We’ve been traveling through the world of the Bajau Laut, Malay people who live their lives on the sea. I’m reading Outcasts of the Islands by Sebastian Hope and I want to share this window into the concept of time the author describes so beautifully.
Living so close to the equator and its perpetual equinox means that the length of days and nights does not vary much year round. The words ‘summer’ and ‘winter’ do not have a useful meaning. But the Bajau Laut live in a world of other time signals, just as regular, just as significant. There are two tides a day, a full moon every twenty-eighth night, and a change in the prevailing wind every six months. These events are so central to the pattern of their life that it seemed inconceivable to me they would not tally them.
But then why bother counting? When the tide falls you prop up the boat. When the moon is full you go fishing at night. When the wind changes you move your anchorage. You do not have to plan beyond the next tide and the next visit to the well; there is no need to lay in store for the winter, as there is no winter. There is no need to know how old you are. When you are big enough you learn to swim and paddle a canoe. When you are strong enough you help with the fishing and the housework. When you reach puberty you work and wear clothes. When the bride price has been raised you are married. While your strength lasts you are parent and provider. When your strength fails you do what you can to help. These are the only markers of time that make any sense, the events of a personal history, and there is no need to count them as they happen only once. I would ask Sarani when things happened and he would say, ‘I was already wearing shorts,’ or ‘Before my first wife died,’ or ‘Before Kapalai was washed away.’ These were the singular events against which his time was measured.
We don’t always go on the official rally tours. I don’t know, how many endless Indonesian speeches can you listen to before you just don’t care anymore? Sultans, governors, village officials, we’ve watched them all drone on and on, but sometimes the organizers get it right. The bus tour of Kumai promised to be one of the good ones, and besides there’s usually some descent swag. The problem is that once they have you on the bus, you’re on for the whole day until the final speech.
At 9:00 am as I motor toward the official rally dock I can already see the usual madness. Dignitaries at the podium, outrageously colorful “authentic costumes”on the dancers and the band, event facilitators desperately trying to hold a constantly evolving situation together.
After a mercifully short welcoming we are herded toward a couple of nice buses, but I can’t help noticing the six motorcycle Polisi, faces covered, with M4 assault weapons hanging from a shoulder mount. Most Indonesian authorities have extremely colorful uniforms. These guys are head to toe in black. I’m thinking this is just a bus load of bum sailors, what the hell is going on here? Turns out Indo TV has been shooting footage of us and as improbable as it seems, we are a very popular segment most every night on television! The ministry of tourism has pulled out all the stops and that kind of explains all the drone shots and taped interviews we’ve done. I breathe a heavy sigh of relief in the knowledge that when the hail of bullets start, Marce, who begged off with a recurrence of back pain, will be safe back on Escape Velocity wondering what is he up to now?
Right now the well armed motorcycle gentlemen in black are motioning for the bus driver to park over there and personally I think we should just do as they say. Turns out the first thing you see is a traditional long house of the Dayaknese Tribe.
These folks are the people that gave us the term Bogeyman due to their remarkable fierceness.
But first a rice wine welcome.
Things are looking up and, fortified, Yours Truly gives the eight foot blow pipe a go, firmly striking the target, all the while remembering not to suck.
More dancing where the bogeyman finally shows up, and a little more rice wine.
Next up, our armed motorcade pulls up to Astana Mangkubumi which features this cute and colorful little prince and princess.
I’ve noticed that these palaces are kind of empty and have a lot of stuff that looks like the Dutch just left it behind. After the buffet lunch we walk down to the Tujuh Putri Water Castle which is better known as the Princess’s Pool and rumor has it that if you dare to rub this filthy water on your skin you will become beautiful. I pass.
I was pretty excited about this next location at the Rainbow Village and when our armed entourage drops us off at their pier we are swamped with requests for selfies with the locals.
We stumble right into the middle of a Refuse Fashion Contest for all ages. Kinda cute and very creative.
Unfortunately it starts to rain as we clamber aboard the local watercraft called a Tuck-Tuck, a one lung diesel, hand cranked, with a tiny propeller at the end of a long shaft that is mostly out of the water. No neutral, no reverse, no transmission, but kinda fun.
Scenes like something on the Nile overwhelm us as we chug by. The view from the river is a bit less painted rainbow, let’s call it just unpainted wood.
The gents in black motion our bus to the car park for the Yellow Palace where the gala dinner will take place. The Sultan is a no-show due to the romancing of his mistress over in Jakarta, which suits me fine, so Yours Truly needn’t change into long pants out of respect. Strange place this Yellow Palace. Once again a kind of empty museum but with a ballroom and grounds where we end up listening to speeches in Indonesian and watching traditional dance. I’m no judge but this show seemed a cut above. I even meet Biruté Galdikas, one of Leakey’s Angels who still runs the Leakey Camp we’d just visited.
It’s well past cruisers’ midnight as the well protected bus pulls into the official rally dock. On the way to Catnip I pick up several stranded cruisers who find they have no way back to their boats so we all pile in bringing to an official end, the official tour.
Day three of the standard three-day tour usually ends early with the guests transported back to the airport in time to catch a flight to Jakarta. We aren’t going anywhere but back to Escape Velocity so on the advice of a friend we negotiated a longer final day. That meant we could putt-putt downriver at a snail’s pace, savoring the early morning quiet and listening for birds and other creatures in the intermittent rainforest drizzle.
Tourists who lack a sense of romance can hire a speedboat to run them all the way to Camp Leakey and back in one day. That kind of noisy and lumpy conveyance doesn’t appeal to us, but to each his own. These were the only two speedboats we saw during our time in the river.
I mentioned that the boat people are a close-knit community and that includes those who live on the river. The owner of the only guest house got married that morning and the bride and groom issued a blanket invitation to the boat folks to stop by and say hello, and bring their klotok guests, too.
We rafted up to a couple of other boats and climbed boat to boat to get to shore where we were offered food and drink and ran a receiving line gauntlet to the resplendent bride and groom.
As I was backing up to take the following photo my flip flop caught on a loose bit of carpet and I did a spectacular half gainer with a double twist ending in a full layout right in the middle of the reception. I expertly missed hitting the drinks tray and bounced right back up but not before a collective gasp punctuated the solemn occcasion, followed by laughter as I raised my arms in the universal I-meant-to-do-that gesture.
I thought maybe we should prevent me from performing any more potentially destructive maneuvers in the middle of a wedding and asked Herman if we could stroll through town. He arranged to have our klotok meet us at the far end and we made our way down the dusty road, with the usual stops for teens wanting to practice English and take photos.
Earlier I praised Yana’s delicious mie goreng, the classic Indonesian fried noodle dish. “Best I ever had,” I told her, and with that she offered to make it again for us. We weren’t supposed to get another meal but Yana got right to work and let me watch and photograph the steps so I can make it at home. True to form, she whipped up several dishes and laid a final extravagant lunch for us as we slowly motored back to reality.
Two hours later we emerged from the quiet river and back to the noisy, dusty port of Kumai. Our Borneo orangutan adventure is over and I just want to turn around and do it again.
Our second tour day took us further upriver to another feeding station with a beautiful walk through the forest. Herman showed us various plants, insects and birds along the way, and at one point he talked about “hairballs” just like Jack’s doctor in Labuan Bajo.
“Hairballs, hairballs,” I’m thinking, “What the — ?” Suddenly it clicked. Herbals! It all makes sense now. Doh.
The river narrowed and we turned off the main channel into an even narrower stream to our final destination, Camp Leakey. On the way Herman and Ivan kept watch for more sightings while we tried to do justice to another of Yana’s delicious meals and Iyeb took care of a few infield repairs.
Sitting on the bow of this klotok, meandering deeper into a dense rain forest, watching and listening and smelling for wildlife was one of the best experiences I’ve had since we’ve been cruising. On our own boat we’re constantly concerned about the boat, our ground tackle, the weather, the tides, always alert to sounds or changes that might indicate a problem. What a joy it was to sit without a care at all, to just appreciate the place and time, the peace and the beauty. Heaven! I think there might be a river life in our future.
Once again the boats congregated at a feeding station. Camp Leakey is where Biruté Baldikas has been studying these orangutans since 1970. A sign at the entrance informed us that it’s the “longest continuous study by one principle investigator into any wild non-human animal in the history of science.” That’s saying something.
For nearly an hour at the feeding station no orangutans showed up, despite the frequent calls by the rangers. Many of the guests left but we’d been advised by travelers we spoke to earlier to be patient and wait for the entire time. Sure enough, just when those few of us who remained started to relax our vow of silence and talk quietly we saw an enormous head poke up from behind the platform, followed by huge shoulders. Then with a great heave the entire body of a giant alpha male launched over the edge and came to rest with authority as a shaggy mountain beside a bucket of milk.
This is Terry, born in 1991 and not to be messed with, I reckon. Even the females who came soon after stayed at the other end of the platform. I don’t blame them. A few minutes later a young female swung through the trees toward the platform but when she saw Terry blocking the way she wisely took the overhead route, expertly judging the flex of the tree against her own weight, landing neatly on the other side.
Once again we stayed for the entire time allowed, just watching the behaviors and interactions.
It started raining on our walk back to the boat, and by the time we were underway it was pouring in earnest. The rain meant we couldn’t do a night walk in the forest because the rain brings fire ants and chases the other animals into their hiding places. We were disappointed but we’d come for the orangutans and they delivered so we’re not complaining.
The crew tarped the sides of the boat and we enjoyed another wonderful meal and slept like babies with the rain drumming a lullaby on the roof.
The island of Borneo is shared by Indonesia and Malaysia, with the tiny nation of Brunei occupying two small bits in the north. Borneo is rich in oil, coal, tin, diamonds, timber and other resources with ecotourism one of its largest economies. It’s the third largest island in the world with diverse and abundant wildlife and plants, many species, like the proboscus monkeys, only found here. Most important for us is that it’s the only place on earth to find the endangered Bornean orangutans. Sadly, palm oil plantations are causing an alarming loss of the ancient rain forest habitat. Many people fear the orangutans’ days are numbered and that’s why we’re here. As Douglas Adams would say, it may be our Last Chance to See.
The people of this region, called Kalimantan, know what they have and a visit to the orangutans is a well-oiled machine. But happily it’s also charming, personal, warm and most of all, protective of the animals and their precious and beautiful habitat. We didn’t at all feel that the experience has been Disneyfied or rushed, and everyone we came in contact with in planning our trip and on the tour itself was genuinely happy that we are here and went out of their way to make our visit as good as can be.
We arrived in Kumai without reservations late Thursday afternoon and I contacted four tour operators that I’d previously reached out to for info, schedule and cost. Within hours we had a three day, two night houseboat tour booked for the next morning and we scrambled to get the boat buttoned up and our small duffles packed.
By 11am Friday we were underway in the Kumai River, getting to know our houseboat and crew. The boats vary in size and style but are fairly standard in accommodation. Guests occupy the upper deck, with front and back sightseeing decks, a mattress in the middle, and a table and chairs aft. The crew (guide, captain, mate and cook) have the lower deck, including the bridge, sleeping/living quarters, and galley. In the back of the boat are a private bathroom for guests with western toilet, shower and sink, and a crew bathroom. Compared to Escape Velocity this houseboat is luxuriously spacious.
As we chugged up the river to our first stop we enjoyed a yummy lunch of local Indonesian food, freshly cooked with ingredients bought at the market just hours before. We were so hungry that we ate every morsel, which in hindsight must have sent the wrong message to our cook Yana because she upped the quantity in subsequent meals until we were often unable to finish the piles of food she put in front of us.
Our guide Herman (lots of Indonesians have European names, a legacy of 300 years of Dutch rule, I guess) kept a lookout for wildlife while we ate. He signaled Ivan the captain who stopped the boat and often maneuvered toward a better viewing angle for whatever we saw, then waited until we were ready to get underway again. As time went on, Jack and I got better at spotting things too, but Herman, with his repertoire of bird and animal calls, and Ivan with his experience and intimate knowledge of the river, never let us miss an opportunity to see whatever was lurking along the shore or in the canopy above.
In a few hours we arrived, along with a dozen or so other boats, at the first feeding station. A short walk through the forest brought us to a wooden platform where rangers dumped a couple of basket loads of bananas to tempt the nearby orangutans out of the trees. The orangutans aren’t dependent on this feeding, we learned, and in fact if none show up it means they found a more preferred food source elsewhere. Often an alpha male comes to the platform just to find some females and isn’t so much interested in the food as he is in the company. Herman told us the Bornean orangutans are more solitary than their Sumatran cousins, who live closer together for safely because of the threat of tigers.
Before long a few moms and babies showed up, along with an not-too-big alpha male.
While the 25 or 30 guests and our guides watched and snapped away in respectful near silence from crude wooden benches, the captains, mates and cooks socialized boat to boat out in the river. It’s a tight knit community and there’s always a helping hand with docking or mechanical issues or close quarter maneuvering.
At the feeding station we happily watched the orangutans for the entire allowed two hours. Jack and Herman and I were the last to leave.
Back on board we were treated to a chilled wet towel and a frosty Coke, much appreciated in these steamy equatorial afternoons.
For the rest of the daylight we spotted proboscus monkeys and other wildlife until just before dark Ivan and mate Iyeb lassoed a couple of pandanus branches and snugged us close to shore for the night.