Indonesian Borneo, In Search of Orangutans (2012)

Indonesian Borneo, In Search of Orangutans (2012)

Kapuas may not be as well-known as Kaveri but is as wide and impressive.  Its delta is a tangle of tributaries each as wide as the parent river itself and sprawling over several kilometres. At 1143 kilometers, Kapuas is the longest and biggest river on the island of Borneo, originating in the highlands of central Kalimantan and flowing west into the South China Sea.   Unlike the Kaveri or the myriad other great rivers that flow through our planet, Kapuas seems to support few human settlements, at least in this western part of Borneo called Kalimantan Barat. No flourishing civilizations have ever been found on its banks, no ancient ruins, nor archaeological finds to challenge historians; not even modern townships found almost in every corner of earth built by that relentlessly aggrandising species called homo sapiens.  Could it be because Kapuas holds brackish water that can support little more than mangroves? I bend over the side of my tiny boat, scoop a handful of water to taste it.  It tastes different, but not brackish.

Relentless Homo Sapiens

Our motorised canoe splices the tranquil water like an arrow and speeds merrily, riding the crest like a graceful swan, creating nary a ripple. And of course, there is absolutely no traffic on this river.  Every ten miles or so, an occasional village perched on stilts fleets past.  Even these villages are recessed and away from the river, have no more than a dozen houses, all thatched and floating on water. You know there is a village only by a rudimentary jetty with a logs bobbing up and down next to a floating platform made of bamboo and thatch. We stop over in one such village. We have to be hauled over a floating log and virtually pick our way through floating platforms. Now I know why there are not many settlements in this part of Kalimantan. There is hardly any land here on the banks of the river. Huts are perched on floating and shifting land.  Fishing is the sole sustenance of these villages. They don’t even have regular transport to go to towns down river, only an occasional one like ours which would give them a ride. That means they are self-sustaining enough to remain isolated. We realise we are in the true wilderness.

Lush mangroves of a unique variety – some with fronds like tropical palms and others laden with fruits – mango lookalike, but inedible, wave a cheery welcome. The horizon is a perfect arc, splattered by a setting sun carelessly dripping resplendent ochre across the firmament.  That skies like this still exist gives an exhilarating sensation. The setting is tranquil to the point of being surreal. Cool winds caress your face and transport you into another world – sublime and primordial. If ever there is something called bliss, this must be it.

Five modes of transport

We are on our way back from Kubang Hill where we had been, primarily to spot wild urangutans and proboscis monkeys. Kubang hill is somewhere in the deep jungles of Indonesian Borneo, reached only by the determined, persistent and hardy traveller. Ours is a motely group of five, two teenagers, two seniors and a middle-aged woman, all from India. We had flown from Jakarta to Pontianak, a West Kalimantan town perched right on the equator, taken a seven hour ferry to Ketapong along the shores of South China Sea, driven a couple of hours in a SUV to Sukhadana at the mouth of Kapuas and made it our pit-stop to explore the wilderness around the region.

To get to Kubang Hill, the only hill for miles around in this flat plateau dense with primordial jungles, you need to first drive to a village called Teluk Melano and from there, hire two speedboats – each can take no more than three and we are five. The first couple of hours are a peaceful sail through Kapuas, the only sound being that of your outboard motor, with the fronds waving a ceremonial welcome and the expansive horizon receding further as you move towards it.  At some point you take a right turn into a mangrove creek where you transfer to two paddle canoes.

Dangling Snakes & Hovering Hornbills

Canoeing in the creeks of Bornean jungles is experience of a life time. The creek is narrow – not more than eight feet wide in most places with sticky red residue floating along the edges, suggesting the presence of oil.  The vegetation overhead is so low that in many places you have to crouch on the floor of the canoe to avoid getting tangled in the creepers and branches.  They form a continuous canopy overhead all along the way. The reflections offer a kaleidoscope of unique designs that no graphic designer can hope to reproduce. There is deafening silence all around, occasionally rent by the helicopter-like sound of a hovering hornbill in search of its dinner or the strident calls of  gibbons feuding over territory. The two young boys who paddle our canoe do so gingerly to avoid making any sounds so that we don’t scare away game.

Monstrous Mangroves

The setting is straight out of a ghost movie. Monster roots of mangroves jut out of water in scary shapes; they appear double since the placid waters reflect them faithfully.  Even the tree trunks seem to take on a fierce demeanour as the forest in Noddy books. The overhanging branches have all but blocked out any sunlight. We paddle gently and very slowly, looking for movement on the banks. Ali, one of the young boat boys points out snakes dangling from the branches overhead. We can see only their pinkish underbelly. We deftly avoid the snake-laden branch to paddle deeper and deeper into the jungle. Occasionally a branch swings violently, testifying to the presence of a primate perhaps, but we can hardly see anything through the dense foliage.  A rotting log felled by a tropical storm blocks our passage. The two boys climb down into the knee-deep water and heave it away from our path. Dar, our guide tells us how the previous year, a crocodile had swallowed a local villager. That is when we realise how courageous the two village lads have been, rolling up their trousers and plunging into the waters.

After about two hours of this paddling, we reach the Kubang Hill camp, a half-built shelter on one bank of the creek.  Kalimantan forest department has put up this shelter but has not completed it yet. It still lacks a roof. It is most basic with absolutely no amenities, not even water. The bank is all clay and slippery, there are no steps or ladder and we have to heave ourselves up the slope to reach this partial shelter. Earlier in the day, at Sukhadana, Dar had been resourceful enough to pick up rice and vegetable stew wrapped in local Bahasa newspapers. We perch on fallen logs sprouting iridescent woodchips to savour our lunch.  Buzzing butterflies in psychedelic colours provide a fetching distraction.

Follow your nose

And then begins our ordeal. We have to reach the top of the hill where there are massive Durian trees bursting with fruit. Not that spotting Durian takes any effort at all, your olfactory glands sense their presence long before you spot them. Just follow your nose, as they say.  Easier said than done though. Each of us has two sticks to help us navigate this treacherous stretch through prisitine jungle. There is knee-deep water throughout, left there by the rains of the supposedly dry season. No one minds getting wet, especially if you choose to come to Kalimantan, but here, at Kubang Hill, you don’t know what you are stepping on. Often it could be a tree-stump that cuts your toes or tries to throw you off balance. But more often than not, you’re the target of scores of leeches that latch themselves onto every part of your anatomy.

We had to take off our shoes and wade barefoot and almost every ten feet or so, we would stop to pick out leeches from between our toes or on various parts of our feet and legs. Sometimes they manage to leap and settle on your neck or hand. You pluck all those you notice, but what about all those you didn’t especially because their bites are quite painless? When you get back to Sukhadana in the night your bloody clothes will reveal how you have been outwitted by a mere leech that has had its fill and left its mark all over your anatomy!

Leeches galore

But leeches were the lesser of our problems on Kubang Hill. We could be stepping on snakes, venomous insects or plain thorny shrubs that could lacerate your feet. There is nary a dry spot throughout this trek.  Many times you step on a pile of meter-deep sodden leaves with insects lurking underneath. The trees in the jungle are so tall that you can hardly see the canopy unless you crane your neck. Finally Dar, our Dayak tour guide  stops and points to a fruiting Durian tree. The tree in the wild grows to a height of over 100 feet and its fruit is the favourite of urangutans, gibbons and macaques. But all you can see on top is a hairy blur and a fleeting flash of fur which Dar says, is an urangutan.  Despite tiptoeing to the spot, the big ape seems to have sensed our presence and with one swing of the branch, has vanished. All we are left with, after all this effort, is a violently shaking branch and a few durian peels, spiky and mushy on the ground.

But orangutan or no orangutan, this forest is gloriously wild, a true feast for the senses. Even as your eye takes in chlorophyll that comes in a range of shades and shapes, your ears are tuned to the irresistible cacophony that rules the rainforest. Strange bird calls resound at sunset while insects set up their own orchestra.   It either pours or drips and you are perpetually drenched to the bone. Almost every other tree seems to sport an orangutan nest – a leafy pile that the primates make every night to lie on, but we can’t sight the beast though.  We spot quite a few gibbons. Soon it is time for us to turn back since the forest shelter is not yet ready and there is no way of camping in this waterlogged jungle. So we reluctantly hop on to our canoes and paddle our way back through the same vine-festooned creek with weird and varied flora and fauna. Once we reach Kapuas river, we have a riot of proboscis monkeys darting from branch to branch, in an effort to catch the last of their supper before nightfall.

Our hotel in Sukhadana is a traditional Kalimantan structure perched on stilts and juts out into the sea.  Its walls are decorated with colourful and intricate rush mats woven by villagers in isolated hamlets. The hotel is surrounded by green expanse on three sides and an inscrutable grey sea on the fourth.  We dine by moonlight on a wooden deck that overlooks the sea.  In the morning, the low tide leaves behind sea snakes and scores of mud skippers; the latter entertain us with their mesmerising courtship dance.  Mudskippers are amphibians that use their pectoral fin on land and are quite at ease swimming in and out of slush.


Comfortable as Sukhadana is, we desert it the next day in favour of further adventure deep in the jungle. Our next destination is Lubuk Baji, the campsite hidden away in the jungle. It is not even on google maps; after all, it is just a notional shelter, a half-hearted shack made of wood with neither walls nor doors, but just a sloping roof on wooden pillars hoisted on a platform with a ladder to climb. It is situated on top of a hill in the jungle. But to those who have trekked the rainforest to reach here, it is nothing short of paradise. It takes seven hours of jungle trek in pouring rain to reach Lubuk Baji.  The route is strewn with mossy boulders, sodden leaves in various stages of rot with the attendant lurking creatures underneath, logs that have sprouted bright-coloured toadstools and harbour insects galore, vines that criss-cross your path tempting you to hang on to them for balance only to snap suddenly and hurl you down, copious quantities of slippery slush that creeps into your shoes and socks, fluorescent and venomous creepy crawlies that eye you warily from the trunks of trees, under the boulders, underfoot and everywhere around, cobwebs fluttering like buntings as if in ceremonial welcome, the rainforest is indeed a daunting place for a city dweller to be.

With ten kilos of gear strapped to my back, a heavy SLR camera dangling down my neck, an ankle-length raincoat that gets caught in every brush and branch, spectacles that blind me with steam if not with the pouring rain, it takes all my reserve energy and resolve to negotiate this stretch.

Lubuk Baji – Creepy crawly paradise

We spend a couple of days at Lubuk Baji exploring the jungle at different times of the day, all equally dark and steamy thanks to the thick canopy. Our porter-cum-cook who skipped lightly through the jungle in his rubber slippers has carried all our groceries including vegetables in a rucksack. Now he magically transforms these into delectable meals cooked on open fire with logs. How he managed to light the ever-damp logs is a mystery. We even get dark brown Indonesian coffee to top up our gourmet meals. The space below the platform serves as an effective shelter from the rain and doubles as a kitchen as well. A group of school children on environment study tour is already camping there. There is neither mattress nor pillow and all of us sprawl on the hard wooden floor and have never slept so soundly even on our own beds at home!

Tower of Babel

At night, the jungle turns into a veritable tower of babel. Nocturnal creatures emerge from the woodwork to exercise their vocal chords. They produce a cacophony of sounds that mimic some we are so familiar with, in the cities – like the screech of a tile-cutter or the hiss of a water pipe which has run out of water. There are other unfamiliar ones, quite unlike any you have ever heard. Insects set up such a racket that you have to cock your ears to catch that guttural grunt of urangutans. An alarmed bird lets out a shriek before flying away, flapping its wings noisily.  Luminous eyeballs in the foliage remind you that there are elusive creatures, perhaps jungle cats lurking out there.  We sit up on our wooden platform listening to the myriad magical sounds of a rainforest which goes to make such a wonderful jugalbandhi with the pitter patter of rain in the background providing the tanpura effect before exhaustion and sleep overtake us.

The journey back from Lubuk Baji to Sukhadana is memorable for the non-stop downpour which makes passage extremely risky. We hurtle down some slopes, cling to vines and branches and swing along in some stretches, crawl on all fours in others.  Every time you grab a vine or tree trunk, an army of angry insects crawl on your arms and explore your torso, leaving  red welts on the skin. Kapilan and Malavika, the two teenagers in the group sprint and skip lightly and reach the waterfall ahead of us where they frolic under a frothy natural spring.  As for the rest of us, the seven hour ordeal is one of the toughest we have ever undertaken.  But for our patient and encouraging Dayak guide Dar, might have ended up spending one more night in the jungle, perhaps  out in the open. We finally reach the plains, dripping from head to toe, scratched and bruised all over, but with a sense of exhilaration that we had been able to glimpse some primordial wilderness in all its glory.

Dinner swimming in glass cases

In the evening, we stroll down the streets of Sukhadana looking for a dining outlet.  It is a little village with neat rows of houses all beautifully maintained with their own little gardens and patios with a couple of inviting chairs.  There is an order and discipline in the layout of the village. It reminds me of the Madras of yore where I grew up.   There is just one high street, no ATMs or money changers. If you need to change currency, you have to either drive, take a bus or hitch a ride on a scooter to Ketapong.   On the main road, there are a few stalls with petromax lamps;  all have live specimens eyeing you warily from their glass cases.  If you don’t relish squid, octopus, sting ray, fish or sea snake, your option is rather limited – to ayams (chicken) in various avatars.  Our efforts to obtain a vegetarian variant of nasi, Bahasa for rice, did not yield any results. Obviously there is no concept of vegetarian food and we were offered packets of biscuits containing palm fat. Of course you can have Durian to your heart’s content, if only you can stand the fragrance.

Arjun Avatar

There was no time to dry our drenched clothes since our boat out of Sukhadana is to leave at 8 am the next day. We just stuff the smelly lot into our suitcases and rush to the boat jetty only to find that  even by 9 am, there is no sign of Bersul Express!

It comes all the way from Ketapong to pick up passengers in Sukhadana and the low tide has beached it a mile away in the mid-sea.  Now we have the rather daunting task of dragging  our luggage along a half a mile- long embankment  which is all of twelve inches wide. There is no other way to reach the boat which we must reach if we are to catch our flight from Pontianak to Jakarta that evening. The embankment is about six feet high and it takes all your nerve to negotiate the stretch in the blazing morning sun. Like Arjuna, you wear imaginary blinkers to keep out peripheral vision and focus on the narrow strip ahead.   Finally we come to a spot from where we have to drop down six feet to reach the wading sea water below.  For locals this is routine and they don’t seem to mind.  A local man offers his shoulders for me to hold on when I jump; I accept gratefully and land with a thud, but no damage. We wade through ankle deep sea which soon rises to our knees and then to our waist. Before it climbs any further, we reach our beached boat and heave ourselves in. Our luggage is loaded atop the boat and secured with tarpaulin and ropes. We are tightly packed like sardines in this little boat.

The boat ride through the inner delta is absolutely stunning. Lush mangroves line the banks, there is nothing between you and the wide horizon and your boat rocks in harmony with the gentle tide.   En route we see a few villages on stilts and occasionally, there are some floating markets as well. When the boat hours we reach Pontianak, the town that sits bang on the equator.


Kapuas is the lifeline of Kalimantan for many reasons. It is the lone waterway that enables villagers from many parts of the island to travel since flights are few and far between and quite expensive.  Pontianak perches between Kapuas and the sea and is a bustling port town that does brisk business in exports. No wonder it has sprouted many business hotels.  Long before you reach Pontianak, the delta becomes a beehive of activity and the river is packed with traffic. On the waterfront, houses sit on stilts and people use boats much the same way we use cars to move around.  Kapuas is at its widest near Pontianak and we see a curious construction on the river banks.  There are tall buildings which look like warehouses. There are neither doors nor windows, only little alcoves splattered all over the walls.  They seem to be custom-built for a purpose. And they are noisy, with the raucous chatter of birds.

Swallowing birds nests

Our curiosity takes us to one of these and we learn that these are custom-built bird houses where swallows are enticed to build their nests.  Birds’ nest soup is a delicacy relished all over Southeast Asia and elsewhere and is a Rupiah spinner for the people of Kalimantan.  ‘We don’t kill the birds or harm the young ones, we just take away the nests after the fledglings fly away” grins a villager.  Birds nest is big business in Pontianak.

Just as timber is. Our boat had to skirt several flotillas of logs bobbing in the river. Sometimes they stretch across for kilometres.

I am told that Bornean jungles are rapidly felled to make way for palm oil and rubber plantations and their wood is prized. I had earlier noticed while flying over the island that there seemed to be forest fires everywhere. These are not forest fires, but slash and burn to make way for palm oil plantations. Felling timber is perhaps the lesser evil if forests must be destroyed.

Parade of oil palms

In fact, earlier when we were flying into Pontianak, I had leaned over the smoky window to catch a glimpse of Borneo’s fabled biodiversity.  After all, it is the most biodiverse rainforest on our planet, richer than even the Amazon jungles in their stunning flora and fauna. Yet, all I could see for half hour or so is an endless continuum of monocropping.  As far as the eyes can see, oil palm plantations line up with sickening monotony.

The island of Kalimantan or Borneo as it is known, straddles the South China Sea and is shared by three nations – Indonesia controls two thirds, Malaysia, most of  the remaining landmass and Brunei, the richest Sultanate in the world occupies a tiny slot in the northeastern corner.  Malaysia was the first one to figure out that the unyielding mangrove native to the island can be coaxed to host oil palm plantations, a discovery that threatens to convert the last remaining rainforest into a vast expanse of oil palms. For millions of Malaysians, palm oil has brought quick prosperity. The island of Borneo has become the favourite destination of ocean going steamers that load palm oil onto massive containers and ferry them to all parts of the world where this gooey gelatinous substance transfigures everything from biscuits and pastries, processed foods and bakes into transfat-laden junk food we so relish. Now Indonesia, waking up to the possibility, has launched a massive drive to convert its virgin forests into anodyne plantations growing oil palm and rubber.

Hazy priorities

Pontianak, in recent times, has been attracting unflattering attention to itself, being at the centre of the inevitable development versus environment conflict. Even as its population has swollen to half a million – mostly Malay and ethnic Chinese being the largest minority, an increasingly disenfranchised native Dayak tribe whose natural habitat in the rainforest has been supplanted by oil palm, rubber and tobacco plantations is fighting to retain its traditional way of life against the onslaught of multinational corporations in search of cheaper raw materials.

Visitors to Pontianak must contend with a thick haze that hangs over the town, enveloping everything in sight. It is caused by slash and burn cultivation and the villagers have been reporting a very high incidence of respiratory diseases, a new phenomenon in this otherwise clean environment.  It is already dark, but we decide to visit the Equator Monument, a tower holding up a mock planet earth.  Pontianak has two newspapers, both in Bahasa.  We drive around the town soaking in the sights and ambience.  When we return to our hotel we find that it is hosting  a traditional Bornean wedding.  Because of our foreign origin, we are able to gate-crash into the wedding celebrations to take pictures with the beautiful bride and groom in traditional attire.

The next day we are on the flight to Jogjakarta to visit the magnificent Buddhist temple at Borobudur. From the airplane, the delta appears to be a tangle of varicose veins – of dozens of swollen rivers and hundreds of rivulets and creeks.  The landscape is largely flat with occasional hills sheathed in gossamer mist.  Pontianak, like many other towns in Indonesia is completely devoid of high rise blocks. How long it will remain so, especially with the palm oil glut and prosperity, is a million barrel question though.

(Published in Frontline issues dated Dec 31, 2012

& Jan 14, 2013)

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