"Arctracer" Letters

Kalimantan, Borneo, Oct 2005

We left Bali on Thursday, October 13 at daylight. We had a pretty good trip up the Lombok Strait, hugging the Bali shore to avoid the adverse current and even picked up some countercurrents. We cleared the strait well before dark, which was good because that's when the fleets of little fishing boats come out for night work from all the villages along the shore. These are sailing canoes with outriggers on both sides and colorful sails. There are hundreds of them and they don't always use lights, so they are a real hazard to navigation. Just off the top of Bali we found many fishtraps, some quite substantial structures without lights, and we were glad to be 10 miles offshore and away from them by dark.

The Java Sea was full of boats! Most were fishing boats but there were also tugs with barges (some unlighted!), big ferries, container ships, tankers, Indonesian island traders, and an offshore oil rig. One morning just before daylight Nina saw 10 fishing boats far from any shore, a ship, and two tugs with unlit barges. Luckily the barges show up on our radar! We had to keep our eyes open. The southeast wind blew 30 knots as we passed the top of Bali, but then dwindled away to nothing. We floated around in the middle of the Java Sea for more than a full day with absolutely no wind and glassy calm seas. It was good for reading and doing 2 months of laundry with rain water we collected. After the calm day the breeze and current both seemed to come from westerly directions, so the change of monsoon seasons was apparently upon us. We also spent a good bit of time in heavy overcast with big rain squalls. The squalls provided most of the wind for the last half of the passage. We ended up motor sailing west along the Borneo coast for more than a day to reach the Kumai River. The river itself was easy to navigate, though we did find the outgoing current slowed us by a knot or two at times. Seven yachts were already anchored at Kumai (latitude 2 degrees 42.5 minutes South, longitude 111 degrees 48.25 minutes East) when we arrived, and three others arrived after us. Some only came for fuel since they were motoring almost all the time, but most wanted to see the wildlife too. (We have heard that you can look at satellite photographs of wherever we are on Goggle Earth, but have never tried it. However, we did see one photo of the rivers and terrain we traversed on our trip to see orangutans and it looked good.

Borneo is the third largest island in the world. (Greenland is biggest, then New Guinea, and Australia is a continent not an island.) Kalimantan is the Indonesian part including all of southern Borneo. It sits on the equator and gets huge amounts of rain so is mostly jungle with big rivers. Joseph Conrad set many stories in this area, and his Europeans suffered from heat, fever, and isolation. Borneo is not heavily populated, and has a wealth of timber, gold, oil, and other resources. Its rainforest is huge, complex, not well-understood, and its plants and animals are in serious danger due to logging and mining. Palm oil (it is in a huge number of the products you use) plantations have converted rainforest to monoculture, causing many ecological problems but helping to meet global demands. We have crossed the Wallace Line which runs just east of Bali and Borneo. It was identified by Alfred Russell Wallace who studied the plants and animals of this area and came up with the concept of natural selection independently and at the same time as Charles Darwin. West of the line the animals are those of Asia because they arrived via land bridges during ice ages when sea levels were low. England has only 35 species of trees, but in just the 285 square miles of Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan the different species include more than 600 trees, 200 orchids, 220 birds, and 28 large mammals.

Several outfits in Kumai provide tours to see the wildlife. While some clients come by yacht, most arrive by plane or ferryboat. One local got fuel in jugs for us, but the jugs were not entirely filled so we didn't do any more business with him. We finally booked a two-day tour with Harry's Yacht Service (email borneowilderness@hotmail.com or herry_roustaman@yahoo.com or visit harryyachtservice.blogspot.com). Harry seems to be a really good guy in many respects. His company provided one man as a boat guard who slept in our cockpit while we were away. We were the only tourists on a little river boat with a captain, cook, and guide. These boats are called "klotoks" because of the noise made by their simple little Chinese diesel engines and ours was named "Gahaya Purnama" which means "Full Moon." Humphrey Bogart would have felt right at home after the "African Queen." We had the top level to ourselves, with a canopy sheltering us from both sun and rain. It did rain hard several times, but we stayed dry unless we went out of our shelter to see better. The cook served good Indonesian food three times per day, plus snacks and all the bottled water we could drink.

It took about five hours the first day just to ride up the river, first past many local fisherman fishing for shrimp with worms on hooks from their small outriggers, then past Nipa Palms, then Pandanus and tall grasses called bakung leaves in the local language, and finally the variegated lowland rain forest. Along the way we had glimpses of several Southern Pied Hornbills which were easily disturbed by the engines of the tour boats and flew away from our boat. We did see several Proboscis Monkeys. These leaf-eaters leap from tree-to-tree, and are found only in Borneo. The locals call them "Dutchmen Monkeys" because their red faces and big noses do look somewhat like sunburned Europeans. Jerry got a few good photos as the boat kept put-putting along through the rain.

After motoring down the Kumai River to the Sekonyer River (peanut butter colored due to illegal gold mining up river) and then 8 km up the Camp Leaky River (tannin colored from natural organic material) we arrived at Camp Leaky in time for the afternoon orangutang feeding. A tourist couple from the UK was there too. This camp was established in 1971 by Birute Galdikas, and she and other scientists have studied orangutans here ever since. Her work has attracted much attention, including articles in National Geographic (one in 1980). Now the area is part of the Tanjung Puting National Park, and research is helped by the International Orangutang Foundation, the Indonesian government, and other donors. We passed police posts and ranger stations intended to curtail illegal gold mining and logging, but corrupt officials apparently allow those activities to continue. Orangutans once lived across large areas of Asia, but they are now found only in Borneo and parts of Sumatra. While wild orangutans are the object of most studies, there are also rehabilitation centers here for orphans and animals recovered from the (illegal) pet business. More information is available at www.orangutang.org and probably other websites too.

On our first of 3 stops to watch orangutans during the trip we were fortunate to see eleven of them. Every feeding time is different as not all of the orangutan population in the areas appear every day. They do find food on their own most days. At the building used to cook for the 20 workers at this station we saw an aggressive 28-year-old female orangutan named Anuck with her 5 year-old baby named Enuck still clinging to her constantly. We also watched a 27-year-old male named Siswi attempt to climb up the house looking for food. When they threatened to throw hot water on him he retreated to the ground. After arriving at the radio station to wait for a ranger to go with us to the feeding station we watched first Siswi, then Anuck and Enuck going into the storage shed where fruit is kept. The rangers said the shed was empty as the door was ajar, but the orangutans found bananas and brought them out to eat in front of us. We couldn't believe how fast they can peel bananas! And after mom and son finished their bananas, they went to Siswi and took some of his - which he seemed quite willing to share. It used to be that tourists could feed the orangutans, but that has stopped now as those like Anuck mentioned above got too aggressive in an attempt to find food on tourists. The feeding station is about a 30 minute walk away from all buildings to encourage the orangutans to live naturally in the forest. Many of the animals here are unable to find enough food for themselves every day because of their former captivity or loss of their mother. Bananas were taken to them when we were there. Their eating habits vary as do humans. We watched one female peel a whole hand of bananas then chew them in her mouth for minutes while a male peeled one banana at a time and ate it delicately. Orangutans are arboreal, living almost entirely in trees, and move through the forest by brachiating. That is, they do not jump from tree to tree but swing with their long arms always securely holding on to at least one branch. They are much like people, about our size and identical in 97 percent of our genes. We saw several, big and small, and were amazed at how fast they could eat bananas. The small ones are absolutely adorable, and cling to their mothers for at least five or six years. We saw one mother with a 2-year-old constantly clinging to her and a 6-year old adolescent who didn't want to follow her. It was fun to watch the Mom getting him from one tree to another. The big ones are very strong, with adult males weighing up to 400 pounds and approximately eight times as strong as a man. Adults lead quite solitary lives, and do not form families or any other social groups.

We slept comfortably aboard on the river, listening to a wild cacophony of mysterious insect, frog and other noises. We didn't see any crocodiles, but know they were around. We were told that when seen they are usually about 2 meters long. There were surprisingly few mosquitos, but we slept under a mosquito net because we do not want malaria. The next morning we saw a gorgeous Stork-billed Kingfisher singing his territorial song. This is the largest kingfisher in the area - bright yellow with green wings - a marvelous sight. Jerry saw one small snake, but there must be many. We also saw an enormous number of colorful butterflies.

We stopped at other sites as we went back down the river. At our first stop we walked for about 15 minutes into the forest, taking a photo of an insect-eating pitcher plant on the way. Upon arrival at the orangutan feeding station at Pondok Tangguy Ranger Station we watched a pregnant mother orangutan named Monty and her 6-year-old adolescent arriving to eat bananas. We also had a very close view of mother Rosemary and her 2-year-old son Roger. Roger could peel his own bananas, but he often took hunks of banana out of his mother's mouth. At another stop we watched a baby orphan who was learning to climb trees, taught by a surrogate (human) mother dressed in a brown uniform with long sleeves and long pants. Here we saw two more tourists, from Holland. We were amazed at how few tourists we saw during our two day tour. There are 4 other baby orangutans in the quarantine area where tourist are not allowed. Another jungle walk at this stop brought us to a feeding session for wild orangutans. We watched a large male estimated to be about 19 years old arrive by swinging through the trees over our heads. Luckily he provided no "local rain" (as the locals say) as he went over us. We heard another orangutan nearby but it was apparently waiting for the male to leave. It was getting late, so we headed back to our klotok before the male left. We saw Bearded Pigs with wonderful whiskers, sniffing out bits of dropped bananas, Long-tailed Macaques like those we saw on Rindja, and some "squirrels", which looked like our big chipmunks. We visited a reforestation project, where the government is planting ironwood trees, local trees used for furniture making, and other trees native to the area in an area which was burned in 1998 and caused very poor visibility for weeks both to the local captains and guides attempting to take tourists up the river and to yachts in the area (www.fnpf.org).

We visited a village where the locals make a few handicrafts to sell to tourists. This village is in such low land that they make artificial islands of higher ground for growing vegetables, and still we got the impression that they were losing the fight to stay above water. The last marvel of our excellent trip was seeing clouds of fireflies blinking the night away near some Nipa Palms for many miles along the riverbank.

We had Harry's Yacht Service clear us out of Indonesia because they knew how to contact the officials even during Ramadan when they are often not in their offices. It cost us 250,000 rupiah but we considered it money well spent. The officials are known to ask for more money when yachties try to do it themselves, and we probably would have been unable to complete the job in one day. We left our official papers with Harry about 10 in the morning and they were delivered back to the boat at 8 p.m. after finding some of the officials at their homes. Wednesday the 26th we left Kumai, the last yacht to depart.

The passage up the South China Sea towards the equator and Singapore has been slow, with little wind and some huge rain squalls. We've seen plenty of lightning, but so far nothing too close. At times along the Kalimantan coast we had to watch very carefully for logs floating in the water, especially around the mouths of rivers. There are many ships too, so we continue to keep a good lookout. During these last two passages we've had a couple of hitch-hiking land birds overnight, seen three mahi-mahi swimming along beside the boat in very calm water, seen many schools of fish jumping but going too slowly to catch anything on one of our lures, seen a whale, dolphins, many flying fish (some on deck) and some jellyfish and sea snakes. As of noon on the 30th we are at 0 degrees 50 minutes South and 106 degrees 35 minutes East, sailing slowly with our spinnaker and anticipating our 8th crossing of the equator on our boat within the next 24 hours.

(view Kalimantan photos)