Wehea Forest

Wehea Forest

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Compared to Kutai, Wehea is an extraordinary breath of fresh air. This is the rainforest as you imagined it to be, in all its primordial glory. From atop its lone watchtower, you look over misty mountains that take you back to another Earth. The forest is home to many of Borneo’s most interesting species, including the clouded leopard, sun bear, Storm’s stork, grizzled langur, Bornean gibbon and orangutan. To date, 82 mammal species have been documented, of which 22 are vulnerable or endangered. Having said that, this is raw rainforest with few trails, making wildlife spotting difficult, and a good local guide essential.

Surprisingly, there is an excellent wooden lodge built by WWF, beautifully situated on a rushing river bend, with a generator, space for 20 people in private rooms, and a waterfall. The sounds of the forest and the river are priceless here. It takes some doing to arrange a stay, however, as the lodge is not permanently staffed. On the other hand, that’s why the forest exists in such a pristine state and why it is such a great opportunity to visit now, as an incongruous helo pad attests: the US Embassy flies in VIPs from Jakarta.

(forest guardians), a cadre of 35 to 40 rangers who keep it free from illegal activities such as poaching and logging. Their cause is assisted by Integrated Conservation (info@integratedconservation.org), a small and highly-dedicated NGO run by Brent Loken and Sheryl Gruber, who have placed 75 photo traps on various wildlife trails to document the forest’s biodiversity. See the results on their website (http://ethicalexpeditions.ning.com).

. Prices are still being established, but advance enquires may be made by email (info@integratedconservation.org).

Getting to Nehas Liah Bing is no small feat, however. First you must get to Muara Wahau, either by driving up from Sangatta by 4×4, or taking the bus (150,000Rp, three times daily). Either way it is six or seven hours on a notoriously bad road, one of the worst in Kalimantan. However, this Top Gear adventure has its rewards, at least in a 4×4, and the last two hours are very scenic. In Muara Wahau you can overnight in basic Hotel Aldi, which offers clean rooms with en suite mandi. To get to Nehas Liah Bing, take the main road from here to Berau, but keep straight when it curves to the right. Turn right on a small dirt road exactly 2km later, just past a post office (kantor pos). Continue on for 200m and follow the road as it curves to the left. After another 300m you’ll see the Wehea Conservation Center (also referred to locally as the ‘kantor PM’) on your left. At least one day’s advance notice of your arrival is key to avoid delays. Centre staff can also arrange a day trip to two interesting limestone caves at Kombeng and Gua Maria (250,000-400,000Rp).

Once your visit is arranged, you must still get to the forest. This requires a 2½-hour drive from Nehas Liah Bing down remote logging roads, which may be impassable during the rainy season (during our research trip a flash flood came in the car doors). This last leg creates a welcome sense of separation from the world, heightening your anticipation. You are really heading into the wild.

The other way to access Wehea Forest is to purchase a package tour from De’gigant Tours, the only regular provider of this itinerary. A four-day all-inclusive trip for two or three people, including round-trip transport from Balikpapan, is 6,372,000Rp. Compare rates, access and expertise with the above alternative. De’gigant frequently bundles Wehea with a trip to the Derawan Archipelago, combining jungle and reef in one itinerary. This involves coming down to Wehea from Berau, avoiding the drive from Sangatta.

Kutai National Park

Kutai National Park

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This park is a disappointment. The only reason to come here is if you want to see a wild orangutan and have no chance to do so anywhere else. The park’s once-vast acreage, long the target of natural resource exploitation, has now dwindled to 10km of trails, helping to concentrate its wildlife, so sightings are nearly assured (particularly if you call ahead, so the ranger can find one). The best time is April to August, when fruit is on the trees.

Access is gained by entering a foul river next to a sewage treatment facility, with a huge pipe pumping wastewater directly into it. You then follow this upstream in a canoe for half an hour until you reach Camp Kakap, the park’s lodge, located on an otherwise attractive bend. Do not attempt this at night, even if asked to do so: the combination of an overloaded canoe with gunwales inches from the waterline, large logs hurtling downstream and no flotation devices, is a recipe for disaster. The lodge is run down and basic, with bare rooms and a communal squat toilet. The trails need maintenance too. The picture is completed by the local gas exploration crews cutting through the forest in their grey jumpsuits.

To get here, take a bus from Samarinda to Sangatta (30,000Rp, three hours) and a taxi to Kantordesa Kabo Jaya (Kabo) where one of the rangers, Udin 081 3464 17675 or Mr Supliani 081 3463 48803, will meet you. Be sure to call ahead so they can organise your permit. The boat ride is 300,000Rp return. Park permits are 15,000Rp. Half- day treks cost 100,000Rp, full-day treks 200,000Rp.

Maratua

Maratua

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Maratua is an enormous U-shaped atoll almost completely untouched by tourism. There are two fishing villages at opposite ends with a pleasant surprise in between: a nicely paved path through the jungle some 15km in length. The tidy village of Bohesilian, directly across from Nabucco Island, is the best base, with tightly packed cottages on the edge of the jungle, pleasant sea views, a little market, cheerful residents and several homestays. Senterbung, near the pier, offers a front room with double bed for 200,000Rp, including three meals, but look at a few and decide. Bohebekut, the village at the other end of the trail, is poorer and the beach is dirty.

For backpackers with time on their hands, Maratua is a slice of heaven. Hire a scooter for a day (150,000Rp) and explore to your heart’s content, passing over bridges between islets, heading down long jetties and swimming in the lagoon. Like Kakaban, there is a stingless freshwater jellyfish pond, although it’s difficult to reach. The island’s striking dorsal ridge is also begging for exploration. Add a special someone and a visit here could easily stretch into days…

Kota Bangun

Kota Bangun

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This busy town and transport hub is where upriver journeys generally begin. You can hire a ces from here to take you through a complex of rivers, lakes and marshes interspersed with villages. You’ll cross lakes with wide-open skies, twist and turn through wetland channels, pass through forests of silver-barked trees, lunch at riverside warungs, and generally breeze along, pausing for the odd monkey or some of the last few Irrawaddy dolphins. Don’t miss it.

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/indonesia/kota-bangun

Mancong

Mancong

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For optimum jungle drama Mancong is best reached by boat on the Ohong river, meandering past monitor lizards, sapphire-hued kingfishers, bulb-nosed proboscis monkeys and marauding macaques. The journey beneath towering banyan trees, their roots foraging like witches’ fingers in the dark river, is as much a part of the experience as your arrival.

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/indonesia/mancong

Sungai Mahakam

Sungai Mahakam

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The second largest river in Indonesia, the mighty Mahakam is at once a major highway, a cultural tour and a wildlife-spotting expedition. It is also the only major river with public transport all the way into the heart of Borneo, making its 930km length entirely accessible.

Travelling up this jungle river is a journey in the fullest sense of the word. One heads away from the industrial centre of Samarinda and slips deeper and deeper into the jungle, and into Borneo’s past. A week later it is either time to start the difficult next stage of the Cross-Borneo Trek, or turn back. Along the way there is great variety, including the many boats that ply the river and local wildlife. Between Tanjung Isuy and Mancong our research trip encountered river otter, gold-ringed snake, python, proboscis monkey, macaque, kingfisher, monitor lizard, hornbill, stork, and an unidentified condor. There are many opportunities for exploration, from towns and longhouses to huge lakes, wetlands and other rivers. This is a place that rewards travellers with time on their hands and hence the ability to jump off the boat and wait for the next one, even if it means staying overnight.

As you continue upriver, tourist facilities recede – and what there is ain’t great. On the other hand, the Mahakam is one of those places where you shouldn’t worry too much about the details. Homestays materialise, ‘my brother’s boat’ appears, closed stores open. Westerners in particular will be greeted with legendary hospitality. Transport gets increasingly expensive the further upriver you go, due to the cost of lugging fuel that far, but everything else is dirt cheap, so a little money goes a long way.

In summary, this is off-the-beaten-track travel of the highest order. Outside the summer season, you’ll probably not see another foreigner your entire trip. There are few creature comforts, making health precautions particularly wise, but you also have the flexibility to turn back whenever you think you’ve seen enough (and the current downriver cuts the return journey in half). If you are comparing this with rivers elsewhere in Borneo, it is the defining experience.

Derawan Archipelago

Derawan Archipelago

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Occupying a large area of ocean east of Berau, the Derawan Archipelago consists of 31 named islands, of which the most significant to travellers are Derawan, Maratua, Sangalaki, Kakaban, Nabucco and Nunukan. This archipelago is unique in Kalimantan. It offers the chance to explore some classic tropical isles, including a huge atoll, and enjoy some of the best scuba diving there is. It’s also very hard to get around (although it can be done), so it pays to think through your itinerary very carefully and give yourself plenty of time. Seas are rough in January and February, limiting diving.

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/indonesia/derawan-archipelago

Introducing Derawan

The closest and best known of the islands, Derawan is also overbuilt and increasingly dirty. With a sandy main street lined with budget restaurants and hotels, it has long been a backpacker magnet, and this is part of its attraction. There are fascinating, amiable people wandering the streets, many of whom have been travelling for months or even years, providing many opportunities to swap stories over a few beers. Another attraction is the excellent new Derawan Dive Lodge (not to be confused with Derawan Dive Resort, which has seen better days). However, tourism has definitely taken hold and the local reef is degraded; if you’re looking for more idyllic surroundings, consider Maratua. Beware of stingrays when walking at low tide.