Borneo to be Wild

Shortly after our return from Singapore, an unexpected travel opportunity landed on our lap. A friend of friends had put together a 5 day eco-tour test run to West Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia, and wanted a small group of lucky guinea pigs to try it out and give feedback so that she can tweek it and offer it as a way of exposing outsiders to the beauty, and varied environmental and cultural issues and battles going on in this small nook of Southeast Asia.

We barely had time to repack, but were excited by the chance to see Borneo, which had long been on Jennifer’s short list of most desired destinations. Borneo is one of Indonesia’s more than 17,000 islands, and the world’s 3rd largest after Greenland and New Guinea. It lies due north of Bali across the Java Sea. This trip would take us to the western coast of one of its regions, West Kalimantan. Lorna was our tour guide. Her life has been split between Indonesia and the UK., and she’s well versed in the language and cultures of Indonesia, and cares deeply about its welfare and people. There were 6 others that rounded out our team. Three of them were journalists, specially sought out by Lorna so as to write about the varied issues that we were destined to learn about. I first met one of them, Stephanie, in my Ubud writers group a few months ago, just as she and her photographer husband David had published a beautiful travel book, Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage, that chronicles a dozen extraordinary adventures they took into the far reaches of Indonesia. They sat behind us as our flight left Jakarta for Pontianak, and I discovered that our in-flight magazine featured an article about another one of their adventures!

That first night was spent at a beautiful retreat. It was a chance to meet Lorna, share some beers, savor one last nice bed and bathroom, and get a good rest -which we’d need. The ruggedness of this trip began the next morning, as we climbed down into our long speedboat for a nearly 5 hour trip to the southern coastal village of Sukadana. This was how the villagers travelled. Every seat was taken. Lots of cargo piled on top, and the passengers crammed in below into small, hard chairs absent of leg room -at least to anyone taller than 5′ 11. The wide muddy river was lined for miles on both sides with corrogated tin shacks, blocky buildings, stillted wooden houses, colorful boats, and worn out piers. Eventually this poor urban scene gave way to what would become the accostomed scene for the duration: lush green riverside; distant mountains; occasional jetties; passing barges of minerals and palm oil; small motorboats; and river water that changed from brown to blue to green to rust, over and over. We sat behind the driver, who alertly steered us around and through a constant sea of floating logs and bobbing objects -at a high speed. Periodically, the boat would bounce for a spell across choppy water, and often this was quite uncomfortable. We made one stop for a quick lunch at a pier-side series of food stalls in the middle of nowhere. I spent most of my time admiring the natives and their wares and stares and riverside world.

We eventually arrived at our destination, Sukadana, found our rooms, set down our small backpacks, and piled into a van. We were driven to meet with the founders of Health In Harmony at their small, bustling medical clinic established inside Ganung Palung National Park. Dr. Kinari Webb began studying orangutans there 15 years ago as a biology student, and recognized the link between the destructive forces of the loggers upon the environment and their desparate need for health care. She and her biz partner Hotlin Ompusunngu, developped a unique program called ASRI to provide free health care -and job training- for those villagers willing to give up their logging. Plans are now afoot to build a small hospital there. In lockstep with ASRI is a program run by an Illinoise transplant named Erica who addresses the deforestation issues directly by creating a barter system for supplies, native handicrafts, and labor. They also organize tree-planting efforts and act as forest guardians. To see Health In Harmony in action and to hear these women talk about what they do was very moving and impressive. Jennifer and I felt in the company of heroes. We shared glances. Could this be our calling, as volunteers? Turns out, not without medical degrees.

We spent a lot of time on a smaller, more modern, chartered speedboat over the next couple of days, going through the Karimata Archipelago. The scenery was beautiful, but again, the rides were long and quite uncomfortable, especially the bone-crunching stretches of choppy waters. And climbing out of the boat and up onto the ladder-less piers was often very challeging (this was helpful feedback). The tide was usually very low, exposing the narrow piers and wooden walkways used between houses. Often, scores of fish lay drying in the sun upon the wooden boards.  At one island, we happened upon a graduation ceremony at a small school, and sat in for a short time to watch the proud parents and students. We had prearranged meals at specific places amid these small island villages, and these stops afforded us the opportunity to speak to the locals and see their living conditions. Often, we were met and followed by a team of local officials, monitoring the progress of what they hope becomes a routine of eco-tourism. We often sat and asked our hosts about their lives and needs. We were a rare sight everywhere, and on one island, the first foreigners to spent the night there.

We ate and slept in the homes of our hosts, on the floor. Large feasts of rice and varied fish, vegetables and tea were generously offered to us. Meanwhile, adults and children washed clothes, played nearby, came and went, stared, or just carried on. One of the homes belonged to a prior sultan, evidensed by 2 old rusty cannons out in front. A team of young men arrived with their motorbikes and took us on a memorable ride along the only road on their island. First we swam in beautiful warm ocean waters, set in an idylic setting of rocks and tropical mountain forest. Then we passed through countless small villages full of waving, shouting locals, on the way to watch the sunset.

Another location, Lubuk Baji, resembled beautiful Bali, due to its history of transmigrants. We stayed in a new, cute, small house built next to a small dam, next to rice fields, at the base of the Gunung Palung mountains. We worked with ASRI to plant trees, and spoke to their workers about the struggles to keep the chainsaws out of this National Park. The next day, we awoke early to hike to the crest of the mountains. It was hot and humid, and often steep, but really fun. Some stretches required a rope to help climb both up and down. We passed waterfalls and saw bat clusters, interesting insects and flowers, and though we never saw orangutans, we did see a few of their nests, high up in the trees. We were rewarded at the mountain’s crescent, by a pair of majestic rhino-hornbills flying slowly below us.

Our eco adventure soon came to an end. We enjoyed a fabulous sunset and last meal together back at our hotel and talked about our experiences. I expressed concern that -despite it’s good intentions- this eco-tour would bring more people to a region that is unspoilt and unknown. These things must be handled carefully, something that Lorna is fully aware of.

We all had differnet paths ahead of us. Stephanie and Dave were heading directly to Bhutan (!). Clare went back to Bali to work on her next book. Anna would follow Lorna into Central Kalimantan. And Jennifer and I set off to explore the ancient tribal Dayak villages and riverways of inner Borneo.






















2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Matt Colonell
    Jul 06, 2014 @ 16:17:51

    Wow! Wonderful pictures!!! What a serendipitous experience . . . the adventure continues.


  2. Alexsandra Trevor
    Jul 07, 2014 @ 03:31:12

    So glad to hear about your adventures there. Wish my schedule would have worked so I could have gone as well. Maybe next time. Thanks for posting,


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