Beyond the reach of Bali’s scooter-choked streets and spiritual journeymen and women, and far outside the earthly calls of the Gili Islands and Lombok, lies Borneo, the famed jungle on Indonesia’s Kalimantan Island.
Borneo is a vast and complex web of depleting tropical rainforest, ever-growing palm oil plantations, and illegal logging and gold mining. Yet Borneo is also home to Tanjung Puting National Park and within it, one of the most significant orangutan sanctuaries on earth. The sanctuary exists in no small part to Dr. Biruté Galdikas who, after studying the orangutans, dedicated a base—Camp Leaky in 1971—to provide a permanent place for scientists, staff, students, and park rangers to study these creatures. Despite the work of Galdikas and all who pass through Camp Leaky, the orangutan sanctuary exists on the perilous edge of fragility. And to the deep frustration for all who believe in the basis of conservation, and despite the fact that Tanjung Puting is a registered national park, over 65 percent of the forest has been depleted, ripped out, and hauled away; a staggering percentage made a reality due to the almost nonexistent regulation of the government.
Seeking a window into this fading paradise, shrinking and nearly lost, and to experience the orangutans in their natural habitat, this past August I caught a flight from the megacity of Jakarta to the otherworldly center of Kalimantan Island where I would board a rickety houseboat to wind my way through the murky canals of Tanjung Puting. With a small crew to man the boat, cook the meals, and presumably to prevent me from being bitten by a deadly tarantula, I spent three days journeying into the heart of Borneo.
We began from Kumai, a “village” of 27,000 people and dozens of tall concrete swallow coops that exist to feed China’s appetite for bird nest soup. In Kumai the waterways are wide and polluted, the rainforest along the banks thin and sparse, the effects of human civilization clearly marked. Here is where the houseboat crews return home between journeys, somewhat reluctantly it seems. On the water—in the jungle, under the stars, in the deepest black of night—there is a freedom, and loneliness, that exist nowhere else.
My guide, Jen Subaru, works in tandem with his brother, Jeni, a legend on the water, buying up land with the money they can spare to save the rainforest from what they can. Together they train future guides, many of whom are ex-miners and loggers, who on the water have found another life—a new life—and a new freedom. The men—and mostly men they are—casually go back and forth between English, Spanish, Italian, French— the languages of their passengers—as well as the language of the rainforest, the most indecipherable of them all. Yet, they know the calls of flap of the Kingfisher, the profile of the swing of the gibbon monkey, the profile of each orangutan and their babies, and the call of the rare storm stork.
The jungle is largely unmarked save for a few trails that the park rangers and scientists use to observe the orangutans. In an effort to keep the creatures fed and happy in the forest and to keep them from wandering outside their shrinking habitats, park rangers lay out huge swaths of bananas twice each day on feeding platforms in the forest. On a good day, when the forest is naturally full of vegetation, none of the orangutans may turn up, but in the dry season, they rely on it.
This shrinking wilderness is home to the largest wild orangutan population in the world, 230 species of birds, nine species of primates (three of which of are only found in Borneo), two different species of crocodile, and dozens of species of reptiles. Training your eye to penetrate through the mass of green would take half a lifetime. The banks are deep and the shadows deeper. The sky turns cloudless to a full rainforest downpour in an instant and even full sun afterward will never have your socks dry again. Night comes late and deeply with an all-encompassing blackness. Fireflies gather in trees, beaming a magnetic glow, burning like lights on a Christmas tree.
From the comfort of a rolled out sleeping pad, and mosquito net, and the rock of the docked boat, the silence and darkness are impenetrable. Momentarily this floating wilderness is just ours, not to be found, not to be touched, not to be destroyed.