Tanjung Puting: Blackwater River and Crossing Lines

imageGliding up the Sekonyer River towards Camp Leaky late that first day, it seemed impossible to be transported so completely by a mere 45 minute plane excursion to this place. In the wake of this long day, I let my eyes close on the soothing rustle of Nipa palms hugging in ever closer as we slip up the river in our cradle boat. I miss the silent demarcation with the turn up the Simpan Kanan River and out of the the Sekonyer River's water, mudded by an upstream gold mining operation. In this slow moving narrow channel, the black water river runs clear and cooler. Captain Iyan nestles the boat into its nightly berth against the sturdy Nipa palms, snugs and ties up the other two along side and with that all 18 of us gather on the largestimage deck of the boats at a long table for a family style dinner. It is a feast of fish in spicy pepper sauce, cap cay, wilted jack fruit greens, sambal, fruits, tempe and the ubiquitous rice served with a water elixir. As we eat, the deck hands make light work of pulling out 18 mattresses, setting beds across the 3 top decks of each boat. A dark night heavy with heat falls quickly and we slip beneath the dreamy gauze of mosquito nets where a single sheet awaits atop each mattress. Like a lullaby, the chorus of crickets thrums us fast asleep.

Awakened by the sharp inquiring whoops of gibbons and twittering of unseen birds, we stir beneath dawn lifting the dream curtain slowly. A silk wind renders the morning almost cool. Today, we are headed for Pondok Tanggwei. Reaching the dock and boardwalk to the feeding station mere hours later, the heat is on and everyone feels damp, sticky, hot. The short, one kilometer, trail is thankfully shaded - well, most of it - and is in and of itself worth appreciating as journeys always are. The green wash of abundance is deceiving. At first it is as if everything is just green and image imagegenerally big, tall and/or wide. But then we take time to see: trees with a black resin that creates a nasty skin inflammation in people but also bares a fruit desired by the orangutans; small, fig-like fruits that wash through the mouth tart and sweet; exotic, colorful flowers and jewel-tone pitcher plants.

Here at Pondok Tanggwei we meet Messurin, king of this station. His humongous black half moon cheek-chops frame depthless inky-black-brown eyes. I think it is the sense that those eyes are truly looking back from that depth that one feels such connection with these near cousins. imageOur group grows collectively silent with awe. A female and her baby arrive even as we sense the mysterious rustling of the forest as more orangutans pendulum their way towards the clearing, gliding forward into sight, swinging between jack straw like trees and ambling down swaying snags. Oddly, I am reminded of Cirque de Soliel's imagechoreography, the once popular children's movie, Fern Gully, where wee magic people flit amongst the Banyan tree's twisted arms, and more recently Avatar's heroic rainforest scenes. I imagine that what we are seeing and experiencing is a source of creative inspiration and has been for a very long time. Reading (fittingly - and to be recommended for travel to Borneo), Stranger in the Forest, by Eric Hansen, I recall a passage where he was describes a bevy of rainforest plants, barks and roots that were said by the Penan people to cure everything from hepatitis to Hodgkins disease. Today, our pharmaceutical companies attempt to copy these miracles in sterile labs. Now if we could only successfully imitates nature's way of restoring balance to our planet and our lives, that would be something.

We turn our backs with reluctance, returning slowly to the dock. A lethargy settles in amongst us. There is yet one more stop, only a short ways up the river, Camp Leakey, the crown jewel of the trip. The brief ride is welcome simply for the silky breeze. Smiles, if not nearly as radiant as earlier this morning, still grace the group. We arrive at Camp Leakey, founded by Dr. Birute Galdikas in 1972, who along with Drs. Dian Fossi and Jane Goodall were Dr. Leakey's students: women that pioneered in the study of orangutans, gorillas and, of course, chimpanzees.image Unlike the other docks where there may have been 2 or 3 other large cradle boats, here there are nearly a dozen; harbingers of the tourist season to come where as yet, no limits have been set on numbers. Captain Iyan choreographs our arrival with the smaller of the two boats going in first and nuzzling between the flat board backs and pointy snouts of the other boats. It is always breath-holding moments while we disembark.

This boardwalk is long, 400-500 meters, and less well repaired but still quite sturdy as iron wood, now virtually extinct, is known to be. The dark water beneath is a stain-glass imagereflection of tannin, blue sky reflections, silken pods of floating algae, green leafy trees. Upon turning the corner of the rangers three-sided green wood cabin - the fourth side being chain link fence - we encounter the mother of the station's alpha male, Tom, and her imagenewest baby Toot. Spying a thin can of Sprite in the hands of one of the women, Tom's mother reaches out rubber band like to grab the woman's wrist. The Sprite is even more quickly relinquished. Contact is noted with both awe and fright. On we go to the feeding station where we will sit mesmerized for the better part of an hour meeting Ponoroggo, Charloss, Unuial. Alexia and a host of others who seem most astounding mothers, babies, adolescents and young men living in this imageorangutan sanctuary. All rescued and now dependent upon the largesse of this place, the individuals move in and amongst us with little hesitation. In the proximity to sentient beings so like ourselves, my eyes sting with salty tears knowing that there are forces in the world that would exterminate these gentle creatures for what is fleetingly and falsely believed to be a greater profit than life's biodiversity.

The reluctance to leave is palpable but night falls unforgivingly and with no hesitation here. We return to the boats and Captain Iyan finds a nook to tuck the 3 kelatok boats, 18 women, 5 deck hands, 1 cook and 2 guides in for the night. Again we migrate to the largest deck to share dinner family style. Afterwards, we settle into our plastic chairs for a conversation with Etty about what it is like to be a Muslim woman in Indonesia. I wonder but know it is inappropriate to ask what is is like to be a Christian woman in Indonesia where the predominant religion is Muslim. Tonight the only religion that seems to breath among us though is the deep camaraderie and ease of wonder in women-time. Later we are imageawed by Flying Fox Bats winging their way to nightly feeding grounds. Beds are again made up, dreamy gauze strung to fashion wavy walls. Serenaded by crickets and frogs, sleep slips over all quickly. The Captain tells us we'll rise early for the return to Pangkala Bun, about 6 hours from our current location on the Simpan Kanan River. I awake well before dawn even as a gray wash begins to climb into the night sky. I clamor onto the bow wrapped in my light sheet where sitting in silence is enough as I watch Flying Fox Bats on their return flyway.

Gliding down the Simpan Kanan River, I watch the bow push into the wavy line where clear watery edge meets mudded edge of the Sekonyer River, rippling like a water snake. We move into the ochre flow leaving Camp Leaky, Messurin and Tom's mom behind. Nipa palms and mangrove swamps flutter in our wake screening a primary forest beyond that is 65% degraded. Where do we draw lines, I wonder? How far are we willing to go to have what we want? Or, to save what we have?image

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About Michelle Bussard | View all posts by Michelle Bussard

Michelle is the Executive Director at Health In Harmony, based in Portland, OR.