Monday, October 03, 2016

Let's Chase Butterflies: Playing Uno in the middle of the Borneo Jungle


A nightmare journey to Borneo

The day began early for us. At 3:30 in the morning, we were already leaving our hotel in Makassar (Sulawesi), carrying a packed breakfast. As soon as we arrived at the airport, we were directed towards the group check-in desk where a clerk started to deal with us right away. “Wow, this is gonna be quick,” we though. Wrong! We could not be more wrong.

Passports and tickets were handed over, suitcases hefted and placed on the conveyer belt to be weighted. It was a flight operated by Wings on a small plane, and we were allowed just 10 kg each checked baggage, although you can take an overweight bag provided you pay an additional fee. For that reason, the man behind the counter kept writing down numbers to keep track of our baggage excess weight.

He took notes, looked at the computer, and took yet more notes. The best part of an hour had gone by and he still kept to his task. The piece of paper was covered in numbers but something did not tally. He began to fidget, his colleague came over and they went through the numbers together, but still no good. Luckily, he must have thought, “To hell with the bloody thing!” Cos suddenly, he gave up altogether and the few bags that were left went in without further ado.

By then, he had reached a roughly total of 2,500,000 rupees (some 15€ per person). In order to finish the check-in, we had to go outside the airport and into an office to pay the due amount, then come back through all the security hassle again and show the receipt. And all on an empty stomach!

At long last, we got on board and at 6am sharp, we took off. After a little less than an hour and a half, we landed at Kotabaru, in a large island off the southeast coast of Borneo. However, that was not to be the end of our trip, not even the end of the flight. Everybody else got off and there we sat, all alone for a long while until more and more people crowded the plane and we were once more on our way.

Borneo has been top on my list of places to go ever since I was a kid who gobbled up adventure books, and dreamt to travel the world. The mere mention of its name conjures up images of sees crammed with pirates, fearsome warriors and impregnable jungles home to astounding wildlife and vegetation unique to the island.

All those images came back to my mind while we flew across Kalimantan, so low that I could not help but notice the little that was left of the rainforest that once covered the island.

Everybody is aware of how we, human beings, are screwing up the world’s rainforests, but until you see it with your own eyes, you cannot believe that the damage is already so huge. It is quite shocking, really.

Instead of lush tropical jungle, what I saw from the air were mile upon mile of a checkerboard of palm oil plantations, the main threat to the survival of orang-utans and other endangered species in the wild. Moreover, the plantations are mostly established in forest land cleared by fire. This causes major health problems to the local population and enormous emissions of greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. This is why so many people are boycotting products containing palm oil. I had to change my Pantene shampoo, between other products, for that reason.

At 8:25, we landed at Banjarmasin and then it was kind of like Groundhog Day. Since our next flight was operated by a different company, Kal Star, we had to claim our baggage, to pass the security screening, to check the baggage in again, — and to pay for it again! This time we did not do the check-in as a group and things were faster and smoother. Once more, we were sent outside to pay for our excess baggage and back to the control again. At the airports in Indonesia, you have to go through a checkpoint just to be allowed into the departures hall. This is so after the security was beefed up a few months ago. By the way, if you ever have to kill time at Banjarmasin Airport, you will find more cafeterias outside, and there is no problem with going inside and out. It does not take long and by that time, you probably would be friends with some nice security guy, as I was.

To tell a long story short, we left Banjarmasin at 1pm, a half an hour’s flight got us to Sampit where we waited on an empty plane for some twenty minutes (Groundhog Day, remember), took off again and after another half an hour’s flight, landed at Pankalan Bun. It was 1:25pm. Yes, you read correctly. Some place between Banjarmasin and our destiny you have to turn your clock one hour backward.

We were picked up at the airport and three taxis dropped us off at the river port of Kumai, after a quick stop to photocopy our passports. We needed one copy each for the police, and the national park permit.  And at about half past two local time…

…after twelve hours and five airports, we were at last on board the klotok!

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