It’s both a good and bad thing that our temporary home in Sukadana is the least-touristy destination we’ve ever visited. While this area’s remoteness makes travel to even moderately mainstream tourist spots difficult, I feel fortunate that we’re having what I consider to be a really authentic, eye-opening experience.
As such it was with eager anticipation that we awaited last weekend’s big trip to Tanjung Puting, a national park known for its orangutans but also home to a host of other primate species and a variety of birds.
To access Tanjung Puting, we drove two hours to Ketapang, took a short flight to Pangkalan Bun, drove out to a dock on the Sekonya river, and boarded a houseboat of sorts with six other ASRI staff and volunteers.
The living space of our houseboat was an open-air, wood-planked deck. During the day, we lounged with our bare feet up on the sides of the boat, our eyes peeled for activity in trees that drooped over the shore or reached high up to the top of the forest canopy.
At night, the deck was lined with a row of musty mats packed together so closely that they touched. A web of mosquito netting hung from the roof, tucked under each mat to keep out the bugs. Malaria, we were told, is rife in this region. Tarps crudely closed the open sides in the likely event of rain.
On our first afternoon we spotted a wild orangutan in its dizzyingly high nest. From the boat we must have seen over a hundred proboscis monkeys and macaques. A few kingfishers, with feathers in screamingly loud hues, popped against the verdant green of the forest.
Over the two-day, two-night trip we stopped at ‘feeding stations’, where wild-born ex-captive orangutans are fed milk, sweet potatoes, and fruit daily to the delight of a bevy of international tourists. Most of the orangutans at the three stations we visited – Tanjung Harapan, Pondok Tanggui, and Camp Leakey – have been rescued, rehabilitated, and reintroduced in these areas.
At one station, an orangutan brushed up against George’s leg in its quadrupedal trot to the promised land of milk and sweet potatoes. Later, a lone orangutan surprised George and I on our walk back to the boat by making a loud hissing noise and lunging at us with arms threateningly raised as if to strike out. We froze until a guide ran up, frantically waving the orangutan away. Apparently the orangutan was incited both by my yellow shirt, and the prospect of stealing the camera bag George carried.
We delighted in a lone agile gibbon, with its old man eyebrows and unbelievable facility swinging through the trees. The relatively diminutive gibbon had no qualms about dipping in to the fruit and milk, but when he got a little greedy the alpha male orangutan would whack him atop the head.
The natural wonders, tasty food (fried bananas! candied tempeh! ramen with fried eggs!), and good company were almost enough to make us forget the big downside: how completely dirty we were after three days in the heat and humidity, sleeping on moldy mats, without showers.
It wasn’t long after boarding the boat that we’d realized that our shower consisted of a bucket of water heaved straight up from the side of the boat. The Sekonya’s water quality is visibly poor, thanks to erosion, pollution from upstream industrial oil palm plantations, and the absence of sewage systems for the many boats that ply its waters.
We opted to not bathe in the opaque brown water that was simultaneously the receptacle for every boat’s waste and the source of its cooking and cleaning water. As with many things here, I’ve adopted a don’t ask; don’t tell strategy with regards to hygiene and sanitation.
Shower or no shower, the trip is sure to be a highlight of our time here. As part of my work with the ASRI conservation team, I put together a research piece on the conservation threats facing orangutans (short story: it’s not looking good for the continued viability of remaining orangutan populations). The staff will likely use bits and pieces of the material in future grant applications. If you’re interested, click here to read the two-page summary.