Tag Archives: West Kalimantan


Here’s a list of “things I didn’t know about orangutans before I came to Kalimantan”. To be honest, it was pretty easy to put together a fairly long list, because I didn’t know much about them before moving into their neighbourhood. They make interesting neighbours…


Orangutans are native to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Since 1996 these have been regarded as two distinct species: Pongo pygmaeus in Borneo and the Sumatran species Pongo abelii. The two species may have diverged about 400,000 years ago.


Population estimates are not reliable, but there are perhaps 55,000 Bornean orangutans and only 6,000 Sumatran. That makes the Borneans ‘endangered’, and the Sumatrans ‘critically endangered’. Numbers of Bornean orangutans have halved over the past 60 years, and Sumatran orangutans are now only found in an isolated area of Aceh province. Their numbers have dropped by 80% over the last 75 years.


The main reason for population decline is loss of habitat. Peat swamp and other lowland forests continue to be rapidly cleared for oil palm plantations and forestry, but also for construction of roads and clearing of land for housing and small scale agriculture.


Orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans. They are amongst the most intelligent of primates, having split off from the evolutionary line that led to homo sapiens about 17 million years ago, after the gibbons, and before only gorillas and chimpanzees.


Orangutans are susceptible to all of the same diseases as humans.


The subfamily of used to include other species which are now extinct. They include species that lived in Thailand, India, Vietnam and China. One of these, the Giantopithecus, was (as the name suggests) really big, in fact the largest primate ever, and it only disappeared from the fossil record about 100,000 years ago.They could be 3 metres tall and over 500kg in weight.


Orangutans have long toes and an opposable big toe, allowing them to grasp things (e.g. branches!) equally well with their feet as their hands.


They are almost entirely arboreal, and are the largest tree-dwelling mammal. Their long limbs and curved toes and fingers make them a little awkward when walking on the ground.


Dominant adult males grow large cheek flaps, usually by the age of 20, which no doubt the females find irresistible.


An adult male orang-utan stands about 140cm tall, weighs around 75kg or more, and and has an arm span of TWO METRES! Adult females are about half that weight, and about 20cm shorter.


Orangutans will wade – but they do not swim. That’s why individuals being prepared for return to the ‘wild’ are held by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) on three islands in the Rungan River (just a few km from our home). There’s no danger of them escaping from the islands.


They eat fruit – lots of fruit, comprising around three-quarters of their diet. They will also eat some young leaves, shoots, bark, insects and ants, honey and birds eggs.


Apart from mothers and their babies, orangutans tend to be fairly solitary – more so than gorillas or chimpanzees.


Babies stay with their mothers until at least the age of seven, and sometimes into their teenage years.


In the wild females won’t become pregnant until their previous baby is at least seven years old. This is the longest inter-birth period of any primate.


They sleep at night in a nest made high in a tree from bent and interwoven branches and a mattress of leaves. Usually a new nest is made each night. Nest-making is a learnt skill, usually learnt from the mothers by the age of three. The orphaned orangutans at BOSF go to ‘Forest School’ where they learn nest-making from their human teachers.


When angered, an orangutan will suck in air through its pursed lips, making the ‘kiss squeak’ sound.


Rescue, rehabilitation and re-release of orphaned orangutans is both worthy and worthwhile – but it’s not going to be nearly enough to counter the rapid decline of the populations due to loss of forest habitat.

As the ecologist Dr Erik Meijaard, from Borneo Futures, has observed: “The balance in orangutan conservation is not right. In the past decade we lost some 25,000 wild orangutans and we rehabilitated a few hundred. Very few are investing in on-the-ground orangutan conservation. It’s like fighting a war with hospitals and nurses only.”

Extinction in the wild within a generation remains an appalling possibility.

Danau Sentarum National Park


Danau (Lake) Sentarum drains into the Kapuas River, not far to the southwest of the Betung-Kerihun National Park. In the dry season there’s just a network of snaky rivers there, but now (at the end of the wet season) there’s a huge and complex system of lakes, rivers and peat swamp wetlands across the 132,000 hectares of the national park.

Despite being beautiful, with rampant biodiversity and some fascinating and friendly villages, it doesn’t get a lot of visitors. In fact we didn’t meet another tourist or see another ‘westerner’ in the more than two weeks we were in West Kalimantan.


Transport around the park, including to the several villages located within the park, is by boat – wooden barges for freight, klotok canoes with or without outboard motors for local transport and fishing, plus a few small speedboats. No cars, trucks or motorbikes. Everything happens on the water – even the cattle are kept on floating platforms in bamboo stalls, where they are hand-fed. It makes for a slow and seemingly relaxed pace of life.


A woman brings firewood to her home in the Melayu village of Semangit. We passed by very slowly, so that our wake wouldn’t swamp her canoe. But she still seemed concerned about the possibility.


The ominous-looking sky above was pictured during an abortive fishing trip, about 30 seconds before a torrential downpour arrived. We seem to have developed a talent for producing major electrical storm events when we are travelling in uncovered canoes – that’s three times so far. Within a minute it was dark and pelting down, with a weird swarm of excited little bats swooping about our heads. While our crew of three started bailing out the boat, we huddled with our cameras under our brollies, and the fishing was postponed.


There are about seven varieties of hornbill in Borneo. Big unlikely birds with enormous beak adornments (which we now know are called ‘casques’). The Rhinoceros Hornbill  is aptly named, and is particularly spectacular. (Hornbill dinner party trivia: they are the only species of birds in which the top two vertebrae are fused together, so their necks can better support their big beaks.)

Hornbills are really important in traditional Dayak culture and religion, and their appearance is often seen as an omen for good or evil – depending on whether they cross your path from the left or the right side (but I can’t remember which side is the auspicious one!) We hear them frequently in the forest, but sightings are less common, and they are usually flying past at speed. So (like many birds), they are buggers to photograph.


Trees are generally more compliant. There are some large areas of mostly primary forest around the park, on islands and peninsulas. The soils are poor, but that doesn’t seem to prevent large trees, ferns, vines and fungi from growing.


675 plant species have been found so far, again including a number of unique plants. There are a number of ‘carnivorous’ pitcher plants, many of which are large and lovely and elegant. Their main prey are ants. One local delicacy is to cook and serve rice inside a large ‘pitcher’ (after removing any partially digested ants).


There’s a largish population of orang-utans in the park. In some places, such as in the forest above, you can see their nests high in just about every second tree. They make a fairly rough sleeping platform during the day out of branches and leaves. We were told that they only use each nest once, building a new one each day. Why is that? They’re not saying.


In spite of their number in the park, the wild orang-utans are very wary of humans (who can blame them?) and are notoriously difficult to observe. We spoke to one park ranger who had been working there for four years without a sighting, and to a local (middle-aged) village guy who had only come across them four times in his life.

We are frequently reminded of just how lucky we are, and so we were blessed with a sighting of a mother and baby in the forest as we were returning by canoe from an outing. Our two crew were so excited that they almost dragged us out of the boat into the swamp beside the river. A hundred metres of clambering and splashing through very difficult terrain (calf-deep mud, waist-deep pools of black water, rotting fallen logs, spiky rattan vines etc) was rewarded with a few minutes of wondrous sighting.


The mother was very protective of her baby, and soon ushered it away and started hooting and yelling at us to try and scare us off. At the time, I was more concerned about the log that had just fallen onto my head and knocked me over, and about how I was going to find my thong that had come adrift in the thick mud at the bottom of the pool I was standing in. But she certainly was a formidable sight up there!


Elsewhere in the park we encountered the large (and also endangered) Proboscis monkey. The name comes from the protuberant noses (you probably guessed) that are sported by the adult males, and which the females apparently find irresistible. And who can blame them? In Indonesia they are known as Orang belanda (“Dutch man”) which we think is rather unkind.


Almost 300 species of freshwater fish have been found in the lakes, including a couple of dozen found nowhere else (for comparison, the rivers and lakes of Europe have less than 200 fish species).


There are a number of villages either in or bordering on the park. Some are Melayu, and others (like this one above) are home to Dayak Iban people, most of whom still choose to live in longhouses. We stayed in a couple of these (such as the Meliau longhouse pictured above), and were made very welcome.


Longhouse design varies a bit between Dayak communiities, but they always have one long enclosed living room/hall/verandah/corridor running the full length, and this is where everyone gets together to meet, work, play and (sometimes) eat. Here’s Karen at Baligundi longhouse.


The man above, in the Pelaik longhouse, is repairing his fishing net. Nets and line fishing are the fish-catching methods preferred by the Iban. The Melayu people have set up hundreds (maybe thousands) of fish traps around the waterways. Between them, the poor fish don’t stand a chance.


This old tattooed lady (above left), the mother of the current headman in the village of Pelaik, showed us some of the textiles that she had woven over the years. Not for sale, she was just happy to show them to us. Meanwhile the young and un-tattooed lady (above right) was in her element, asking all about weaving techniques, dye materials and the meaning of the various motifs.


In another longhouse (Baligundi), another lady was making mats from reeds, while children played around her. Karen was encouraged to have a go at the mat-weaving, after which she reported that: “it’s not as easy as it looks”.
And that probably holds true for the rest of their lives, too…






Betung-Kerihun National Park

Dear All
We’re now in Malaysian Borneo (Bako National Park in Sarawak), with the sound of waves on the beach, evening light glowing and a balmy sea breeze coming in from the South China Sea. It’s hard to believe that just last week we were still deep in ‘Heart of Borneo’ country – the upper reaches of the Kapuas River in West Kalimantan.

The Kapuas is actually the longest river in Indonesia (and is not to be mixed up with the large but quite different river of the same name, which confusingly is also in Borneo!) From the Muller Mountains in the middle of the island, it snakes its way westward, all the way down to Pontianak, through depleted forests, oil palm plantations, villages and farmlands.

Up near its source in the Muller Mountains, there are five large-ish tributaries which run down into the Kapuas from the remote mountains along the Malaysian border. The area has been designated as the Betung-Kerihun National Park. It’s managed as a wilderness region (with no road access or other infrastructure), and it gives a good idea of what much the island must have looked like in the not-too-distant past.


As the saying goes, getting there is half the fun. We flew to the regional capital of Putussibau, where we were met by Mustar and Syarief, two lovely Melayu guys who are both senior rangers in the Park. Lunch in a local restaurant, where there was just enough phone signal to get progress scores in the World Cup Cricket final which was under way at the time. (Have you ever tried to explain the nuances of cricket to people who’ve never seen the game played?) Then a couple of hours driving northwest over wildly variable roads (not all as good as the one above!) to Mataso where we stayed the night in a losmen.

Like everywhere in Indonesia, there is a fascinating and complex mix of ethnicity in the region. the original people (well, oldest group still in existence) are the Dayak Taman. Like the Dayak Iban people, who arrived only in the last hundred years from across the border in Sarawak, they still often (mostly?) choose to live in communal longhouses (betang), often 200 metres or more from end to end (that’s probably why they’re called ‘ longhouses’.) The Iban and Taman are now almost all members of the Catholic Church, but there are rich veins of animism and other traditional beliefs and ritual practices, running just below the surface.

Apay Janggut – “Bandi” – is the traditional cultural leader at the Sungai Ukit longhouse. He spent some time trying to explain to me the meaning and significance of the terung (eggplant) flowers that were tattooed onto his shoulders when he was 15. (My limited Bahasa made it difficult, but it’s something to do with the five petals, and the fact that you eat terung before eating rice…) He’s also an ‘environmental fighter’, campaigning for the protection of local rivers and forests. “If the rivers die, and the forest is gone, then Nature will become angry”.

Karen got talking to a group of boys who brought out an English language book to show her. She started off trying to help them with their English, but it soon turned into a session of them teaching her Bahasa Indonesia, and laughing merrily when she made any mistakes. One of the boys later posed for this photo with his little sister.

We watched this man finishing work on a basket he made from rattan cane collected in the forest. This style of high narrow basket is locally the standard used to carry goods. That’s Pak Bandi again in the background.

Eventually we assembled at Sadap village, the last settlement on the Embaloh River before the national park. Six of us (plus gear) piled into the longboat: us, our two guides Mustar and Syarief, and Madi and Jepri who were recruited from Sadap to crew the boat. It needs two to get the boat upstream, where the water frequently runs only knee-deep over sharp rocks. One sits at the back and steers the (Yamaha) outboard motor, and one sits watchfully at the front, giving directions to avoid hazards, and helping to extricate us when we got snagged. We got to know them both quite well over the next few days.

Madi is liberally tattooed in the traditional Dayak way, and filled with a restless energy that gives him only two speeds: busy and asleep. Whenever the boat slowed down enough, he would start fly fishing from the bow, and it was largely thanks to him that we ate fresh fish with every meal. He is still single, and keen to marry, but there is a shortage of unmarried women in the villages around Sadap. He was very interested to hear that in Canberra there are more women than men, and so we offered to ask around. Anyone?

Jepri is more laid back. After getting us through some vigorous rapids and safely unloading us to shore, he sat back in the boat and … yawned. But, like Madi he is very productive. Apart from managing the transport, the two of them erected the tarpaulin shelter at our campsite, collected vegetables (fern tips and bamboo shoots) from the forest, then did all the cooking and washing up.

Four hours upriver, and well past the last of the slash-and-burn gardens, we arrived at our campsite on tributary of the Embaloh River. A tent (for us) and a tarpaulin (for the other four) were quickly erected. It’s a little basic, with all ablutions in the river, but stunningly beautiful – and the best accommodation in the park. Hornbills and eagles flew overhead, and we woke in the mornings to the sounds of gibbons, the river, insects and a choir of songbirds.

It’s still primary forest, undisturbed by logging, and quite beautiful. There’s a Jurassic Park feeling to it – everything seems bigger, crawling with life, weirder, and more… primeval. There are inch-long ants, creepers and lianas, vipers and pythons, and trees and palms with massive spikes along their trunks.






To get to this waterfall, it was so very slippery that I CRAWLED up the rocks on the right. Madi RAN up the mossy log to show me how it could be done. The locals are so sure-footed traversing the muddy slippery steep and broken terrain. When we went hiking in the forest we felt so awkward, clumsy and ungainly, and always only a second away from falling over. We dripped with sweat all the time. They would look cool and relaxed, ambling along effortlessly.

On our way back to Sadap in the longboat, there was a sudden commotion when Madi saw a group of five native pigs (babi hutan) swimming across the river. Without hesitation, he drew the mandau (the machete-like knife that all Dayak men carry at their waists) and launched himself into the river, slashing wildly into the midst of the very surprised pigs. He injured one, but didn’t kill it. He chased after them to the shore and ran barefoot up into the jungle after them, eventually returning empty-handed and very disappointed. Madi terbang (‘flying Madi’) became the joke for the rest of our journey back to Sadap village and ‘civilisation’.