In the Footsteps of Orang-utans
Mark Nicholls meanders into the Indonesian rainforest in search of the orang-utans of Kalimantan
They are known as a klotoks, pastel-coloured vessels that ply the waterways of Kalimantan. The traditional riverboats of this part of Indonesia – painted in colours of pale blue, light yellow, faded reds and greens – negotiate the narrow channels hemmed in by rainforest gently lapped by the ripples of the klotoks as they chug through the muddy brown waters.
We are heading inland, along the Sekonyer River in search of the orang-utans of one of Indonesia’s main islands – Kalimantan. With a galley, its own crew and a canopied deck, the klotok is a perfect floating viewing platform from which to spot the wildlife of the island. Formerly Indonesian Borneo, it is home to 12,000 orang-utans with about half in the Tanjung Puting National Park.
They are occasionally visible from the river which runs deep into Kalimantan but the bank-side entertainment is more likely to be provided by squealing macaque and proboscis monkeys, catapulting themselves Superman-like through the tree-tops. It is only as we moor up at a creaking jetty, that we begin to get close to the orang-utans. Beneath fragile slats, the water is clearer, more the pallor of weak tea and mirror-still beneath the wooden pathway as it leads deeper into the Indonesian rainforest. Tannin from the rotted leaves has given the water its distinct hue. Half-way along the footpath we pause as a branch bends high above us as a female orang-utan moves gracefully through the rainforest and then eyes our group from her elevated position.
The Tanjung Puting National Park consists of lowland tropical rainforest, freshwater swamp, mangrove and secondary forest. Here, the primates are protected. Some are wild, whilst others that are semi-wild gather for feeding time in a discreet cutting a mile or so from the river. It is this ritual we have gathered to witness. Just seconds after a warden empties a sack of bananas onto a wooden platform a dominant male swaggers into view, swings onto the raised planking and methodically works his way through the fruit. Within the trees, a female, with infant clinging to her back, moves in whilst a boisterous teenager hungrily works his way up and down the creepers – each awaiting their turn to feed. At feeding time in the jungle, the hierarchy is clearly defined.
This is Camp Leakey. Set up by Dr Birute Galdikas in 1971, it is the oldest orang-utan research and conservation centre in the world and has been critical in helping sustain their numbers in the wild. Other sanctuaries and feeding stations have been established along the river, where endangered orang-utans eat harmoniously together. The klotok is an ideal way to get closer to them.
As we sail away, past banks lined with Mahogany trees, palms and the bandas fruit – a favourite of the orang-utans – supper is served aboard: fried fish, spicy chicken, prawns, fritters, rice, and water spinach cooked in the klotok’s cramped galley. Later, we moor up at our haven for the evening, the Rimba Orangutan Ecolodge, a stilted network of cabins over shallow channels of jungle waterway. Around us as darkness on the equator falls, and in the still early evening, the jungle soundtrack intensifies; insects, bird life and calls that raise more questions than answers fill the air. Fireflies twinkle like stars in the trees as macaque growl and squeal.
A few hours later, the morning alarm call arrives in the form of a shriek and a clatter; a sound I can only imagine is two young proboscis monkeys play-fighting on the roof of my cabin. The noise is amplified in the morning stillness and by the time I have parted my mosquito net and leapt from the bed to investigate, they have scampered away to wake a neighbour.
After a light breakfast, while the air is cool and still, the captain strikes up the engine and we cast off and head further into the rainforest aboard the klotok. We see rhinoceros hornbill, parakeets, brahminy kite and coucal as well as a wild mother and baby orang-utan on our way to the riverside halt at Pondok Kerja. The Pesalat Reforestation Project is where visitors can plant a sapling to help regenerate the rainforest – the orang-utan’s natural habitat – which is being depleted by palm oil cultivation.
Trees are native, such as katur or nyatuh, and bear fruit that can be eaten by orang-utan and other animals. It costs 50,000 rupiah (£3) to plant a tree and doing so will place you in good company; a tree planted on the reserve by Hollywood actress Julia Roberts in 2006 is growing steadily.
As a country, Indonesia is vast and diverse, spreading from the outstretched southern finger of Thailand to Papua New Guinea. Java, Sumatra, and Kalimantan are the major islands that form a country with a total of 17,000-plus islands littered across three times zones.
Away from the jungle Solo – on Java – is the antithesis of the grid-locked capital Jakarta; calm, green and sedate with streets where cycle rickshaws weave in and out ferrying passengers to batik and antique markets and vendors dish up hot noodles and cold drinks.
Yogyakarta has a different ambience again; a city full of temples, mosques, the Sultan’s palace and the chance to shop for bargains, batik and souvenirs along Malioboro Street.
Surrounded by narrow lanes and an underground mosque, the intriguing Water Palace is an oasis of pleasure but for truly stunning religious architecture, drive out of the city to the 9th century Prambanan Hindu temple and marvel at its monolithic towers. Their solidity is intact despite being damaged when an earthquake struck at 5.55am on a May morning in 2006, five minutes before the site opened to visitors, bringing tons of ancient carved stonework crashing to the ground. Thankfully, the site continues to undergo restoration.
In the same area is the Buddhist masterpiece of Borobudur. The stunning complex, set in lush gardens a few miles outside Yogyakarta, cascades over nine levels with 4,000 statues adorning the tiers. The upper stupas, reached by ascending dozens of stone steps, are simply magnificent when seen as the sun rises. Yet as mist drifts in the valley at dawn, a glance in the mid-distance reveals the menacing backdrop. Surrounding the 10th century Buddhist temple are four volcanoes – Sambing, Sundoro, Merapi and Merbabu.
Wisps of smoke drifting lazily from the summit of Merapi, Indonesia’s most active volcano, are a reminder of its frequent eruptions, such as in 2010 when it coated the giant central stupa and 118 smaller stupas in a layer of volcanic ash but left the temple undamaged.
Today, Indonesia remains a fascinating country to visit; one where the wonderful religious architecture, vibrant cities and the natural landscape and wildlife – in particular the orang-utans of Kalimantan – come together in an amazing destination.
Photography by Jimmy McIntyre