Trip Reports

The River (01-Dec-2001-08-00):
1000 AM local time, Saturday, December 1 (0200 Dec. 1 UTC) 02 46 S 111 42 E. Temp. 84, Humidity 80%, Cloud Cover 100%. Kumai, Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Early in the morning of our trip up the river, Gilang arrived on our launch, the Cayaha Purnama, which means "Moonlight," with its skipper and a cook. We loaded our personal gear aboard, and got underway.

An aside here about traveling by sailboat: although we have little space for personal possessions, since most of Maverick's volume is taken up with tanks, gear, spares, sails, tools, and provisions, we have quite a bit more stuff than you'd be able to carry in conventional travel, e.g., 100 or so books, guitar, etc. Plus, we're home all the time. No matter how exotic the place where we are, at night we return to a familiar, cozy, if utilitarian, living space. This was a rare trip away from Maverick, left anchored in the river, with a guard hired by Gilang as part of the deal.

Once aboard, Captain Paul and I found ourselves wandering instinctively to the helm, not to hijack the boat this time, but to check out navigation, radio, and safety gear. What we found was a cassette deck. No compass or depthsounder, radio, or charts. We figured our skipper, Mr. Emeng, must really know what he's doing.

We chugged down the Kumai River a mile or so and took a left onto the Sekonyer, a tributary. The banks were densely lined by the Nipah Palm, a tree I'd never seen before. It's a palm but it lives right in the brackish water, where you might normally see mangroves, and is unique to my experience in that the fronds are not supported by a tall trunk but sprout directly from the waterline. The look is Mesozoic; we were entering a dreamscape, pure jungle, but not what one might have visualized.

On the right bank was Tanjung Putting National Park, home to orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), proboscis monkeys, gibbons, red leaf-eating monkeys, and macaques. It's also home to a research facility established and still partly administered by Dr. Birute Galdikas, a woman in the Jane Goodall mold who's been here for thirty years. I have no idea why Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall are so famous and this name is completely unfamiliar. The park is staffed by 60 rangers and administrators, but much of their time is spent defending the reserve against timber poachers. Their budget is stressed as are organizations like this everywhere, and here eco-tourism has been hurt by the economic decline of Indonesia and bad publicity about political unrest. Orangutans are found in the wild only on two islands, both in Indonesia, one being Borneo, and one of the reasons they still exist here is because of Dr. Galdikas' efforts.

On the other side of the river, and even, illegally, within the park, loggers harvest trees like ironwood, the wood of which is valuable enough, in an economically depressed area, to make the risk of breaking the law a small deterrent. If orangutans find their way across the river (they're smart enough to untie the knot on a painter and float across on a boat), they're in a bit of danger from the loggers. But this can't be explained to them.

As we proceed on our voyage, the Nipah palms yield to trees acclimated to fresh water, and the river narrows. We hear the songs of jungle birds and the whoops of gibbons. A nice lunch of local fare is prepared by the cook on a one-burner stove, and Gilang starts pointing out proboscis monkeys he spots in the trees. We at first have trouble locating them. We take a right on another, now very narrow tributary and a little while later, after a mesmerizing five-hour boat ride, we docked at Camp Leakey, named for the paleontologist and mentor of Dr. Galdikas.

We're taken by the guides at the camp on a mile-long trek into the swamps and jungle, seven-eighths of which is on springy one-by-eights nailed to small logs so that we are held a couple of inches above the water. We're warned of leeches, so we try to avoid losing our balance, and I think that I wouldn't have wanted the job of constructing this walkway. All the while, the guides whoop and call the names of the most recently released orangutans, who are alerted that it's dinnertime. Orangutan means "man of the jungle" as opposed to "man of the city." Long before Darwin, the people of Borneo recognized the primates as close relatives of humans.

The camps receive orangutans from people who try to raise them as pets without realizing what a handful they will become. They also get them from loggers. The mother will become aggressive trying to defend her offspring, and the loggers kill her so they can do their work, as they don't have the skill necessary to capture her-although those that do will poach orangutans to sell. Sometimes they take the orphans to one of the camps, where the staff will train them to live in the wild, and release them. They then become part of the larger community of wild orangutans living in the area. But unlike the social chimpanzees and gorillas, the orangutan will live life alone.

The feeding stations, set up near the camps to act as sort of a half-way house for the newly released orphans, are where you are taken by the staff to observe them as they come to get bananas and milk. We reach a small clearing with a platform and a couple of benches for us to sit--only the crews of Okiva and Maverick are there today--and we wait and slap mosquitoes while the guides put out food and continue to call. Then, before we notice anything, the guides sense that one or more is on its way, often guessing who it is. Soon, we see the trees shaking as they swing towards us. The guides can tell whether monkeys or orangutans are coming, and they know the all the orangutans by name.

Then they appear, emerging from the deep jungle around and beyond us. One at a time, they warily swoop down to slurp some milk and grab a bunch of bananas, and then retreat to a tree branch to feast. Most are females, but we also see a big male in each camp, only one. The males don't tolerate one another, so if the dominant male is around, the others will not come, and if he comes, they leave. They keep their distance, but at one point a male heads over towards us, and the guides gently persuade him to retreat. Most of these have been released, but there are wild orangutans that come for the food, too, and we see one large male who matured in the wild.

We stay on the boat that night, moored near another camp, and listen to the sounds of the jungle. The next day we visit two other camps, see more orangutans, and meet "Barry," a tame gibbon who lives with the guides and jumps on the boat as soon as we arrive. The gibbons in the jungle are shy and are difficult to observe, but Barry was raised as a pet and given to the park, and has the run of the camp. He immediately made friends with Ship's Primatologist Terry Shrode, who, he sensed, was a fellow-traveler. You've seen them (the gibbons) in zoos, but there can't be many things quicker or more uncivilized than a gibbon on the loose. Lawd, we was incapaskitated with giggles.

On the trip back down river we'd become pretty good at spotting the proboscis monkeys in the trees along the riverbank, and in the waning afternoon, there were hundreds of them. The river widened and finally we reached and entered the Kumai.

It was bittersweet to come back to see Maverick and Okiva peacefully at anchor. We had ventured into the jungle. The Captain had taken the measure of the Wild Man of Borneo, and vice versa. But the beautiful trip to visit him, his courtiers, and his mysterious realm, the true forest primeval, was over, never to be experienced again.

PS If you travel to Bali, it would be a shame not to take the relatively short and inexpensive side adventure to Tanjung Putting. For more information about this area, including how to visit or contribute to the research, preservation, and rehabilitation work done by Dr. Galdikas, contact the Friends of the National Parks Foundation, or email

Next report from this location: Safe For Now

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