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  • Writer's picturebella-illenberger


Updated: May 25

Our flight to Borneo leaves Jakarta at 05:45 and we manage to catch valuable hours of sleep thanks to a hotel room inside the terminal. We are picked up by our diver and a handwritten sign with BELLA on it and driven from Pangkalan Bun to Kumai, the town at the rivers mouth from which the Klotoks (houseboats) leave. When we booked we decided it was silly to fly into an area only to spend 2 nights on a tour and extended our stay with a few days before and after the actual boat tour. Luckily so, for as we arrive on the boat our guide Izzy is very flustered, admitting that he managed to blow up the boat’s motor just before we arrived. We calm him down, reminding him  that we have more than enough time and are on no schedule. When we stick our heads into the ship’s cabin we are greeted with a sight that filled us with familiarity and sympathy. Two sets of tanned legs poking out from under some sort of machinery, rags smeared with grease and motor oil scattered on the floor and quiet muttering and swearing coming from the two men trying to fix whatever problem they have identified. Izzy tosses us his scooter keys and tells us to go explore the town and it’s surrounding village.

Which is what we do. As soon as we enter the town it becomes evident that even though western tourists are not uncommon here, they seem to be driven from the airport to the boat and back without making much of an appearance to the locals. We are serenaded with waves and laughter and stopped more than once along the way to have kids pushed into our arms and pictures taken with us. A group of giggling girls tries their English on us and almost faint when we actually respond.

Pangkalan Bun Airport

Kumai Town

Life on the river

We arrive back on the boat and are greeted with good news, Izzy has managed to fix the motor, blew up the battery while at it but has a spare and we are good to go the next morning.

We found Izzies name and number in a guide book and reached out to him via text, explaining to him how frustrated and disappointed we have been with our tours into national parks so far and how overcrowded, noisy and loud they have been, lacking the peacefulness and authenticity we have been hoping for. We explain to him that our goal is not only to see as many of the Orang Utans as possible but to experience the jungle and its other creatures and critters as well. After messaging a few tour guides we found online, everyone answering us with a copy paste message of tour-itineraries and package prices, Izzies reaction of giving me a direct voicecall is the first green flag and as communication continues we feel secure that he is the right guide for us and our trip. We confirms our fears that by now yes, the houseboat tours to see the Orang Utans has become well known and popular and what used to be 10 boats along the river have now become 100. Big groups and families are not uncommon. He assures me though that he is very passionate about the park and it’s inhabitants and will do his upmost best for us to have the experience we seek and that we need to „trust him and come”.

Klotoks waiting to pick up you guests

Fabi and Izzy

The next morning we are ready to get going and the Klotok leaves the pier at 08:00 and heads along the main river before turning into a smaller side branch which takes us into the National Park. The first hour the riverbank consists of a Palmtree looking plant, rows and rows of it and very little wildlife. We explore the boat and share ice tea and coconut treats while we get to know our crew who next to our guide Izzy consist of the boat boy Sani and a cook Amma, both of which speak little to no English but we manage to get along with hand gestures and broken words here and there.

The deeper we head into the park, the more diverse the flora around us gets and we start to see the first signs of jungle, taller trees braking through the lower Palmtrees and birds, butterflies and dragonflies skim the waters edge.

Lunch on deck

We are the only boat on the water thanks to our head start in the morning when we arrive at the first restcamp „Tanjugn Harapan“. Lunch is served to us on deck of the boat, a delicious fried fish in sweet and sour sauce, vegetable curry with fried tofu, rice and eggplant tempura. We walk around the restcamp for a bit, visit the information center and even catch our first glimpse of a young male Orang Utan who comes out of the jungle clearly impatient for the feeding time to start. The camps are former rehabilitation sights for Orang Utans which have now turned into monitoring and research sights with a set time in the day where fresh fruit is brought to so called feeding stations set a short way into the jungle. The rehabilitated Orang Utans live in the wild but are not able to survive entirely on their own, thus being fed by rangers once a day. They can come and go as they like and the station is set at a respectful distance from the viewing platforms.

As the feeding time draws closer, so do the dreaded other tourists, Germans, Russians, families with wining children and all. We edit them out of our consciousness and focus on the experience and our breath is quite literally taken as we spot the big male ‚Roger‘ hanging above us in the trees waiting for the ranger to come with the food. He was humongous and his very prominent cheek pads, which only the males develop at the age of about 15-20, give his face an almost alien appearance. With the arrival of food other Orang Utans come, materializing out of the dense jungle in single numbers, some of the females with babies and kids hanging onto them. We watch with delight as they eat, Roger constantly with his back to us, and the babies play and mock fight one another.

Diese faszinierenden Tiere sind uns in vielerlei Hinsicht sehr ähnlich, was bei einer zu 97 % übereinstimmenden Genetik eigentlich gar nicht so verwunderlich ist. Die Jungen sind sehr abhängig von ihrer Mutter und werden bis zum Alter von 5-7 Jahren nicht aus den Augen lassen. Ab 14 können sie selbst Kinder kriegen und die Schwangerschaft dauert neun Monate. Die Lebenserwartung liegt bei 50 Jahren, auch wenn manche es bis in ihre Sechziger schaffen. Anders als wir sind sie nicht sesshaft und bauen sich jeden Tag ein neues Nest aus Zweigen und Blättern. Ausgewachsen ist ihre Intelligenz mit der eines achtjährigen Menschenkindes vergleichbar, was sich an geschicktem Umgang mit Werkzeugen zeigt. Blickt man in die Augen der Tiere, kann man das direkt spüren.

Thanks to Izzie’s clever timing we leave just as most of the tourists arrive and can enjoy another peacefull ride as the only boat on the river as we head further in.

We stop along the way as we spot a group of Proboscis Monkeys hanging in the trees just over the river, the afternoon light catching their orange gold fur and surprisingly ugly faces.

As the sun sets we pull into the next rest camp which is far enough upriver that we are again one of the only boats here as we enjoy another delicious meal served on deck accompanied by fresh cut papaya. Once it is fully dark, Izzy takes us on shore and we go on a night trek through the jungle with a local guide who showes us resting butterflies, little yellow birds, huge spider nests and how to lure tarantulas out of their holes. We are warned not to step onto the rows of fire ants that criss cross the path as we head deeper into the jungle, hopeful tourchlight shining up into the trees to try and spot the rare Tarsier or the even rarer Cloud Leopard, both of whom decide to not bless us with their presence.

We wake the next morning to the sounds of the jungle awakening around us as we spend the night on a mattress covered by a mosquito net on deck. We make ourselves a fresh cup of (real!) coffee while we wait for the sun to rise and the rest of the crew to wake. After an omelet and toast breakfast we leave the camp and head upriver, knowing most of the other boats will arrive and stay at the camp for the feeding scheduled at 09:00, giving us another headstart to the third camp, which has an afternoon feeding time.

The jungle grows thicker and thicker as we slowly wind our way through reeds and water grasses, passing a local gold mining settlement and fisherman’s boats along the way, when as we branch off into another, even narrower river, the water changes color almost immediately from a cloudy milk coffee to a deep, rich black tea. We, who will use any opportunity for a quick swim, eyeball it longingly but Izzy reads our minds and reminds us several times of the crocodiles and pythons that live in the river and to whom quite a large number of people have fallen victim to, some very recently.

After a total of three days in the jungle on the Klotok, we make our way back to Kumai Harbour. Due to the lack of accommodation, Izzy suggest we stay on the boat for our remaining days seeing as we are already settled in and know our way around. We spend our days watching the hustle and busstle along the pier as other Klotos arrive and leave, shipments of palm nuts are loaded onto trucks and locals come and go, hoping to catch a glimpse of us. It’s ironic for we have come into this area to see an endangered species in it’s natural habitat and have now ourselves become the object of attention and curiosity.

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