Monday, October 13, 2014

Borneo Trek For Orangutans: Day 6-7.

Our last two days in the jungle would be spent at Bukit Peninjau Wildlife Research Station, about a half an hour boat ride from Meliau longhouse. We did most of our trekking in the mountains here—one day of trekking in the scorching heat, the next in the cooling rain.

We conducted a data survey of orangutan nests and fallen fruit with the research team, learnt some jungle survival skills with the locals, watched proboscis monkeys from our boats in the stillness of Danau Sentarum, and went night-fishing. There truly was never a dull day in Borneo.

Day 6-7: Bukit Peninjau Wildlife Research Station

The next morning I was woken up (a few times) by the roosters crowing and dogs howling and pigs screeching. When they all burst into a simultaneous cacophony at 4am (I called it the Chorus of Animals), I promptly gave up on any further "sleep" and got up to use the bathroom—a single squat-style toilet in a concrete block outside the longhouse, at the far end of the village. Just a single toilet for the whole village (though we were pretty sure the locals didn't use this one).

There was no power running in the village now so I walked out with my head-torch, sanitiser and toilet roll in hand, stepping lightly on my toes across the wooden floors which creaked underneath me anyway. As I opened the front door the village dogs congregated excitedly at my feet, whining and sniffing for my attention. 4am, in the dark, on the way to the toilet wasn't really the time and place for pats, I thought.

It was nice being up before everyone else; before even the sun. I liked hearing the village go about their business. I had already heard some activity at about 3am: people heading out very early on their boats, perhaps to the plantations or to check fishing nets and crab pots. I used the time to pack my things ahead of our next campsite: Bukit Peninjau Wildlife Research Station, our home for the next two nights.

Justine & Jason

Virginia by the water

On left: Lena, a German anthropology student, had been staying at Meliau for 3 weeks as part of her Masters research.

Jess & Lisa and that sunrise.

Before breakfast I spent some time with the kids, taking Polaroids of two of the boys. They loved it, constantly holding it up to me, staring at it and showing it off to the other kids (which later caused some upset tears).

Then we were off on our boat ride to Bukit Peninjau, leaving on traditional longboats narrower than the ones we used in Betung Kerihun National Park. I didn't take any photos here. It was already so warm that I wanted to save my energy, not to mention saving space on my cards. The ride was bumpy at parts, the canals so narrow that we had to go slowly. Our navigator, Edho, had to shove hard against the walls of soil with his paddle to help move the boat. There were plenty of logs in the water that made it impossible to operate a motor.

We travelled through Danau Sentarum (Lake Sentarum) and stopped by a small white house. It was lovely, quaint and unfurnished, and the paint and wood looked new. Jimmy & Hermas explained that it had been built by the local government to provide housing for fishermen who got caught in storms and couldn't get home. We also took a look at some fanged pitcher plants growing nearby—like the Venus Fly Trap, these plants are carnivorous and release an enzyme that kills insects.

I may not have taken photos on my big camera, but I do have a little Hyperlapse and a handful of iPhone photos of our boat ride below:

Edho on the boat. Taken on iPhone.

Little white house. Taken on iPhone.

Danau Sentarum. Taken on iPhone.

The fanged pitcher plant (Nepenthes bicalcarata) is endemic to northwest Borneo. Taken on iPhone.

After our bumpy ride it was about to get bumpier: we got off the boats at a "dock" that was essentially a pile of wooden logs and planks on the water. Borneo was definitely testing all facets of my being: concentration, observation and balance being the skills I'd need in that very moment.

From there we balanced our way to the research station, along logs and narrow beams slippery from the water—at times we could hold onto the little wooden railing that had been put together by the hands of the locals & researchers, but at times it was too far away for my little arms to hold onto, or there wasn't a railing at all. It seemed an eternity to get to the station—it was boiling, and we were going slowly, concentrating hard on where we placed our feet. Sweat trickled down my temples and neck and sternum constantly. Even the fittest and most experienced among us agreed that the walk (which I'm sure was only 1 kilometre or so) was difficult.

After a little break and some food we went on our afternoon trek. Jimmy gave us the option to split into two groups: one group would be the "hard" group and would try to get to the mountain peak; the other would be the more relaxed group and would only explore the jungle without aiming to get to the top. Most of us went into the difficult group—we definitely couldn't pass up an opportunity to try and get to the top and truly challenge ourselves.

The sun was out in full force, so I covered up, wearing pants and a long-sleeved shirt underneath my loose button-up, and my scarf for wiping off sweat. I brought 2 litres of water in my daypack together with my 2kg camera—exactly what I had trained with back home, but the fact I had trained didn't seem to matter much at all. This trek was, in a word, tough.

Our earlier treks suddenly seemed easy. A brutal combination of the steep mountain, the weight of my daypack and the heat made it extremely mentally challenging. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other without giving into the idea that I couldn't do it.

We stopped at a flat point after maybe 30-45 minutes of uphill trekking. Everyone pulled out a snack to help keep their sugar and spirits up. Our tour leader Justine, an incredibly experienced trekker, was crumpled at the base of a tree with her tank top rolled up to help cool her body down. I immediately went from being sun-smart to climate-smart, zipping off my pant legs and taking off my undershirt. We all took a moment to re-apply our sunscreen and insect repellent before mentally and physically gearing up for the next leg of the trek. I quietly wondered how the "relaxed" trekking group was doing.

These are the faces of true physical and mental exertion and people who need Starbursts.

The view from the lower mountain peak.

At a particularly steep and difficult point, I started slowing down. I could feel the heat of my face, my pack weighing down on me, my legs like lead weights and my heartbeat pounding in my temples; so close to a breaking point. Jimmy begged me to let him carry my pack. He said that the local men felt bad watching me trek and carry my bag all by myself (which I later realised was bigger and heavier than anything everyone else was carrying). I agreed with gratitude. It was becoming impossible trying not to mentally cave in to how difficult it was getting.

So. Tired.

We finally got to the lower mountain peak and took another break there. Jimmy said the local men didn't think we should climb to the highest mountain peak today: it was already late in the afternoon and it would take way too long. Our faces probably betrayed our exhaustion and given that it had already taken us 3 hours to climb to the lower mountain peak, it may take us even longer to climb after already being so exhausted. Jimmy proposed that we climb a little of the way up the higher peak before climbing all the way back down to camp, so we did.

Throughout the whole trek my nose was running like no tomorrow. There was truly no worse time to be having hayfever, having to blow my nose on the same scarf I was attempting to wipe my sweat with. By the end of it the scarf was completely soaked, but I truly cared so little—everything was filthy. My fingernails were caked in dirt, my calves covered in dozens of scratches from sliding over huge fallen trees and crashing through all the undergrowth. It was liberating to be so dirty to a point where it just didn't matter any more.

Old, tall trees. Perfect homes for an orangutan. Taken on iPhone.

5ft. Camille vs. 50-year-old-dipterocarp. Taken on iPhone.

Melanie, after the trek, after a shower.

When we got back to camp it was all we could do not to lie down forever. I felt my muscles now, a little sore and worn. Some of us swam in the creek to cool down; some used the bucket & water in the bathroom—it wasn't going to matter, because at this stage, any kind of "bath" was going to be amazing. I knew today would be the day I could treat myself to washing my hair for the first time since leaving Brisbane, and seeing as we had an enclosed bathroom space at the research station, I could.

Feeling fresh and completely new, I pushed luxury even further, choosing to wear a clean shirt instead of the same evening shirt I'd been using for the whole trip. We all looked so refreshed—nothing makes you appreciate cleanliness more than being completely filthy, and nothing makes you appreciate sitting more than being pushed to your physical limits. We stretched our legs on the deck, talking and having dinner before our evening walk where we hoped to spot some nocturnal wildlife. I had obviously completely forgotten about our evening excursion before I made the decision to wear a clean shirt.

We set out in the dark with our head-torches, quickly realising it would be wiser to hold them in our hands instead of strapping them around our heads and making our faces magnets for light-loving insects. The ground was pretty boggy and muddy in this part of the forest compared to the leafy, dry ground in the mountains earlier that day.

Our little excursion and wasted showers were not for naught: we saw a wildcat from afar, its huge glowing eyes staring at us from the trees, warily watching. We saw frogs and fish and mice, but didn't see any of the tarsiers we were hoping would come out.

Night-trekking. Ruining our showers.

Heading back along the planks in the dark. We'd become experts at balancing in no time.

Overnight, the tin roof was pelted with heavy rain. It was so loud I had to use my ear plugs for the first time. In the morning, the clouds lingered, and the rain had reduced to a mere drizzle. It would be a nice change to trek in the rain. For a tropical rainforest, I half-expected to be met with rain every single day, but we'd been very lucky with the weather.

Fried banana during breakfast!

Hermas holding a millipede

Gearing up for the trek

The cooks preparing okra for breakfast and lunch

Derwi explaining the data we were to gather

Today would be the day we'd get to do some data collection for research with the WWF Indonesia team. We were briefed on what we had to do and what all the different columns on our papers were for. It would be an easier trek today, seeing as we could only travel so far as the measuring string could go. We would trek up the mountain and have lunch in the jungle before coming back to camp.

The little brown thing you see hanging off the leaf is a leech.

Measuring our distance with string

The forests here in Bukit Peninjau and Danau Sentarum National Park are home to a large population of the orangutans. The data we took proved it even if we never got to see them (we never truly expected to see them anyway, especially as it wasn't fruit season and we had such a large group we would have scared them away). We found 7 orangutans nests in the trees high above us within 500m alone, some a few months old, and one only a week or two old. Some of the locals tried to see if they could draw out any hiding orangutans by making the kissing noises that sometimes get a response, but we heard nothing.

Jimmy explaining what the men were about to show us.

Here we were shown some jungle survival skills by the local men: they chopped a hanging branch with their machete and from it we were able to drink water.

Note: My lens (and my glasses) were constantly fogging up due to the humidity and the rain, thus the strange blur on the next couple of photos.

Antonia & Kellie

Dan, Jess & Koyah!

When we got to a clearing we waited for lunch, which some of the men were bringing from camp. When they got to us, they were carrying two large woven baskets with all our food and our water—we admired them a great deal, considering we had only just been struggling up the same mountain the day before with far less than what they were carrying, and they were older, smaller and skinnier than us. It was, again, testament to the lives they lead out here in the jungle.

Justine trying to get reception now that we're on higher ground, so we can let everyone know we're okay.

Jessie & Jason


Hermas & Jimmy getting our jungle lunch ready

In the evening we headed out to the boats to see if we could spot the proboscis monkeys. The lake was so beautifully still, the water sharply reflecting the landscape around it. Everything was like something out of a postcard, and my child-like wonder returned in this moment, as Borneo had done for me so many times already. I carefully captured the scene around me, being mindful not to destroy its stillness, its silence; being mindful to live in it as much as I was shooting it.

We stopped the motor in our boat long ago, and we drifted, ever-so-gently, along this huge lake. The sun was starting to set and everything was more and more perfect. We heard noises in the trees and Edho, navigating at the front of our boat, gestured and gently put his paddle in the water, moving us closer to the monkeys, not making a sound. We did not breathe, we did not move, and we did not take pictures as we watched them, swinging from the branches, finding their food. I was incredibly happy to see them, and felt so lucky to have ever been this close.

This was what it was like, to be here in the wild; to respect nature and animals for exactly what they were: wild things, not for our entertainment, not for our control.

When the monkeys disappeared, we sat at the white house, waiting until it got dark for the men to start night-fishing. They had these long wooden spears with small three-pronged heads and would stand at the front of the boats expertly shoving them into fish in the dark. We caught three at the end of the night, including one rather large (at least 3kg) dragonfish.

As we headed out to the narrower canals, the bottom of our wooden boat brushing up against huge plants, I stared up at the sky and couldn't stop. All the stars were so clear, millions and millions of infinite sparks that I had never been able to see, and would never be able to see again in this exact way, from this exact place.

Even when I leave here, and we all go back to our lives, all these forests and lakes and all the organisms within it will still exist; all these stars will still be burning and dying amongst millions of other stars and suddenly everything I've ever thought or dreamed or worried about was so insignificant.

1 comment:

  1. What amazing photos! I'm sure it was an experience you will treasure the rest of your life. As I am going through the pictures, I can almost imagine myself in the place - the tranquillity and peacefulness of the water, the humming of insects and the song of birds. It makes us appreciate the simple things in life away from all the fuss, but also, the comforts and conveniences we normally take for granted. Thanks for sharing!