“Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.”
Apologies to Joseph Conrad for stealing this quote from The Heart of Darkness, but a recent trip to Tandjung Puting Park in Borneo to visit the world’s largest population of organgutans felt a bit like being a character in his novel.
Tandjung Puting is home to 6,000 organgutans which are one of the planet’s three great apes (chimpanzees and gorillas are the other two). The park gives you an up close view of these remarkable animals.
I glimpsed a few orangutans in the wild, but mostly saw them at the park’s three feeding stations where rangers provide bananas once a day.
Tandjung Puting was first designated a national park by the Dutch in 1939, and later by the Indonesian government, but the orangutan reserve is mainly the work of a remarkable scientist named Birute Galdikas who arrived here in 1971 by dugout canoe.
She spent years following the orangutans often wading or standing in peat swamps with water up to her chest. These videos were made in less rugged conditions.
It was a magical experience watching these creatures emerge from jungle. You first would see tree branches swaying and then would catch a glimpse of red hair in the trees and finally they would slowly walk or swing over to the feeding platform.
In addition to researching the orangutans, Dr. Galdikas also began a rehabilitation program for hundreds of them that had been captured or lost their homes due to rainforest destruction. The feeding stations are a step in their rehab program to become completely independent “wild” creatures of the rainforest. For more info click here.
Jungle trekking in Borneo
I spent a few days just walking through the jungle which is different than any trek in the Sierras. First, the rainforests are home to a remarkable number of plant species. A single acre might have hundreds of different tree species and other plants. In addition to orangutans these forests are also home to many different kinds of animals and plants. Here are just a few:
“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness”
Also saw tarantulas, crocodile, eagles, macaques, wild boars, crestless fireback, grey heron, mynahs, maroon monkey, gibbons and a few more I couldn’t identify.
My guides were from the village of Sekonyer. A generation before their families were people of the jungle. These men were deeply familiar with the jungle. It was like walking through a pharmacy as they pointed out trees and plants and the medicinal uses.
Muliadi also had the ability to whistle like birds who lived in the forest. He would whistle and the birds would return the call.
He also told us a few stories. His father had a long-standing dialogue with a green viper, one of the most poisonous in the jungle. This snake stalked him for several weeks. Finally, the father made a deal with him….you can hang with me for two more weeks, then after you need to go home…apparently it worked.
Muliadi invited us to visit his village of Sekonyer which had been moved from the park side of the river to the other side with a grant from the Japanese government. I assumed it would be a very poor village. However, was surprised to find streets with pavers, nice houses, solar-powered street lamps and a satellite dish at every house. Just another example, of the clash between the old and new here in Indonesia.
The rainforests are spectacular, but they have been devastated by logging, palm oil plantations and other forms of destruction. Dr. Galdikas has done a remarkable job of educating the locals and others why the park and rainforest should be preserved. But you can see the pressure of development and modernization at work here every day. For more information click here.
Lest you think that the jungle means deprivation and hardship…the Indonesians have found a way to make the trip very easy. You travel in a boat called a klotok with your own guide, cook and crew. The food is delicious. You sleep on the river under a mosquito net while listening to the sounds of forest…
“We couldn’t understand because we were too far… and could not remember because we were traveling in the night of first ages, those ages that had gone, leaving hardly a sign… and no memories.”