Thursday, September 25, 2008

Borneo. Sept 21

21 September 2008 Sunday
02 44.45S, 111 43.98E

If you tried to read this before and gave up,, my apologies. The paragraph spaces got lost in the formatting process via sailmail, but I've fixed it now, so have another go!

JO: I can't believe I'm in BORNEO! Ever since I was a little kid, the word "Borneo" conjured up more imaginings than any other name. Deepest, darkest, wild-man-from-Borneo, Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling all rolled into one. We arrived here on the afternoon of the 18th after a 5 day sail from Makassar, with just one overnight stop, at a little island called Matasiri in the Java Sea, where the chart plotter showed us to be anchored on top of a hilltop.

A local fisherman cruised by early next morning and came aboard for a bit of a chat. He ended up helping Lex change some belts on the engine, which took several hours and in the meantime another few fishermen joined them, and we had a string of long colourful wooden skiffs hanging in a line off our stern. When the job was completed Samsuddin invited us to come ashore and visit his home. I had gone to bed with flu symptoms so I stayed there while Lex and Ali climbed into Samsuddin's boat and motored away in a loud clatter. NONE of the boats in Indonesia bother with mufflers. Or old-age hearing, one assumes. They were made very welcome on shore, and taken to Samsuddin's house and introduced to his wife and children, and his father. It's Ramadhan, so they can't eat or drink till 6pm, but Samsuddin's wife made cocoa and cakes for Lex and Ali. Lothlorien had a similar experience, but were taken on a walk up the steep hill (the one we were supposedly moored on) behind the village. They discovered how unfit you get living on a boat... Your arms are strong from winding winches and hauling ropes, but your legs just go to jelly.

Lex and Ali arrived back a couple of hours later, with a boatload of young Lotharios and kids. The young blokes spent most of their time ogling Ali while the kids inspected the topsides of the boat, and after an hour or so we said we had to get ready to leave, so they returned to their village. It's hard making conversation when you don't share much language. You run out of simple questions pretty quickly, and are left with long periods of smiling and looking around, but it's friendly, and I guess both sides of the conversation are in the same boat, so to speak...

It took all of the next three days to get to Kumai River. Getting used to short-handed overnight watches is hard. Lex and I share them, doing about three hours on and off, but Lex gets less sleep as he stays in the cockpit to be on hand if anything happens. I think it takes more than three nights for your body clock to reset itself so that you can sleep as soon as you fall into bed at the end of your watch, and then be alert three hours later. Right now the prospect of a three week passage across the Atlantic or the Pacific voyage from Panama to the Marquesas leaves me feeling a bit sick, but I guess after the first week you're okay.

BORNEO.... We had barely dropped anchor when a speedboat came alongside with Herry, of Herry's Yacht Services on board. Within a short time we'd arranged for some laundry, rubbish removal and solar (diesel), and booked a tour to Tanjung Puting National Park to see the orangutans the next morning. Right on 8 am we were collected from our boat by some cheerful blokes on a klotok, a wonderful looking craft about 12 metres by 2, with a covered top deck for the guests, and a waterline deck for the crew and the cook. Shades of African Queen. You half expect Humphrey Bogart to appear through the hatch from the engine room... There were two chairs with pillows, and mattresses on the floor for reclining on to watch the world slide by, which is just what we did for the next two days, in between watching orangutans. Our guide, Herman, was a serious looking young bloke, with reasonable English and the ability to anticipate your every whim. He is also a former park ranger and orangutan carer so we had a highly qualified advisor with us.

The route leaves Kumai River harbour, and heads up the Sukonyer River for a couple of hours, a narrow, winding, very deepest-darkest-Borneo experience! The saltwater extent is defined by the edging of Nipa palms, which changes to pandanus, smaller and less spiky than the type at home, when the river turns fresh. The park notes we were given described the rivers here as being blackwater rivers. A bit of poetic license, I thought, staring at the milky chocolate water sliding past. Then we turned into another river, and the colour change was staggering. There was a clearly defined line where the chocolate became black, swirling at the edges as the tide run played with it. It was like sump oil. This is a blackwater river, draining out of the peat swamps, very acidic and full of tannin. Tanjung Puting NP is some 3000 sq km of swampy terrain, tall dry tropical rainforest (again very similar to the NT) with a canopy about 40 to 50 metres tall, and seasonally inundated peat swampforest. The peat is 2 metres deep, so that explained the depth of colour in the water. It also has tropical heath forest on poor sandy soils, with medium sized trees. Again, not unlike the Top End. The blackwater river isn't as black as it appears - when we had a shower on the back of the boat the water was amazingly clear, and surprisingly frigid. Herman wanted us to shower in this river, because the chocolate river was contaminated with mercury from upriver gold mining. The attractive pictures of women and kids fishing from tiny skiffs all along it took on another hue altogether.

Crocodiles are here as well - Crocodylus porosus, in fact. Herman told us how a few years ago he had an English tourist on board who insisted on swimming. Against Herman's warnings he jumped into the river, saying even crocodiles were his friends. He lasted three minutes before one killed him. A ranger was taken by one a couple of years ago as well.

Orang utan - person of the forest. They are magnificent creatures. Not as tall as I'd thought (granted, I was a lot smaller when I saw my first one at the zoo...) but powerfully built, with long arms, big hands, and long red hair. The very first one we saw was dong her best to sneak quietly on board the klotoks tied up at the wharf we stopped at, and being rebuffed with gentle good humour by the guides, most of whom used to be rangers in the Park. We set out along the longest wooden boardwalk I've ever seen, through peat swamp forest. A mother and baby swung in trees next to us, and a little further on, thankfully at the opposite side of a t-section, was Tom, the king of the local orangutans. He looked pretty sleepy, sitting in the sun on one side of the wooden path, but we gave him plenty of room and went on to the visitor centre/staff quarters which was also a feeding station on the surrounding lawns. Here several mothers and babies were waiting for the rangers to unlock the banana supplies. These orangutans are all rescued from threatening situations, either from being cast out of homes where, while small and cuddly, they lived as pets until they turned into grumpy hairy adolescents (there's a thought), land clearing, fires, illegal animal trade or just orphans found by rangers. They are rehabilitated in this area, and several others in Borneo, and are given supplements of fruit and milk to help them get through the dry season. Eventually they all become self sufficient. Some do however enjoy the proximity to humans and their endless supplies of bananas.

Ali conned some bananas out of the rangers and was feeding a mother and baby, when the mother decided she wanted to adopt Ali. She put out a long arm and grabbed Ali's leg, and Ali, to her credit, just stood still, and smiled uncertainly at her. They were immediately surrounded by rangers and guides, all coaxing and cajoling her to let go, which took a bit of doing. Ali stayed perfectly calm, and just said afterwards, 'it didn't hurt, she was just holding onto me'. Our guide Herman later told us that he spent a month in hospital after having his wrist crushed by a male orangutan, who just wanted another banana.

As well as orangutans, gibbons are a feature here, and the forests are full of macaques and proboscis monkeys. Sleeping on the boat at night was like being on a Hollywood set, with all the theatrical screeching and growling from the monkey bands in the trees overhead. It was depressing to learn in the Visitor centre that about 20,000 orangutans were killed in the wildfires that raged through Borneo and Sumatra in 97/98. One third of the population. They're critically endangered now. A study has been conducted at Camp Leakey here since it was set up in 1971 by Prof Birute Mary Galdkass. You might remember the National Geographic features on her work and her family living in this jungle. She is still associated with Camp Leakey.

LEX: We did walk some distances getting to feeding platforms deep in the jungle where the orangutans came to and left via the treetops and down vines and tree trunks in spectacular displays of arboreal agility and grace. Timber benches about 30 feet from the platforms give the visitors great viewing and close-up photo-taking opportunities. There we could see more of orangutan behaviour within their own social groups - as they only occasionally look in we orangs' direction, usually with what can only be described as studied indifference. Some of them had the quaint habit of stuffing as many as 20 bananas in their huge mouths, and climbing back into the canopy to eat them, the looks on their faces like those of a shoplifter caught in a supermarket. One large dominant male hogged the feeding platform for an hour and all approaches by others somehow stopped at the platform edge. Eventually one of his wives came on to the platform, put her arms around him, blew in his ear, causing him to relent, thus were others allowed onto the platform. (Sound familiar?) One of our friends, a photographer, had a santa suit and so attired, managed after first frightening all the females and babies to run into the jungle shrieking, to sit next to a huge old male and exchange and eat bananas. Apparently it was quite companionable.

At night, we slept under nets on the upper deck of the klotok - the best sleep Jo and I had had for years.Two wonderful days for about US$85 each, fully found. We would thoroughly recommend this experience to every one we know and Herry as tour organiser. Many tourists we met did this as a side trip while on holiday in Bali. See or ring Herry on 628125086105 (08125086105 if in Indonesia).

We leave on Tuesday's (23 September 2008) tide to work our way slowly to Batam Island to clear out of Indonesia and then to Singapore and Malaysia.

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