What do you think about when you hear the word Borneo? Before I visited, I imagined hot and humid temperatures, and lush jungle so thick you would need a machete to walk through it. Wild orangutans and dangerous animals would roam freely. Bugs would be the largest and scariest in the world – basically what nightmares are made of! Mosquitos would eat you alive all day and all night! Indigenous tribes would live on the land farming and hunting, much like they would have done for hundreds of years. Were my perceptions correct? What would our Borneo ecotour uncover? I couldn’t wait to find out.
Borneo is the third largest island in the world and the largest in Asia. The island itself is divided up and ruled by three countries: Malaysia and Brunei in the north, and Indonesia to the south. The Indonesian part of Borneo is called Kalimantan.
I took my four kids (13, 14, 16 and 20 years old) on a 4 day Borneo ecotour of Kalimantan as part of our three week Indonesian adventure. More specifically, we focused our time on Tanjung Puting National Park and the rivers around it.
Tanjung Puting National Park
Tanjung Puting is the largest and most diverse protected example of coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest in the world. It contains 3,040 km2 (or 1,174 square miles) of low lying swampy terrain and rivers which flow into the Java Sea. Its phenomenal eco-diversity creates multiple zones of different plant life providing microhabitats for plants and animals. The net effect is that many species exist and live in close proximity to one another which is not possible anywhere else.
Tanjung Puting also has remarkable animal life. There are:
- hundreds of bird species,
- 9 primates, including the bizarre looking proboscis monkey and the endangered orangutan
- two species of crocodiles;
- dozens of snakes, butterflies and moths; and
- other animals, such as clouded leopards, civets, and multiple species of deer.
In 1935, the area was declared a game reserve and in 1982, a National Park.
The great news about Indonesia is there are a lot of local airlines offering ridiculously inexpensive flights all over Indonesia. That’s a relief when you realize that Indonesia is made up of 15,000 islands (or more!). The bad news is twofold. First, except for Garuda, Indonesia’s National airline, their safety records are some of the worst in the world.
Second, it seems to be difficult to get anywhere directly! Case in point, we were in Ende on Flores Island and needed to get to Pangkalan Bun on Borneo to start our Borneo ecotour. We had to fly 1 1/2 hours from Ende to Labuan Bajo on Flores, then, 2 hours from Labuan Bajo to Bali. The next morning, we flew 1 hour from Bali to Surbaya on Java Island, changed planes, and then flew another 1 1/2 hours to Pangkalan Bun. There was no way to get from Ende to Pangkalan Bun in one day. So, in essence, it took us 24 hours to get someplace where, had there been a direct flight, it would have taken around 3 hours!
Anyways, I would do it all again. No question!
The Start of the Borneo Ecotour
We were collected at the airport by employees of Rimba Orangutan Ecolodge, the lodge where we were staying. We drove around 20 minutes from the airport to Port of Kumai. This was a very ugly town on the Java Sea whose main purpose was to produce “bird’s nest“, an extremely expensive ingredient/delicacy used mostly by the Chinese. Bird’s nest is the hardened saliva of the Swiftlet bird. It is used most famously in bird’s nest soup, but is also an active ingredient in several Chinese medicines.
On the edge of the water, there were multiple concrete buildings, some 10 stories high, with hundreds of holes cut into the sides. Thousands of birds flew in and out of these holes all day long. We were told that the rooms inside were dark and set up to encourage the birds to spend time so that the saliva could be produced and then, collected. In town, the sound of chirping birds was almost deafening, but not because of the birds themselves! The town amplified recordings of the birds in order to attract them. The whole thing was both bizarre and a little gross.
Our River Boat
From the port, we boarded a traditional Indonesian river boat called a Klotok. This was our own private boat for our 4 day Borneo ecotour. On top, we had a large dining room table at the back and six wicker chairs stationed towards the front. Most of the upper deck had a roof to protect us from the sun. However, apart from this roof, the boat was wide open with fantastic views. We had our own naturalist guide and another 6-8 staff that remained with us on the boat for our whole Borneo ecotour. They made meals, provided snacks, helped to spot wildlife on the shores, and carried water and other supplies when we hiked in the jungle. They were amazing.
We boated about 30 minutes on the Java Sea from the port. Then, we reached the mouth of the Sekonyer River. This river was very narrow, especially compared to the Java Sea, and we could easily see the shores and the jungle.
We boated for another 1 1/2 hours before we reached our lodge, barely seeing another boat or person. It seemed uninhabited, but we later learned that small villages were sometimes nestled behind the shores and the jungle. I did not see any signs of modern life.
Our naturalist guide immediately started spotting animals. Over the course of our short trip to our lodge, we saw three different kinds of monkeys playing in the jungle by the river – silver langurs, prosbiscus and long tail macaques. It was a fun ride.
Rimba Orangutan Ecolodge
The lodge was very cool. It is built in a series of adjoining elevated pavilions, with boardwalks connecting all the buildings and access to the river. It is one level, solely made out of timber and run by solar energy. The lodge is surrounded by jungle and wildlife.
The facilities were simple but comfortable. The bedrooms were large and clean. Our rooms had air conditioning, fans and lots of hot water. We dined in a separate building that was divided into a dining hall and a large recreation room with ping pong, pool, couches and a movie screen. Limited wifi was available here.
Each night, we fell asleep to the chatter of monkeys in the jungle. However, in the morning, our alarm clock was monkeys jumping on our roof, a startling but pretty cool way to start the day.
We either ate here or on the boat, depending on the day’s schedule. The food was simple, healthy and plentiful, although like our stay at the Ecolodge in Kelimutu, we had little say in the menu. We sat down for a meal and food was served to us family style without any consultation.
Our stay at the lodge was all inclusive. We paid one fee per person and everything was included – our accommodation, meals, transportation, tours, and guiding services. One caution… no alcohol was served. You are welcome to bring your own, but it was illegal for the lodge to provide us alcohol.
So, were my perceptions correct? Pretty much! It was very hot and humid. Ginormous bugs and insects were everywhere and they were terrifying. However, I think they were pretty harmless (ha, ha). The jungle was everywhere and in many places, impenetrable. Mosquitos were generally not too bad. Of course, we basically bathed in mosquito repellant every morning. We encountered locals and visited one village near the lodge. They did not farm or hunt, and notwithstanding their living conditions were tough, they seemed to have lots of modern conveniences.
Wildlife was everywhere and it was magnificent. In my next blog, I will get into the day to day details of our Borneo ecotour – how we trekked to find orangutans; stumbled upon crocodiles and endangered birds; hiked in the jungle; discovered and learnt about plants and trees that provide fundamental ingredients for modern medicine; and planted new trees in an area devastated by a forest fire about a decade ago. It was a magnificent experience.
If you are interested in reading more about our adventures during our three week trip to Indonesia, here is a list of all the articles that I have written:
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