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Orangutan encounter in Borneo’s peat swamp forest

If you are looking for adventure, then Indonesia is the place for you! My husband and I first discovered the archipelago six years ago while traveling from Bali to Timor. In a short time we fell in love with its friendly people, diverse culture, delicious food and delightful language. This spring it was time to go back and discover a new island named Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo. Kalimantan translates to River of Diamonds and boasts mysterious Dayak tribes, magnificent forests and exotic wildlife.

Despite the excitement of a new trip we are also aware of the darker side of Borneo… The fact is that its remaining primary forests are being cut down at this very moment to make way for massive palm oil plantations. Palm oil maybe be wonderful for cooking, but is also known to be the cause of potential biodiversity disaster. Greenpeace has proven that every two seconds a forest the size of a football field disappears due to illegal deforestation. Thanks to the tremendous efforts of the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and Greenpeace some of these forests have been saved over the years and turned into National Parks.

One of the main reasons we have chosen Kalimantan is to perhaps get a glimpse of the endangered orangutans. The world’s seventh largest island still has a population of 9000, but for how long? Over the last decade their number has dwindled drastically due to poaching, deforestation and forest fires. Those that escaped this fate are living in sanctuaries throughout the country.

Back to our trip… After a long search on the web we come across Sebangau National Park. This unique peat swamp forest was opened to the public in 2006. Sebangau is the home of Malayan sun bears, gibbons, hornbills, clouded leopards, orangutans and numerous types of birds and fish.

Join me in an encounter of the wild in the peat swamp forests of Borneo:

After a hot and sleepless night under the tin roof of our guesthouse in Baun Bango, it is time to make our way down to the pier to embark onto Surahmansyah’s boat. The “official” forest ranger never arrived and Surahmansyah has offered to be our guide to the park today. He proudly points to his T-shirt saying that he has been trained by the WWF. Jacques and I are in Central Kalimantan and on our way to Sebangau.

There is a cool morning breeze as we ride downstream to Karuing, the next village. Tall trees border both sides of the Katingan River. A large boat filled with cut logs is waiting for its next destination. A bare-chested older man wades thigh-deep through the water, along the muddy coast, trying to find a good place to set up his net. Traveling on the rivers of Kalimantan is one of the best ways to get around. The island only has a few roads, which are not in the best of shape, so it is easier, safer and quieter traveling on the islands extensive waterways and there is always something to see.

Indigenous Dayak groups called the Ngadju or the River Dayaks inhabit the villages along the Katingan River. They rely on fishing and still practice ancient rituals like tattooing and tooth filling. The Ngadju do not live in longhouses like other Dayak groups, but in typical single-family houses the government has regulated all over Indonesia. Each house on firm land is connected to a ladder that leads down to wooden wharf. This is not just a simple wharf, but multifunctional. One side is used as fish tank and the other holds an outhouse. This unique outhouse is made of wood, topped with a tin roof and decorated with plants and flowers. Some even have a heart or moon carved into the door.

We are spending a few days in the area with Aini, our guide and translator. She is a pretty, short 23-year old Indonesian who grew up in a village in southwestern Kalimantan. She works for KTD (Kalimantan Tour Destinations) travel agency and speaks both English and Bahasa Indonesia. We enjoy her smile, local knowledge and her ease with both worlds.

We have reached Karwing, the closest entrance to the park. We disembark and one by one climb the rickety ladder set against a steep slope of dirt. A pretty wooden boardwalk leads down the central lane to each house. We follow it until we arrive in front of the kepala desa’s (chief’s) house. In Indonesia it is a custom when you enter a village to announce yourself as a sign of courtesy. Introductions are made and we are offered hot, sweet tea, dried fruit and shown to one side of the room.

We have come to discuss the park entrance details with the village chief, Surahmansyah and Aini. The biggest difficulty with Sebangau is that no one has a detailed map of the area and we are counting on the locals to help us. As the discussion continues we learn important details that no has ever told us about. Despite the water level being very low at the moment it is not easy getting around in a peat swamp forest. It is not possible to walk anywhere and we need a boat to move around once we are inside the forest. This means depending on more people.

We finally come to an agreement: we will hire four men (Henry, Nono, Suandi and Idam) and their boats, one for each passenger and his luggage. We will spend one day inside the park, one night at the visitors’ centre and return the following morning to catch the boat back. We have enough dried noodles, cookies and water to last us through the next two days. Within an hour everything is planned and we are ready to go. The boatmen bring along their own food, a gas cooker and fuel. We move down to the pier and each of us boards a klotok, a narrow wooden boat with a motor at the back. We wave to the villagers and are on our way.

It feels like we are departing on an expedition! A few minutes later we slow down, leave the Katingan River, and turn right into the parks wide entrance canal. We pass by big logs that were cut and left to decay in the water. They are a reminder of the logging frenzy years that were stopped nationwide in 1997. These obstacles protruding out of the water make it dangerous to navigate past or between them. But Suandi is experienced and swerves his klotok with care around each log as we head further into the park. The sky is blue, but the view on the ground is not very nice. On each side of the canal burnt black tree stumps remain where thick forest once stood. It looks desolate and sad. Hundreds of canals like this one were built to drag out logs on their way to the numerous sawmills that used to be set up along the Katingan River.

As we go in deeper, the forest becomes greener and denser. A black gibbon leaps across the canal into the trees high above. Just then a giant kingfisher flies off in all its bright colors. I hear rustling in the branches above and notice a group of grey macaque playing in the trees. Unfortunately we also have the motor turned on and are scaring away the animals with the tok-tok-tok noise.

We meet the others in a clearing in front of the visitors’ centre. The wooden building painted in blue-green and yellow with a tin roof looks clean and tidy. It stands on stilts surrounded by a platform made of cut logs. This will enable us to walk around the building and reach the boats. We are surrounded by forest, water and swamp. Surahmansyah unlocks the door of the building and steps inside. We follow him and look around in disbelief. It is totally empty! We were told that it was furnished. The surface is divided into a big room in the front, two rooms to the sides and a kitchen area to the back. At the far end there is a kamar mandi (bathroom with squat toilet), a shower and an American toilet. There is only one problem though: there is no water and the big tank outside sits empty.

Surahmansyah explains that workers have drilled down to eight meters, hoping to find fresh water, but all they came upon was red, acid peat water. Now they need to wait until a bigger and stronger machine arrives to drill deeper. The boatmen proudly add that the villagers of Karuing built the visitor’s centre in the hope of attracting tourists and researchers to this entrance of the park. Researchers come here twice a month to check and count the animals, but they prefer to spend the night either in Karuing or Baun Bago, where there is more comfort. To make their work easier they have begun building an elevated wooden path just behind the center. We can only take a few steps though without getting our feet wet. It is time to unpacking our things in one of the rooms. We are the only ones with a camping mattress and mosquito net.

Before lunch we go out on a first excursion to a lake, located deeper inside the park. Tiny canals spring up right and left and it feels like being in a huge labyrinth. We watch for low-lying branches and big spider webs. This area of the park is dark and dense. Just before reaching the lake the boatmen turn off the motor and it is peaceful again. We stop by a big tree and listen. We can hear something moving, perhaps monkeys, but no one wants to come out. Surahmansyah notices our disappointment and suggests that we head back and do another excursion in the afternoon. This time we row back to the visitor’s center. Silence surrounds us except for the noise of our paddles and the boat gliding across the water.

After lunch and a rest beneath the mosquito net we are ready to try our luck again, this time by the entrance canal.
A family of macaque is playing in the trees. We notice little water snakes, colorful butterflies and birds, but nothing extraordinary. Just as we are starting to lose hope, Surahmansyah gets excited and makes us stop the boat. He has spotted a wild orangutan! He takes off his sandals and disappears into the peat.

A few minutes later he is back and beckons us to follow. I take off my shoes and roll up my pants. As I step into the knee-deep lukewarm water, I feel a cushion of dead leaves below my feet. With each step I sink in further until the water is up to my thighs. Carefully climbing over branches and roots, I try to make as little noise as possible. Soon I notice Aini and Surahmansyah looking in the same direction and move towards them. Then I see her too: a big female orangutan! She is making her nest for the night and we are standing only a few feet away from her. She has reddish-brown hair all over her body and is breaking branches one by one, pausing sometimes to rest. We pass around the binoculars to get a closer look. She is a much bigger than I had imagined.

The others have now arrived too and it is time to share the binoculars. Suddenly I am realizing that we are extremely privileged to be seeing a wild orang utan in its natural habitat today in Indonesia. We learn that orang means person and hutan means forest, becoming person of the forest. Orangutans are the largest living arboreal animals and are proven to be smarter than chimpanzees. When they sense that it will rain they build a shelter of leaves, like a roof, over their heads for protection.

We continue to watch her for a while. She moves further into the forest and away from us. We hesitate to follow her, but worry that we will scare her away. We are told that it is better to keep a safe distance to not contaminate her with our human germs. She disappears from our view and it is time to go. With big smiles on our faces, we make our way back to the boat, as if in a dream.

Shortly after we arrive we hear the men hear jump into the river, one by one and taking their baths, covered in a sarong. Aini watches them and hesitates for a long time before mustering up the courage to do the same, despite the waters color. It is tempting, but I finally opt to waste some of our precious drinking water for a mini-shower instead.

The men finish preparing their meal on the gas cooker and leave it for us to prepare our noodles. They notice our simple meal and offer us some of their tasty dried fish. Aini is not used to eating noodle soup and tries some of the rice they’ve cooked. It has turned red, the color of the peat water. She makes a face. After dinner the dishes are washed with the peat water and the stocks of food secured in a cooking pot.

Deforestation: the biggest threat

Everyone is tired and we board up our window for the night. We were truly blessed with our encounter today. Will the next generations be as lucky as us if the orangutans are still around?

Travel details:

Kalimantan Tour Destinations
Tel/Fax. 0062 536 322 2099, 0062 811 520 648

WWF Indonesia
Regional office in Palangka Raya, closest entrance and permits to Sebangau

Videos on deforestation and palm oil threat on Borneo

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