| 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.
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
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 email@example.com
Next report from this location: Safe For Now