SYNOPSIS:  About a ride into the rain forest, wild animals dead and alive, an unusual lake, mosque broadcasts, and a few other things.

Orang Utans or Dayaks…  that was the question I had to decide.  From all I could tell, a trip to see wild Orang Utans in the National Park is a spectacular experience and one unique to Kalimantan.  But I had to make choices and as an art historian, teaching cultural studies and not biology, I had to decide in favor of the Dayaks.  I know, I will  always question this decision, perhaps even regret it someday or very soon, but both trips were not in the cards for financial reasons and for time constraints.

For 10 hours we were on the water today, going down the Mahakam and a few tributary rivers such as the Ohong River, crossing two lakes (Semayang and Jampang Lake) and visiting a few villages.

Most interesting were the different biospheres we encountered today.  The Mahakam river shows itself from the busy side with tugboats pulling cargo of one kind or another.  Upstream, it is only 100-200 meters wide.  Logging is the main industry in what is called the primary rainforest — the one that has not been cut down yet (but is being cut down further by the day).  A hundred or so huge tree trunks, stripped of their branches, are bound together and slowly pulled down river by a single small tugboat.  Logging has been regulated a bit (as Jayloni told me).  From over 100 companies cutting down indiscriminately everything they felt like about 50 years ago, only four companies are left that cut trees with Jakarta-controlled permits.  But something is wrong with that picture, too:  Jakarta businessmen become lumber millionaires at the expense of the locals who are only exploited as low-wage laborers.  Further down towards the delta where the river can reach widths of 500 meters, it is one huge barge after another loaded with mountains of coal that is tugged along.  Same story as above; and I already mentioned that in my last blog.

The story of the lakes is interesting.  When I heard lake, I pictured something like the lakes in Michigan.  These lakes here felt more like swamps.  They are big, but not very deep; perhaps a few feet.  But this time of the year they have grass growing on them;  much more on Jampang Lake than on Semayang Lake.  At times there is no horizon in sight.  Odin, our captain, had no GPS, no compass, just his experience and instincts to follow.  But the grass is unpredictable.  In some areas it makes passing impossible.   Picture yourself riding along (between 5 and 45 km per hour through channels in the grass and all of a sudden, you reach a dead end: nothing but a circle of grass around you.  Now you have to decide if you can cut through the grass.   Two of the three types of grass will make that possible but for short distances only.  Or, you have to return and find a different channel.  At times we would circle for a few minutes until Odin had decided on a course of action.  And once I was sure that we were doomed, stuck in the mud.  His motor got caught up in these weeds and there are limits as to what one little paddle can do once your motor fails.  And that was close to dark…   But we made it. 

Even though Odin has driven these routes dozens of times, there is no one way to get from one point to the next.  He has to figure this out new each time.  He is young, but among the most experienced captains of these lakes.  He even made it into the Lonely Planet (as Jayloni repeatedly pointed out).  Overall, this was quite an adventure.

But why would people tolerate grass taking over their lake to the point that makes travel between villages increasingly difficult?  Beneath the grass certain fish congregate that feed on the grass.  Locals put nets there and live off of these fish!  They care more about eating than getting somewhere.  Now there is a give and take.  🙂 

What I did not realize either is that in about a month or two there will be no more lakes.  The dry season will have lowered the Mahakam river to a point that both of these lakes will drain right into the river, taking all the grass with them!  Then the lakes dry out and become surfaces hard enough for motorcycle traffic.  And since the fish also leave, this is the season for the fishing villages along the river; now, their nets all lay idle.  And when the rainy season starts, slowly the lakes will fill up again, grass will grow until it almost becomes impenetrable, fish will return to the lake fishermen, and it all starts over again.  What a cycle! 

In two days, we will cover over 200 km.   The first afternoon, we reached the primary forest.  It rained quite a bit the first morning and the second afternoon; its the rain forest, duh!  But in between it cleared.  Between Jaylani and Odin, I could not believe how many animals they spotted.  Where I saw nothing but greenery and gnarly trees, they repeatedly pointed to three different types of monkeys that usually congregate in a group in one or another tree.  When we stopped and inched closer to them, they started to jump and run away.  The bigger males literally would “fly” away.  They would have all four limbs stretched in a diamond shape to create more wind resistance and then jump from high points into the thicket below them.  The greenery was so tight that they would land somewhere and then make a run for it.  These jumps were so unpredictable that I did not capture a single one on camera.  Believe me, they were impressive. 

In addition we saw two eagles and various other birds; the most common and fun one was the Kingfisher.  But what Jaylani called a Kingfisher here has little in common with the Kingfisher at Silver Lake back home.  It is almost crow-size, has a huge red beak, a yellow head and an iridescent turquoise body which glistened in the sun as the bird crossed from one side of the river to the other.  Not a minute passed without one of them in sight. 

But most impressive was how these guys would all of a sudden stop, glide under a tree and point to a snake hanging in the tree right above us.  And then they had the audacity to casually mention that these snakes sometimes fall into the water!  No they were not poisonous.  🙂  And they are nocturnal and really could not care less about us staring at them.  Still…  They even found a curled up baby python!  I was amazed that our motor noise would not drive all the wildlife away.  But most of these animals did not seem to care. 

In addition to the live animals, we spotted a dead monkey in the river, on which a huge lizard feasted.  It was the creepiest thing, to see a fist-size lizard head coming out of a dead monkey’s body!  I thought I was looking at a creature from Mars!  This lizard was a good 3 feet long. That does not quite compare to the famous Komodo Dragon Lizzard  only found on Komodo Island, but it was the biggest lizard I had ever seen. 

Some of the villages we came through were clearly poverty stricken, their wooden homes a hodge-podge of ramshackle wooden add-ons and .  Other villages oozed prosperity sporting fancy and colorful tiled facades, TV dishes, and often a fancy mosque to go with it.

But no matter if poor or prosperous, for those who lived near the water, semi-public bathing seemed common.  It is done on a floating wooden platform where you “shower” with little buckets of river-water.  Only a few people have bathrooms in their houses (also only buckets and a basin full of water).   Women shampoo and cover themselves in soap with most of their clothes on!  Men wear their shorts.  A three-sided hut allows for some privacy to change from one garment into another.  Toilets, of course empty right out into the river.  And despite all of this — add on top of this the pollution of the  motorized traffic — you still see people and kids jump into the river to cool off or just to play…

Much of this reminded me of life on the rivers in Mali.

The mosque broadcast stopped.  I have 5 hours until the next one starts at 3 AM. 

Let’s get some sleep!

The photo gallery above is a collection of different views from my seat in the boat (under the roof).  Different times of the day, different weather conditions, and different lakes and rivers.

2 comments so far

Add Your Comment
  1. Difficult decision indeed!! I will hopefully make it there at some point in my life to see the Orangutans and will then happily share the pictures and stories with you 🙂
    Huge shout-out to you for keeping us always so well informed and entertained even with slow internet or without connection! The Bali food pictures got me really hungry (although, to be truthful, the last paragraph of today’s report killed that appetite in no time…) and the pics of the rice fields were amazing too. Thank you!! Cheers!

    • Yes, please go and share with all of us!