Somewhere in the Java Sea. Sunday 29th October 2017.
Borneo. Just to say the name conjures up exotic visions of steaming rain forest, colourful birds and hairy, orange primates. Yes, I was going to visit one of our near cousins, the Orang Utan. In Indonesian the name translates as Man of the Forest, or Forest Dweller, conjuring up images of hairy beasts using limbs and tails to swing from tree to tree. Not quite true. In common with the other great apes, Orang Utans have no tail to speak of, although they can still swing in great style.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Borneo is the third largest island in the world, losing the number one spot to Greenland and the number two to Guinea. Even so, it’s still pretty big and is split between three different countries; Indonesia, with the largest part; Malaysia next; the tiny Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam last. Some of it used to be ruled by a White Rajah, as I was surprised to learn. More on that later.
But I had to get there first, and that was proving to be a challenge. I’ve already described the hoops I had to jump through to get on the ferry in the first place, little did I know that events at sea would provide a few more. I rode the bike onto the car deck and tied it down, then took my gear up to the passenger area, where I hoped to get a comfortable corner in which to spend the next twenty eight hours. Leave at 16.00, arrive at 20.00 next day. Unlike the ferry that Dan and I took from West Timor to Flores, which had bunks with vinyl covered foam bases, this ferry only had hard wooden decking divided into compartments and with a ‘pillow’ at the back of it. One deck at floor level and another about a metre above it. Although I managed to find a corner where I could stow all my gear, I reckoned it was going to be an uncomfortable night. A cool one too, as there were air con units blasting away. So I went back down to the bike to dig out my camping pillow and sleeping bag liner, then settled down. Soon afterwards the foot passengers came on board which helped to raise the temperature somewhat and explained the need for the air con too.
I killed time by reading, writing and sleeping. Three meals were provided, simple but adequate, and I’d brought fruit to eat too. Freely available hot water meant I could drink all the tea I wanted. Although there was a lounge area upstairs, I didn’t go there because everyone was smoking and, just to assault the ears as well as the lungs, there was some ‘entertainment’ on the go. Two young women screeching out some Indonesian pop songs. I stayed away.
But around 12.30 Sunday things got interesting. Unknown to the passengers the ferry had turned around and headed back the way it had come. Had the captain forgotten his sandwiches? No, he’d been instructed to help out with a sea rescue. One of the other company ferries, passenger only in this case, had caught fire and all on board had abandoned ship. The first we knew of it was when a small rescue ship pulled up alongside and about twenty people were transferred across. On the horizon we could see the other ferry ablaze and a number of life rafts floating in the water. Very dramatic.
I expected the ferry to start moving again but nothing happened. People got bored and came away from the windows to sit down again. But eventually the rescue boat came back, this time with about eighty people crammed on the deck. They too were transferred across and our ferry was now starting to fill up a bit. It was fortunate there had been plenty of space beforehand. Some other boats arrived in the area but weren’t needed. I chatted to the purser afterwards, who confirmed my guess at the number rescued, that the burning ship was a ferry from the same company and that all passengers and crew were safe, along with all their luggage and possessions. Good news, and now we really did get moving again, with a new ETA of 09.00 Monday. That wasn’t good news from a comfort point of view.
Life rafts in the water. The safety boat brings rescuees to us.
Needless to say we eventually arrived in Kumai, on the south coast of Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. There was really only one thing I wanted to do in this area and that was to visit Tanjung Puting National Park and commune with my cousins, the Orang Utans. I’d done some research and located a tour agent in the town of Pankalan Bun, not too far inland. So that was where I headed to, but on the way I made some enquiries and located the office of the agent for ASDP ferries. I was determined to find out whether or not this ferry was a ghost ship. The guy in there seemed a bit vague, and spoke little English, but he calculated a price for me and the bike (less than half of what I’d paid to come across) and said that it left on Monday morning. It only crossed once a week. I was now half convinced of its existence so was hopeful of saving some money on the return journey.
Hard as I tried, I couldn’t locate the tour agent, even with the help of a local. Addresses there seemed to have two components, once you’d found the street. A block then a building number. I could make no sense of it so I found a hotel instead and got a nice room. The pleasant young man on reception, who had good English, showed me a local business brochure and there were several tour agents mentioned in there. I tried ringing a couple but all I got was answer phones. This was getting to be like one of the seven trials of Hercules! I asked the lad at reception to translate one of the messages for me and he said “ you daft old sod, that’s the phone company telling you you’ve got no credit for voice calls.” Now you all know he didn’t actually say that but I’m sure he thought it. He rang one of them up for me and the woman there called me back. Unfortunately they only did three day river trips at IRP 6.5 million (over £360). And there was no chance of sharing, either. I abandoned that idea and instead emailed a couple of the other companies. One of them came back to me and the upshot was that I’d do a two day trip river trip for IRP 4.5 million. I’d have a boat to myself with full board accommodation. That was as cheap as I was going to get it. The boat and owner were based back in Kumai, which means there was no need to have left there in the first place. At that time of year, in the low season, they were quite happy not to share boats because, of course, it meant more of them were getting custom.
A little aside about the hotel. I was in reception chatting to the lad there when a young American couple came in, accompanied by their driver. They asked for a room and the lad told them the hotel was full. When they’d left I asked him why he’d said that, it being obvious to me that the hotel wasn’t full, and he said it’s because the owner is a strict Muslim and he wouldn’t allow unmarried couples to stay there. I could only wonder how common that is. It must be a luxury to be able to turn away business but I suppose principles are principles and there’s probably no such thing as an anti-discrimination law to worry about.
While I was in Kumai earlier I’d spotted a couple of bike repair shops and as mine was due for an oil change I called in to one, hoping to be able to get them to understand what I wanted. Which was for them to sell me the oil I needed but let me do the work on the bike. Well I struck lucky here because the boss, i.e. the wife of the owner, could speak quite good English and was quite happy to help. She even gave me a really cold bottle of water while I was sweating away working. Her husband pitched in to help and it was soon done. So far on this trip I’ve never had a problem with finding a bike shop willing to help me in this way. Part of the wonderful world of the biker family.
Next morning I rode into Kumai to meet Yomie, the owner of the boat. I had to stop to shelter from some monsoon rain, under the awning of a closed up building. Once the shower had passed the owner of a warung, just across the street, came over and offered me a drink. I was happy to accept a cup of tea and played with his four year old son. This boy looked a bit retarded (sorry if that’s not very PC) but was actually quite clever. He knew a fair number of English words, even a few sentences, and could count up to ten. I was surprised. No charge for the tea either.
I met Yomie and he introduced me to Rudi, his skipper, and Dian, who would be my guide. Rudi was a very nice and funny guy, who immediately started calling me Papa. Yomie suggested I stay on the boat that night, ready to head off next morning. I was happy with that as it meant no hotel bill to pay. Rudi insisted I take my bike over to his house, where we squeezed it through a door into one of his rooms. Dian then insisted I come to his place to eat.
Dian has a wife who has a small daughter from her previous marriage. They live in a very small, one room apartment on an estate of some kind. I learned later that the complex was privately owned and they rent their room. It was a real rabbit warren of a place, with small pathways between the blocks, which they zipped along on their scooters with no problems. Dian’s apartment is about 4×4 metres, with a tiny bathroom in one corner of it and tiny kitchen at the back alongside it. There is then room for a storage unit which separates the kitchen area from the bed. And that’s it! So I wasn’t surprised when we went along to another, larger apartment to eat with friends and/or family, before heading back to the boat for the night. One observation here was that out of the seven or eight women present, only one was wearing a hijab. I chatted to Dian about this later on. He confirmed that his family are Muslim but that the women rarely wore them. He said those that do are sometimes trying to present themselves as ‘better’ than the others. He said they rarely are!
The plan for the two days was to motor upriver to visit three different Orang Utan centres, where I’d be able to watch them feeding. These animals have mostly been rescued and have been reintroduced into the wild. They’re taught how to find food and to build nests in the trees, where they sleep for the night. My imagination was unable to work out how you’d go about teaching an animal to build a nest for itself and unfortunately I didn’t get around to asking anyone.
From the Kumai River our Klotok turned up one of the tributaries which ran up into the Tanjung Puting National Park. We suddenly left the one hundred and fifty metre wide superhighway and chugged our way up a ten metre wide country lane. For making our way up a twisty green alleyway, our wooden Klotok became the natural craft in which to be. Although ours was quite new, with a solid diesel engine to power it, they are built on traditional lines and are suited to these quiet, inland rivers. I’d had a good breakfast so I spent the next hours sitting around, listening to the jungley type noises of the invisible birds and insects. The water was a uniform, muddy brown colour, with plant based debris floating in the current. At about midday we arrived at the first centre. Feeding time wasn’t until three so I had lunch instead, prepared by our onboard cook, who was one of the women from the previous night. There were several other boats moored up too and on one of them was the German woman, Kirsten, whom I’d met on the caving trip. She’d told me she was doing this trip, three days in her case, and given how much we’d both paid for them I regretted not asking her at the time if she fancied sharing.
The time came to go to the feeding area. I’d already had a look around the informative visitor centre, so I felt I knew a little about what to expect. But nothing beats the real thing, does it? In a roped off clearing, surrounded by trees, was a platform upon which the staff placed fruit of various types. There was already one big male waiting there so he got stuck in to the food while others slowly drifted in, responding to the calls of the staff. A younger male came down and warily took some fruit before scuttling back up a tree for a while, then coming back for more. Among Orang Utans there’s always an alpha male so the others tend to watch out for his moods. This one was very laid back, even allowing the cheeky youngster to take some food from the pile he’d placed in front of himself. A couple of females, carrying babies, came in to feed and would also tend to take some, eat a bit, then grab more which they’d take off up into a nearby tree. We watched this for a while, taking plenty of photos, but they weren’t as good as might have been. The weather was a bit gloomy and the feeding platform wasn’t very close to us. But it’s not all about the photos is it? The warm feelings of being so close to these fascinating creatures was what made it so special. Their behaviour around each other was that of neighbours who know each other but barely talk. They had familiarity but no sociability. They are semi-social, but adult males are loners and, unlike other primates, don’t have family groups. The babies stay with their mothers for five or six years at least and will breast feed all that time. They learn how to survive from their mothers before going off on their own. As they mature the males develop those huge cheekpads seen in the pictures, although not until they’ve become sexually active and dominant. They use them, and a large pouch in their throat, to roar in what’s known as ‘the long call’, designed to warn off other males. Sometimes fights will occur around sexually willing females. Just another Saturday Night at the Duck Pond then.
Back on the boat we headed up river for a while before mooring up for the night among the noisy insects. Up in the trees we’d seen several groups of Proboscis monkeys, a species only found on Borneo. They get their name from their big noses, which stick comically out from their faces, rather like hairy Pinocchios or a badly drawn Fred Flintstone. Add in the Macaque Monkeys we saw too, and it had been quite a day for visiting the cousins.
In the morning we went further up river to another feeding centre. This one was much better because the platform was closer to where we watched from and it was sunny too, so much better for photography. And this is where we all overdosed on cuteness. The staff had put out some milk for the mothers. It helps them to nurture their babies. Once again there was a big male there but he was even calmer than the one from yesterday and the others seemed happy enough to take food. One of the babies was having fun with the milk dish, playing around with it just like a human baby would. We were all captivated and even the other Orang Utans seemed to think he was cute. Or maybe they were just too busy eating to care much. Although they mostly live in the upper reaches of trees, where their food is found, they will travel along the ground between stands of trees if need be. They have no tails to climb with but are extremely agile and seem happy to hang off a trunk or branch using two limbs, while they feed on their fruit. They will use simple tools too, for scratching or digging. Fascinating and intelligent creatures.
Cute photos now follow.
On the way back to the boat we were lucky enough to bump into Dr Galdikas, who founded Camp Leakhey back in 1971. She’s been studying Orang Utans ever since and has logged tens of thousands of hours of study. She is also the person most instrumental in holding back the illegal logging activity within the national park. How important is this? Well, it’s important enough that she’s always accompanied by two security personnel. Forest destruction is big business for certain groups, even in areas that the government tries to protect. Her website is here: orangutan.org
That afternoon we went to a third feeding station but it turned out to be, quite literally, a washout. Orang Utans won’t feed in the rain and rain it certainly did! Dian and I started to walk back to the boat and ended up wading most of it. Warm rain, luckily, with comfort and sustenance waiting for us at the boat. It was a trip of several hours back to base and, with the rain now stopped, we could see plenty more Macaques and Proboscis Monkeys up in the trees. Once it got dark there were some magical displays of fireflies in the bushes, twinkling at us as we passed by. Those two days had been expensive but very much worth the cost. A truly magical experience.
I wasn’t sure where I was going to stay that night, especially as we weren’t due back until about 8pm. But Rudi came up trumps and arranged for me to sleep on the boat again. Then he invited me to go with him to a family celebration. So we went back to the housing complex, this time to a nicely decorated community centre, loud with music and with plenty of with food. I joined the party, ate food and chatted to some of the children, as well as amusing them with some beard stroking antics. I don’t think they’d seen one before. After a while I asked Rudi what the celebration was for and he told me two of his eight year old cousins were going to be circumcised, a big event in their young lives. It’s all part of their journey towards adulthood, except that, from here on in, it’s without the hood!
The next two days were all about getting from Kumai, across central Kalimantan and into Sarawak. The riding was generally easier than I’d experienced up to now, simply because rather than having endless towns with small bits of countryside between them the island had large amounts of green forest dotted with small towns. Traffic was lighter, the roads dreadful in places, better in others, and some of the greenery was made up of the infamous palm oil trees. A very important export crop for Indonesia, these plantations are considered to be very damaging to the environment. Not from a CO2 point of view but from an ecological one. Native rain forest is torn down, destroying vital wildlife habitats in the process, so these vast plantations can be spread across the hills. The roads were full of trucks (over) laden with the valuable fruit, from which the oil is extracted. The fruit contains a kernel (nut) from which more oil is extracted. Up to a point, this oil is considered to be healthy although both types are quite high in saturated fat. It’s used in various industries, especially for cosmetics and margarine.
An overnight stop in a hotel, then more kilometres to crunch the next day. I’d delayed my own progress by missing a turning, leading to a near 150km diversion, and also got held up for a while by some seriously heavy rain. Just after I’d stopped at a warung for some tea the heavens opened. The owner said to wheel my bike under the awning and eventually he and his staff had to wield the squeegees in an effort to prevent the water washing its way inside. I had noticed that this area seemed to be much poorer than the mainland, the villages having a greater air of dilapidation dreariness. The people seemed to be much darker skinned, no surprise in an area that clearly had agriculture as its main industry.
Soon after that stop I reached the border. My Indonesian visa only had three days validity left on it, one of the reasons for not hanging around in Kalimantan too long. As usual, the Indonesian officials were helpful and efficient, so I was through their section quite quickly. The Malaysian officials were equally friendly but I was surprised to discover a far less well organised operation on their side. Not as smartly turned out and the customs official that dealt with my carnet seemed to be the apprentice, so uncertain was he. It was all done in the end though and an hour and a quarter after arriving on the Indonesian side, I rode into Malaysia. No complaints about that.
The rattan used in roof panels is woven together by smiling women like this one.
Sarawak looked no different to Kalimantan with regard to terrain but in other respects it was a different world. Smooth roads, well maintained and with signposts and even distance markers. Gone were the smoking trucks and swarming motor scooters, to be replaced with .……. nothing very much. The occasional car and the occasional turn-off to a village. Everything had an air of order and I remember thinking I was going to have to behave myself on these roads. If there was no anarchy taking place there’d be no need to be an anarchist rider.
I arrived in the town of Serian to find most of the shops had closed. It was Saturday evening and back across the border things would just be getting going. Here there was calm, order and shutters. I managed to find an ATM, a phone shop for buying a SIM card and a hotel, in that order. With the essentials of life now resolved I could eat and sleep.
More about Borneo soon.