Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Orangutans in Borneo: Discovering Tanjung Puting National Park

Looking deep into their eyes, knowing you as a homo sapien share 97% of the same genetic code as them, it’s hard not to feel a kinship with orangutans.

The endangered orangutans in Borneo first entered my consciousness when I met Gela, my Dutch trekking partner in Nepal.

I remember seeing a photo of her sitting next to one of the large, orange-haired primates, and knowing then that I wanted to see them too.

Borneo, the commonly known name of the Asian island shared by both Indonesia and Malaysia, has always sounded extraordinarily exotic to me.

My mind conjures up difficult travel conditions, thick jungle, machetes, and remote wilderness. In short, I’d built up a trip to Borneo to be a chore, and surely an expensive one to boot.

But so many of my preconceived notions about travel to Borneo, specifically to see the wild orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park, were smashed during my 3-day visit last month.

Commercial tourism has arrived in Borneo, and while it requires an adventurous spirit, it’s a surprisingly accessible experience for travelers of all ages, and budgets.

Flying From Jakarta to Central Kalimantan, Borneo

My journey began in Jakarta, where myself and seven other international travel bloggers met with representatives from Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy of Indonesia. Visiting the orangutans in Borneo was to be our first stop on a two-week tour of the country.

We departed Jakarta’s International airport for Pangkalan Bun on Kal Star Aviation, an Indonesian airline in operation since 2007. The flight time was just one hour, and they even provided us with a snack.

The proliferation of flights offered by regional and discount airlines in Indonesia is helping to improve accessibility to the country’s more remote islands.

We landed at Pangkalan Bun’s little airport, and exited the plane directly onto the tarmac (a process I always associate with landing in remote areas).

Inside the terminal, I saw the world’s smallest baggage carousel. It wasn’t even a full circle, but a straight, 15-meter conveyor belt extending from a hole in the wall.

Despite the regular flights, it was good to see the growth in tourism had yet to necessitate a bigger baggage delivery system.

Adapting to Life on a Klotok

Upon exiting the airport, we jumped into air-conditioned SUV’s for the 20 to 30-minute drive to the river dock where we’d be boarding our klotok.

Klotoks are the traditional wooden boats used to navigate the local rivers. Due to narrow sections and areas of shallow water, the maximum width of a klotok is 4 meters (12 feet).

The standard klotok is two levels. The lower level features the bathroom (with Western-style toilet), crew quarters, and “kitchen” where the food is prepped and cooked.