January 8, 2011 (or the 9th here in Borneo – Kalimantan)
After over 27 hours of traveling, we finally landed in Singapore. Singapore was much more than what we had expected: the most modern city we’ve seen yet dotted with ethnic neighborhoods. After a good night’s sleep and despite jet lag, we walked over 20,000 steps (as noted on the FitBit) and oohed and ah’ed at the Singapore Marina Towers, which looked like a cruise ship had been placed on top of three high rises, and the modern art museum, a five-fingered glove protruding into the sky. At Raffles, we drank our first (and last) Singapore Sling and then continued exploring the city. Surprised that the traffic was not frenetic and noting the lack of obnoxious motor cycles we saw in other Asian countries, we enjoyed the spectacular architecture and cleanliness. We laughed and patted ourselves on the back for seeing so much and being so active until we noticed Jim’s lower legs: bright red with blisters on his left leg. After the doctor checked it out the following day, we learned that he had circulatory challenges exacerbated by the long flight and walk. The doctor loaded Jim up with antibiotics and bandages and sent us on our way to the wilds of Borneo.
That afternoon we flew to Jakarta and then in the morning hopped aboard a flight to Semarang on the island of Java where we connected to Pangkalan on the island of Borneo. (As a point of reference, Indonesia, the fourth largest country in the world, consists of over 14,000 islands.) There we met Pardi, our guide. A 24 year old self-professed “jungle boy,” Pardi was more than able as a guide. Personable, knowledgeable, patient, and love sick, he entertained us with stories of the Sekonyer River, life after his father was killed due to tribal warfare, and his heart break over being recently dumped by his sweetheart. (“And I’m such a good guy, why wouldn’t she want me?”)
For two hours we boated down the Sekonyer River – a narrow, deep brown river – with banks lined with palms and ferns on a kelotok, a long, narrow motorized boat with two levels – an upper deck where we lounged and watched the proboscis monkeys with their protruding noses and shimmering tails and the lower deck where the captain navigated the river. At last, we landed at Rimba Lodge, an eco-lodge with a mission to protect Borneo and its orangutans, or “people of the forest.” Wooden platforms served as sidewalks that connected the various cabins, restaurant and bar (even though the government forbids the sale of alcohol), and office. Our room, simple but perfect, had a large bed with protective mosquito netting draped around it and a ceiling fan. The bathroom – also perfect and simple – had a toilet and wooden floors where the shower water somehow drained outside. The beautiful stone sink was the surprise. It could have been in a show house anywhere in the world.
Early the next morning, we boarded our kelotok and putted down the river for two hours for the first feeding station for the orangutans. As we debarked, Siswi and her yet unnamed baby ambled up to us, hoping for bananas. She would only let us come so close before she climbed up the trees and swung from branch to branch, following us to the feeding station, a 30 minute hike into the rainforest. At the feeding station – a raised platform which the conservation workers kept filling up with bananas and milk in buckets – about 8 orangutans took turns on the platform and climbing the trees above us. Most were mothers with babies clutching them and perhaps an older child nearby.
Bananas must have been a special treat since both mom and baby often reached down to grab as many as possible, plop them in their mouths, reach down for some more and then try to cram even more in their mouths. Sometimes they would have as many as seven bananas poking out their mouths. We were surprised to see the mothers grab bananas out of the little ones’ hands until we learned that orangutans nurse until their babies are about 3 years old so the mom needs all the nutrition that she can get. The older babes stay nearby her until they’re about 8 when it’s time to become independent.
Along with the bananas, the orangutans fed on buckets of milk. They would stick their head into the buckets and slurp as much down as possible. Occasionally, the little ones would do what our young ones will do at Christmas time with the boxes presents come in: hop into the bucket and jump around. At other times they would grab the buckets with their feet and rapidly climb the tree clutching the bucket so no other orangutans could get at it.
After over an hour of watching the moms and their little ones eat and climb and swing from branch to branch, the first male lumbered on to the scene. The females and little ones scattered, leaving him to devour all the bananas and drink all the milk he wanted. We were warned to stay out of his way since males can be slightly aggressive especially when food is nearby. Males are huge and have black cheeks that almost look like extended ears. Males stay alone except when they mate, and then they up and disappear once again.
Suddenly he scampered away as a second male lumbered on to the scene. This guy was the king and he was huge and ferocious looking. The problem was that there were no more bananas. He was way too late for the party. We packed up our water and insect repellant and headed back to the kelotok, only to find that he was following us. Our guides were nervous and rushed us along, encouraging us not to linger taking pictures. I guess a hungry male orangutan is not one to mess with.
At the feeding station, we met Mike and Gerard, a father and son team who had been sailing around the world on a 27 foot sailboat for the last three years. They had only encountered two major storms, one a cyclone that pushed them 300 miles off their route in one direction, and then the following day – after spending a few hours in the eye of the storm – 300 miles in the other direction.
Back on the kelotok, we headed to Camp Leakey, an orangutan rehabilitation center. After watching young orangutans play with the gibbon monkeys and the wild pigs we trekked down the well worn path to the feeding station. As we sat down, an ornery and gutsy mom with her little one sat next to Jim. For another hour or so we once again watched the moms with their little ones munch away and grab the bananas out of the hands of the little one.
As we wandered back to the camp, we saw a few hornbills fly over head, watched the monkeys dive from the tress into the river and swim to the other bank, and caught a glimpse of a crocodile before it ducked below the water. We also talked about the different color of water – the brown of the main river caused by the mining up river and the inky black color of some tributaries caused from the tannin of the fallen leaves and other debris.
The following day we once again visited the orangutans to watch them feed and play. A joy of the day was a visit to a small village near the Rimba Lodge. We walked by small metal roofed homes and watched the women wash their clothes in the canal water that ran through the village. But more than clothes were washed in that canal: cows and the villagers themselves bathed in the muddy water. Children flocked to us out of curiosity and hope for candy, and their parents smiled and waved.
From Rimba Lodge we spent a day traveling to Gili Trawagan, including two flights and a speed boat ride across the Indian Ocean. More to come on Gili T.