From Yogyakarta we drove four hours north to the coastal town of Semarang, it was interesting to watch the scenery change as we moved away from the city and up to the coast. On the way, we stopped at a roadside fruit stall to buy some jackfruit to try; a jackfruit is about twice the size of a rugby ball and the flesh is similar in look and texture to bulbs of garlic but with a distinctive sweet flavour, inside each segment is a large, very hard seed like a conker. It is always nice to try something different. We have also tried snake skin fruit which has an aftertaste which is hard to describe, I quite liked it, Mark wasn’t so sure.
Kodar and Anton dropped us at Semarang airport in time for our flight to Pangkalan Bun on the southwest coat of Borneo. Pangkalan Bun is a military airport and we really did feel as if we were off the beaten track. We were duly met by Muk who was going to be our guide in the National Park. As we headed away from the airport Muk pointed out lots of large concrete buildings which a first glance looked like blocks of flats three or four storeys tall; on closer inspection, we realised the building didn’t have any windows, just neat rows of holes like pipes arranged across the walls. These buildings are huge nesting boxes for swifts, every five weeks or so the farmers harvest the nests which they sell to China for bird’s nest soup and use in traditional medicine. We saw dozens of these buildings, it is big business. A 30-minute ride, stopping at the park office to register our presence, led us to a tiny, rickety wharf where our house boat awaited, our home for the next three nights. We edged across a very crooked, rotten gangway and clambered on board, turning around to see two of the crew with our suitcases balanced on their shoulders making their way across too. Once aboard Muk introduced us to the captain Alex, deckhand Derrick and mentioned that there was a chef on-board called Jess but we didn’t see her for several hours. The boat was very simple and had perhaps seen better days but it was perfectly adequate and the crew did all they could to make sure we were comfortable. The boat had a double cabin, a toilet/shower (hot water available when the generator was turned on on request) and hidden away below deck a small dark galley where Jess spent most of her time. The top deck was covered by a wooden roof to provide shelter from both sun and rain, there were tarpaulins which could be rolled down if it rained very hard. There was a dining table where our meals were served, a double bed in case we wanted to sleep on deck (too many showers and mosquitos) and right on the bow two teak deckchairs looking ahead over the river, these were the best seats in the house.
Almost as soon as we were on board Alex cast off and we set of across the main route which is used by tankers and fishing boats going in and out of Pangkalan Bun. Once across the wide river we turned in to a river marked by a sign saying ‘Welcome to Tanjung Putting National Park’ and flanked by a large statue of an Orang Utan, a sign of what was to come. Jess served the first of our on board meals, our flight had been delayed so this was a very late lunch at about 4pm. Jess served us a cooked breakfast and two cooked meals every day, there was always a bowl of steamed rice, a vegetable dish of some kind, a fish or chicken dish (curry, baked with tomatoes and spices or fried in batter) and noodles, desert was a plate of sliced fresh fruit, it was traditional Indonesian home cooking, quite different to the food we had tasted in restaurants and very good, I don’t know how she did it in the tiny galley below deck. As we motored up the ‘Big’ Sekonyer River the banks, initially covered by dense Palms started to change to more diverse mangrove and jungle. Very quickly Muk started to point out wildlife all around us; there were lots of birds including kingfishers (much bigger than the ones we had at The Pond) hornbills and Brahminy kites and within an hour of casting off we saw our first monkeys up in the trees, these were silver leaf monkeys which Muk was delighted to see as they are quite rare, we thought we had been very patient waiting a whole hour to see them! From then on we saw lots of long tailed macaques and proboscis monkeys both of which we saw in groups leaping through the tree tops or sitting in branched over hanging the river to watch us go by. Sunset at about 18.30, Alex found a spot on the riverbank and we tied up for the night. We had dinner at 19.00 (it felt like we had hardly finished lunch) took a shower when the generator was turned on, and retired to bed at about 20.00 realising that we would probably be getting up with the sun while we were on board. We were woken by the sun at 05.30, the generator had been running overnight to power the air-conditioning in our cabin (a real life saver!) so we took the chance to have another shower before it was turned off at 06.00 and reported on deck for breakfast. Tea and coffee was waiting for us and was quickly followed by orange squash, eggs, pancakes, toast and strawberry jam. While we were eating, Alex set off up river so as soon as we had finished we took our seats on the bow and watched the river glide pass spotting birds, monkeys and even a crocodile. We saw a few local villagers in canoes without outboard motors and one other house boat but mostly we had the whole place to ourselves.
At about 08.15, having turned into the Small Sekonyer River where the water was completely black, we moored alongside a wooden jetty, this was the landing stage for Pondok Tanggui, station two of four feeding stations overseen by the Orang Utan Foundation and Camp Leakey, a primate research facility which has been monitoring the Orang Utans in this area since 1971. We put on our walking boots, long sleeves and trousers, hats and lashings of anti-mosquito spray and followed Muk into the jungle. After about 20 minutes we arrived at a clearing with a few wooden benches and a raised platform in the middle. In the distance we could hear park rangers making their way through the trees and calling to the Orang Utans. Every day at 09.00 the rangers leave chunks of sugar cane and bananas on the platform and wait to see if any Orang Utans arrive to eat it, they don’t leave enough food for the Orang Utans to survive on, just supplementary food. This creates a great opportunity for tourists to see the animals but it also allows the rangers to monitor the Orang Utan community and to assess the levels of food available in the forest – if there is plenty available the animals don’t bother coming to the feeding stations. The Orang Utans in this part of the park are wild animals, some of the older ones were rescued as orphans and released in the area but that practice stopped in the 1990’s; all the young and juvenile animals were born in the wild.
We waited in the clearing for about 20 minutes, listening out for the sounds of animals approaching, we didn’t hear a single sound, then suddenly, from nowhere a huge male Orang Utan emerged from the under growth, climbed on the platform and helped himself. Amazing!! Shortly after a younger female joined him, she sat and ate for a few minutes then picked up all she could carry and took it up a tree to eat in private. We watched for about an hour until the animals left, then we headed back to the boat where Alex was waiting with cold towels and drinks and ready to set off up river. That was the pattern for the two days we were in the Park; on that first day we saw Orang Utans at the 3pm feeding at Camp Leakey where two young Orang Utans were ready and waiting when the rangers arrived with the food, but scarpered very quickly when another large male arrived. We moored up overnight going to bed when the sunset and getting up at dawn. On day two we went back to station 2 for the 09.00 feeding again, this time we saw a female Orang Utan with a baby clinging to her, and another mother with a youngster who was climbing and playing on its own but staying close to her. It was fantastic to see how they all moved through the trees, often right at the top where they could make one tree bend towards another so they could move across. They could use their hands and feet in any combination to carry food, climb trees and swing from branch to branch. We even saw one youngster pull on a branch to create a bridge so a younger one could get across. We also went back down river to station 1 to see an afternoon feeding there, we were really lucky and saw Orang Utans at every feeding. We were also lucky enough to spot them away from the feeding stations, once sitting on a log on the river bank, and finally in the camp near station 1 where a young male was looking for food and sympathy having been roundly beaten in a challenge with a bigger stronger male. Muk explained that this male was basically feeling dejected and would sulk for a while until it regained its confidence and squared up against another male (never one that had already beaten him) in a battle to win a territory and a group of females.
On our third night Alex was motoring back towards the mouth of the river ready to return us to shore in the morning, we enjoyed watching a troupe of about 40 proboscis monkeys rush through the tree tops, hurling themselves from tree to tree and sometimes almost falling out. We even saw one monkey leap from one side of the river to a tree on the other side, we didn’t think it was going to make it but it did, just. Finally, Alex picked a very particular palm to tie up against, it looked identical to all the other palms that lined this part of the river but as the sun set and the dark settled in this one tree lit up with fire flies, they twinkled like Christmas lights while we had dinner and we couldn’t see a sign of them in any other trees. How did he know??
The next morning we collected our things, said goodbye to the crew and returned ashore. Muk came with us to accompany us back to the airport, we had a bit of time so he stopped to show us a traditional long house in a village on the way, it was built in the style used by the local Dayak tribe and was used for community events and ceremonies. Muk explained that traditionally the Dayak people would hang a human head over the door as a warning to strangers, apparently, a boy wouldn’t be recognised as a man of the tribe until he had killed someone and brought back the head. We asked when that practice had died out and Muk said it hadn’t happened much since 2004…
After stopping for coffee at a new, local shopping mall (Borneo is changing fast) Muk dropped us back at Pangkalan Bun airport for our flight to Surabaya. We had had a great time in the park, even if the conditions on the boat were a bit basic, that said, we would be lying if we said we weren’t looking forward to a night in the 5* Majapahit Hotel in Surabaya!!