I started my trek in the Sabangau National Park, Central Kalimantan under a veil of darkness. The earthy smell of the peat bog forest rose sharply to greet me as I held my torch steady so as not to trip and fall into the organic black water swamp that lay on either side. I was following the clouded leopard monitoring party. “No talking please and mind your step,” the ranger said. “This boardwalk can weaken at any time, and one of these planks could break, but don’t worry I am here to help”.
Soon enough we reached the spot – a huge tree just off the peat bog trail. The ranger strapped the camera to the tree and set the motion sensor with a timer. “We will come back for this in the morning. I hope we capture a clouded leopard on the film. They are around at the moment, and this is just one of several cameras we are setting tonight,” he explained.
Back at the forest lodge, the film data was recorded on huge maps on the walls of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Sabangau Research Centre. A team based in the centre tracks the activities of all the animals sighted, including honey bears, gibbons, proboscis monkeys and orangutans. There are 25 species of mammals in the national park and over 6,000 orangutans, which makes it home to the world’s largest population of wild orangutans.
The next day we headed out through the black water lake canals on small canoes and spotted proboscis monkeys. Because we approached quietly by water, we were able to get pretty close. Proboscis monkeys live in large family groups and love to swing through the branches. They often launch themselves a great distance from tree to tree, appearing to fly through the air to catch flimsy branches just in time, and calling to the others to follow. They can make an enormous racket, however, on this sleepy afternoon, they were docile.
In the evening, we crowded around a small laptop at the research centre, watching video footage of orangutans building their nests. “A new nest is built every night in just 15 minutes,” Pak Ajim explained. “We have been tracking this family over three years. The babies stay with the mother for seven years”.
Like the other rangers, Pak Ajim loves his work. “We are so happy to be getting good training from WWF and to understand about forest preservation. Before 2004, this forest was open to both legal and illegal logging”, he continued, “I have been with WWF for five years now. I was born in a very small village close by - Karuing Village. WWF only hire local villagers, and they are helping us to prepare to work independently when their job is done. Soon the government will take over the reins. At the moment, we all work on a rotation, so all of us get a turn to learn how to input data, track migratory wildlife and monitor other forest activities. We have turned to ecotourism, which is more sustainable.”
Pak Ajim went on to explain how the orangutan population is estimated by using a helicopter. “They count the old and new nests in the treetops which are easily seen from above. This is how we know how many orangutans are living in the park boundaries.”
We turned in for the night, some of us excited because early in the morning we were joining a patrol hoping to spot a nearby orangutan family in their wild habitat. This meant only one kilometre of boardwalk, then sludging through peat bog for two kilometres. Not for the faint-hearted and requiring a medium level of fitness. Needless to say, less than half our group were up for it.
After the intrepid group had returned, we all we headed out on small canoes to our boat, the Ruhui Rahayu, and continued the adventure on the Katingan River to visit the Dayak village of Baun Bango to meet Pak Alwi Gapur.
It was not hard to find Pak Alwi because there is only one main village road and his house has been there for over 140 years. Pak Alwi was sitting on his verandah awaiting our arrival. His beautiful bark house had ironwood beams and original flooring. Without doubt, it could last another 100 years. “Welcome to my home,” Pak Alwi said. “I was born here, and I am now 67 years old. Please take a seat inside.” He then picked up one of his two-stringed guitars, a kecapi, and gave us a big smile, and began to play a Dayak song for us. “I made this kecapi,” he said proudly. Then, as the lilting traditional music began to take shape, our lovely young Dayak tour guide,
Jeni from the Ruhui Rahayu sung along in her native Dayak language. Next, she shot us all a steely glance, picked a long bladed mandau (machete) off the wall and began performing a warrior dance for us. Pak Alwi looked just as amazed as we did. We were all mesmerised as Jeni flicked the weapon with great dexterity and ease. As she turned and twisted the super sharp knife around her wrist, she kept eye contact with us all and kept her focus simultaneously on the super sharp mandau at play with the dance. It was a Dayak moment for sure, encompassing tradition and heritage, the young and the old.
In the evening we were treated to a magnificent meal by our homestay hosts. It consisted of rattan soup, Patin river fish, piles of fresh vegetables, steamed rice and marinated tempeh. After a few bedtime Dayak tales from our Dayak hosts, we drifted off to sleep. Soundly cradled in the arms of the Sabangau National Park, we dreamt of what adventures might lie ahead the next day.
How to Get There
This 5-day journey on the Katingan River, includes an overnight stay in the Sabangau National Park and starts in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan. Tour operator Wow Borneo is owned by two women, Gaye Thavisin, an Australian and Lorna Collins from England. They have four beautifully outfitted boats, two with air conditioned cabins, and budgets to suit all. The river journey includes the option to stay in homestay accommodation in the Dayak villages and one night in the forest cabin. However, you can sleep on board the comfortable Ruhui Rahayu if you wish.
Sabangau National Park is one the largest contiguous lowland forests left in Borneo (600,000 hectares) and extremely valuable to conservation. As a peat swamp forest, Sabangau naturally regulates and protects the local water table. It is located between the Katingan River and the Sabangau River, a black water river.
WWF Indonesia campaigned to establish a national park in 2004 and have actively engaged local indigenous Dayak residents around the park to reduce the number of trees they fell. They have encouraged local villagers to turn to making craft cottage industry wares, engage in reforestation and develop ecotourism.
Ecotourism is growing in this area and is seen as a vehicle for achieving environmental conservation through providing sustainable alternative livelihoods for villagers. By visiting this area, you support these objectives.
Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond.
David Metcalf runs photography and cultural tours in Java, Bali, India, Myanmar and USA. David operates Taksu Photo Gallery in Ubud, Bali. By taking a workshop or tour with David you help support education and health programs in Bali and Kalimantan.