Borneo. A star in many a nature documentary, known for its vast rainforests and orange, hairy forest people…
Borneo is an island just north of the equator. The island is split between three territories: Brunai, Malaysian Borneo and Kalimantan, or Indonesian Borneo. Kalimantan is the largest area of the island and is mostly tropical lowlands, with large expanses of tropical peatland, heath and rainforest.
This means it is very vulnerable land. Tropical peatland is flat and fertile; perfect for one of the world’s most profitable cash crops, palm oil. Flying into both Kuala Lumpur and Pankalan Bun airports, it’s clear from above how vast oil palm plantations are in this part of the world. Tanjung Puting is a national park in the southern part of Kalimantan of around 305,000 hectares. It is among the most biologically diverse places on the planet and home to one of our closest relatives; the orangutan.
In order to access the park you need to take a boat up the Sekonyer river. We took a klotok, a sort of house boat, for a 4 night, 4 day trip through the forest. The boat stops at four camps along the river, with the final stop at Camp Leakey, the location of the main camp for much of the orangutan research in the area and now part of the rehabilitation programme. We were picked up from the airport by our fantastic guide and klotok owner, Torris, and taken straight on our way.
At first, the surrounding environment looks very similar; green, palm-like trees all along the river side. However, the further into the forest you get, the more diverse the flora becomes. Quite quickly, we came across our first group of monkeys. These guys, Nasalis larvatus, or Proboscis monkeys, are particularly famous for their rather unfortunate looking noses, and would become a frequent sight throughout the days to come.
Spending a night on a boat, in the middle of the rainforest is not the quiet experience you might anticipate. The forest seems to come alive at night; insects chirping, monkeys fighting every now and then. We stayed on a mattress on the top deck of the boat, with a mosquito net womb of safety for both mozzie bite protection and whatever bugs were around us in the night (personally, I was terrified of waking up with a mega tarantula snuggled somewhere in the bedsheets, so the net was VERY much appreciated!).
The next morning, we took a short walk to the first location for orangutan spotting. For a little while, we were the only group on a short path to a feeding station. Tanjung Puting has feeding stations for orangutans that have been released from the nearby rescue centre, which of course the others in the park start to view as an easy feed, so they are usually good spots to see them.
Our first encounter was a mother and baby up in the tree tops. How our guide spotted them, I have no idea. However, very soon after that, a large male made his way to the large pile of bananas at the feeding station, so we had a very good view!
I thought that would be it, I’d expected it to be very difficult to see the orangutans and would have been happy with that! However, throughout the next two days we saw 11 more along the river banks. Apparently they particularly like to eat the leaves from one of the plants that grows close to the river; convenient for us!
However, our best sighting came at the infamous Camp Leakey. We had stopped and walked around the camp, which has a small museum and information centre, before heading off to another feeding station.
If I am honest, I wasn’t that keen on this feeding station. It felt a little set up, like a show and, as it was a Sunday, there were quite a few tourists here. So when there weren’t any orangutans up for putting on a performance, I can’t say I wasn’t surprised. We decided to leave the feeding station and have a wonder through the trails in the forest (giving me a chance to have a bit of a run after a few days stuck on the boat- warning, if you are quite a hyperactive person like me and need to move a lot, this sort of trip would definitely be considered super easy. I thought I’d come back knackered, but ended up being more rested than I would have been at home!).
This is where we experienced the highlight of the trip. As we were wondering along, Torris stopped, motioning for us to be silent. He started moving off the trail, into the forest. We tried to pick our way through the foliage behind us as quietly as possible. He pointed above our heads. A mother and baby orangutan were a few metres above us, heading down the tree!
We froze. At maybe two metres above us, they stopped and had a good look. The guide had a mango in his hand that the mother clearly wanted. We stayed still, while the orangutan climbed around us; at one point she broke a branch which almost fell straight on us! When she realised she wasn’t going to get the food (from what I understand, most of the orangutan in this area came from the rehabilitation centre and are confident around people, however the guides are not supposed to give the animals any food), she headed back off up the tree and out of sight.
That night we also had the option of a night hike to search for tarsiers (small nocturnal animals, they look a little like aye-ayes or loris), however we didn’t have any luck finding them! We did however see some tiny deer and some absolutely massive tarantulas.
The last stop of the trip was to a reforestation project. Unfortunately for us, this was the day the havens opened and it bucketed down with rain, but we did get a quick lesson on different rain forest trees (always love learning about trees!) before planting a sapling in an area that had been affected by a fire a few years before.
On our final night we had travelled most of the way back along the river, stopping for some hilarious, multi-language games of ‘Bullshit’ (top tip, always have a pack of cards in your bag) and watching the jungle fireflies under the stars…
This was by far one of the easiest trips I have been on. All the food was sorted out for you, the transfers from the airport, accommodation on the boat. Easy, simple. We saw plenty of boats rented out by families on trips, with kids having a great time. I had a lovely time on this trip, but I think for somebody who quite likes to get to the end of a trip absolutely broken and bruised, perhaps a little too easy, but excellent value for money in terms of how much wildlife you see!
We managed to do it fairly cheap, for 4 nights we paid ~Rp 6 million for a private boat for two, including all meals and airport transfers, however this was during the low season so probably a little cheaper than normal.
- I found sports tops very good for keeping cool
- A waterproof
- A thin jumper for the evenings, it didn’t get very cold and our bed had blankets, but perhaps just in case
- If you have a mosquito net, take it. This would have been a much less comfortable experience without one (or at least check there will be one)
- Mosquito repellent (roll on)
- deodorant (roll on- very sweaty in the jungle!)
- Pack of cards
- The only thing I wish I had taken was organic or chemical free body/hair wash. We washed using a bucket and dipper, with the waste water going directly into the river. I’d have felt a lot better about it had I bought more eco-friendly products. (Just FYI, toilet waste goes directly into the river too…)
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