In less than two hours, you can fly from the bustle of Jakarta to the fringe of Sebangau National Park in Kalimantan Indonesia Borneo, world-famous for its orangutans. Stephanie Brookes takes an exotic river journey.
I start my trek into Sebangau National Park at dusk. The earthy smell of the peat bog forest rises sharply to greet me as I hold my torch steady, trying not to trip and fall into the blackwater swamp on either side of the narrow boardwalk. I stay close to our guide; well aware I am in clouded leopard country. “No talking please, and mind your step,” he says. “One of these planks could break at any time, but don’t worry, I am here to help.”
After a couple of minutes, we reach a huge tree just off the peat bog trail. “This is one of the spots where our team record nocturnal animals of the forest,” the guide quietly explains to our small group. “We might see a clouded leopard tonight if we are lucky, although they tend to keep away from people. The orangutans will already be in their nests, high up in the trees. Still, we may see a western tarsier or flying fox.” He goes on to explain that the park’s 5,300km2 of peat swamp forests, located in Central Kalimantan in the Indonesian part of Borneo, contains many other types of wildlife, including 116 species of birds and 166 species of flora.
We continue our walk-in silence. I sense our guide is listening intently to the forest, the strange language of the insects and the rustling of leaves that might mean the presence of a snake or bird. He occasionally provides hushed explanations of some of the less familiar forest dwellers, like the carnivorous pitcher plant, so named because it resembles a jug or pitcher. Insects are captured in the sticky fluid in the base of the plant and then digested. At one point, he stops and motions to us to listen to the north. Way off in the distance we can just make out a very faint sound, which our guide identifies as the call of a southern pig-tailed macaque. I am amazed at his skill in being able to pick it up. As we continue listening, he excitedly points to the upper branches of a nearby tree, where high above us we can just make out the form of an orangutan climbing up into the top canopy of the forest.
Further along, we hear the very distinctive shrill call of a proboscis, or long-nosed, monkey. “This is probably a mother proboscis calling in her wayward family to come home and settle in for the evening,” the guide explains. Taking the cue, we too head back to our temporary home; tonight, we are sleeping in a national park forest cabin. After a hearty meal cooked by locals, we turn in, to a loud chorus of insects and the odd bird call. This very remote spot in the national park is accessed via Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan, commonly known as Central Borneo. To get here, we travelled four hours in a comfortable air-conditioned van from Palangkaraya Airport to the port of Jahanjang, on the Katingan River, where we boarded the magnificent Spirit of Kalimantan, which took us to Sebangau to spend three nights on the river. The Spirit is a beautifully refurbished traditional Kalimantan barge, part of the WOW Borneo fleet operated by Gaye Thavisin, an Australian who has lived in Central Kalimantan for some 20 years, and her business partner, Lorna Dowson-Collins.
After our night in the forest cabin, we head out by canoe the next day to explore the small creeks and visit one of the large blackwater lakes. En route, we are excited to spot a group of proboscis monkeys. Approaching quietly by water, we are able to get very close. We spend several minutes watching the members of this large and raucous family launching themselves astounding distances between trees, then swinging with great ease between sometimes very flimsy branches.
WWF (World Wildlife Fund)
As we get chatting to the boatman, he explains how many of the local villagers have been trained by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in all areas of forest preservation. He himself was born in a small village nearby, called Karuing. “I have been with WWF for eight years now,” he says proudly. “They handed over the National Park Service temporarily as a transition arrangement, and now the care of the park and all duties are handled by our local community. We all love it here, working on a rotation so all of us get more experience recording scientific data, tracking migratory wildlife and monitoring other forest activities. We have turned to ecotourism for our future because it is sustainable.”
By sunset, we are back to the comfort of the Spirit of Kalimantan. The next day, our boat resumes its smooth journey up the great Katingan River, and we again readily adjust to its slow-moving pace, lazily taking in the variety of ferns near the riverbank and marvelling at the sight of a beautiful hornbill swooping across the sky. The following morning, our boat anchors near Baun Bango, a Dayak village lying right on the edge of the national park. Once ashore, we go in search of our Dayak host, Pak Alwi. There is only one main village road, and his house has been there for over 140 years, so it is not hard to find him. Alwi is sitting on his verandah waiting for us. His beautiful bark house features ironwood beams and original wood flooring; it looks as if it could last another 100 years. Alwi, who was born in the house and has lived there all his life, invites us inside.
A row of two-stringed guitars, called kecapi, lean against one of the walls. Pak Alwi immediately picks one up and gives us a big smile. “I made this kecapi,” he says enthusiastically and immediately begins to play a Dayak song for us. Then, as the lilting traditional music begins to take shape, our young Dayak guide sings along in her native language. It is a beautiful moment. The harmony of these two voices melding together, the old Dayak with the young Dayak, casts a spell on us. In the evening we are treated to a magnificent meal of forest greens, vegetables, rattan soup, local tahoman river fish, steamed rice and marinated bean curd. We are invited to sleep in the village, in a homestay, but also have the option of sleeping on the boat. I opt for the homestay. After a few bedtime Dayak tales from our host, I drift off to a sound sleep, dreaming of the adventures that might lie ahead the next day.
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The Five Senses of Kalimantan
Gibbons actually sing. They are said to produce the most complex songs of all land mammals. Usually, you hear their song in the morning however, they also sing when there is going to be rain. Their beautiful songs range in length anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. When a couple have mated they perform a duet as a way of declaring and strengthening their bond. Other gibbon songs mark territorial boundaries or reveal the singer’s sex or individual identity.
The rich, earthy smell that is emitted by the peat swamps of Sebangau is an experience in itself. Some describe it like the aroma of tea. Indeed, the water is stained dark brown by the tannins that leach from the fallen leaves and peat – hence the name ‘blackwater swamps’. In all, 927 species of flowering plants and ferns have been identified in the Borneo peat swamp forests, and that makes for a very sweet smell.
When you come close to an orangutan in the wild, your heart invariably skips a beat. These large, gentle red apes are one of our closest relatives. In fact, we share 98% of the same DNA. They are highly intelligent and possess an advanced ability to reason. Like human babies, a baby orangutan can cry and whimper, and it is the sweetest of sights to see them look tenderly, almost as if smiling, at their mothers.
The Dayaks are renowned for being wonderful cooks. When you visit the local Dayak villages there is always something cooking in the pot or being cooked directly over a fire. One of 37 fish in the catfish family, tahoman is a very popular local river fish because of its soft white meat. My first tahoman was grilled and was absolutely delicious. It is often served as soup.
Rattan is a vine-palm with sharp thorns found in the forests. In Dayak country, it provides women with the material to make vegetable, rice, carrying and other baskets, as well as mats. The men use it to make the fish traps, called mihing. To do so, they have to find a specific type of rattan palm in the forest, and strip it to get the stem which contains a poison that will stun fish.
Taking a trip on the Koran River
If you are limited for time, consider a day trip exploring on the Koran River. From Palangkaraya airport it is only 10 minutes to Kereng Bangkirai port, where you can visit the offices of Sebangau National Park. You then spend 45 minutes on a motorised traditional boat to get to the forest. You can explore by guided trekking, canoeing, and swimming in the pristine waters. There is an eco-jungle camp in the forest where you can stay in cabins overnight, which can sleep a maximum of six people.
Sebangau National Park with WOW Borneo
This 5-day journey on the Katingan River includes an overnight stay in the Sebangau National Park and starts in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan. Tour operator Wow Borneo is owned by two women, Gaye Thavisin, an Australian and Lorna Dowson-Collins from England. They have four beautifully outfitted boats, two with air-conditioned cabins, and budgets to suit all. The river journey includes the option to stay in homestay accommodation in the Dayak villages and one night in the Sebangau National Park forest cabin.
Wow Borneo: www.wowborneo.com
Sebangau National Park is one the largest contiguous lowland forests left in Borneo (600,000 hectares) and extremely valuable to conservation. As a peat swamp forest, Sabangau naturally regulates and protects the local water table. It is located between the Katingan River and the Sebangau River, a blackwater river.
WWF Indonesia campaigned to establish a national park in 2004 and have actively engaged local indigenous Dayak residents around the park to reduce the number of trees they fell. They have encouraged local villagers to develop craft cottage industry homewares, engage in reforestation programs and develop eco-tourism.
Ecotourism is growing in this area and is seen as a vehicle for achieving environmental conservation by providing sustainable alternative livelihoods for villagers. By visiting this area, you support these objectives.
Tour Guide: Mrs Yun Pratiwi: www.centralborneoguide.com
Published on Garuda Colours Inflight Magazine 01 March 2019
Story by Stephanie Brookes | Photo by David Metcalf
Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond.
David Metcalf runs cultural photo workshops in Bali, Borneo, Alaska and South Dakota Lakota country.