Monday, August 19, 2013

River Ride to the Rainforest

The sun hadn’t yet risen, and I was already lurking around my temporary home in Ketapang, a small town in Western Borneo. It was 4am, and I could already hear the Ramadan dawn prayer chants resonating throughout the town. In just one hour, I needed to be ready to load my few belongings into the truck that would drop our group of five at the small village where we would begin our 8-hour river journey into the rainforest. After a quick breakfast and a few goodbyes over the internet, I headed out the door to meet up with my companions for the trip: BU Anthropology professor Cheryl Knott, National Geographic photographer Tim Laman, and their children Russell and Jessica. As I loaded myself into the truck, a fact hit me: it would be my last time in civilization for at least a few months.

The road to the village was long, but the change in scenery as I left the city of Ketapang was as striking as it was pleasant. The cities in Indonesia aren’t very keen on including much green in their city planning, and it was nice to see trees and grass around me for once. We were driving on a narrow road that tried but clearly failed to accommodate the two lanes it was supposed to have, as we had to sway to the side every time a car or a motorcycle came in the opposite direction. The residents here live a simple life in fragile-looking shacks with moss-covered planks and aluminum roofs. A lot of people were just sitting on their porch, enjoying the fresh morning air. As we made it further into our journey, the houses became fewer and farther between, until they were completely replaced by flatlands and rice-paddies. By mid-morning, we had made it to the village. We stopped at the house of a man named Udin. We had hired some of his sons to paddle us upriver in sampans, all the way into the heart of the rainforest of Gunung Palung National Park. We had a problem however: the four sampans were too small and too few to take both ourselves and all of our baggage. We decided to leave some of our less important bags behind, which would be paddled upriver in a few days. After a bit of organizing, we boarded the small and shaky canoe-like boats.

We were off. After paddling through the rest of the village and being greeted by some river by- standers, our river guides turned on some very loud home-rigged motors strapped onto the back of the boats. The increase in pace from paddle-speed to motor-speed however, justified having such a loud device constantly broadcasting its mechanical noises throughout the river. We made our way through various changes of scenery: secondary forest, logged forest, rice paddies, and swamps. On the way, I saw strange new fruits, birds, butterflies, and even some macaques up in the trees. After a few hours, we made it to the thick cover of jungle, which was a nice relief from the powerful and burning sun we were exposed to for large part of our trip. After a nice dip in the water and a quick lunch of dried blocks of indomie (the Indonesian version of ramen-noodles), we continued through the thick forest on the narrow and winding stream between the green, luscious, collection of trees. We were forced to get off the boat and push on a few parts of our trip, as the water levels were too low on some parts of the stream for the sampan to get through unassisted by pushing from human hands, and I discovered that there are little fishes that nibble at your feet while you’re in the water...which is a nice alternative to the dozens of spiders that get on you every time your face smacks into leaves and branches hanging over the river.

I had heard stories from Tim and Cheryl earlier about instances where they had barely made it halfway to the research station before having to get out and push the boats. If something like this occurred, it might mean making it to the end sometime in the early AM, or perhaps even after sunrise. Luckily, the water levels were as nice as they get, and minimal pushing was needed. We ended up making really great time. We had been previously told by Udin that we would make it to the station by 9pm, but at our current pace we were set to get there around 6:30pm. Sure enough, by 6pm we were getting closer to our jungle home. Cheryl pointed out some trees with red trunks to me: a sign that we were close. I began to see a light flickering in the distance. As it moved closer, my eyes began to construct an image of Cabang Panti: 15 feet above the river and stretching from river-bank to river-bank, was a wooden suspension bridge...the kind that you might see in an Indiana Jones movies (you know, the kind that stretches over a huge precipice with hungry alligators waiting for bad-guy meat in the river below). Beneath it, and poking out into the water, was a small dock held in place by a set of wooden stairs that led up to the riverbank. There, covered by the shadows and silhouettes of the nearby trees, was the lab bulding: a two-story structure suspended on a series of stilts that sunk into the exposed patch of dirt beneath it.

We had made it. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the only people around: camp-manager Jenn, BU grad-student Caitlin, and a French researcher named Sylvain. Since the usual Cabang Panti staff were on their vacation for Idolfitri, they had planned to make dinner for us by the time we got there. We had surprised them by our early appearance at camp though, but dinner was soon underway a few minutes after our disembarkment. As you might imagine, a block of indomie doesn’t cut it for a full day river journey into the jungle, and I was starving.

After a refreshing bath in the river to offset the typical hot and humid jungle weather, and to remove the jungle-funk I had accumulated during my sweaty full-day boat ride, I settled into my tent with a belly full of food and a heart full of adventure.

Day one in the Jungle: Check.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Robert,

    Thank you for sharing your adventure with us. Your blog brings back some of my best memories in my life. I was at Cabang Panti for 8 months in 2010 and still think about it every single day. Count your blessings that you are there and treasure every moment you have. Time will fly by.

    I hope all all the OH's are still roaming around: Codet, Walimah, Betty/Betsy/Benny, Bibi/Berani...and all of them!

    Please give my greetings to all the people at camp.

    The Netherlands