A Family River Cruise in Borneo

Tanjung Puting National Park

At the end of my mom and stepson’s visit last month, we all took a trip to Pangkalan Bun, located at the south of the island of Borneo in the Indonesian state Kalimantan. Arif at Rumah Orangutan arranged the whole tour for us -a recommendation from a friend at the Indonesian Heritage Society – so we were looking forward to something special.

Before we took a 3-day boat tour into the jungle, we spent an afternoon with baby sea turtles. We drove for an hour, then took a small boat, and found ourselves on what appeared to be an idyllic island (actually a peninsula). There is no one in the area, except for rangers living at a single station and a few tourists that they rent rooms to. We learned about the sea turtles they protect on the island, hawksbill turtles and green turtles.

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When the rangers find turtle nests, they bring the eggs inside a building where they’re nestled in sand, protected from predators. When the turtles hatch, they are kept in a tank for a few weeks. This is different from how they would go into the world in nature, were they would hatch and immediately crawl towards the ocean. Both species of sea turtle are endangered species. Besides predators threatening the safety of their eggs, sea turtles are hunted for their shells and meat. Baby turtles must also make a long ocean voyage when they are only about 2 inches long. The majority of them don’t survive the trip.

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For a donation of 50,000 Rupiah each (about $4.50) we all got to name a sea turtle, and see it off on its maiden voyage. We knew the odds weren’t in their favor (we convinced my 9-year-old stepson that we picked the strongest and smartest turtles, so they would surely all survive) but more likely, our donation will help conservation of the turtle populations. It was really cool when the little baby turtles, who were plopped on the sand facing away from the ocean, oriented themselves toward the ocean and hobbled towards the waves that carried them away.

sea turtles

And so Peanut, Gander, Spike II (Spike I didn’t find his way) and Victor made their way into the ocean.

That night we stayed at homestay (sort of a no-frills Indonesian Bed and Breakfast) run by modernized Dayak people. The Dayak are the tribe the indigenous people of South Borneo. The Dayak people traditionally lived deep in the jungle, transporting themselves by riverboats. Now, many have moved to the cities, where there are good jobs that attract Indonesians from other islands. Arif arranged a demonstration for us, where a local modernized Dayak man showed us how they cook sticky rice in bamboo over fire. This is an essential dish for a Dayak wedding, where they serve up to 300 people.

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I don’t have photos of the homestay, because it felt weird to walk around take pictures of someone’s house, but there was very little furniture, with the exception of the sitting room (which had a couch, two chairs, and a coffee table). We were served dinner in a room with only a TV and a floor mat. Our beds were mattresses on the floor, in a room with princess decorations on the wall. I suspect that someone gave up their bedroom for the night, so they could accommodate us.

Riverboat cruise

The next morning, we drove an hour to the bustling little riverside town of Kumai. We found our boat there, equipped with a crew of three people, including a chef. We set off for Tanjung Puting National Park. The national park is 741,100 acres of jungle, bordered by river on one side and the ocean on the other side. Over the next few days, we traveled up and down the river, visiting feeding orangutan feeding stations. The feeding stations are located at three conservation areas: Camp Leakey (the oldest orangutan research and rehabilitation center), Tanjung Harapan, and Pondok Tanguy.

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After about 2 or 3 hours on the river, we arrived at our first stop. We walked along a path, further and further into the forest, until suddenly we saw something large and brown moving between the trees. We hadn’t even made it to the feeding station (the platform where rangers leave behind maybe 100 bananas for orangutans to much on, if they can’t find food in nearby fruit trees). We stood and watched the orangutan swing between trees, and lumber around on the ground. Eventually, we made it to the feeding platform. About 10 semi-wild orangutans visited, including females, males, and babies. We were in a group of about 20 people, including guides, standing in the middle of the forest watching the orangutans all around us. At some point, one large male suddenly ran through the group causing the group to quickly part ways, before the orangutan took off into the trees. The orangutan got within a few feet of my stepson, Julian, who had been looking elsewhere. He was definitely a little startled after that!

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Generally, Julian didn’t really “get it” the first day we were on the river, exploring the jungle. He was impatient to get back to the boat, saying “you guys were look at the orangutans for a long time.” But by the third day, he was totally fascinated. He was asking all kinds of questions (keeping us adults on our toes!) and he even enjoyed a short trek into the Pondok Ambung Biodiversity Research Center, where we didn’t see any large animals (except one wild pig), only many exotic insects and plants. I was surprised when he finished the trek with a “well, that was a nice walk.” He’s a true city kid, living just outside Washington, DC, so this felt like a huge victory.

probiscus monkeys


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The first night, our boat stalled out on the river, right next to a colony of maybe 30 probiscus monkeys in the treetops. We ate our dinner, then began our riverboat tradition of playing cards every night. We played until the crew set up our mattress on top of the boat, and covered them with mosquito nets. I slept fine that first night, but I was the only adult who did. My mom was worried that our boat wouldn’t start and that the monkeys would climb onto our boat, and Bjoern was listening to the animals in the water and the forest. Bjorn said the probiscus monkeys ran off into the forest at daybreak.

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As predicted, the crew got the boat started the next morning – I got the impression this is a problem they encounter frequently – and we headed off to the next orangutan feeding station. We really enjoyed watching the orangutans in the forest. The orangutans are mostly rescued from illegal trade and rehabilitated, or the descendants of rehabilitated orangutans. The adults were cool to watch, but I especially liked watching the babies. They have the same wonder and joy that adult babies have, but amazing strength and athleticism. I remember watching one baby dangling upside down by its feet, watching the jungle spinning around.

Over our three days in the jungle, we got some amazing photos of orangutans. It was also a great opportunity to bond as a family, and learn about wildlife and Indonesia. All in all, a successful trip!

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One thought on “A Family River Cruise in Borneo

  1. Thanks for your visiting here, it was really help Orangutan, local people and our forest. Beautiful moment I have spent with you all, special a smart boy Julian. Thanks Bjorn, Heather and Judith. Hope you are doing well…

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