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Kalimantan, Borneo

Orangutans don't like the rain

all seasons in one day 29 °C

After one epic road trip through Thailand and Malaysia we have eventually arrived in Balikpapan in search of wild Orangutans. As our taxi driver takes us into town we are surprised to see how developed the port town is. Supermalls as far as the eye can see and 24 hour KFCs are on every street corner, in some cases on opposite sides of the road (well you wouldn’t want to have to cross the road!).

So far we haven’t met a single person who speaks English with the exception of customs who spent half an hour rummaging through Justin’s rucksack, in particular his clock (which apparently rattles suspiciously) and his medical kit, which was ironic considering how many prescription drugs you can buy over the counter in Indonesia!

I spent two months living in a rainforest in Sulawesi so I have a basic grasp of Bahasa Indonesian, much to the delight of our taxi driver who spends most of the journey pointing out his favorite places to eat Bakso (meatball soup – also one of President Obama’s favourite meals). The taxi driver tells us about the KFC and McDonalds problem, basically everyone is getting very fat.

We find a hotel for the night, complete with a mandi (Indonesian shower)…how much I missed you!
Mandilicious...cold water scoop shower. Painful and lovely all at once!

Mandilicious...cold water scoop shower. Painful and lovely all at once!

By this point I’m feeling really unwell and fall asleep on the bed for four hours. Justin goes in search of some travel information, only to find either expensive tour packages or no one who speaks English. Feeling a bit better I have a chat with the hotel staff about local bus services and we decide to save our money and travel to Kutai National Park ourselves over two days on the local buses – first to Samarinda and then to Sangatta (which weren’t that interesting so I’m not going to talk about them).

I’ll just say it was an experience! You turn up at the bus station and sit in a bus with no air conditioning for 3 hours whilst the bus company try and load as many people and as much stuff on as possible. We rather smugly sat on the back seats where Justin could stretch out his legs only to find the aisles being filled with bags of chicken feed and the emergency exits blocked by luggage. Even the locals were getting angry.

The bus then rolls down the hill it is parked on (literally rolls to save on petrol) and starts trying to pick up a few more passengers who will stand clinging to the doors. About two hours into the journey one or more of the following will happen a) the engine overheats because the bus is overloaded b) the tyre blows because the bus is overloaded c) we roll backwards down hills because the bus is overloaded.
Always room for one more!!!

Always room for one more!!!


Tyre blown...would that be because we are carrying twice the recommended weight load???

Tyre blown...would that be because we are carrying twice the recommended weight load???

We pass petrol stations with giant queues for petrol. If you thought the British shortages were bad you should have seen this. Demonstrations over the government’s decision to reduce the fuel subsidies were starting across the whole of Indonesia. Riot police were out in full gear.

We eventually made it to Sangatta feeling a little shaken from our bus journeys. We have the phone number of “a guy” who you ring if you want to visit the Kutai National Park and stay in the research centre. “Bisa bicara bahasa inggris?” (Do you speak English?) “Sedikit” (A little)…hmm this could be interesting. I ask questions in Indonesian and he responds in English (luckily his English was a lot better than my Indonesian). One of the weirdest conversations I’ve ever had, but luckily it is enough to arrange transport, a guide and some accommodation for the next few days.

We head out to buy enough food for two days and get a taxi to the riverboat station. From here we jump on a small boat and head 20 minutes down the river to the research centre. The sections of rainforest we have seen so far on our journey have been decimated to say the least.

Indonesia has lost more tropical forest than anywhere else in the world (except Brazil) over the last few of decades. Illegal logging, palm-oil plantations, open-cast coal mining, road construction etc etc have all contributed to a horrific rate of deforestation, which in turn leads to a whole range of issues from flooding to soil degradation as well as poorer air quality and loss of habitat. Greenpeace estimate that over 50% of Indonesian’s rainforest has already been deforested.

We’re relieved as we head down the river to find the trees getting thicker and the sound of monkeys and birds getting louder. We can see the research centre hidden among the trees, as we pull into a little wooden jetty. We walk up and meet Mr Udin our guide.
Journey up the river from Kabo to Kutai National Park

Journey up the river from Kabo to Kutai National Park

Our new home for a couple of days

Our new home for a couple of days

Beautiful view across the river

Beautiful view across the river

He makes us a cup of tea and we ask questions about the animals we might see…most importantly will we see Orangutans? He sighs a little and looks up at the sky, which is turning a dark grey before saying “Orangutans don’t like rain”. A crack of thunder rings out over the top of the forest. He says something to me in Indonesian but I don’t understand the key words, luckily he knows the English “No touching...wild orangutans don’t like cuddles, no touching….dan tidak pisang (and no bananas!).”

We head of into the rainforest, which is some of the best I have ever seen. The top canopy feels like it is a mile above our head and there are still very large trees, several hundred years old in situ. We negotiate a number of Indiana Jones style wooden bridges and stop ever few minutes to listen and look around. We find some Orangutan poo, and hear a heavy rustling in the upper canopy, but we cannot see anything.
Beautiful flowers

Beautiful flowers

Going for our morning hike through the rainforest

Going for our morning hike through the rainforest

Big tree!!!

Big tree!!!

Wierd insect - number 1

Wierd insect - number 1

Wierd insect - number 2

Wierd insect - number 2

The view from the bottom to the top canopy

The view from the bottom to the top canopy

Beautiful trees and ivy

Beautiful trees and ivy

Our Guide heads of into the undergrowth to look for monkeys, leaving us alone on a path. All you can hear is the trees swaying from side to side, the birds calling high up in the top canopy, the thunder rolling over the top of the forest and the occasional rustle of the branches as something unseen passes overhead. It is a beautiful moment of quiet, until Justin starts reading out the football scores! Evidently the coal companies need their wifi signals even in the middle of the rainforest! Our guide returns having had no luck in his monkey search and we head back for lunch and an afternoon nap.
Justin checking the Tottenham score...in the middle of the rainforest

Justin checking the Tottenham score...in the middle of the rainforest

We get ready to head out again for the afternoon. We’ve had an hour break in the rain but the wind is getting up and the sky is growing dark again. It isn’t looking good. We reach the edge of the jungle and from a distance we hear the boatmen calling us. Our Guide looks at us…”Orangutan!” We head over to the other side of the centre. The boatmen are very excited and point at a tree about 30 meters from the boardwalk. Sat in a fruit tree right on the edge of the rainforest in full view is a giant male Orangutan, having a feast in the break between thunderstorms. Our Guide looks at us “Very lucky”.
We head into the undergrowth so we can get some photographs from the side. He is happily munching away, silently swinging from branch to branch and using his feet and hands to slowly move up to the higher fruit laden branches. No wonder they call them the forest people. He is very big and being a male his big flat face and dark sunken eyes are amazing to see. We watch him eating for about 40 minutes before the wind starts to whip up and overhead dark thunderclouds roll in.
Our first glimpse

Our first glimpse

Peering out through the trees

Peering out through the trees

Enjoying some fruit before the rain starts

Enjoying some fruit before the rain starts

Our guide motions for us to start moving back to the boardwalk, but as we walk the Orangutan swings over onto a branch within meters of us and we all freeze on the spot. He sits there looking up as the rain starts to fall - the perfect photo:
AMAZING

AMAZING

He turns his head slowly and looks straight into the camera. I look around and realise we are now stood directly in the treeline back to the forest – exactly where the orangutan wants to go. I look at the guide and he whispers “Run.”

We hastily retreat through the long grass and crawl onto the boardwalk. The orangutan starts making kissing noises and grunting and before we know it he has launched himself across into the tree we had stood under only a minute before. By now the rain is pouring down and we run down the boardwalk and stand under the research centre canopy. Turning we see the orangutan stood on the boardwalk coming straight towards us in a purposeful lumbering movement before he cuts down into a thick shrubbery and disappears into the rainforest.
Orangutans in the downpour...

Orangutans in the downpour...

I realised I was shaking slightly as we sat down to wait for the thunderstorm to pass over. I’ve seen orangutans in zoos and pictures, but when he swang onto the branch and looked directly at us it was amazing, awe inspiring and slightly scary all at once. We talk about how many orangutans are being lost every year in this part of Kalimantan and the guides tell us stories of local businesses killing them to prevent damage to croplands and the loss of their forests. They are in every respect an endangered animal, even in parks where rangers are trying to keep them safe (http://climate.aib.org.uk/actionbar/127059). It is really sad to think that our children might not be able to do what we have just done if something drastic doesn’t happen.

We fall asleep to the sound of the rainforest coming alive with nocturnal animals and to the scurry of rats overhead. The next morning we say a sad goodbye to Kutai wishing we could have stayed there a lot longer. Our journey back is just as eventful with the engine blowing up and seeing a number of bad crashes. Possibly the worst bit was watching the bus company staff take it in turns to lean out (whilst their colleagues held onto them) and wipe the front windows when it started to torrentially pour down because the windscreen wipers weren’t working. Magic!
and another breakdown

and another breakdown

Luckily we met Mario who works for a coal company and lives in Balikpapan. He was on his way home and helped us do the full journey in one day. He pointed out all the different multinational companies and programmes as we drove past (of which there were many!) and helped me fill out several pages of my Indonesian dictionary. It took nearly 13 hours and eight forms of transport but we were pleased to be back in Balikpapan, especially as Justin was feeling really unwell. Time to get the Lion Air out of here!
Wings Air...hmmmmm

Wings Air...hmmmmm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orangutan
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bornean_orangutan
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kutai_National_Park

Posted by Lynne Woolley 06:39 Archived in Indonesia

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