Get close to wild orangutans from the comfort of a river liveaboard that helps keep local cultures and wildlife alive.
First published in Garuda Colours inflight magazine in August 2018
“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir, naturalist and environmental philosopher.
If Indonesia was a person, Borneo would be her soul. Sitting right on the Equator, this giant island has drawn explorers from all over the world for centuries, who come searching for a piece of the lost world, a land that time forgot.
Borneo belongs to three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, with Indonesia holding the largest portion, which we know as Kalimantan. The name itself is derived from the Sanskrit word Kalamanthana, meaning “burning weather island”, describing her hot and humid tropical weather.
Borneo is home to ancient rainforests, approximately 130 million years in age, making it one of the oldest in the world. These forests are home to thousands of species of flora and fauna, many endemic to this island, and some critically endangered like the Bornean orangutan.
There is money to be made from tourism and keeping the forest and local cultures alive. This is being educated to locals by social enterprise Wow Borneo, created by two British expats, Gaye Thavisin and Lorna Dowson-Collins. These ladies converted a traditional riverboat known as a rangkan into a magnificent cruise boat that goes by the name Rahai’i Pangun. They claim to have been the first jungle cruise on the Rungan River in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, when they started operating in 2007.
Our three-day, two-night journey onboard the Rahai’i Pangun began at Palangkaraya’s river harbour. She was the largest boat docked at the harbour, and our guide Indra Setiawan helped us alight. Rahai’i Pangun is a floating wooden marvel with five air-conditioned bedrooms and an open-air dining area and living room with a large observation deck.
Departing from the harbour at 9am, we began cruising upstream in what felt like a floating dream. With a cup of local coffee in my hands, I enjoyed observing villages of wooden stilted houses on the river’s edge, and canoe-like fishing boats go by. Children waved enthusiastically at us from both sides of the river, some running alongside trying to keep up.
As man’s world started fading away, the forest world engulfed us, and all we could hear, see and smell was the river and peat forest. A couple of hornbills flew gracefully overhead, their large wings wooshing.
Within a couple of hours of relaxed cruising through forest, we reached the island of Kaja, a 25-hectare sanctuary for rehabilitated orangutans, managed by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF). Kaja has dense greenery as far as the eye can see, and spotting the furry orange friends in the trees was a sight to behold.
There are 57,350 individuals of the Pongo pygmaeus orangutan species left in the wild in Kalimantan, and 14,470 of Pongo abelii, a related species in Sumatra, according to a joint report published by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the Indonesian Orangutan Forum, the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group, and other environmental groups earlier this year.
Conservation efforts have paid off, and numbers are up since the first edition of the report was published in 2004. The number of Sumatran orangutans was down to 6,600 at that time. There’s no count for the number of individuals Borneo orangutans in the first study, but the current population is slightly higher than what researchers expected for this year.
That’s in part due to sanctuaries like Kaja, where rescued animals are reintroduced into the forest to form new populations, for example after they have strayed into palm oil plantations due to the loss of their habitat.
Wow Borneo aims to show locals that through tourism, there is value in preserving the forest and the culture of the local Dayak people. It donates US$25 to BOSF per visitor onboard one of its river cruises.
Nico Hermanu, BOSF’s communications officer, later told me that Wow Borneo tours also help visitors gain a better understanding of the orangutans, beyond superficial interest. “They also get to see that this great ape live on the high canopy of trees, help disperse seeds, and maintain the quality of a forest area.”
Our boat continued upstream. Every now and then we passed illegal gold miners working on mobile gold-sifting units along the river, expelling smoke and loud noises from their engines.
“The river water is brown due to these miners churning up silt from the riverbed,” Setiawan said. “Tomorrow I will take you where the river is black – that is the true colour of the river.” He explains that as vegetation decays, the leaching of highly soluble tannins creates water that is darkly stained, resembling tea.
We traversed further upstream until we landed at Kanarakan, a traditional Dayak village. Greeted by friendly yet curious children, we were given a traditional Dayak welcome ritual. White paint made of rice porridge with pandanus leaf was smeared on our faces to cleanse our spirits and protect us. I donned my leaf headdress with pride.
A highlight was sampling betel nut, the region’s equivalent to South America’s coca leaves. An ibu (mother) sliced the orange fruits into smaller pieces and wrapped them in betel pepper leaves before handing them over to us to chew. She laughed hard as she watched our grimacing faces bite down into a foul and bitter taste. The kick you get rivals that of coffee, which explained why so many of the village elders had dark red-stained teeth and gums.
Early next morning, we departed on smaller boats to an island surrounded by the mysterious black water Setiawan had told us about. Cruising through dense jungle on either side, we felt removed from our realities. On engine-powered canoes, we were able to get much closer to the orangutans, this time spotting seven in total. They groomed and played with one another, oblivious to our curious stares.
After lunch, we continued upriver through small and windy tributaries on another motorised canoe to Bapallas Island, a 14-hectare reserve, where ten orangutans were hanging out. One in particular caught my attention. Her name is Kesi and one of her hands is a stump. She had been rescued from a palm oil plantation, where she had been attacked and mutilated by plantation workers who are often frightened of the creatures they consider pests.
Seeing these stunning animals in the wild, albeit rehabilitated and protected by rangers, is both a hopeful sight and one with a poignant reminder that our continued development threatens their survival.
Wow Borneo’s cruises create livelihoods that replace some of the common jobs found here like fishing, logging, or gold mining. Employing 20 local people, the venture provides fair wages, family health cover, insurance, as well as termination payments to its staff.
“We work with community tourism groups in each village we visit, who provide guide services, cultural events, and canoe hire for a price agreed annually,” says co-founder Thavisin. “Since we started our company, a total of US$200,000 has gone directly to the community.”
Thavisin explains that her eco-tour has helped to revive sangar, the local dance groups, which were disappearing in the region as tradition started to fade. We watched the lively and colourful traditional Dayak dances being performed to us by enthusiastic young people in Kanarakan village, an experience I will never forget. Like true tourists, we wore the yellow selendang (shawl) and joined in the festivities, although nowhere near as graceful as the locals.
Returning back to civilization after two nights sleeping in the depths of the forest was – like betelnut – a hard nut to swallow. It is heartwarming to know that the windy river of Rungan, with its sprawling jungle on either side, still exists in Central Kalimantan, and that this social enterprise is helping to preserve it. I feel as though I left a part of my soul on that sleepy river, and I would go back in a heartbeat to find it.