Booking a flight to Kalimantan, a.k.a. Indonesian Borneo, was an unusual process. Our destination was Pankalan Bun (pronounced boon) along the southwest coast. As far as I knew, Kal Star Aviation was the only airline service that would fly us from Jakarta across the Java Sea. We couldn’t simply find flight times and book online like usual and when we visited the website, the script was often all messed up and scrambled, making it looking like a page that hadn’t translated the HTML code to the visual it ought to have presented. We had to send a few emails and make a few phone calls to make it happen, but eventually it worked out.
We’d been in contact for a few weeks with a man named Aidi. He’s part of an organization called Orangutan Voyage that arranges overnight trips to Tanjung Puting National Park, a few-hour riverboat ride away from Pankalan Bun. His wife is British and travels back and forth between England and Indonesia, working in the forests that house semi-wild Orang-utans. I say semi-wild because the Orang-utans respond to feeding times and interact with park rangers and guides, but have no restrictive physical boundaries and are completely free to come and go as they please. Furthermore, the alpha-male, Tom, probably has more control over the environment and the behaviour of the other Orang-utans compared to any human inhabiting the area. I’ll get to him later.
Aidi initially wanted us to wire the money to his wife in England for our 3 day/2 night excursion into the park, which covered the klotok (riverboat) that we’d be sleeping and eating on, all meals, guides, hikes, essentially everything except airfare. After days of corresponding, however, he simply decided to trust that we would just bring the money with us and pay it directly to the guide, which we of course did. This made it far more convenient for us rather than figuring out how to wire money from our Canadian bank accounts over to England while staying in Indonesia. I’d like to think that, despite not having an audial or face to face conversation with Aidi, he could sense the enthusiasm and sincerity in our correspondence. In the end, it worked out for all parties involved.
Teresa and I taxied from our hotel at the end of Jalan Jaksa in Jakarta to Terminal 3. I was a little disappointed in the plane; it was just like any other Airbus A320. I had assumed that because we were flying to a more remote part of the world over a relatively short distance that we’d be flying in some kind of open cockpit propeller engine craft, but alas no. No scarf and goggles for this flight. The airport in Pankalan Bun consisted of one room. Our luggage was brought out from the plane as we walked along the tarmac to a single conveyer belt at one end of the room. Instead of the usual circular apparatus, the belt was just a straight line that terminated at the other end of the room.
Our guide, a girl whose name I’m kicking myself for not writing down somewhere, was waiting for us at the airport’s entrance. I’ve scoured the internet for her name, but have been unable to find it. She was a young, petite lady, younger than both Teresa and I. My first thought was, “How is she going to fend off an alpha-male Orang-utan if he decides to go berserk on us?” When reading the disclaimer, which obviously needs to include worst-case-scenario possibilities, we were told that essentially whatever happens, happens. We were choosing to enter territory that wasn’t our own; while guides would do their utmost to keep us safe, safety is never guaranteed with wild animals, particular with an alpha-male of a great ape species. A part of me prejudged her, a mistake on my part. She was an amazing guide with loads of knowledge and the perfect attitude for the kind of experience we were seeking.
We were instantly welcomed as we met outside of the airport and were taxied to a large river where our klotok was docked and waiting for us. Teresa and I would be the only travellers on this boat. It was the two of us, our guide, the “driver”, and a couple of young boys helping out an older lady who did all of the cooking for us. The entire trip, excluding airfare, cost us somewhere in the realm of $300 CAD. The experience, coupled with the hospitality and incredible home cooked food, was beyond worth it and I would recommend it to anyone who may be passing through Java or Jakarta if you have a few extra days and a few hundred dollars to spare. This was a life changing experience and by far one of the best in the entire six months.
When we walked onto the klotok, I felt that queasy sickness from the swaying of the boat for the first ten minutes or so, the same as I did when we went to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. Luckily, my body tends to shake this feeling off fairly quickly and it didn’t bother me for the rest of the excursion. We lit up a 76 and were on our way.
The klotok turned into a more narrow waterway, along the banks of which were lined with jungle, shrubs, and the odd village or palm plantation here and there. Saltwater crocodiles inhabit the river and our guide even managed to point one out to us as we chugged along, its armoured snout just barely poking out of the river, camouflaged almost perfectly against the logs and bits of tree floating about.
Along the way, our cooks prepared us a delicious meal of beef, noodles, rice, vegetables, and fruit. All of this was done below deck while Teresa and I were relaxing above. Enjoying this meal and having the klotok to ourselves simply added to the authenticity and serenity of it all. Pure bliss.
The river water itself was a brownish colour…until we came to a crossroads, as it were. This is where the black water river began, one of only two on the entire planet. The other is in Brazil, in certain parts of the Amazon Rainforest. I will traverse that other black water river before I die. A certain kind of tree is rooted along the banks of the river and the water extracts dark tannins from these roots, colouring it. It’s not a dirty, grimy kind of black. It’s unreal; I’m talking as black as the night’s sky, or outer space. When you scoop a bit of it up, it looks more of a dark red or brown colour. But the river in its entirety, as a mass, is pitch black and beautiful.
The trees along the edge of the river were lined with jumping and talkative proboscis monkeys, dozens and dozens of them. In the image above, you can make out a reddish-brown one high up in the tree leaning over the river. They provided a background noise that would last late into the night.
The black water river was even narrower than the second waterway we’d entered after boarding our klotok. The jungle was closing in on us, but it was not encroaching by any means. It was warm and welcoming and full of life. It was the beginning of a vivid, interactive, and unique experience. We’d been immersing ourselves in cultures that were new to us, and always welcoming. As strange as it sounds, the Orang-utans who swoop in and out of Tanjung Puting have a culture of their own, one with humanlike elements to be shared and respected. It is a culture that brought me closer to the core of my humanity, something I’m greatly looking forward to sharing with all of you.