Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Wild Encounters with Orangutan in the Whispering Rainforest of Borneo, Indonesia

Tom-The King and His Queen - Siswi

It was a smoky day when we landed in Pangkalan Bun, Central Borneo – the green land, the heart of world’s lung inhabited by multiple primates and the most-famous endangered species, Orangutan on Friday noon. The smog that has been covering many areas in Indonesia including Kalimantan since mid 2015 has lead to the chaotic of flight schedule, and it was also impacted to our flight on that day which delayed for about 6 hours. But thank God! After all the drama, we arrived at Central Borneo and ready to explore the forest! Our landing is not that smooth as we have expected. I though it will be my last day, we couldn’t see anything on critical eleven moment-when the pilot announced ‘landing position’, plus the smell of smoke occurred during our landing made us extra anxious, furthermore we couldn’t see the land, it’s all white outside covered by the smoke.

Pangkalan Bun is a small city with limited infrastructure, visiting this area feels like back to 80’s or early 90’s, but no worries, at least you can find taxies around the airport ready to take you anywhere. Most people here worked in agriculture area, mostly are working for oil palm plantation. With population around 250,000 (based on Indonesian Body of State data in 2010), Pangkalan Bun is served by Iskandar Muda Airport.

I really surprised that I finally here in Pangkalan Bun to experience the wild encounters of Borneo. I firstly noticed about Tanjung Puting story in a novel I adored so much, “Partikel” – the 4th sci fi series of Supernova by Indonesian author, Dewi Lestari. There was Zarah – a main character of the story who discovers herself by travelling along Sekonyer River and became a volunteer in Camp Leakey. Zarah continues her travels and finally reach her dream to be a photographer of National Geographic and recognized as ‘somebody’ in international level.

Peaceful afternoon at Sekonyer river

After safely landed, we were head to Kumai, a small harbor located at the side of the beach at south Pangkalan Bun to hop into our “Klotok” ~ a  river boat which the machine sounds “tok…tok..tok..”, so the Kumai people say it Klotok. The Klotok could be occupied by 8-10 people, 4 of them is the boat crew consist of the tour guide itself, the assistant of tour guide, the chef – to prepare our dishes during our trip off course, and the Capten – who operates the boat. Our “area” was the top floor of the boat where there was a bed and mosquito net, a table with chairs, and some lounge chairs out on the deck. The bathroom was a flush toilet on the first floor– where the contents are flushed to is another story and a another mystery for another day (LOL!). I stayed in this Klotok with 3 of my friends and other 2 visitors. So there we went…sailed the Sekonyer river to Tanjung Puting National Park.

Since the sun went down, we’re not able to visit any destinations in our first day, so we’re just simply immersed in the night, starred up the vast skies and glittery fireflies decorated the forest at the side of the river. The sounds of crickets and the song of the nocturnal creatures accompany our journey to the heart of Tanjung Puting, composing a drama that contemplating the night into something special that we’re not always experienced at our home or town, a beautiful “Jungle Sympony”. I took a sip of tea and enjoying the circumstance, forgetting about twittering or posting in Path (and by the way, mobile phone signal was not available) and all it had to offer. Our tour guide talked to us about the difficulties of finding jobs in the local economy, trying to choose between acting as a tour guide in the part (few jobs) versus perhaps getting a better paying job in one of the palm oil plantations that were encroaching on the part. Our tour-guide, Pak Pi’i moved from East Java and has been stayed at Kumai for more than 4 years, he used to be a chef for the boat but later on, he learnt to be a tour-guide, so there he was with us shared his experiences of being a tour-guide after 2 years. He also talked about the forest fires which happened almost every year in Borneo, droughts and drying peat-lands has put them in flammable condition, small friction between the dry twigs could easily causing fire and burn the forest creating harmful smoke, the worst location at that time was in Palangkaraya – capital city of Central Borneo.

The night was getting cold, the smog still blanketing our way along the river. After finished the dinner, the boat crew prepared our bed. They rolled the mattress and covered each with the mosquito-nett neatly. Hmm..I missed to tell you something, Tanjung Putting is one of the location of endemic malaria, so for a better prevention, I suggest you to take some treatment like consuming anti-malaria such as Reschocin or other prevention method before arrived in the location. We were so fortunate that we came in dry season, so there were almost no mosquitos at night and I could sleep well as a princess with the forest lullaby. We tighten our Klotok at the dock of Sekonyer Village, covered the half boat with tarp to avoid the monkeys that usually stole the food or tourist stuffs.

Heading to the heart of the forest


It’s usually hard for me to wake up early in the morning, but at this time, sure I didn’t want to miss our mystical morning at Sekonyer River. The morning alarm call is a shriek and a clatter. It is a noise that – I can only imagine – was the result of birds and monkeys inside the forest. The sound was amplified in the morning stillness, but by the time I have parted my mosquito net and leapt from bed to investigate outside near our Klotok. It’s quite peaceful moment looking around the river, the (local) women washing their clothes at the river-side, some children playing around…Most of people in Borneo are highly dependent to live aside to the river.

Misty morning at Sekonyer River, foggy but beautiful

After a breakfast with rice mixed with prawn and fish and takes a sip of tea, the klotok pops into life, and we proceed past banks lined with mahogany trees, palms and bandas fruit - a favorite of the orangutans. People used to see the alligator or other kind of reptiles such as crocodile or snakes, but we weren’t that lucky to meet all of them during our journey. We meet some of them, monkeys and Orangutan hanging on the trees, all the boats stopped for a while, the visitor popped into the nearest boat and started to shoot with their DSLR.

We spent our days traveling to the two platforms on the second day. The boat would dock and we would hike into the woods where some make-shift wooden benches were set-up for viewers. There were quite a few boats out on the river during our time in the park, but we never felt crowded. We were in our little oasis, taking pictures of monkeys and trees and birds and yah.. the forest was hot. We were sweaty after only short hikes out to the platforms. We waited with baited breath while the park rangers brought out bananas and coconuts and called for the orangutan with special and unique sounds, but unfortunately after waiting for 2 hours, no one came out, huft! The first platform was failed, thus we continue our journey to the second platform.

It needs about 2 hours to go to the next destination, the boat-crew served our lunch with vegetables and fried-chicken and spicy-sauce. We tighten the boats and hop into another boats parked at the dock and head to the wooden-bridge that connect us to the front of Camp Leakey.


Camp Leakey set up by the conservationist Dr.Birute Galdikas in 1971. Galdikas is a primatologist, a protégé of legendary paleontologist Louis Leakey and the founder of Orangutan Foundation International (OFI). Dr. Galdikas has joined so many expeditions and streched her efforts to save the orangutan from extinction through rehabilitation and habitat preservation. Camp Leakey itself is the oldest orangutan research and conservation centre in the world – and it has been critical in helping sustain their numbers in the wild. Other sanctuaries and feeding stations have been established along the river where these endangered animals eat harmoniously together. We met group of Orangutan after about 30 hours trekking from the front to deep down the forest.

Road to Camp Leakey

Camp Leakey - The front gate

Orangutan information center

Siswi The Queen - the female orangutan

Me with the primates just a few meters from where I stand, live from their habitat!

What I love the most about Camp Leakey was seeing infant orangutans in the arms of their mothers where they belong. Not only have ex-captive orangutans been able to successfully reproduce in the wild, their offspring have the chance to be truly wild. In Camp Leakey, orangutans are free. Free to forage for their favorite fruits. Free to build night nests wherever they choose, free from harmful poachers, illegal loggers and palm oil plantation. Free to be wild!

We met Tom – The King of Camp Leakey and its queen – Siswi the female orangutan, during their ‘lunchtime’. Tom replaced Kusasi which was no longer a King. Kusasi’s reign ended when Tom was able to prove his dominance. Tom is an enormous cheek padded male who has a very different personality from Kusasi but was no less qualified for the role. The only circumstances that frustrate Tom were only when females ignore him or when the wild pigs try and steal his foods (LOL!). When Tom is nearby, the other resident orangutans acknowledge his royal presence by getting out of the way. The field-staff said Tom’s face didn’t yet have scars that tell the stories of epic battles for supremacy or winning the attention of females like his predecessor, but Tom is still young and many years ahead of him, he’s now 30’s something.

After hours witnessing, photographing and video’ing Tom, Siswi and other orangutans near them, we head back to the boat and found some monkeys playing around us, some of them tried to get into the other boats and steal foods, but our boat were safeee…

Sweaty and filthy, the tour guide then finally find the best place for us to take clean water and…took a bath after 2 days cleansing only with wet tissues! Fyuh…the water was actually still taken from the river, the boat crew convinced us that it’s clean and fresh, so I just pretend the water is safe by pouring some disinfectant that I bought from Jakarta, wash my hair and refreshing the body. We stayed for one more night before heading back to our town.

Live of people around Sekonyer River

I believe that to see these unique primates is in their habitat, not at the Safari or Zoo or even at the circus, experiencing the forest with them hanging on the trees left a precious moment for us. I would say, a trip to Tanjung Puting National Park will change your life. You will understand just how small you are in this huge, huge world. It is a place for contemplation, reflection, and appreciation. If you are a wild one at heart, I strongly encourage you to do so, to go to Tanjung Puting National Park. Go, experience the world and the pure awesomeness that the park emanates, but please remember to leave only your footprints and take nothing but memories and off course photographs!

You could contact  tour and travel agents which open for group or private trip, most of them managed by NGO’s or local people. Don’t worry about where to stay before or after the klotok moments, there are good hotels available like Swiss Bell Hotel which located at the town. Or if you thought, sleeping in the Klotok won’t enough, you could stay at eco-lodge spread at Kumai, Sekonyer Village or Pangkalan Bun.

Pangkalan Bun could be reached for about 8-10 hours by bus or car from Palangkaraya (the capital city of Central Kalimantan) where you can take listed airlines like Garuda Indonesia or Lion Air from other areas. Since the airport is small, Iskandar Muda serves only pioneer aviation, like Trigana Air or Kalstar Airlines.

Rumah Panjang – Traditional house of Dayak, the tribe of Borneo

The live of people in Sekonyer Village which so dependent to the river

Trip Information :

3D2N Trip : US$ 132 (all in, incl. foods and beverages)
The tour is varied, it’s also available for you to explore Dayak Village with 5D4N tour or more.

Airlines Ticket (round trip Jakarta – Pangkalan Bun and return) : US$ 115 (Trigana Air or Kalstar Airlines)
Contact Person: Pak Pi’i – my tour guide ~ +6281352759739 or Pak Zulham ~ +6281299372424
Or you can also contact Mas Indra Setiawan from Tour Tanjung Tour ~ 0856651202195
Check for further info :)

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