Saturday, November 13, 2010

Orangutans of Borneo.

One thing we really didn’t want to miss while in Indonesia was to see Borneo’s orangutans, which only live on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia. These great apes are obviously, like all other large animal species in the world, threatened of extinction by the destruction of their habitat. Here in Borneo it’s the palm oil farming and deforestation that are finger pointed as the great culprits but obviously the situation is much more complex than simply telling Indonesians to stop growing palm and cut wood for living. Big monkeys are great but they need to eat.

To see our distant cousins we stopped at the Kumai village in the province of Kalimantan in the Indonesian part of Borneo. I make this precision because if you look at a geographic map you’ll see that a large part of the island of Borneo actually belongs to Malaysia and another small section form the Brunei sultanate. But in Kumai we felt in deep and very authentic Indonesia which has nothing to compare with the authentically touristy island of Bali for instance. From an occidental point of view the place may look rundown and the populace poor but look carefully at this young girl’s eyes and tell me honestly if you really think she’s starving and unhappy? In fact, people here are maybe poor, from our standards, but they eat very well and seem quite happy, thank you very much.

Although the jungle, where live those primates so coveted by picture cameras, is only accessible by boat it was out of question to venture in it with Chocobo. In fact, many places were too narrow for our catamaran to fit. We hire Adys’s services who, on board of his boat Mama-2 and helped by a crew of three others plus a guardian who stayed on Chocobo while we were away, took us through the meanders of the Indonesian jungle. But even though the rivers and the boat itself gave us at some point the impression of coming directly out of the movie “The African Queen” we must admit we were quite comfortable. The trip lasted two days and one night in the Tanjung Puting National Park and we slept comfortably on the deck, with a mattress of course, and a mosquito net. Do I need to mention that the Indonesian meals prepared by Ana were delicious?

The best way to see orangutans was to go to feeding stations where they offer them bananas. The boat would stop on a nearby dock then, after a 15 minute walk in a trail in the jungle, we arrived at a place where a platform was erected for the guides to place bananas they brought. Meal times being fix every day, the families of primates were sure to show up even if this means eating under the fire of the cameras and in front of twenty something peoples looking at them! But from the expression they had I believe that for orangutans as long as they had free bananas they were really not bothered if another group of primates was looking at them during their meal. They were also pretty agile in tree climbing and, even though they could be up to 8 times stronger than their homo-sapiens cousins, they still needed their four “hands” to climb. So, to take away some bananas for later consumption the female you see on the third picture had to use some imagination at the cost of her dignity it seems. But seriously is she greedy or what? She’s maybe a monkey but still!

But Tanjung Puting National Park is not only orangutans land. Scenery is beautiful and we saw from afar other monkeys with funny noses and even a jaguar! Apparently, no other tourists ever saw one in this region since they usually live about 25 km from there. The water was brown in the first part of the river as it is usually the case in rivers but we turned into one of the tributaries and the water then turned clear with a reddish tint. According to our guide, the brown color of the main river comes from the industrial byproducts of the gold mining activities upstream and of which the environmental practices may be debatable. Tributaries not having to suffer the effects of exploitation have clean water and the red coloration is naturally produced by the roots of the plants giving it a spectacular mirror effect reflecting the surrounding vegetation. Also, this region is populated by an abundance of butterflies of all kind such as this one who came resting on Danielle’s finger and stayed quiet long enough for me to even take a decent picture of it. We also saw butterflies with whitish wings measuring close to 20 cm (8 inches) across!

Once back on Chocobo we took the opportunity to give our guides a few gifts to show our appreciation of their good services. Nothing very fancy just a few lines we didn’t need any more, some clothes, toys and candy bags for their kids and a few things we needed no more. They were all pretty happy and thanked us more than once. After chatting, taking pictures and having a laugh for a while they left and I then came inside the boat and noticed that the temperature of the refrigerator was abnormally high. After a closer inspection we realized that the cooling unit was kaput! With a freezer full of meat and in a country with an average temperature of 30°C (85°F) day or night it was a catastrophe! The problem is not only money we also have to find replacement parts and it’s surely not in Kumai we would find that kind of parts. I then went to the village to find some ice to conserve our food until we get to Batam or Singapore where we’ll be able to fix. Yet again, not speaking Bahasa Indonesia makes things quite interesting. How do you describe ice in a village located almost right on the equator? Luckily, after a few twists and mimics giving the ladies I was speaking to the impression that I may have stayed too long with the orangutans, I felt on a guy speaking decent English and put my hand on 15 blocks of frozen solid ice. This would be nice for the moment but would it last long enough for the five days of our passage in the South China Sea to get to Batam our next destination?