Saturday, 6 April 2013

Borneo (1) - Tanjung Putin National Park and Orangutans

Settled at the table
We were visiting Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, less infrastructure than Malaysian Borneo (Sarawak) but fewer tourists.

We wanted to take a trip around Tanjung Putin National Park on a klotok, a type of traditional boat, but it is quite expensive and there so many tourist companies and individual guides to choose from we were spoilt for choice (read: confused as hell).  Luckily, however, we had met an Australian couple very briefly at a hotel in Saigon and they had just returned from Borneo and taken a klotok trip with a local guide called Jenie Subaru.   They absolutely raved about him and could not recommend him highly enough so about a week before we wanted to take a trip we contacted him by email, agreed a price (cheaper than the Australian couple had told us) and it was all arranged for him to meet us at the airport and take us straight to the boat for our trip in the Tanjung Putin National Park, primarily to see the orang-utans.

Looking forward to our adventure
Jenie grew up in and around the Park and his family’s village used to be located within its parameters.  When the Park was created his family’s village was moved elsewhere but he spent much of his childhood wandering around forest so he knows it like the back of his hand.  He also has a fervent passion for the wildlife and their habitat and other guides would be hard to rival his knowledge and enthusiasm.  The village cemetery remains within the confines of the Park and the villagers still use it to bury their dead.  We visited the cemetery on one of our treks and he explained to us that although his village was Muslim, there were still Hindu and animism influences in their culture, pointing out the slight difference in the various markers.

Jenie and Paul gazing up at
something in the trees
In addition, most guides follow a set route but Jenie knew other paths which meant that we rarely met anyone else on our treks through the jungle on our way to the feeding stations.

Jenie had a crew of 3 local young people on his klotok;  two young boys and one girl who did all the cooking.  He was determined to train them up, pass on his knowledge, how to spot the wildlife, and he was also teaching them to speak English so that they would have a better chance to compete with the people coming from Java and Sumatra who were usually more well educated and who took many of the jobs from the local people in the tourist industry.  Jenie wanted these young people to have a better chance of making a living and a future in the region in which they grew up

Siswi examining her nails
These things really brought it home how well Jenie knew the Park, and his close connection with this environment, and his enthusiasm for his island home.

An early flight from Jakarta meant that we arrived at Pangkalan Bun at about 8.30am.  We whizzed through baggage reclaim and Jenie was waiting for us outside the airport.  We were bundled into a waiting taxi with our bags were soon on our way to Jenie’s village of Kumai where we were to board our klotok and begin our next adventure.

Jenie’s klotok was moored in the harbour at Kumai next to a huge rusty old ferry which runs between Kumai and Jakarta (or somewhere on Java).  We made our way on board Jenie’s boat, which was immaculately maintained in comparison to the ferries, by now we were experts at getting on and off boats bouncing up and down on the water.  Once on board we were introduced to Cambodian crew who greeted us in their halting English with shy smiles. 

Water monitor - this big boy
was at least 4' long
At this point I should point out that the on board catering provided by Jenie and his crew throughout our trip surpassed all our expectations, particularly considering the limited facilities.  There was a constant supply of bottled water, and hot water for tea and coffee.  Abundant snacks appeared at regular intervals between meals, and the meals themselves comprised of some of the best dishes we had tasted on our travels so far but the sheer volume of it defeated us completely.  It was ridiculous that 2 people were expected to eat the amount of food that was placed in front of us.  We came to dread mealtimes because we were never allowed to go hungry but considered it impolite to waste so much delicious food because even Paul struggled to make a dent in the fodder placed before us every mealtime.

The rear end of a proboscis
We settled ourselves down at the table on deck, were provided with coffee and snacks and were on our way by 9.30am, cruising upriver past the massive ferries and container ships, heading towards the smaller river which forms the western border of the Tanjung Putin National Park.  On this section of the river the water is an opaque brown colour, polluted by nearby goldmines, but many of the smaller tributaries within the Park remain unpolluted and are known as black rivers, so called because the waters appear black but the water is in fact clear and it is easier to see the underwater river life along these waterways. 

The front view
isn't so good either
Within a matter of minutes of turning into the main river Jenie spotted a wild orang-utan in the trees on the left riverbank and the boat was stopped so we he could point it out to us.  We couldn’t believe it.  Of course, you know you will see rehabilitated orang-utans in the National Park at the various feeding stations but to see an actual wild one outside the Park in his natural habitat was amazing.  Despite their distinctive red colouring they are notoriously difficult to spot unless you know exactly where to look.  Usually, the clue is where the trees are being bent over backwards or you are alerted by the rustling sounds while the animal tears of large branches to feed on the various leaves.

It wasn’t long before we were also spotting little monkeys hanging out in the trees along the riverbank on both sides.  There are about five different species of monkeys with various distinctive characteristics such as long tails and silly noses (the proboscis monkey has both) but I forget all their names now.  There were gibbons but Jenie warned us we were unlikely to see one as they are shy and quick to scarper.  

Settling down for our first feast
Nevertheless, it was clear at this early stage there was to be no shortage of wildlife throughout our 3 day trip.
All the time we were cruising from place to place Jenie and the two local boys spent their time on the lookout for all sorts of wildlife and at one point the boat did the klotok equivalent of an emergency stop while Jenie pointed out a water monitor which was sunning itself on the branch of a tree.  We honestly did not know how they could spot these creatures as they blend into the background so easily but it’s a skill which obviously comes with practice.

This water monitor was about 4-5 feet long and as we watched it, it slowly turned around and sneaked back into the undergrowth. We also saw one in the river and I caught a picture of him from a distance.

An eagle a little out of focus
Even the birds, of which there were many exotic varieties, were hard to spot.  Granted, a lot of them were green or primarily green so were well camouflaged in the jungle, but even the bright red ones, or a particularly brightly coloured kingfisher (like no other kingfisher we had ever seen whose colours were so garish he almost looked like a cartoon bird) were difficult to spot, as were the many species of woodpecker which we could clearly hear all the time but could hardly make them out through the trees.  

We did manage to see quite a few hornbills, woodpeckers, parrots, many other different species of kingfishers of every shade of blue but photographs were almost impossible. 

Tom arriving through the trees
While on the lookout one of the boys spotted a crocodile and the boat once again screeched to a halt.  We were only able to see its head below the water, and only briefly before he slowly and deliberately slunk away. Although it did look like quite small specimen, one sighting was quite enough for me, hideous creatures. 

There were hundreds of different kinds of butterflies with many different colours and patterns, and other insects galore (mosquitoes were a problem in the jungle so you had to go heavy with the deet but it seemed to do the trick).  We also heard the noisiest cicadas in the world.  Honestly, one went off early one evening and we couldn’t hear ourselves think.  I don’t know how such a small creature can make such a loud noise.  And although the ants we saw in the jungle were enormous Jenie assured us that the ones we saw were small fry compared to some of the ants that live there.

Paul snapping Tom while he
was distracted with his milk
Needless to say, photographs of all this amazing wildlife were almost impossible, except at the feeding stations where the rehabilitated orang-utans were more used to human contact.  However, even these creatures were still wild animals and most people respected this fact, and the fact that any wild animal can be unpredictable.  Most people but sadly not all.

One example was an Australian couple with a couple of kids aged about 8 and 12.  At the third feeding station we visited on the last day, while we were waiting for the orang-utans to come swinging through the trees to the platform and gorge themselves on bananas, the parents instructed their children to take some bananas out of the bag the Park warden had placed in front of the feeding platform.    

Watching one of the mothers
with her milk and rice
One of the orang-utans then turned up and the children were encouraged to pass under the rope (marking the place where it is ill advised to venture past) and feed this enormous creature by hand.  Paul commented to the parent that he didn’t think this was a very good idea and the father replied with a shrug saying that he didn’t care as he had insurance.  We have noticed that some parents have an entirely different attitude to health and safety when away from their home country.

Day 1

On our first day we remained on the main river and moored up near a platform for our first trek to a feeding station.  We were to take a long trek through the jungle where we would join the usual route followed by most other guides which came out further upriver and where the boat would meet us.

Mum looking for baby
We climbed off the boat onto a rickety old deck and followed a narrow plank walkway across swampy ground before beginning our trek.  The mosquitoes were loud and annoying but the deet worked and we weren’t bitten, just irritated! 

We soon reached drier land and it wasn’t long before Jenie was pointing out lots of birds and tempting them out into the open by playing bird calls on his mobile phone.  Some birds are territorial and if they hear what they think is another bird nearby they will sometimes fly closer and come out into the open in order to see off any rival.  It didn’t always work but it was a treat when it did.  Jenie explained that Borneo’s birds were his current obsession and was happy to tell us all about them.  He was as usual very enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable.

Baby up to no good
We spotted lots of orang-utans and monkeys in the trees and it really was exciting to see so much.  After walking for about an hour we reached another wooden plank path which led us to the main walkway which leads from another part of the river and is the route most tourists take.   As we headed down this path Jenie was recounting tales of orang-utans blocking the path on occasion and lo and behold when we came to the main path and glanced down to the left towards the river we saw Siswi, the alpha female, stretched out across on the path apparently checking her nails.

We approached quite warily (listening carefully to Jenie’s instructions and advice) but she didn’t seem bothered by us in the least) and just carried on examining her fingernails.  Suddenly we heard a loud rustle in the forest to the right of us and Jenie spotted Tom, the alpha male, approaching through the trees. 
When he came into view we could see his huge form lumbering towards us,  bending large trees as he used them to swing between and Jenie said to wait there while he went off to see the Park warden. 

Glow in the dark mushrooms
We were standing on the path on the right of Siswi when Tom landed on the path on our other side so that we were positioned between the two of them.  Close up, Tom was absolutely enormous with a body of solid muscle, a massive head and the biggest hands I’ve ever seen.  At that point Jenie urgently motioned to us to join him by the warden’s hut so we walked quickly past Tom and when we reached the hut we were immediately ushered inside and the door closed behind us which gave me a little cause for concern. 

While we were assured there was nothing to worry about and they were just being over cautious but it did frighten me a little (but then I am easily scared!). 

Another water monitor
We stood just inside the office watching Siswi who stayed where she was, still apparently considering a manicure, as Tom wandered nonchalantly past us on all fours giving us no more than a passing glance.  His long glossy red fur shimmered as he passed us as if he had just brushed it that morning.  He was a particularly fine specimen of orang-utan and in fact it was good to see that all the animals we saw in the Park looked to be in the best of health.

After that bit of excitement (and once my hands had stopped shaking!) we continued along the wooden path where we were joined by another orang-utan (I forget his name).  It started to rain so we took shelter under a seated area a short distance from the feeding station.  The Park warden usually took this route when he brought the bananas to the feeding station and the orang-utans knew this and often waited here in the hope that they got some early bananas.   

We saw flocks of flying foxes
each night
Unfortunately it rained quite heavily and the later it became, Jenie thought it was less likely that the warden was coming.  For a reason that remains unclear they don’t feed them in heavy rain.  Orang-utans are not at all keen on rain and prefer to shelter until it is dry.  They break off huge branches heavy with leaves to use as umbrellas, or find shelter elsewhere.  The orang-utan which had tagged along with us sheltered up a tree next to the shelter.   

After waiting for about an hour we gave up and started heading back to the river but then we spotted the warden, did an about turn and headed to the feeding station after all.

A family of proboscis monkeys
settling in for the night
The main advantage of watching the orang-utans while they feed is the fact that you are able to watch them up close and also take some decent photographs.  The rehabilitation programme has worked so well at Tanjung Putin that not many orang-utans continue to rely on the Park wardens for feeding although it is believed that some still like the interaction with their human friends, and it is probably true that some are quite lazy.  Tom in particular is particularly keen on the rice and milk they feed him and so he almost always turns up.

Generally, only one orang-utan will be on the platform at a time, munching his or her way through a ton of bananas.  At one particular feeding station, there is no guarantee that any will turn up which may be disappointing for the tourists but it demonstrates what a huge success the rehabilitation programme has been.  Its success also means that Tanjung Putin National Park will not accept any other orang-utans for rehabilitation because if they introduce any more then it would become too overcrowded and there is simply not enough natural habitat to sustain any more the animals than those already there. 

One of the species of kingfisher
There is also the controversial issue of palm oil.  Much of the land around the Park has been sold for palm oil which is good of the economy on a short term basis but damages the land and eats into the wilderness the wildlife need to survive.  It is a very contentious issue in Borneo and something which Jenie feels strongly is bad for the long term future of the environment.

We preferred to spot the orang-utans as we trekked  through the jungle although it was still entertaining watching them up close and personal as well.  We saw a couple of females with their young (they don’t leave their mothers until they are about 8 years old) and of course the smaller they are, the more cute they appear (and less threatening!).  We definitely felt we had the best of both worlds.

Eating bananas upside down.
Because I can.
In between cruising on the river, trekking through the jungle, and watching the orang-utans at feeding time we were fed and watered around the clock and Jenie spent some time chatting to us but also spent time with his crew.  In the evening the boys would prepare our sleeping quarters (comfortable mattresses with the essential mosquito net) and we would go to bed not long after the sun set.  We would bid everyone goodnight and Jenie would head down below deck to give the crew their daily English lesson. 

Day Two

On our second day, we went for another trek through a different part of the forest.  We saw more animals and birds and Jenie pointed out certain plants which had medicinal uses and also picked a white mushroom which he brought back to the boat to show us later how they glow in the dark, really brightly.

Having a stretch between
We ended up at another feeding station where we were thrilled to see a gibbon briefly.  This was the only gibbon we saw on our trip to the park but Jenie had warned us that we may not see any so we were fortunate.  He didn’t hang around for long but when he left I watched him as he seemed to fly off away through the jungle, swinging from tree to tree with amazing speed and skill. 

Shortly after the gibbon left it started to rain again but this time it was a proper tropical downpour which felt like it was never going to stop. 

Tom, was waiting for his milk and rice and Siswi was also hanging about waiting for bananas.  Tom sheltered under a roof on a bench looking very miserable and Siswi make herself a leafy umbrella and squeezed herself under a very small shed.  There were about a dozen other tourists waiting for feeding time and we all found shelter as the area flooded within minutes.  Luckily I had the underwater camera with me so I was able to venture out into the pouring rain to take some shots of Tom and Siswi without having to worry about ruining the camera.  I also managed to look like a drowned rat but it was so warm it didn’t matter but the ground beneath us became very muddy very quickly.

The gibbon showing us
his best side
The rain did eventually stop and Tom was given his rice and milk which he devoured and then some bananas.  Siswi sat on the platform and ate her bananas quite happily. 

We did see lots of other orang-utans at the various feeding stations, all of which Jenie knew by name.  He also knew their age and their history.  Of course I remember very little of all this as it was information overload and of little interest to anyone else unless you’ve been there but the whole experience was incredible and certainly one of the highlights of our trip.

Comments were made about my possible link to the orang-utans (mainly by Paul), our hair colour being uncannily similar, and one of our fellow tourists did suggest that Tom was giving me the eye at one point but I like to think he was joking. 

When will the rain stop?
Back at the boat we forced down some more delicious food, and when night fell we watched the fireflies in the undergrowth and listened to the cicadas while it rained.  We had an early night because Jenie wanted to take us on a very early morning trek to a spot where we were promised an amazing sunrise, weather permitting.

Day Three

Unfortunately the weather did not permit and it was still raining when we woke up at 4am the next morning so the early morning walk was cancelled and we all managed a couple of hours extra sleep. 

One of the orangutans
sheltering under a leafy
umbrella in the trees
The night before a group of proboscis monkeys had settled down for the night in the trees on the opposite side of the river and when we woke up the following day they were all still asleep, in exactly the same position, perched precariously on various branches.  How they don’t fall off remains a mystery to me but after about 14 hours kip they started to wake up and went about their day doing whatever it is they do.

The rain eventually stopped and we followed the route Jenie was going to take us to the final feeding station on our trip.  This was the one where fewer animals turn up (and where the Australian couple encouraged their offspring to get up close and personal with the wild animals).  Two orang-utans did turn up and so it wasn’t a wasted journey in that sense but the jungle treks were worth it on their own; we saw so much, we would not have been disappointed if it had been a no show.

Doing an unconvincing
(I hope) impression of an
We have since spoken with others who went on similar klotok trips with other guides and while we believe that Jenie was the best guide we could have asked for, it seemed that everyone enjoyed their trip; boats and facilities were similar and, in particular, everyone was impressed with the food provided and agreed that you were expected to eat enough to feed a small army.

We have also met people who visited similar parks in Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo) where the infrastructure is much more developed and getting around is much easier but it is more expensive, and although more organised, much busier. 

We would definitely recommend visiting Kalimantan although travel in Indonesia does take some patience, none of the sites we visited were crowded and it was an amazing experience.

A young male about to steal
some of Tom's bananas
Creeping up on Tom

Avoiding the family of wild boar
The wild man of Borneo

Dinner time

More bananas?
Where the brown river meets
the black river
Jenie on his boat

Jenie and his crew

Us with the crew

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