There I Was…

“There I was on the island of Borneo.”

Ever since I was a kid and watched those Saturday morning cartoons, Mr. Peabody and Underdog, and the like, I imagined myself saying those words in some stuffy, high-brow accent with a glass of scotch and a cigar.  Well, okay, I was 7, so maybe not the scotch and the cigar, but definitely the accent.

40-odd years later, I made it…there I was on the island of Borneo. Or, as the Indonesians call it, Kalimantan.  We took a second holiday break to cruise into orangutan territory for 3 days and, boy was it interesting.

We’d been told by several people that the river trip into the National park was a nice relaxing way to see orangutans and other jungle wild life. We headed out after New Years on Trigana Air.  One of two airlines you’ve never heard of that fly to Pangkalan Bun.  If you’re watching all the coverage of the Air Asia loss, you’re watching all the hustle and bustle of PKB itself.  

Our plane was an antiquated 737 with rubber floors and worn out seats.  It makes one wonder why this oxidized aluminum tube stayed aloft, but Air Asia’s newer jet did not.  But, we did get a meal which beats many domestic airlines here and back home.  

We were met at the airport by our guide who took us to the dock about 20 minutes away in a town call Kumai, so named because in the olden days of the port, people would boat in with their wares and yell to the people on the shore, “Kumai” which means “Come here.”

It is a busy port and a pretty low lying town, but when you enter town there are a number of tall grey buildings about 6 or 7 stories tall.  When we exit the car, all we can hear is birds screeching. Our guide told us that the tall grey buildings are full of swallows.  They play recordings of swallow “songs” at full blast to attract the real swallows to build their nests.  They harvest the nests and sell them to the chinese to make soup with them. They get 500-600 dollars for a kilogram of low quality birdsnest.  High quality bird’s nests fetch upwards of $1500 dollars a kilogram. Not a bad take for mud and swallow spittle.  What makes a high quality bird’s nest?  You’d have to ask a swallow or a chinese food fetishist.

We used the Borneo Eco Tours company  which is one of several outfits who run similar trips.  All the trips are about the same in terms of amenities and itinerary.  3 days/ 2 nights.  You and your party get a boat that can sleep up to 10.  Some have A/C in private cabins, some have futons on the deck.  Most all have flush toilets.  

We sprung for the deluxe package, which included mosquito nets and the A/C option and better mattresses.  Now, this was closer to deluxe camping than to a deluxe hotel.  There were showers, but they pull the water right out of the river.  They’ll heat it if you ask. The A/C only works until the generator goes off which is about 10 pm.  It is a great way to get off the grid, though.  No phones. No TV. No internet.  We had the realization too late, that if anything happened in the rest of the world, no one could reach us or knew where we were.  We’ll change that next time we head out.

There was an english speaking guide,  a captain, one crew and a cook who accompanied us. They were all amazingly attentive. The cook was great.  Everything we ate was delicious and they accommodated our dietary needs with no problem.

The first day we headed up the Sekonyer River, so named because a schooner sunk at its mouth

many years ago. We made one stop at an orangutan feeding station.  They’re trying to get these animals back into the wild, so they move the feeding stations further into the jungle and space out the feedings more.

Or, so they say.  I wonder how much money tours like ours bring in and what the interest is to make the orangutans truly wild.  I also wonder as their habitat is being chewed up an an astonishing rate by palm oil plantations and hard wood harvesting,  if this is truly an achievable goal. Nonetheless, we were able to get really close and we did see some orangutans in the wild and off the feeding station, so maybe it’s working.

At night, we moored on the side of the river under a full moon and played cards. We turned in early and rocked to sleep in the quiet. The only disturbance was a squad of boats hauling gravel for gold mining from mine upstream at 2 am. But it was cool to wake up with the birds and the primates.

The second day we caught two more feeding stations, including Camp Leakey, founded by Dr.  Galdikas for Orangutan research.  She, Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall all studied under the same mentor and were each assigned a primate to study.  She got orangutans and has studied them for the longest continuous period of research of any mammal.  

The highlight of the trip was at Camp Leakey when we got caught in an afternoon downpour.  We had just reached the feeding station when the rains came.  Out came the umbrellas and ponchos.  One female was eating and then ambled over toward the benches we were sitting at.  With one swift move she plunged into the crowd of people and snatched an umbrella from tourist to protect herself from the rain.  When a ranger came and got the umbrella back, she grabbed a branch and held it over her head.  It seems that Orangutans hate getting their faces wet.

The orangutans were the highlight, but we also saw proboscis monkeys, gibbons, lemurs, macaques, crocodiles, monitor lizards, wild boars, three-colored squirrels, hornbills, king fishers, and more butterflies than I’ve seen outside of those little museum exhibits. 

I’d often wondered how they get that camera footage on nature shows, but out there in the jungle there is just so much of it. Ants the size of quarters. Colonies of ants number in in the millions creating vast ant-superhighways up and down trees. Pitcher plants.

We saw this wasp that had just stunned a cicada. It proceeded to lay eggs inside the stricken bug and then buried the thing alive, so that when it’s eggs hatched they’d have something to eat.

I’m telling you. It was a zoo trip through Disney’s Adventure Land!  An E-ticket ride.  If you’re in the area, you gotta do this trip.

And to think, there I was on the island of Borneo.

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