and the man of the forest.
12.12.2008 35 °C
So what was next? Swimming with seals, done. Komodo dragons, viewed. Swimming with Manta Rays, Swummed.(?) It was the wrong season for Polar Bears and they are famously difficult to see outside of zoos anyway and that, as we all know, doesn't count. That and they are a long way from here. As such a reasonable conclusion would be to check out something new and not too far away... So what was available? It may seem crass to reduce the wonders of the animal kingdom to a procession of viewings but as awe inspiring as the experiences themselves are, a list they inevitably become. Marathon runners, mountain climbers and addled drug-monkeys all trade the high of the moment for the low of its passing and merely move on to bigger and better, faster and further, deadlier and deader. The formula used in deciding what to view next appears somewhat complicated but its key variables include, likelihood of extinction, cost of travel and proximity to pleasant beach. I would dress it up for you a bit more but that pretty much places it squarely within the shell of a nut. I was off to see a Great Ape. An Orange one.
For most visitors to the Tanjung Puting national park the journey starts at the Pangkalan Bun airport. Flights to and from Java are daily and if slightly basic then more luxurious than the rest of the journey. Kalimantan for the visitor is the Indonesian part of Borneo but for the locals is sufficient for the entire island. Pangkalan Bun and Kumai are the last stopping off points prior to entering the jungle and exploring the national park itself.
Kumai itself contains little of note. A mud main road with some shacks running small businesses and, as with all of Indonesia, the entire place alive with family members of all ages engaged in a variety of seemingly random pursuits. Mobile phones do allegedly work although having seen a number of people attaching their handsets to a long stick and holding them aloft for several minutes at a time I would not recommend relying on the strength of the local signal. The locals are quaintly impressed with modern photographic equipment though.
At this point I should point out that the whole of Kalimantan is dry. Not in terms of precipitation, as it rains like the sky is falling most days, but more in terms of the lack of alcohol sold anywhere, at any time, to anyone. I naively assumed that this was as a result of the majority of people being Muslim. Although that may be the case it is not the primary reasoning. They are in fact dry as a result of local tribal violence from the mid-90's through to early this century where thousands have reportedly died, an unknown number of those having been beheaded and their livers eaten. I figured a few days on the local pop was probably a decent idea.
Charting a boat from Kumai is simple enough. The docks contain all manner of cargo and fishing boats, most of which would take you anywhere you wish for the right amount of financial inducment. Organised tours from the mainland forgoe all of this negotiation and confusion but what you gain in time you lose in experience. Most guide books will tell you that you should ask the captain if there is a functioning radio onboard as well as sufficient life jackets for crew and guests. I did so. Once he understood the general gist of my flailing arms and comic baby talk he laughed heartily and shared the joke with the rest of the crew and indeed several captains of other boats. Feeling like I was making good progress I asked why this would be funny. In very clear terms, although with few words, he explained to me that a life jacket would merely make it easier for the crocodiles to eat me and in turn cause them only minor indigestion. As for the radio he pointed to a stick that I presume was for his mobile phone. Reassured, although in need of a beer, we set off across the short stretch of the Kumai river to the start of the national park.
The boats themselves are simple affairs. Should your sum of lifetime experiences have not yet run to taking a shit while hanging off the stern of a 25 foot glorified canoe with your arse 2 feet above crocodile infested waters then you may have never pondered whether crocodiles would consider human testicles a light afternoon snack. I checked both wikipedia and “Ask Jeeves” on my return but apparently should anyone else have had the self same thought no-one has yet deigned to provide a response readily available to the rest of us. There was a guy who studied the propensity of wires and cords to entangle but no-one prepared to inform me as to how high a croc can jump from a river for a nut lunch. Which, I think you will agree shows a lack of scientific prioritisation within the broader geek community. Wedgies at school may well have been an early punishment for later aberations but you, as always, should be the final judge.
The boat was booked for 3 days. Within the national park there are a plethora of wildlife spotting opportunities. Dry season would enable you to see Crocodiles basking in the sun on the exposed banks. Wet season reduces their presence to the occasional splash and foaming remnants of a croc tail or whats left of its dinner. The first night is spent preparing for the insect onslaught and listening to the proboscis monkeys bedding down for an evening close to the edge of the river ready for their morning drink and, should a boat pass by noisily enough then an otherwise dangerous swim from shore to shore. The proboscis' are specialists within a special environment. They eat only a small selection of the array of fruits available and if separated from their group will pine, refuse food and eventually die. Their athleticism moving from tree to tree and outraged calls should noises disturb their rest create an eerie atmosphere as the sun sets.
Dawn of the second day starts with a simple breakfast and inspection of the various bites and stings gathered while sleeping. The heat is more bearable in the shade of the canopy and with a slight breeze channeled between the trees and undergrowth. It is just before midday that we stop at our first observation point. An incredibly humid 30 minute walk through squelching mud and rotting leaves. The feeding area is not more than 5 metres square. A few bananas are lobbed into the middle and we sit and wait, swatting blood suckers and dodging hornets as best we can. My guide, always spotting things I can barely see, sees a leaf displaced 200 metres away and slowly I can see the figure of an Orangutan female swinging from branch to branch, pausing occasionally before continuing toward us through the green mesh of plant life.
This one used to be the local king swinger but got a little old and eventually fell down the pecking order. As we approached it became clear that he was fornicating with a bridge. Even apes can fall on hard times although there was a bloke at my school who allegedly was arrested for having sex with his gate. Takes all sorts.
The following day I saw the first full wild Orangutan, with baby. She apeared frightened and shrieked before bolting from tree to tree into the distance. The majority you will see if you ever make it down here are accustomed to human interaction but live free in the jungle. Apparently once handled and cared for by humans they never become fully wild again. I suppose if that is the price we pay for ensuring their survival then its worth it but animals should really be glimpsed in their natural environment rather than wearing a santa hat and smoking a pipe. As amusing as that can be.
These habitats are clearly precious to the wildlife that call it home but equally so to the loggers and animal traffickers who head the food chain and continue to supplement their lowly incomes at the expense of the vast array of flora and fauna that Borneo still boasts. The uneasy status quo between government support for the creation and policing of national parks and the locals desire to profit from it has led to some stabilisation of numbers. It is unlikely that the profileration of wildlife with which Borneo was once blessed will ever return. Whether it will exist at all is at least to a significant extent in our own hands. Although they are not quite as human as some people would say (although I intended to use the bridge shagger as an example until I remembered the story about the fella from school so maybe we are more alike than I thought) they certainly have the ability to look human from time to time.
So another day down the river and off into another sunset. Worth the trip but bring some insect repellant. Jungles are suprisingly full of them....
Take care all.