Three Perfect Days in Borneo
You don’t hear much about Borneo. Six months ago, what I knew about Borneo could fit on a postage stamp; better yet, in a Tweet. I did know that Borneo is home to more species than anywhere else in the world. Armed with that piece of knowledge and little else, my husband and I traveled from Guam to Hong Kong to Bali then to Borneo to explore this biological hothouse for ourselves.
Lonely Planet described the klotok experience as “African Queen” meets “National Geographic.” I was intrigued. Klotoks are covered houseboats that ply the Sungai Sekonyer, a narrow river snaking through the jungle of southwest Kalimantan, which is what Indonesians call Borneo. The river empties into the Java Sea. Brunei and Malaysia claim the northern tip of the world’s third largest island, while Indonesia claims the majority of the land.
The Sungai Sekonyer is remote enough not to have a dedicated Wikipedia page. Only the least reliable regional carriers fly there…And sometimes don’t fly there even when you have a reservation. We were flying there, not just for a boat ride, but to see apes, specifically semi-wild orangutans who call Tanjung Puting National Park home.
The massive 4,150 square kilometer park would allow us to get up close and personal some of the 6,000 wild orangutans living in Tanjung Puting, the single largest population in the world.
We started to feel at home on the Borindo, our private houseboat, the first morning – less because of comfort or amenities (there were none) and more because of our chatty, youthful guide, Dian. Our crew also included a captain, first mate, and a cook, all dutifully servicing us and the klotok. Our guide spoke enough English to be both helpful and humorous. “How can you tell which is the male proboscis?” we asked about the monkeys overhead. “Oh, it’s the one with the chili pepper!” replied our nominally Muslim guide.
Our captain was a sweet-faced, quiet old man who never introduced himself. I could feel him watching me the same way I watched the monkeys. He spoke to me only once to say, “You really like animal, yah?” We speculated that the cook was his wife. We never got her name either and barely spoke, but she did smile and nod when we complimented her meals. The captain’s mate was a hollow-cheeked young man with a thin muscular frame, who did not hesitate to strip down to his underwear and plunge into the river upon completion of laborious tasks like scrubbing the boat’s exterior. And though only our guide spoke to us, we felt like a functional, if distant family – us sitting on the upper deck like rajahs and our crew down below working tirelessly to meet our every need and desire.
Less than an hour into the lazy trip down the river and our guide pointed out a family of proboscis monkeys just 50 feet away and 20 feet up. My telephoto camera lens served as binoculars, which I didn’t have the presence of mind to buy.
Respites on the boat are perfect times for contemplation, writing, or just plain sleep – the invading humidity inspires plenty of that. As scattered rain drops eased into a steady downpour, the crew lowered plastic tarps halfway, with the awning allowing for a view of the shimmering palms. A swift breeze was the best part with the rumble of distant thunder providing backup to the soundtrack of sawing insects and the faint squeals of monkeys.
We were pleasantly surprised at the masterpiece our cook whipped up in what I could only imagine was a single pot stove and 4-feet of vertical space. (I never really went below deck, not wanting to intrude on the crew’s minuscule private space. I did peak in to the kitchen just before our journey ended.) Our first lunch on the klotok had us licking our chops – whole fried “goldfish” (according to our guide), bathed in a sweet and salty soy garlic sauce, sautéed greens (we call it kang kong in Guam), and tempura battered eggplant.
Make no mistake – it’s hot; really hot, but it’s only three days and the alternative – a dingy wooden lodge with limited electricity – can’t beat the experience of sleeping under the stars. My husband says being fed three meals a day by a cook is not camping, but for this city girl, it’s pretty close. By evening, when we were plagued by insects, he conceded that this is indeed camping. The klotok was outfitted with a toilet, sink, and shower, none of which are plumbed. None of this mattered too much; the cold river water shower was very refreshing after the hot jungle trek.
As the klotok ambled down the narrow river, proboscis monkeys became more and more easy to spot, clustered in trees along the bank, sometimes in families of ten. A rainshower did nothing to damper a nursing baby and its mother, balanced precariously, head drooped in slumber. She jerked to semi-alertness every few minutes and when the baby finished, it turned to face us, as curious as we were.
Mosquito repellant is non-negotiable and though we slept under a mosquito net, they were everywhere, which was more than irritating to me, but dealable to my husband. A powerful thunderstorm illuminated the sky and shook the boat the first night, which led to inevitable “Life of Pi” comparisons, especially when I realized my husband had a Swiss Army Knife tucked into his shorts. Sleep came in waves and we woke just before dawn to a growing symphony of birds, instruments being added one by one. Phew! We made it through the night.
The crew rolled up our tarps to reveal a family of macaques just inches away from the boat, eyeing us with as much interest as we had in them. They gladly retrieved bananas we perched in nearby branches, but wouldn’t collect the one we left on deck.
A few minutes later as the sun started to break through the clouds and a swift breeze passed through, we happened upon a group of proboscis monkeys leaping dramatically from tree to tree. We cheered each happy landing, most of them swinging with Olympic athleticism. The humans erupted in another cheer of awe and applause when the monkeys leapt one-by-one into the river, belly flopping into the coffee color water. Our guide told us they cross when boats are passing knowing that the crocodiles have been scared away. We hoped to see a croc, but of course, not one munching on anything small, gray, and furry.
Day two on the klotok allowed for two hikes to feeding sites. We ventured to the heart of Tanjung Puting, Camp Leakey, another half-mile walk through the singing rainforest. A large female orangutan named Siswi was tucked under a raised house in near slumber. Dian told us she was the queen of the forest, but had been jilted by her king. She would follow him everywhere, the guide said, but he was indifferent to her. To our surprise, a long-armed gibbon joined the meal, hopping with seeming hydraulics from tree to platform, only to be waved away by the dominant male, Ponorogo.
The gibbon, named Boy Boy, obliged temporarily, but eventually worked his way into the meal and there sat three adult orangutans, one baby, and a wiry gibbon all drinking out of the same bowl. Ponorogo, age 27, eventually wandered off, and a female with baby in tow followed suit, but took her meal to go, the large plastic bowl tucked under one arm, baby in the other.
A tempestuous rain descended and I was so wet my fingertips shriveled. By the time we reached the boat, we were completely soaked through, but also much cooler than on the walk there. Siswi was sitting on the boat dock, as if to bid us farewell. And I swear, she even held still long enough to convince me she was posing for a photograph. We climbed through the top decks of two boats roped to ours and I could still see the orangutan looking wistfully at her departing fans. A park ranger grabbed her hand to lead her away from the deck, to which she responded with a solid flop on the ground, much like a cantankerous toddler, but not making a sound. She wrapped her feet around the wooden railing in protest. A few minutes later she allowed the ranger to escort her by the hand away from the boats.
A stroll through a local village allowed us to stretch our legs and see how the other half truly lives. Like any other community, the morning found mothers walking their children to school, careful to have applied clay to their young cheeks to avoid sunburn. Two women bathed in the river, fully clothed but with soap as we walked back to the boat across the rickety wooden planks.
Our river journey was over far too quickly and soon we were back on dry land in Pangkalan Bun, where our guide Dian took us for a stroll through town to kill time before our flight to Bali.
The squalor of Pangkalan Bun was something I wished not to exploit by photographing it. The definition of shantytown, stilted wooden houses were piled up next to a questionable water supply of a river. The planked walkway seemed like it would collapse at any minute as we passed food vendors peddling fried goods, children crouched on the ground, and feral cats — all curiously missing most of their tails. I felt like an intruder as most of the homes (if you can call them that) had their doors open. There was no flooring, carpet or tile, and no furniture. Just shoes arranged neatly at the door. Were there really people living in there?
At the airport we were treated to a thick cloud of cigarette smoke for 3 hours as we waited in the outdoor lobby. A blonde German woman approached me to ask about our klotok experience. She had just arrived from Java to begin her journey. She was looking for a guide and a boat. I cheerfully recommended Dian and the Borindo and handed her the palm leaf fan Dian made us on the boat. I felt as if I were passing a scepter to this young woman, a new rajah. Bon voyage, enjoy the ride.