Sunday, 30 October 2011

Kumai and the amazing Orang-utans

The first thing that struck us as we anchored close to the river bank opposite Kumai were the large number of multi-story buildings lining the shore of what we expected to be a reasonably small town. We noticed something strange about them. They had no balconies or windows but we could see loud speakers hanging of them all over the place. They were too ugly to be mosques and besides, not even people in Indonesia could need that many mosques in one town. What the hell?

The waterfront of Kumai is lined with multi-story bird houses
 It wasn’t until we headed ashore and were assaulted with the noise of thousands of birds tweetering that we started suspect this was something very different.  After speaking with Hery, the local tour agent we’d booked our orang-utan tour with, we found the answer.  It turns out all these multi-story structures are high-rise birdhouses. The loud speakers play recordings of bird noises to attract other birds inside where the walls etc  are constructed so this particular species of bird will build their nests. These nests are constructed from the bird’s saliva and are the very ones used in the Chinese delicacy of bird’s nest soup. The birds normally nest inside caves but by building an artificial replacement environment for them the nests are much easier to harvest. A  single nest can sell for as much as $200 depending on weight and quality so it’s a major industry for the town. When we asked Hery if the delicacy was available anywhere in town to try we got an instant response, ‘No one here eat it. Taste like shit. Sell nests to China.’
So no bird’s nest soup in Kumai. Also, much to the disappointment of many a yachties, no beer at all in Kumai. The almost exclusively Muslim community have passed their own law prohibiting the sale of all alcohol in the region. Add in a very limited and largely uninspiring offering from the local, and not very clean looking restaurants, very limited supermarket supplies, streets paved with rotting rubbish, and the least friendly locals we’d struck so far, and we were starting to question why anyone would sail so far to come here.  The orang-utans of course.

Kumai is the stepping off point to take two or three day trips on local boats up river to visit the Tanjung Puting National Park, home of the world famous Camp Leakey conservation centre dedicated to the well being of the human races closest relative. This particular experience had always been absolutely on top of our ‘must do’ list for the Sail Indonesia Rally and after enjoying?? all the delights of Kumai we were certainly hoping it would live up to our expectations.
We had booked well in advance of arriving to share a boat for a two day trip with Jim and Barbara off Contrails, Anton and Carol off Shayelle, Keith and Clare off Panuliris and of course Marc, our crew mate on Nae Hassle. Meanwhile Will was heading off on a separate tour with other rally participants. The local boat picked us up directly from our respective yachts early in the morning and we headed back down the Kumai River a short distance before heading up a tributary lined with palms that actually grew in the water like mangroves.  

L-R: Anton,Keith,Rob,Clare,Carrol,Karen,Marc,Barbara&Jim
 It was a great group of people whose company we really enjoyed. It was also fantastic to catch up properly with Marc after our first real separation since we all joined Nae Hassle back in Cairns almost four months ago. We have developed quite a close bond onboard sharing the fun and many challenges it presented. Marc had not had all that great a time on the trip from Bali with the mainsail tearing through in the middle of the night just one of many dramas he faced and was enjoying being able to kick back amongst friends and unwind.

It was great to have our Nae Hassle crew back together again
On board with us were the skipper, two crew, cook and  our own English speaking guide, Pardy, a 24 year old local who had previously worked in the National Park with the orang-utans while he was doing his English studies at University. Pardy was to prove a literal mine of information, not only about the animals and environment, but he was also able to provide us with many insights into the local rural communities and way of life outside the town. On the first day we were travelling many miles upstream to visit Camp Leakey and would then spend the night moored to the river bank before taking in two orang-utan feeding stations and a reforestation project on the way back downstream on day two.
The river marked the northern boundary of the national park with a huge tract of land to the south protected for animal and plant conservation. Pardy’s own village had been relocated to the north side of the river when the park was established. Having said that though, as we moved upstream both banks of the river were covered in lush vegetation teeming with animal and bird life. The trees were thick with huge staghorn ferns and an incredible array of different orchids.  
At one point we were treated to a large group of proboscis monkeys (so named for their huge noses) crossing a tributary stream en mass. Pardy explained this is a defence mechanism against crocodile attack as the loud sound of all the monkeys splashing through the water at once sounds like a much larger animal than a single monkey on its own. That and safety in numbers. It’s always the other guy that gets eaten remember.
Anton & Jim watching the river bank shrink closer to the aft deck
As we travelled ever further up river the closer the banks came together, the water turned a tannin stained black colour and we played games of spot the kingfisher – crocodile – monkey.  As the vegetation closed in to touch each side of the boat more and more we also felt like we were about to come across Bogart and Hepburn coming downstream on the African Queen.  Long before we’d ever set eyes on an orang-utan we were all commenting that the journey itself was worth every penny of the modest $130 cost each. To see how far up river and how remote Camp Leakey is click on our Spot Tracker link
On the way up river, Pardy explained that the word Orang means man and utan is forest so literally orang-utan means man of the forest.  Sharing 98% of the same DNA as humans they are also our closest living relative in the animal kingdom.  Each orang-utan community is headed up by a dominant male or King.  His territory will often cover a radius of up to 25 kilometres and he is the master of all in his domain. He maintains this mastery by fighting off any challenges from young males and must constantly patrol his territory to dissuade such challengers from dallying with his ladies. Younger males do co-exist in his domain provided they are subservient and stay out of the King’s way. There is also a dominant female or Queen, who all the others defer to.
At Camp Leakey the king was a big bloke called Tom whose photo graced the big billboard we had seen when we entered the park but Pardy explained we would be lucky to see him because he had such a big territory to patrol and was seldom around the conservation centre itself. As well as being the base for a number of study programs etc a major role of the camp is to raise awareness of the plight of the endangered species by providing an opportunity for people to witness orang-utans in the wild. To facilitate this a feeding station has been established where once a day many kilograms of banana or whatever fruit is in season is provided for whatever orang-utans want to come and partake while we, the tourists, ogle and take photographs.  So we eagerly disembarked from our boat and headed up the trail for our encounter with the men of the forest. We only got  short distance before our pace slowed to that of the two orang-utans that were ambling down the path in front of us on their way to the feeding platform.  These two were none other than Tom and his Queen.

The dominant male, Tom, graced us with his awesome presence
 We could see and certainly sense the massive power contained within Tom’s hairy body and mindful that he was a wild animal were trying to give him plenty of room but he really couldn’t care less and would frequently stop and seemingly enjoy being able to bring to a halt the parade of humans he was leading before restarting the procession whenever he was ready.  We’d almost reached the banana laden feeding platform when Tom called a halt to proceedings again, sniffed the air, then charged two metres off the path to a female who’d obviously taken his fancy. Foreplay was certainly short as Tom and his concubine provided all and sundry with a quick demonstration in orang-utan copulation. The Queen meanwhile headed straight for the food and it wasn’t long before Tom also returned to the pressing matter of the bananas on the feeding platform.
The younger females with babies had quickly vacated the area as the Queen approached and didn’t return until after she’d had her fill climbed a tree to watch the circus from high above. They were happy to share the feeding platform with Tom however but were clearly subservient to their King at all times.  Having had his fill for the moment Tom took up station under a palm on the ground and also seemed  content just to keep a passing eye on us.

We were in awe as we watched a continuous parade of beautiful creatures swing from tree to tree through the forest canopy making their way to and from the plentiful supply of fresh fruit. Babies clung to mother’s and young juveniles followed. All had such expressive eyes and seemed  so at peace with our presence in their realm.

Many of the females seemed to enjoy coming right in to the small throng of their distant cousins in the viewing area and interacting with us humans. You would swear they were consciously posing for photographs and would happily sit beside someone and stare down the lens as the shutters clicked furiously.

Amazingly over two hours passed like minutes as we enjoyed what was without doubt the most incredible wildlife experiences of our lives. On the walk back to our boat voices were muted and conversation fairly restrained as we were all struggling to absorb all that we’d just witnessed. Anyone that does not put a visit to Tanjung Puting National Park high on their bucket list of things to do in their lives is bananas.
That night the crew tied our boat up to trees on the bank of the narrow river and we enjoyed a fantastic meal aboard. Our whole group were all feeling on top of the world after our encounter in the forest and the jovial atmosphere continued late into the night as we shared drinks and recounted various experiences from all over the globe. Eventually our ever patient crew ushered onto the stern deck while they transformed the upper foredeck where we’d dined into our sleeping accommodation with very comfortable queen size mattresses each with its own four poster style mosquito netting.  Here we enjoyed a great night’s sleep interrupted only by the occasional sound of nocturnal forest wildlife ---- and Anton’s high decibel snoring and Marc’s vocalising loudly in his sleep what must have been an incredibly erotic dream. Oh the joys of dormitory style sleeping.

We woke early next morning as the sun’s first glow began to bring the jungle to life with strange bird calls and other noises the origins of which we could only guess. Shortly after our crew packed all the sleeping gear away and converted our dormitory back to open air living room we were underway.

The deep blackness of the water combined with the early morning stillness to convert our river into an amazing mirror stretching out before us. It reflected brilliantly every minute detail of every tree, plant, bird and animal and almost seemed to intensify the colours of the kingfishers perched on branches and orchids clinging to tree trunks. No camera could approach accurately reproducing  what the naked eye could see so clearly.

The breeding program is obviously going great guns
 It was sometime before we could tear our gaze away from the water’s surface as it revealed new dimensions of nature’s beauty with every turn of the river and pay any attention at all to the breakfast the crew had served up. Pardy was concerned that something was wrong as we hadn’t descended on the food like ravenous beasts which had been our custom the previous day.

It was a glorious start to a day that continued in the same vein . We visited another feeding station in the national park where we were enthralled by a different social group of orang-utans. This time neither the dominant male or female were present and there was a very different dynamic as different females jockeyed for prime position on the feeding platform. After much looking over his shoulder to make sure the boss really wasn’t around, one young male even got daring enough to woo an attractive young lady into a tree top liaison. How they managed to keep their mind on the job without falling ten metres to the ground was amazing. If the number of babies hanging on to mothers and the amount of orang-utan live porn we witnessed is anything to go by, this lot will be off the endangered species list before you know it.

Rob plants a blackwood tree to help the forest
While the Indonesian government has done a great thing setting aside a very large tract of land to protect the orang-utans and other rain forest species, much of it was previously logged and then further damaged by huge fires in the nineties. Further down river we made a stop to visit a re-forestation project that attempting to restore the habitat needed to support growth in the orang-utan population. Eco-tourists like us are able to assist the project by purchasing a tree which you’re then guided into the regrowth area to plant. They  propagate seedlings of a range of trees and you can choose which you’d like to plant. Karen chose a native fruit tree which will provide food for the orang-utans while Rob and Marc both planted blackwood trees. These are very slow growing but achieve a massive girth and reach great heights providing protection for all the forest species below. They were highly sort after by the loggers of last century and we saw no mature trees that had survived.  It was a nice feeling that we’d been able to do at least some small thing to help restore things to the way they were. Our only regret was that we didn’t take our Spot Tracker with us to record the exact GPS co-ordinates so if we, our children or even grand children ever visited the project again we could identify and see how our trees had faired. With Blackwoods taking 50 to 60 years to reach maturity there's no quick fix for the forest.

A few more miles downstream and we were again trekking through the forest to the third of the feeding stations in the park. You may think having seen two it would be a case of same, same but nothing could be further from the truth. Each group are unique and behave in different ways. At Camp Leakey, our first stop, they have had the most contact with humans and are by far the least bashful.  At our second stop the absence of the dominant animals gave rise to totally different behaviour then what we’d seen first. The final feeding platform we visited was located amongst a maze of hanging vines and the locals provided us with an incredible demonstration of their strength and agility as they swung, climbed and hung at all sorts of angles and positions. We were again incredibly fortunate to be graced with the presence of the groups huge dominant male but this time he didn’t arrive for a feed until well after the majority and it was really interesting to see the lesser males rapidly making themselves scarce and the change in behaviour in the females as some competed for his attention while others appeared to make it clear to him that they had a ‘headache’ so leave me alone.

The Boss at the 3rd feeding station
 It was late afternoon by the time we trooped back aboard thinking our adventure had come to and end but Pardy and the crew had more of mother nature’s treats  in store for us. As we headed for home motoring west towards the Kumai River again a magnificent sun set was developing  and the tree tops on both sides of the river began to fill with our big nosed friends, the proboscis monkeys as they prepared to bed down, or in this case up, for the night. Each tree was occupied by a single male and his harem of ladies and offspring.  A forlorn sight were the lads sitting all alone ina tree like the proverbial ‘Neville No-friends’. These young bucks had reached an age where they were exiled from the group by Dad but had not yet gathered their own girlfriends.

At sunset the trees were full of proboscis monkeys
We reached the section of river near the junction with the Kumai lined by the thick palms as the suns final glow disappeared and were amazed as the river banks transformed into a spectacular light show. Literally millions of fireflies filled the palm fronds, each adding the glow of its tail and producing a memorable finale to our Tanjung Puting National Park visit.
We were all dropped back to our yachts with the skipper displaying fantastic boat handling skills in the darkness, manoeuvring in the strong tidal run to gently hold position alongside each in turn while we alighted. 

A magical sunset over the river and forest
While exhausted we were also exhilarated and it was some time before we could bring ourselves to turn in.  Our two days had not only met our high expectations but far, far exceeded any ideas we’d had of what it may be like.
Next day we headed ashore to the local markets in Kumai to provision the boat for the next leg of our Indonesian odyssey across to the island of Belitung. Coming from the world of highly sanitised, pre packaged, everything at a one stop supermarket, it takes a while to come to grips with the whole Asian food market experience. In this polar opposite world you wander from stall to stall down crowded open air laneways picking the freshest and best looking fruit and vegetables that are available and bargaining the price down to something you’re willing to pay. Sometimes the range is good, other times you can choose from fifty stalls all selling water spinach, chillies, green bananas and not much else. Fortunately in Kumai we were able to stock up with a good selection of fruit and veg at the morning market. The seafood and meat market is held in the afternoon at a different place so provisioning becomes an all day job.

Pardy (on right) and our boat crew were outstanding

This next stage of the process is where the gap between west and east is most obvious. No rows of refrigerated cabinets containing plastic wrapped portions of your desired cuts of meat here. No white coated butcher with cloth cap or hair net and plastic gloves to serve you either. In the market you’ll find more open air stalls but this time with fish of all sorts and sizes displayed on a bench. Likewise squid, complete with ink, prawns in a plastic bucket, recently beheaded whole chickens or pieces of the same whichever you prefer and, if you’re lucky, large chunks of beef laying on a cutting board. Some stall owners even hover above their wares with swats to occasionally chase the flies off but most don’t bother  to fight a losing battle.
The first time we experienced the open air fish and meat market was months ago back in Alore and we couldn’t believe anyone would buy that stuff. Before long though we came to realise that the food we ate in every little restaurant we’ve patronised has come from a market just like that and we haven’t died yet. So buy the fish with the clearest eyes and freshest smell, the seller of the freshest fish usually has the best squid too. Feel and smell the prawns. You can tell which ones were caught days ago and which are fresh. When it comes to meat, your best friend is your nose. It doesn’t lie about the state decay.
So Atlantia was soon stocked up with enough fish, squid, and surprisingly good steak, along with quite a few kilos of huge green prawns, to feed a small army for weeks, or in this case, Will, Karen and Rob for five days. 
We stayed put one more day so Will could attend to some correspondence while we had internet access and tackle the problem of fixing the blocked head (toilet) in his master cabin. In the heat and humidity of this unfriendly river this was far from the nicest task. Then it was thankfully ‘Goodbye Kumai’.

Jean and Sarah opted for the express trip to see the orang-utans - Show Offs!

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1 comment:

  1. 4 years on .... This was one of the most amazing experiences we have had in our sailing travels .... Put it on your BUCKET list Cheers Rob and Karen


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