Everyone should come to Borneo. Or rather no one should. Everyone should leave Borneo just as it is.
Having left Jakarta for Pangkalan Bun I'm picked up by Isy, a guide I found recommended on a travel forum, and Chloe, a Belgian girl who luckily also wants to go on tour. Washing off the experience of the small plane in the airport bathroom I get to talking to Vivienne - her and her husband Jean-Paul don’t as yet have a guide. They join us on the tour.
We drive to Kumai harbour and some organising later we head across a very wide, mud coloured river. After what seems like forever, a gap appears in the vegetation on the opposite bank, and a sign tells us we're entering Tanjung Putting national park. Everything around us is now wild.
The boat is simple, to say the least. Open on all sides, with very modest comforts and little space to move around. As we cruise upriver however we are served lunch, and any trepidation concerning the trip is forgotten. The food is some of the best I've had, and we quickly learn that each meal will consist of 6-7 dishes, all varied, fresh and local. Caramelised peanut bristle, grilled fish, curry, vegetables and fresh pineapple and mango. There is nothing to do but eat, and watch the river go by.
After about an hour of cruising we arrive at the first camp, Tanjung Harapan. There are three camps in the park, all providing the orangutans with supplementary food. The orangutans that come to the camps are half-wild, growing up knowing that there's food to be had in the camps if the forest does not supply it. I try not to think about what this says about the impact we've had on their natural behaviour. There are entirely wild orangutans in the park, but they are rarely seen.
I'll never forget the first time I heard the rustle in the trees. I don’t know what I expected coming here, but the first encounter with a wild orangutan really moved me. A wild animal very slowly made his way through the trees, partially hidden behind the foliage but gradually coming into view, proceeding to stop about a metre of us, tranquil and measured. We would later have experiences with larger groups of orangutans, but this first sightning will stay with me. It made me so profoundly happy to see that there are still somewhat wild animals out there, that live their lives almost entirely unaffected by humans.
We cruise upriver in the sunset and the river changed. Now wider, with the surrounding trees taller. We were in proboscis, and gibbon, land. Huge trees swathed with large groups of monkeys making a racket tease fighting. This day we also saw fruit bat and hornbill, and were lucky enough to spot some of the entirely wild orangutans that live on the other side of the river, away from the camps. There are about 6000 orangutans in the whole of Tanjung Putting, and only around 60 come to the feedings at the three camps.
We proceeded to the second camp, Bonok Tanggoi, where we had dinner. At 6pm the sun disappeared and the forest grew entirely black. Rather than stay on the boat, we headed off with a couple of torches for our night walk with a local ranger. Trekking through the darkness, jumping at every sound, we saw the most amazing white insects which look like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We tried to tease tarantulas out of their holes in the ground, secretly grateful when we didn't succeed.
The lasting impression from the night walk was the understanding of how much wildlife was out there in the darkness. Reptiles, spiders, other nocturnal animations, and things we’ve never seen – and probably never will. It was their kingdom, and we were visitors.
When we returned to the boat our beds were made on top deck, under large white mosquito nets. The jungle heat gave way to a cool breeze and we fell asleep, exhausted.