Wehea Forest, Finding a Needle of Primary Jungle in Borneo’s Haystack of Deforestation

Wehea Forest, Finding a Needle of Primary Jungle in Borneo’s Haystack of Deforestation


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In the mists and mountains of north-eastern Borneo indigenous Dayaks are struggling to save one of the fast dwindling tracts of primordial rain forest still left on the world’s third largest island, aided by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) and banking on the potential for ecological tourism.

Borneo has become a byword for environmental devastation, especially Kalimantan, the Indonesian three quarters of the island which in the 1980s and 90s earned the dubious distinction of hosting arguably the most intensive logging the world has ever seen in an environmental rape that was nearly three times the rate of Amazonian deforestation as assessed by wood per acre.

Jungle destruction

Vast tracts of jungle were slashed and burned to make way for agricultural land and palm oil plantations. But it would be wrong to assume the island now resembles a vast desert – it does not, much is green from regrowing secondary forest and palms – or that all primary jungle has vanished. It has not, although by some estimates over two thirds have already succumbed to timber concessions, illegal logging abetted by corrupt officials, and mining.

One such pristine area is Wehea in north-eastern Kalimantan, spared devastation by its mountainous terrain and inaccessibility. Rising from 1,000 feet to over 4,000, hence totally unsuitable for palm oil plantations, it is run by the Wehea Dayaks, with the NGO Integrated Conservation (ICON) advising on sustainable management to preserve both flora and fauna.

Getting there is not easy or cheap. Just the three-hour 4X4 trip from the nearest road-head near Muara Wahau costs $400 return, unless you’re lucky enough to get a hitch. To get to Muara Wahau from Samarinda, the provincial capital, can take three days by bus.

I plump for a four-day $1,000 ‘Wehea Rain Forest Adventure,’ flying into Berau for the four-hour drive south to Muara Wahau.

As usual on the Looney Front, things don’t go quite according to plan. At Berau airport., two gents rush up belatedly, identifying themselves as Eric, the guide, and Julianje, the driver. They push me into a dust-stained car to go to a crummy cafe.

We’re still there an hour and a half later. Eric, who distorts his few English phrases so expertly that he sounds like Fronk, Martin Short’s wedding planner in Father of the Bride, is mumbling on about a ‘four-will wife.’

A phone call to the tour organiser in Samarinda, clarifies. A four-wheel drive will be along in a half an hour. Another hour and some odd-sounding phone calls later, they pile me into the same low-slung car and we’re off. We’ll meet the 4X4 along the way.

Dust swirls from open coal mining and fire scars still smoulder where locals have burned down the jungle for farming. The chainsaws of the would-be farmers whine away loud and clear.

At last we enter primary jungle. The road becomes atrocious – pot-holed, cratered, gulch-gouged. Just what our low-slung chariot needs! Julianje, who has just been overtaken by a snail, says it’ll take another eight hours.

He speaks English better than Eric. Both, it transpires, are Filipino scuba instructors from Derawan Island, Berau’s main tourist draw. So what are two diving instructors, skilled as they may be in the watery deep, doing taking me into deepest primary jungle? To scuba up trees?

Four hours later, I get a response. It’s nearly dark and we jounce to a halt. Across the way, a large trunk plonked behind and another in front, is a 4X4, with a very flat tyre. A dapper man rushes over.

‘Hi, I’m Rahim, your jungle guide,’ quoths he in perfect English.

And Eric? ‘Ah, I asked him to take you along since I couldn’t get to Berau. This is our third puncture. We’ve no more spares, so the driver’s hitched to Berau with the two others for repairs.’ He hands over a Dutch couple he’s brought this far to Eric.

And our onward drive? ‘Oh don’t worry, we’ll hitch.’ Without breaking a sweat, the ever-smiling can-do Rahim flags down a 4X4. In no time we’re in the air-conditioned van winging over roads both smooth and rough – very rough. It’s 8.30 pm when we reach Muara Wahau.

Next morning Rahim’s bustling about with more glad tidings. The driver’s still in Berau, tyres un-fixed. But two national park 4X4s are just round the corner. ‘Just one problem,’ he adds. ‘They’re both broken.’

But can-do Rahim manages to pull a 4X4 out of his hat. It belongs to a lady driver, Efi, and he recruits her for the three-hour 45-mile drive. Let’s just say her car’s seen better days: the air conditioning died in the last century, the steering column cover is missing, yards of wire hang out of it, and other entrails protrude from various cavities.

Development and deforestation behind us, enveloped by the lushness of primary jungle, we’re romping along a dirt track when we start waltzing gently to port. Within minutes it’s graduated to a raucous grinding and we’re rock ‘n’ rolling.

Efi slams on the brakes. Our rear left wheel is sprayed outwards. Only one lug nut is left, empty holes the only evidence where the other five were. Our lives have been hanging by the nut equivalent of a hair.

Efi jacks us up, screws in two spares she has for just such occasions, takes another from the right rear wheel, then bums others from a passing truck driver, who works for a logging concession granted within the primary forest outside the reserve.

Large trucks loaded down with massive trunks pass in billowing clouds of orange dust as part of a sustainable logging initiative – strictly controlled by Dayak guard stations, size and number limited, endangered Ulin iron wood out of bounds.

We’re grinding up a muddy incline when Efi stalls. Trees 150 feet tall and vast canopies of green fill the valleys and mountainsides. Humongous lianas conjure up ‘Me Tarzan, You Jane’ visions. The engine’s so hot it won’t start. We wait half an hour for it to cool.

A few hundred yards on, Efi does a reprise. At last we reach the entrance to the 147-square-mile park, about half the land area of New York City, home to orangutans, gibbons, macaques, cloud leopards and much else threatened by deforestation..

The lodge, by a jungle stream and little waterfall, is a basic two-storey hut of creaky rickety planks and bare rooms, with a sit-down toilet and cold shower.

Brent Loken, ICON’s Canadian executive director, would prefer no tree felling at all in the forest surrounding the park. But he says the logging here is an advance on indiscriminate felling, especially as palm oil plantations completely deplete the soil after 16 to 20 years, requiring huge amounts of pesticide. As for mining, that’s even more devastating.

He notes that orangutans are more adaptable than previously thought and less adversely affected by this logging. He has also found that they walk much more on the ground than previously thought. If there’s a path, they’ll choose it rather than climb through the trees.

Stephanie, a primatology professor from Wisconsin who’s been coming here for the past five summers with her students, saw a big male orangutan with large cheek pads on the ground only yesterday. He climbed up a tree, threw down branches and made the so-called kiss-tweet noises that sound like a slobbery smacker followed by a whistle, to show his displeasure at the intrusion.

Time then for Yours Truly’s walk in the woods. After an hour and a half of upping and downing forested hills, the grand total of sightings by our three musketeers – Rahim, Umar, a local Dayak guide, and Yours Truly – is exactly zilch.

Zilch, that is, except for the leeches which Rahim burns off my socks and shoes with his lighter. On the plus side I haven’t yet fallen, while Rahim is even now sprawled on his arse in the mud with a bemused grin on his face.

Next morning we’re again puffing up a steep muddy hill on the other side of the waterfall, on the ridge where Stephanie saw her orangutan. Brent saw him too. So our chances look good, right?

A few hours roaming around humongous fallen tree trunks, sliding on slickened leaves and sitting expectantly on damp branches listening to the loud electronic whistles of the insects – and not even can-do Rahim can bring on Stephanie’s orangutan.

Our grand total: two giant ants fighting or mating – that’s the same thing, ain’t it? – on a tree trunk, many bird sounds, and two leeches on my socks. Make that three. Blood traces on my calf show a third sucked right through my jeans.

Some hikes are strenuous, up steep mountainsides through almost impenetrable vegetation to waterfalls and look-outs. They can take hours – and buckets of sweat – just to cover a few miles. I’m not into that, so in the afternoon we walk by the riverside. This time even the leeches ignore me.

One last chance, a night walk – actually a nip across the grass to the other shack where a ranger has spotted a greater slow loris, a civet-like animal with blue eyes. ‘This is the one animal you will see,’ quoths Stephanie, ‘you can’t miss it. They throw out rice to attract them.’

We trip daintily across the grass to ground zero, our torchlight-girt foreheads bobbing expectantly. The bird has already flown, or whatever slow loris do as they scamper back up trees.

Rahim, Brent, Umar and Stephanie console me on my spiffing two days of animal spotting. It’s not easy to spot animals in the jungle since they hide very well at the sound of intrusion, quoth they; one has to be extremely lucky; this is not like an African safari where animals appear on call, they add.

Others report greater luck here. Anyway, just being in primary jungle makes it worth it.

Suddenly my luck turns. At the moment when my wildlife watch seems at its most jejune, an unprecedented jungle display takes place on the shack’s porch. One of Stephanie’s students, an ample guy, takes up a tiny mandolin, just like the one Marilyn Monroe strummed away at in Some Like It Hot – strumming away just like her. Now how many of you Borneo wildlife buffs have ever seen one of those in the wild?

Karangan Uban area, Matilda’s Family in Karangan Uban

Karangan Uban area, Matilda’s Family in Karangan Uban



This past February, Matilda and her little daughter Georgina were seen around the Karangan Uban area, when the Post-release Monitoring (PRM) and Orangutan Release team were setting up a temporary camp to support our most recent orangutan release event.  Carrying Georgina, Matilda was seen sitting on abranch of a big tree facing the Joloi River and they completely ignored the team’s presence.  They were released in August last year and after 6 months,  both looked healthy and active.

Meanwhile Markisa and her two daughters Uli and Manggo who were released in February last year were seen in a Sangkuang tree by the Joloi River when the Orangutan Release team passed by on their way to check the designated orangutan drop point for the planned releases.  A year on from their release and Markisa was holding Uli tight in her arms, while Manggo played not far away.

Finding Kopi’s Signal

Kopi who was released in November 2012, has been quite a challenge for the PRM team to observe.  This beautiful female orangutan travelled quickly into the forest right after she was released, almost never to be seen again.  A member of Totat Jalu Camp PRM team, Apriadi, picked up her signal recently.  He followed the signal and finally saw orangutan movements and caught a glimpse of her arm.  She was gone again in no time though and was so fast that Apriadi wasn’t able to follow her.  The team however is delighted to know that she is doing well and very active.

Jamiat Explores Monnu

Jamiat was also released in November 2012, along with Sif, Gadis, and Menteng at Transect 30. Now, the 19 year old male orangutan has navigated his way through  the forest  and reached the Monnu area.  When observed by the PRM team, Jamiat was resting in his nest.  He seemed oblivious to the team’s presence at first, but after two hours in his nest, he may well have felt somewhat disturbed by his human observers and hid.

Sempung is doing very well and healthy.  This adult male orangutan was released in August 2012, and spends most of his time in the trees, including resting. The large cheekpadded male also doesn’t appreciate the PRM team’s presence. Upon seeing the team, Sempung made pig-like vocalisation, kiss-squeaked and broke branches.  He stopped eating and seemed extremely annoyed.  Suddenly, Sempung made a long call. Despite being captivated by the majestic vocalisation which shows a male orangutan’s domination over an area, the team was made aware that this was a sign that Sempung was really unhappy and left him at once.

We couldn’t be happier with these observations.  These orangutans are doing well and appear to be thriving in their new environment.  Well done to the Post-release Monitoring team and keep up the fantastic work!

Text by: Ike Naya Silana

South Kalimantan, The Land of a Thousand Rivers

South Kalimantan, The Land of a Thousand Rivers


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My last thought before sleep was that the calling-drum suspended from the rafters would fall on my head. My concern was best explained by the suggestive powers of my location: the floor of a Dayak longhouse, a people who used to decapitate their enemies.

The Orang Bukit were banging on the drum in rhythmic beats when I struggled out of the forest with Rayhan, my guide. In the past, the drum would have warned of our approach as a party of potential headhunters. Today it was in celebration of a bountiful rice harvest. Although I was tired, muddy and smelled like a locker room, protocol demanded that I enter the longhouse, accept refreshment and commune with the dead.

The ancestors needed to be thanked. Men danced to the hypnotic beat of the drum around a palm leaf altar erected in the middle of the longhouse. Women who wanted to contact the departed, either in gratitude or supplication, sat with fresh flowers on their heads. The headman fell to the floor, his limbs twitching in trance. His wife bent over him and deciphered the mumbling messages he relayed from the afterlife. It was an extraordinary experience suddenly made ordinary when the headman, his duties as medium complete, rose from the floor and lit a cigarette. In Indonesia, the natural and supernatural are not static and distinct conditions; each exists within the other. The longhouse population renewed their seance later that night; in the meantime, watching their guest clumsily bathe in the river proved temporarily more interesting.

The fuzzy separation between altered states was important to me. Witnessing the festival was simply fortunate circumstance. A contrived event would be a disappointment after walking four hours through secondary tropical forest to get there. The Orang Bukit Dayaks of the Loksado area of South Borneo no longer wear loincloths and bird feathers; their bodies are not decorated with protective tattoos and heavy ornaments do not stretch their earlobes. Betel nut chewing has fallen out of favor with the youth because they prefer white teeth to red ones. If a visitor leaves behind his misguided prejudice for the “primitive”, then what remains unchanged to experience is a form of social organization favored by the Dayaks: cooperative housing with its cultural values of compromise and tolerance.

I had less to worry about a falling drum than making a spectacle of myself. The women and children of the longhouse talked long into the night about me, squatting by my dozing form. I woke to their scrutiny. They accompanied me en masse on my morning ablutions. I found their proximity uncomfortable. In a longhouse of fifteen or more families, however, privacy cannot exist. Intense curiosity is acceptable conduct.

The headman had married a young couple that morning. I couldn’t help considering the practicalities of a wedding night: the consummation would take place on the floor, beside family and friends, possibly next to me. (I never heard them.) A handsome young man sought advice from the guide: his thirteen-year-old wife rejected his attempts at intimacy. An old woman’s husband of many years had left her for an older and fatter woman. Such candid interactions are only possible between people who know everything about each other. If there are no secrets in the longhouse and no skeletons in the closets (apart from a few heads), then it is conceivable that harmony prevails.

The Dayak tribes, which number over two hundred, are the indigenous peoples of Borneo. Formerly hunters and gatherers, they lived in isolated longhouses in the once vast forests now diminished by logging. Both the location of their communities and their form of cohabitation protected them from their enemies. Now many Dayaks live in cities, their lives no different from their Indonesian neighbors. Those choosing to live traditionally, such as the Orang Bukit, practice slash-and-burn dry rice agriculture. They also produce rubber and cinnamon that they sell at the Loksado Village market twice a week. None of the Orang Bukit I spoke with had ever been to Banjarmasin, the capital of South Borneo and the largest city in Kalimantan.

This still counts as living in isolation to me. So does the fact that going to the market, to the health clinic and to the school mean a several hour walk on wet, undulating trails. Mosquitoes are voracious. I lost count of the swiftly moving streams I had to cross; the spills I took in the mud. The heat of the rain forest is heavy, like a weight upon the body. It is no place for vanity. The Orang Bukit make their environment look more benign than it is. In this, they are guided by their faith.

The Dayaks’ earliest beliefs were and continue to be a form of animism known as Kaharingan. It recognizes a principal creator of their universe but many lesser gods also exist in the cosmology. Karmic laws of cause and effect are upheld by supernatural beings that must be kept appeased through regular ritual. Favorable weather for crops and successful agricultural cycles are influenced by conduct. Misfortune can be explained and rectified by ceremony. The women of the Orang Bukit boiled a special food of ground rice, coconut, sugar and lime which was offered one night to “The Great One” for his benevolence throughout the year. Prayers in the form of prolonged chanting lulled me to sleep, not my curative of choice for the hard bamboo floor, but an effective one.

Courtesy, generosity and honesty are valued social behaviors of the longhouse and manifestations of Kaharingan belief that fortuitous life events result from actions of the entire social unit. Without such faith, the mutual respect that is required by multiple family living would be a difficult achievement. The headman of the longhouse ensures that these qualities are upheld. The small gifts that I had brought were presented formally to the headman only after a suitable length of time. It seemed important that I was the recipient of Dayak hospitality before giving in return. The headman was careful to express his appreciation several times. Although my belongings generated a high level of interest, I was not requested to part with anything other than Band-Aids and aspirin.

Religion cannot be separated from culture. The powerful forces of nature in the Dayaks’ visible world’the violent storms, the raging rivers, and the mysterious jungle’are what shape their beliefs. They know these same phenomena can take away life as well as they help sustain it. Their views reflect the experience that death can be sudden. The women pointed out their young who bore the marks of a serious illness, amulet necklaces of string given to them by the headman in his secondary role as shaman. The people suffer from infections, injuries, respiratory ailments and malaria. Many of the Orang Bukit described severe headaches that were more prevalent during the harvest when the workload is greatest.

Perhaps any culture that faces death as frequently as the Dayaks ends up embracing it. It is not something the Dayaks fear. Its passage, particularly in the past, was marked with elaborate rituals. Severed human heads were not gruesome trophies of unjustified aggression but talismans necessary to perpetuate life. Death was a magical state that ended with life, and not the reverse.

Because life and death are parallel realities and life within death can take human or animal form and ghosts travel between the two worlds. Not surprisingly, the jungle, with its incessant noises from invisible insects and wildlife, is considered a likely place to meet them. On one of my walks with a Dayak guide in primary forest, an animal, unseen but threatening, warned of encroachment upon its territory. I feared something I had seen behind bars in a zoo. The guide, however, imagined an impermanent creature: “Ghosts,” he said, “are never friendly.”

The Dayaks believed that the Land of the Dead was at the end of a river and they set the dead adrift in carved coffins. River motifs appear on Dayak baskets and weavings. It is easy to see why the waterways play such a pivotal role in Dayak life and death. If you look at a map of the island, a spider web of rivers and their tributaries covers its entire surface. Each longhouse I visited was situated by a river, which fit my image of a lost paradise. All were scenes of constant activity. The river was a food source and a supply of drinking water. It was where rice was rinsed, clothes and dishes washed and bodies cleansed. I sat by a river one entire afternoon, amidst clouds of butterflies with glossy wings, and saw that its uses were not merely physical. The river was a playground for children, a recreational center for teenagers and a community center for adults; it was where social skills were learned, where people fell in love, where decisions were made.

In Borneo, the main street of town is usually a river. Boats are the chief form of transportation to most destinations. On my return to Banjarmasin from Loksado, I eliminated hours of tiresome hiking and the emotional trauma of leeches by rafting down the Riam Kiwa River on 16 stems of young bamboo lashed together to form an apex at the front. My raft served another purpose: upon arrival in Kandangan, it was dismantled and the bamboo sold. My raftsman was so experienced at running rapids that the ubiquitous Indonesian cigarette was never dislodged from between his lips. I sat with legs on either side of a narrow, raised platform of bamboo, with my feet ankle-deep in water and my camera in a plastic bag. It was not comfortable but neither is bus travel on Kalimantan roads and the rapids were far more fun.

The city of Banjarmasin was where I had arranged my trek. The Loksado Dayak tribes may be the descendants of the founding families of this city, who moved to the Meracus Mountains to avoid conversion to Islam in the fifteenth century. The Banjarese capital started as a settlement of wooden houses on stilts along the banks of the converging Barito and Martapura Rivers, for like the Dayak tribes, proximity to the river was tantamount to survival.

“The real Banjarmasin can only be seen from the river,” I was told. The city’s many canals have earned it the name “Venice of the East,” a comparison it shares with Bangkok. I hired a boat late one afternoon when the day’s heat had dissipated, the light was kindest for photography and the riverside activities were liveliest.

On extended platforms behind ironwood houses, generations of Banjarese congregated along the canals for a bath in cleaner waters brought in by the tide, a practical consideration now due to river pollution. However, this was a ritual of a people whose symbiotic relationship with the river mirrors that of the Loksado Dayaks. It was as much about community as it was about cleanliness. This gathering was a daily festival on Banjarmasin’s canals, a celebration of the day’s closure and the simple pleasures of water, family and friends. My intrusion of the party was welcomed. Rarely do I find the voyeurism of travel so enjoyable.

I had breakfast at the more famous of Banjarmasin’s two floating markets, known as pasar terapung; where buyers and sellers of produce and household necessities do business from canoes every morning. Tourism has replaced the trading practices of Bangkok’s floating markets by becoming a lucrative commodity itself I saw no such negative impact here. My presence was politely ignored.

My boat was temporarily moored to a bobbing tea and cake shop: customers helped themselves to pastries in shallow dishes by spearing them with a nail on a long wooden stick. The cheerful proprietor rinsed his glasses in river water that was the color of his coffee but the historical value of a meal on the river was more important than the less than pristine water quality. For four hundred years, traders such as he have gathered at the confluence of the Barito and Kuin Rivers, shielded from the extremes of weather by a straw hat as large as an expanded umbrella.

The significant difference to this recognizable picture of Banjarmasin’s past is the large vessels of a modem seaport carrying cargo such as rattan and lumber, two of the city’s principal export industries. Few visitors are unaware of deforestation issues today in Indonesia and elsewhere in the world. The open mind I intended to keep slammed shut in a hurry when I saw the barges in the river piled with hardwood logs. I was saddened: once the rivers had protected the inaccessible rainforest and the people it sustained; now they enabled its destruction and enforced another way of life.

There are as many versions of reality as there are people and cultures; travel sometimes allows you to share the perspectives of others. However brief the encounter, it brings irreversible changes to those involved. It is not so simple to ascertain what you leave behind in these chance meetings; it is far easier to recognize what you have gained. My river travels through South Kalimantan revealed a worldview that was instinctive. It had to be: nature plays a large role in the lives of people who live by and depend upon a river, or for those who live in the rainforest. I had forgotten that once we all lived intuitively with the natural forces of our world.

In Kalimantan, I remembered.

Author’s Note:
Kalimantan is the Indonesian southern half of Borneo and is divided into four provinces. The original settlement of Banjarmasin, the capital of Kalimantan, was built over water which has led to its comparison with Bangkok. A canal trip on its backwaters and a visit to its floating markets are highly recommended. Banjarmasin is the departure point for trips into its mountainous interior, where Dayaks called the Orang Bukit live.

Getting There:
Garuda, Indonesia’s national carrier, flies several times daily to Banjarmasin from Jakarta on the island of Java.

When to Visit:
Avoid the rainy season between November and March. Besides the downpours, there will be additional leeches in the forests with which to contend.

Johan, the owner of the Borneo Homestay, arranges tours to the Loksado region. Everyone in Banjarmasin knows of him. A friendly travel agency is centrally located Adi Travel on Jalan Hasanuddin 27.

Published on 9/1/98

Danau Sentarum

Danau Sentarum


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Danau Sentarum in the inner pockets of West Kalimantan near the Malaysian border is a dream destination for nature and culture enthusiasts. This remote travel destination in Kapuas Hulu is the homeland of the Dayak-Iban people, who still practice a way of life in harmony with their natural environment.

To reach Danau Sentarum, you start from Pontianak and travel 8 hours by road to Sintang, and continue with a 6-hour speedboat ride to Lanjak via Semitau. Alternatively, you can also fly 2 hours from Pontianak to Putussibau and continue on a 7-hour longboat ride to Nanga Suhaid. The journey itself is an important part of the adventure and would enthrall your explorer’s senses with the enchantment of West Kalimantan’s remote rainforests.

Danau Sentarum is not quite like the typical lakes you might encounter on your other travels. Sentarum’s water discharge is very season-dependent, with the basin filled with waters up to a depth of 8-14 meters only 10 months out of the year, forming a lake area of up to 80,000 hectares. But in the two driest months–usually July and August–the tides ebb and expose the dry bottom of the Sentarum basin, splitting the massive lake into little rivers and hundreds of fish ponds.

The indigenous Iban were known to British imperialists as the Dayak-Laut tribe because of their livelihoods which are heavily centered on Danau Sentarum. In addition to West Kalimantan, the Iban are also native in Sarawak and Sabah, East Malaysia. They live in rumah panjai “longhouses”, which are elevated about 8-9 meters above the ground because in the olden days this protected women and children while the men went to war. The headhunting ceremony mengayau is still an important rite of passage for adolescent Iban boys, but now the ceremony uses boar heads instead of human heads.

Since war is a central theme of Iban culture, it is no surprise that they venerate a war god. Singalang Burong is believed to be the original patriarch of the Iban and the patron saints of brave men. Mengayau ceremonies are dedicated to him. The rhinoceros hornbills (Buceros rhinoceros) now frequently sighted in Kalimantan are believed to be the sons in law of Singalang Burong. Due to the taboo of carving images of the hornbill, Singalang Burong is usually discreetly stylized into a symbol in textiles and tattoos produced by communities living around Danau Sentarum.

The hornbill is also important in spreading the seeds of the flora that make up Kalimantan’s rich vegetation in Taman Nasional Danau Sentarum, such as ulin (Eusideroxylon zwageri), shoreas (Shorea stenoptera), and dillenia (Dillenia indica).

This vegetation becomes a lush habitat for a diverse range of fauna such as orangutans (Pogo pygmaeus), long-nose monkeys (Nasalis larvatus), crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis), false gharials (Tomistoma schlegelii), and lesser adjudant storks (Leptoptilos javanicus). Nature lovers will have their eyes feasting on the landscapes of wide rivers sandwiched between lush mangroves, and the sights of mountain ranges behind the Danau Sentarum’s horizons.

Do not miss the cultural experiences local villages have to offer you. If you’re lucky, you might just be traveling while a wedding is taking place in the village. The melah pinang ceremony takes place when the groom picks up his beloved bride in her father’s house and takes her home. As the newlyweds cruise down the rivers in a boat, traditional musicians accompany them with gong and various percussions. The Iban heritage centred around agriculture and fishery is apparent in the wedding traditions.

In addition to their main professions as farmers and fisherman, many residents of the villages surrounding Danau Sentarum still practice traditional crafts such as ikat textile weaving and tattoos known as ukir (to carve”). The Iban’s ikat and ukir typically flaunts the basic motifs of flowers, dragons, and stylized human figures. Ikat and songket weaving are usually made by the women from natural fibers and colors. Ukir is usually tattooed on a young adult Iban’s body while traveling to faraway places as a memento he or she can look back to later in life.

Traveling in Danau Sentarum would give you the chance to connect with local peoples and their stories, and create meaningful memories from the remote heart of West Kalimantan. Don’t forget to bring your camera and an open heart to absorb every experience in this destination.

The Mystic world of Orangutans

The Mystic world of Orangutans


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When I learnt that we had to overnight on a river boat in the jungle of Central Kalimantan, eight persons sharing one bathroom, that put up a bit of struggle in me.

Voice inside: You are there to see the endangered orangutans that are only found in Borneo and Sumatra!

Yeah, I saw those in the zoo – our beloved Ah Meng and her clan. And the rainforest is so hot, very humid and those blood sucking flies love me. Call me shallow.

I survived (like a big deal) two days of trekking into the dense jungle where we crossed paths with orang utans, proboscis, macaques, wild boars and others wildlife in the animal kingdom, and a night with few sweaty humans (who didn’t take a shower :P ), all sleeping side by side on mattresses in mosquito nets on the upper deck of the klotok.

You know what? I experienced a trip of a lifetime, embracing nature with no network coverage and city bustle but exotic and endangered species in their natural habitats in the wilderness of Borneo, the oldest rainforest in the world.

Klok… tok… tok… tok… There goes the motor engine of a klotok. It took us about 2 hours boat ride from Port Kumai to Pasalat Camp first for the Carbon Offsetting program to plant a tree at Tanjung Putin National Park!


The World Famous Tanjung Puting National Park

Designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that is as big as the size of Bali, Tanjung Puting National Park is home to the largest wild orangutan population in the world – the endangered Bornean orangutans. Yet, the protected national park is constantly facing major threats from illegal logging, illegal mining, poaching, large-scale deforestation for lucrative palm oil plantations. 65% of the primary forest is degraded, resulting in the loss of natural habitat that poses a serious threat to the wildlife at the park.

In hoping to raise the awareness of the importance of conserving the Borneo rainforest and the orangutan population that is on the verge of extinction in the next decade, one of the ways is to promote ecotourism that provides alternative economic benefits to the local communities and educate environmental responsibility. So now, you see more boat tours operated by various local tour companies at Tanjung Puting National Park.


Tree planting at Pasalat Camp

We picked the trees to plant at the camp. The program is designed to let visitors do their small part in park conservation, growing trees that provide the future food source for orangutans and to offset the carbon footprint resulted from the transports that take them to the park.


I picked a sandalwood tree! Why sandalwood? It’s auspicious! LOL

Camp Leakey

Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, the founder and president of OFI (Orangutan Foundation International), began her research career on the study of orangutans in their natural habitat at Camp Leakey which was set up as the first research centre at Tanjung Puting Reserve in 1971. For four decades, Dr Galdikas has devoted her time and efforts to save the orangutans of Indonesian Borneo and now she is the world renowned expert on orangutan behaviour.

Galdikas wrote on the cover article of National Geographic in Oct 1975. She brought the plight of the orangutans to world’s attention.

Frederick Galdikas is the ‘jungle boy’ of Borneo, the son of Dr Galdikas. He grew up in Camp Leakey and has the innate ability to understand the feelings of orangutans. In other words, he is a close friend of orangutans, if not the best! Now Frederick is endeavouring to rescue orangutans from various threats in Indonesian Borneo.


If I got it right, this female orangutan is the mother of Tom, the King orangutan of Camp Leakey. When Frederick came along, she held his hand affectionately like he is part of her family! It was such heartwarming and thought provoking moment that set me thinking why some people would bear to destroy the forest homes of the orangutans and kill them.


Camp Leakey is the base for scientists, staff, students and park rangers to conduct research works involving orangutan, proboscis monkey, leaf-eating monkey, gibbon and river system ecology. It is the site of the longest continuous study of any wild mammal in the world made known by Dr Galdikas.

At Camp Leakey Information Center of Orangutan, there are documents on orangutans and wildlife at the park and exhibits to educate visitors about the endangered species. The walls are adorned with photos of family trees of orangutans, each with name labels of the King, his parents, wives and children!

Everyone was waiting for Tom, the King of Camp Leakey at the feeding area but he didn’t appear that day. His family was there enjoying bananas in front of all the keen photographers!

A mother orangutan with her baby, grabbing two bunches of bananas and moving towards a tree to climb.


While we were hoping that Tom would come to the feeding area, a gibbon suddenly moved swiftly across the feeding area and grabbed some food.


Many times we crossed the path of an orangutan in the forest. Orangutans may appear to be tame but they are wild and strong animals so we do not move close to them. When they move towards us, we step back. The park rangers are there to guide the visitors.

Visitor signboard at Camp Leakey.

The boardwalk into Camp Leakey.

For two days, we stopped by two other camps to watch the orangutans during feeding time at Pondok Tanggui rehabilitation center and Tanjung Harapan and Observation.

The orangutans are in their natural habitats. There is no border between visitors and the orangutans. Many times we were observing these endangered mammals at a close range yet keeping a safe distance with park rangers around us.

Look at this huge guy with cheek pads. He is King Doyok.  An adult male orangutan with large cheek pads are generally more attractive to the females. Adult males are intolerant of each other so when two cheek-padded males meet a sexually receptive female, they will fight for her. A king orangutan claims its territory within 3km in the jungle.


#Likeaboss, King Doyok was feeding on lot of bananas while looking back at us with his sharp eyes. He appears to be a very smart and strong fellow.


While everyone was taking photos of King Doyok, he suddenly got down from the feeding platform and moved towards us.


The park ranger told the visitors to step back. The King intimidated us!


Everyone loves Sweet Hope, the aspiring model. She is not shy and really poses for cameras! Orangutans are highly intelligent and mimic human behaviour. The locals believe that Sweet Hope learnt how to strike poses like a model from visitors who took photos at the park. Look into her soulful eyes…


See how Sweet Hope stood up and posed like a lady! She is cute. She came to the dock in the morning where our klotoks were parked. Some of us just woke up and she seemed to welcome us. Remember we were visitors entering into the world of orangutans? A friendly host indeed.

Sweet Hope never run out of pose ideas. She was the star that morning.

The klotok where the eight of us spent two days having warm and delicious meals prepared by the cooks, cruising along the river while enjoying the balmy breeze in the thick jungle of Central Kalimantan and sleeping soundly on mattresses at the upper deck for a night, accompanied by few fireflies and sounds of the wild.

Who cooked these mouth-watering dishes of grilled fish, chilli crabs and jumbo prawns? Many of us vouched that the meals on klotok were some of the best we had throughout the 14-day Indonesia trip!

The cooks were preparing food at the kitchen on the lower deck of the klotok.

The lady was frying sambal – a spicy chilli condiment popular in Indonesia. There are many varieties of sambal using different ingredients found in different parts of Indonesia. We had sambal almost at every meal and some of us loved it so much we decided to enter the kitchen and tried to get the sambal recipe from the locals!

A mother and baby orangutans came close to our klotoks as we stopped by the river bank while waiting for lunch to be served.


Look at these orangutans. Don’t you think they behave like human?


The mother orangutan suddenly swung and pulled the boat canvas. I guessed the lady on the boat panicked and quickly got hold of the canvas and tried to latch it to the boat. Apparently, the mother orangutan was up too close and personal!

Proboscis Monkeys

Residents at Tanjung Puting National Park include the endemic proboscis monkeys and leaf-eating monkeys, Gibbons, silvered leaf monkeys, sambar deer, porcupines, sun bears, clouded leopards as well as reptiles and birds such as kingfishers and hornbills.


One of my favourite highlights of the cruise was to watch the bizarre-looking or rather cute-looking proboscis resting and hopping from branch to branch along the river banks. These monkeys have long nose and big belly and they are natively found in Borneo.

Tanjung Puting National Park is undoubtedly an incredible paradise to go primitive and enter into the mystic world of the orangutans – the gentle people of the jungle. It showcases the ‘Garden of Eden’ with an amazing array of flora and fauna.

How to get to Tanjung Puting National Park?

From Jakarta international airport, we took a 1+ hour flight via Kalstar to Iskandar airport in Pangkalan Bun, Central Kalimantan on Borneo island, Indonesia.

At Port Kumai, we started our 2 days 1 night eco-cruise tour.

For more information on Tanjung Puting National Park, visit Indonesia’s official tourism website: Indonesia.Travel
Tanjung Puting National Park : Re-introducing Orang Utans to the Wild
My travel article published on Indonesia.Travel website: The Mystic World of Orangutans