Monthly Archives: March 2015

Camp Leakey and The Tanjung Puting National Park.

Chug chug chug, I’m on a very, very slow boat, or klotok, on a very muddy river (the Kumai) in Central Kalimantan, Borneo and you know, it’s just about perfect. We headed out of the port at Kumai and even after a few chugs we saw Fresh Water dolphins and a couple of Monitor Lizards. A little bit further and we turned off into a tributary, slow moving and very muddy, the entrance to the Tanjung Puting National Park. The mud is caused by illegal mining, mining for coal, zircon, gold and the rainforest is completely decimated. There is nothing left after the illegal logging was done and its now all palm oil and rubber plantations. No jungle sounds, no, birds, no butterflies, none of the usual whistling and hooting, no odd screeches. Even so it is still rather exotic, river, Borneo, klotok, I’m excited.

    Two hours of slow progress into the interior there was evidence perhaps that the illegal logging had been stopped or at least  paused, there are trees, tall trees, stretching way, way away. Straight away there were two bands of Proboscis monkeys swinging along the riverbank, two large males, both with multiple wives. Finally I snapped a photo of a male, longer nose than the females, bigger too, plus I learned something new, with so many wives they are always erm ‘ready’!  I laughed again and again, they leapt from branch to branch, high up and sometimes fell, plummeting down only to reach out casually with a hairy arm to save themselves. Why did I laugh? Just pure joy I suppose. On up the river and the sounds are back, whistles, hoots and that high pitched buzzing that you only hear here, in the jungle. 

   We stopped at a Ranger Station to watch the Orangutans be given their evening feed. Just a short fifteen minute treck through the trees and to a roped off area where there were, people. A number of people deep in the forest but where had they come from. Seems they had a big, group klotok, twelve I think, all Aussies, with an Orangutan expert in tow . The lenses on the cameras were something to behold, carried by youths who handed them over with the click of the fingers, the noise of the high speed shutters, irritating. Yes we saw Orangutans, quite a few in fact and it was fantastic. Before this chapter closes here is something. I casually mentioned to the guide that I wondered why they were called Orangutans, I got the look, the stupid tourist look. Orang in Malay means people, Utan means forest, therefore ‘people of the forest’ or Orangutan. That ends the four different spelling options. It’s a Malay word that we have somehow kept. Good for the Malays, good for us.

    We have parked for the night, beside the river, tied to a fallen tree. It’s pitch dark and I can’t see a thing. My bed is a mattress on the deck with a mozzie net. I’ll sleep well.

    Well I didn’t, not really. Too many crashes, growls, grunts and splashes kept waking me up but finally it was dawn at around five so I got up. We spent the day on the river, heading down another tributary where the water changed color dramatically, from the muddy brown of the mining detritus to the almost black of forest vegetation.  Tall trees either side and us, puttering along on the klotok which is basically a small houseboat, primitive but utilitarian. There was a stop at a feeding station and like yesterday there where suddenly people where there had been none before. I met a Scottish couple, from Och on the Black Isle. No, I didn’t mention how appropriate was its name. He was from Lewis with the broad lilt of the Western Isles, she, Michelle was from Inverness but had been in Edinburgh for years and years. We had a nice chat, trashing the new tram (actually now its open it is quite good) and lamenting that Central Kalimantan is dry etc etc. A couple from Denver and another from LA, plus miscellaneous Spaniards. It seems that during the High Season here, June and July, the majority of the 60 or so klotoks available for rent in Kumai are taken by the Spanish and no one can tell me why. Anyone? (L?) Bit of a long way from Spain I’d have thought. Oops, I’ve wandered off, sorry. There were no Orangutans to be seen at the feeding station and we all trudged back to the river through an area reduced by slash and burn, just ferns grew. At the jetty on the river and at the Ranger station, two guys and a desk outside a hut, there were clouds of black butterflies, nowhere else, just where there were humans. Odd.

    To Camp Leakey then and when we pulled into the shore there was a Mom and baby just sitting on the fence, all nonchalant, as if greeting us. An unrelated male was fast asleep in the gazebo on the jetty. It was quite a miracle, but I think I have said enough about the Orangs though haven’t I? The river though, and the rainforest where, for me, the stars of the day. At one point I tried reading a book but couldn’t, I kept looking up and out, seeing the legend that is this green and verdant living thing. It can’t last, it really can’t and what kind of a tragedy that is and will be. One of the crew on the boat used to be an illegal logger and I got a few stories, via translation, that I found depressing. One cubic measure (20 centimeters) of the Iron Wood tree sells for $75.00, an Iron Wood sapling grows one foot every ten years, the loggers  bribe the authorities so well that they build railways in the forest to ship the logs out. The local farmers are similarly destructive, slashing and burning vast areas for just one season’s crop, then they move on. I don’t have Internet access here but isn’t it well known that an area of the forest the size of a football field is destroyed every second? I told the guys on the boat, ‘enjoy it while its here’. 

    Ok, rant over, no more tree hugging tonight,  Birkenstocks back in the closet, pinko liberal flag furled, I’m going to have a beer and celebrate night number two on the edge of the Heart of Borneo.  

Sometimes the trees seemed full of wildlife.

Sometimes the trees seemed full of wildlife.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The muddy river and the Rainforest.

The muddy river and the Rainforest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The black river and the rainforest.

The black river and the rainforest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The black river meets the muddy river.

The black river meets the muddy river.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not sure how this one got uploaded! I hope its ok.

Not sure how this one got uploaded! I hope its ok.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A male. What a handsome fella.

A male. What a handsome fella.

 

 

 

 

 

 

She is kind of cute too.

She is kind of cute too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A closer look.

A closer look.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grubs up!

Grubs up!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around the dinner table.

Around the dinner table.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adoring and adorable.

Adoring and adorable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even more adoring and adorable.

Even more adoring and adorable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don't know what to say.

I don’t know what to say.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is one of the dozens of bird hotels (swifts) in Kumai where the birds build their nests for Bird Nest Soup. Interesting I thought.

This is one of the dozens of bird hotels (swifts) in Kumai where the birds build their nests for Bird Nest Soup. Interesting I thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I resolved before leaving that not only would I ‘live blog’ my trip but I would also take lots of photos. I did, but I have so many pictures that sorting the highlights has been difficult. I may do some more sorting and post more. I haven’t even looked at my phone yet! The photos on it I mean.

 

 

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Pontianak and the Equator.

I’m not sure what it is but I have a problem remembering where I am. Today I am in Pangkalanbun, yesterday I was in Pontianak and its not as if these names spring to mind upon waking in the morning. Certainly there is that moment every morning when I pinch myself and think, I’m in Borneo, but pinpointing exactly where can be challenging, even pronouncing it is difficult. But, Pangkalanbun is where I am right now and I had better get used to it. I arrived today as I mentioned, from Pontianak, in Eastern Kalimantan where I spent a few days absorbing the fact that everything is quite different here. I wondered why all the flights left so early in the morning until I worked it out, of course they leave early to avoid the regular afternoon thunderstorms and torrential rain. Up then at 5.00am, a six thirty ride to the airport and an 8am flight. No disrespect intended but why is there always a Prayer Room adjacent to the gate? The Trigana Air prop’ plane didn’t exactly inspire confidence but we made it here after a couple of stops at what appeared to be no more than jungle airstrips. The aircrew must have thought me slightly odd as I kept asking, on landing ‘Pangkalanbun?’. No, Sir, sit. OK. Eventually we were in the right place and I was ushered off the plane and arrived in Pankalanbun.

Pontianak was interesting, a big city with terrible traffic and more scooters than even Saigon, yes, really. As in Sabah everyone goes out to eat in the evening so the perpetual scooter madness never lets up, the evening rush hour turns into the dinner rush and everyone wears a helmet, even over their hijabs and the ladies sit side saddle when riding pillion. Curiously people wear their jackets reversed, ie in front, with their arms down the sleeves. I don’t remember seeing that anywhere else. Looking at the guidebook it seems there is one thing, and one thing only to do in Pontianak and that is to visit the Equator Monument. The city sits on the line and is one of the few cities in the World that does that, so, first port of call, The Equator. My hotel allocated me a taxi driver cum guide who turned out to be the genial Baim (Baeem) and he was very attentive and spoke some English.

The Monument was quite interesting, old photos of scientists celebrating the Monument’s creation, hard boiled eggs in bowls that could be stood up on their ends on the marble floor, a large monument capped by a large arrow pointing in the direction of the line. Unfortunately there was nowhere nearby to prove that in a flushing loo the water goes straight down rather than spin clockwise as it does in the Northern Hemisphere. This because the only conveniences present featured what my niece, Ms Sophie, euphemistically and charmingly calls ‘long drops’. The big disappointment was that actually this was not the Equator at all, it’s moved. Its gone one hundred meters south for reasons I could not fathom, it was all explained on a leaflet but I came away a little disillusioned. It was everything a geography nerd could hope for, almost. One thing that does catch the eye in Pontianak is the position of the satellite dishes, they all point straight up, as in vertical. Of course, the satellites are all in position over the Equator. But there is a problem, the dishes fill up with water when it rains so there is a frequent message on the tv to the effect that normal service will resume when it stops raining. I thought that was lovely.

The serious Baim struggled a bit to find other interesting things to do. We went looking for black orchids at an Aloe Vera farm but came away empty handed. We went shopping but that was very tiresome. We did drink tea on a somewhat dubious looking river craft. There were no tables or chairs so we sat on the deck as the boat puttered along the riverbank. At dusk we puttered which was the time the local residents came down to the river to bathe, sure, very interesting, but I felt a little like an intruder. Another similarity to India, kites, thousands of them bouncing and gliding about in the fading light, flown not only by the kids but also the adults, whole boatloads of kite flyers on the river. Following that expedition we went around the town visiting Baim’s family. First to see his wife and children in their house beside a busy street, twelve year old daughter, eight year old son and very shy wife. Yes, it was suitably….what? oh I don’t know, but it was worth it to raise a smile from both the wide eyed young ones. Then to a house by the river, reached by making our way across narrow planks above the water (vertigo again) where his parents lived with his sister and her four kids. All the neighbors came out and visited for one reason or another but mostly to stare at this Anglo in their midst. Tea was made and passed round. Lots of mirth, hilarity and fun, shouts from nearby houses, people came back from the river after their baths in various stages of their toilet, washing was done and hung out for the following day. All this took place in what I will call ‘local houses’, raised on stilts above the river, each reached by a maze of planks across which people rode their scooters, bicycles, carried groceries, carried on with life. Evening Prayers started from all the neighboring Mosques, chanted by children, and everyone around me joined in. It struck me that I was a long way from home.

Today I booked a klotok, a boat, that will take me up the nearby river Arut to Camp Leakey, two days away. The camp in the Tanjung Puting Reserve, is run by a lady called Birute Galdikas who is one of the three Leakey Angels, the other two being Jane Goodall and Dian Fossy. Ringing any bells? DR Galdikas runs the biggest Orangutan rehabilitation center in the world and I am on my way.

I’ll let you know how it goes in a few days. There will be no Internet access, obviously.

School's out in Pontianak.

School’s out in Pontianak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top of the Equator Monument.

Top of the Equator Monument.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the Monument.

Inside the Monument.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outside the Monument at zero degrees.

Outside the Monument at zero degrees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tea on the boat.

Tea on the boat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The walkway maze.

The walkway maze.

 

Cats and Cakes in Kuching, Sarawak.

What’s it like in Borneo you might ask? First let me say I’m amazed that two friends have been here, Judy, Susie, and I never knew. It’s so far away from everything, there’s this little brain cell constantly saying ‘when are we going back?’ I’m further from the great Eurasian/Americas landmasses than I have ever been and its both liberating and just a bit unsettling. ( Ok, forget Hawaii) The people too, perhaps sensing their remoteness, are very different, good natured, interested in why I’m here, and proudly individualistic. There are sights on the street that stop me in my tracks, long haired youths with the crown dyed blond, young women wearing their colorful hijabs with black patent leather stilettos and was that really an ankle tattoo?  Every other door on the street is a cafe or restaurant and they all appear to be packed all day and late into the evening. I’m sure it, like many other places, could be described as a Foodie Heaven, but lets just say these people sure do enjoy their food.

    Big, did I mention its big, it’s one third bigger than France, it’s about the same size as Texas and you know what they say about Texas. Borneo is third biggest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea. Getting about is challenging because they have this rainforest, the oldest in the world, not to mention impenetrable mountains and vast rivers. In the south in Kalimantan there are no roads through the interior and most of the getting about is got about on rivers, something to look forward to.  

     There are many endearing features: 

They use British power plugs, you know, those big ones with three prongs. Always a bit of a mystery to those coming from far away but, God bless her, Julia gave me a compatible adaptor for Christmas and I delight in it every day, it just works, plus it is small and light.         

     Again, the car registration plates start with SAB, well of course, it’s Sabah.

    Markets and more markets, a Sunday market right outside my hotel, a nightly one outside the Le Meridian hotel, malls but not your usual glitzy nightmares, no, these are full of booths selling everything you can imagine, and, the young Muslim women who staff many of them shut up shop regularly and head off to pray. Quite enchanting. 

Talking of young Muslim women there was a bit of a sensation in the local press over the Chinese New Year Holiday. It seems that supermarket managers scheduled aforementioned young women to work on the booze counters. A complete no, no, so they complained to the local paper and a mild uproar ensued. Of course they had the backing of the local populace and won their point. No more working on the booze counters. Good for them.

    Banks, did I say banks, they are as prevalent as coffee shops  in Seattle. Some intersections have four, one on each corner and there are queues outside them all. Why? I don’t know, it’s not a tax free haven though I think it might be a cash economy, maybe it’s all the restaurants and cafes. To accentuate that I just read in today’s Borneo Express that the average Sabah native eats six large meals every day. Six! They all appear Sylph like, it must be the climate. 

Part 2.

I have moved on, from Sabah to Sarawak another of the Malaysian States on the Island of Borneo and time has passed, sorry about that. But really there is not a lot to comment on about Sarawak. I’m sure it is probably rude and offensive but it is surely one of the World’s greatest backwaters. Absolutely nothing happens here and it is a fabulous place to visit if that is what you like. Here in the capital, Kuching, there is a wonderful river, the Sarawak, threading its way through the center of town crossed by sampan passenger ferries, a one way trip costs a dime (7P). It’s wonderful to sit on the riverbank for hours and watch them colorfully crisscrossing back and forth, like I said, not much happens here. I did take myself off to the coast for a few days hoping to see the World’s largest flower, the Rafflesia, but alas, none were flowering. Again not much happened out near Lundu (I liked the name), there was a huge beach with barely a soul on it, fishing boats out on the South China Sea, King tides due to the full moon, it rained, but all in all, there was nothing to do. I caught the bus back here to Kuching.

Before you think badly of me, and of Sarawak, I will tell you this. Such as it is known at all, anywhere, it is known for its cats and its cakes. Yes, really! Kuching’s nickname is City of Cats derived from the Malay word for cats, kucing. There is a tall cat obelisk just up the street from my hotel surrounded by large white cats. In the middle of a traffic island in the city center is a huge statue featuring many cats and outside China Town, another, huge solitary cat. People have cat sounds as their cell phone ring tone. There are smaller cat effigies in the public parks for kids to play on and around and of course real cats abound though what is done to their tails I don’t know, they all seem to have a small knot instead. It’s not all boring then! Then there are the cakes or Kek Lapis. A specialty of Sarawak this type of layer cake appears everywhere and people buy it by the crate load. Very colorful, each layer different, they take up to six hours to bake mostly in people’s homes. So many different flavors in one bite and the stall holders proudly give away free samples. Visitors from the mainland buy it in bulk to take home.

Sarawak has its appeal and while writing this I have decided to stay an extra few days and go look for that elusive flower.

Street scene. Kuching.

Street scene. Kuching.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Sarawak River. Kuching.

On the Sarawak River. Kuching.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

City Hall. Kuching.

City Hall. Kuching.

 

 

 

 

 

 

River scene.

River scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The famous cake.

The famous cake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The famous cats.

The famous cats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cat obelisk.

The cat obelisk.