'best friend' the Orangutan named Ben has taught him much about the ways the animals learn and also forge relationships around respect, he even used to play fight with the Orangutans as they do to one another in order to be respected by Ben and the others. Orang-Utan translates in the local Kalimantan language to forest people, and as we hope you can see from our photos they really are the people of the forest.

Feeling like the Wild Thornberrys, we set off into Tanjung Puting National park along the Sekonyer river, to feast our eyes on some wildlife. We had our very own private boat, with our own crew which consisted of our guide, a cook, a driver and a captains mate.

We slept, ate and scoured the forest for animals on the top deck. The perfect place to spend lazy mornings and afternoons chugging up the river whilst Olly read me Game Of Thrones, spotting wildlife on the banks.

The small drivers cabin is under the yellow square, right at the front of the boat.

The river was so dark, almost like black glass as we travelled down smaller tributaries, all the mangroves and trees reflected perfectly off the water, it was hard to tell what was real and what was a reflection.

We sat up on deck and looked for animals amongst the greenery whilst the boat chugged slowly along. Our guide spotted a crocodile lurking at the side of the river.

Later on we spotted a wild female orangutan right by the river, it was making a loud kissing sound which meant she was distressed and telling us to go away.

(^Not the orangutan)

Lunch time came. YUM. Hands down, on the boat, we were served some of the best food we had eaten in our whole trip. We looked forward to every meal, wondering what our cook was going to conjure up on his tiny stove below deck. There was just so much more flavour and character than the usual nasi goreng we had been eating. It seemed to have more of a Thai feel to it and was just generally very tasty! Kudos to the chef!

In the afternoon we went to the first feeding station. the boat moors up to a wooden deck that goes in the rain forest quite a way before we walk on land. This is because in the rainy season the land by the water is marsh area.

The rainforest grew larger and taller the further we went in. It was warm and humid and started to rain a little, funny that being in a rainforest and all! we got to the feeding station and there were about 10 other tourists waiting patiently for rangers to bring the huge sackful of bananas to the feeding platform.

We went to three different feeding stations over our trip and here are some of our best snaps, enjoy the sheer cuteness, likeness and majesty of the people of the forest!

The idea behind the feeding stations is not simply to appease the awe struck tourists, but in fact to facilitate the reintroduction of these Orangutans in to the wild. The competition is high for food on the rainforest and even at the feeding stations we got an idea of the sort of power and respect dominant Orangutans have over others, represented by the size of their cheek plates. We saw sheepish younger apes waiting in the trees for an opportunity after the larger males and alpha female had finished their bananas before chowing down. Although we didn't encounter the current alpha male at Camp leaky, Tom, we saw an Orangutan named Terry return to the camp for food after an abscense from camp Leakey for over a year demonstrating exactly the logic behind the feeding stations, once the animals are confident enough to leave they will but if the competition is too high they can always come back for bananas.
Even though there was a sort of rope behind which we had to stand the Apes weren't perturbed by our presence and many walked just feet away from us going to and frome the platform.
This fella got here before the bananas did....
He wanted to be first inline to get all the bananas, before one of the alpha males came and scared everyone else off!
Demonstrating their gymnastic skills, boy are they flexible!
baby's and young hardly ever let go of their mothers at any time.
Milk for the baby's. This one was an inquisitive fellow and was playing with the bowl and later tipped the whole bowl upside down and put it on his head.
I melt.
Maybe my favourite photo ^
The Orangutans look after their young for 8 years and It's this birth cycle that puts them at a greater risk of extinction as they can only look after one young at a time. When the apes become teenagers and can fend for themselves they will often still stay with thir mother and her new child. For example one Orangutan we made a particularly close relationship with was a teenager called Roy. We met Roy as we were walking back from the feeding station just as the rainforest had started to live up to its name, it really was torrential downpour. We noticed Roy just off the path with his mother and her new child. Our guide Torres called to Roy and he came down and said hello, the mother on the other hand stayed up in the trees with her leaf umbrella sheltering from the rain. It turns out that they hadn't had the opportunity to take bananas from the feeding station due to weariness of the alpha male. As it happened our guide had some bananas left over from breakfast in his bag. We gave the tasty treats to Roy much to his delight, he knew they were there in fact poking and looking in the bag. Josie even started teaching him bad habits by encouraging him to forage in Tores' bag for the banana. Naughty. Hopefully this habit won't stick. We also saw him making an umbrella with his hands and some leaves as the flat nose of the Orangutan is not ideal when rain is pouring down their face. Genius.
Coming face to face with a great ape that's demeanour is so friendly, so magnificent and yet so human is a feeling we will never forget. The Orangutans are oddly inspiring, the ingenuity of the coordination of their limbs that propels them across the canopy, the stories and photos Jenie showed us of the Orangutans doing human actions, stealing canoes, paddling up the river, washing clothes, brushing their teeth, their capacity to learn from simply watching is staggering. It's such a shame that so much of the rainforest that these beautiful creatures call home is being decimated to produce palm oil and make space for agriculture. They truly are the people of the forest and the forest is theirs, you felt almost a visitor to another form of civilisation, the majority of which we don't see taking place deep in to the Kalimantan rainforest.
When the evening drew in we moored up to the side of the river and tied the boat to some trees and settled in for the night. We had dinner by candle light and watched all the fireflys flutter around the trees. We had never seen fireflys before and there were seemingly thousands twinkling away in the bush matching the starry sky. The noise of the forest was also deafening, it was like an orchestra of a crying monkey lost from its mother, birds cawing, insects creating a raucous noise. It was quite incredible, the life of the rainforest was apparent, talk about a buzzing night life.
Where are the clouds?
We slept in a mosquito net under the stars, it was a great experience, however despite the mosquito net we still got bitten to death, hardly surprising in the middle of the rainforest on a river. When the rain hit, generally once a day in the afternoon between 3-5pm like clockwork they put down the blue tarps to keep us dry.
On our last evening we went out on a night trek from one of the Park rangers camps. He took us for a walk out in to the thick rainforest accompanied with nothing other than some torches for protection. Whilst we weren't lucky enough to spot any mammals going about their evening business we saw Tarantulas and Tarantula holes everywhere, holes which the park ranger insisted on poking with sticks to tempt the spiders out. We also encountered a stick insect looking bug that locals called a Nyeng-Nyeng. We stood shining the light on it admiring what looked simply like another bug when we were informed in fact this was the one of the most deadly creatures in the bush, a Nyeng Nyeng sting is known to be as deadly as that of the venomous bite of a snake. If it had stung us, within three hours we'd have been dead. We moved on pretty swiftly. As we finished our walk we were taken to the park rangers toilet cubicle in which we found a baby river crocodile (Gaos) that he had saved from one of the polluted tributaries out of the national park. He then handed us the crocodile, it's skin was thick, tough and silky smooth. The realisation that you were holding a crocodile whose mum and dad has been known to kill humans like you in this area. unfortunately no photos as we didn't take our cameras on the night walk.
As if our amazing time on the Klotok hadn't been enough the lovely Jenie who had organised everything for us but didn't come on the boat with us invited us back to spend our last night before our flight back at his newly built home in Kumai. We were treated like kings served 3 meals of yet more delicious Kalimantan food, prepared by Jenie and his wife. We stayed up and watched the Arsenal game together 3-0 vs. Cardiff. Great result and a great night on a super mattress he'd set up for us in the living room. What hospitality. We got to see all his incredible photos from the rainforest of all the different Orangutans he'd met and all the awesome things they did. We felt well and truly educated. If anyone happens to read this and wants to do a tour of Tanjung Puting do it through Jenie, he seriously is THE man and his local crew are spot on.
Jenie's house soon to be painted.
A brilliant end to two months in Indonesia.
We flew back to Jakarta where we started and two days later flew to Mumbai (after watching The Hunger Games which was quality btw). Time to start the next chaper of our trip!
We're actually about three weeks behind on our blog, and already in Tamil will crack on with our next posts ASAP. We hope you have enjoyed reading our blogs as much as we have writing them.


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