After a two-night sail from Bali, we anchored Starry Horizons in the Kumai River. Immediately we met Majid, who approached on a small ski boat to say hello. I had already been in contact with his wife, Leisa, who runs one of the tour companies for the popular Orangutan klotok tours in the river. We hadn’t book yet, and none of our friends had trouble booking their tour one day in advance. The only thing we wanted to do here is the tour, so we quickly confirmed with Leisa and paid.
Kumai is a small town in Indonesia, located on the island of Borneo. Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world and 73% of it is the Indonesian side, called Kalimantan. The rest of Borneo is part of Malaysia and the entire small country of Brunei.
Tanjung Puting National Park is primarily a peninsula near Kumai. It’s 4,150 km2 (1,600 sq mi) of rainforest, full of lush vegetation and native animals. Borneo is home to a majority of the orangutans in the world, with a small percentage living on the nearby Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Tanjung Puting National Park is the epicenter of orangutan rehabilitation and research. The main camp is called Camp Leakey, named after Louis Leakey, the revered paleoanthropologist. Leakey fostered three female researchers to study primates in their natural habitats; Dr. Jane Goodall (chimpanzees in Tanzania), Dr. Birute Galdikas (orangutans in Indonesia), and Dr. Dian Fossey (gorillas in Rwanda). Galdikas went on to found Orangutan Foundation International, which continues to do research and rehabilitation in Tanjung Puting.
Kumai is a small town, mostly serving as a hub for the klotok tours up the river. There is a traditional market where you can buy a lot of fruits and vegetables. There is no supermarket.
One interesting part of Kumai is the massive, windowless buildings that tower over the houses. These buildings are home to thousands of swallows. The swallows build their nests inside the building, which are then harvested and sold to mainland Asia for bird’s nest soup.
David and I were picked up by a ski boat from Starry Horizons and taken to the dock, where we met our klotok and staff, including our guide, Danu. Danu is in his 20s and went to university in Lombok for tourism, so his English is quite good.
Our klotok was a two-story boat. The second floor is open air, and when we boarded it was set up front to back: two lounge chairs, six twin sized mattresses arranged as daybeds, two chairs, and a table with four chairs. The first floor was mostly one big room that the staff of four shared with the pilothouse upfront. The last 10 feet of the first floor was divided into two rooms: one a shower room and the other a toilet (and yes, it is gravity based and drains right overboard). The hallways between had a sink and a wash basin built into the floor that drained overboard.
At night while we ate dinner, our deckhand, Akbar, would convert the day beds up top to one queen-sized bed and suspend a mosquito canopy over the bed.
We went to three different stations in the park for feeding time. The park rangers drop a big pile of bananas, and sometimes containers of milk, on the feeding platforms. It’s not enough food for the orangutans to survive on, and sometimes, like when mangos are in season, the orangutans don’t come because there’s better food widely available in the jungle. Fortunately for us, at each station, we saw many orangutans, up to eight at a time. At every station, we saw at least one mother with a clingy baby and one big male orangutan. When the males are at the station, the females all typically leave.
At the first station, as we were approaching we had to suddenly stop and back up. There was a large male orangutan in the trees just above the pathway and he was making angry noises, like blowing raspberries with his lips. Unfortunately one of the guides got too close and the orangutan used his foot to whack him in the head with a branch. Finally, a ranger came with food and guided the big angry orangutan to the food platform.
At the second and third feeding stations, there were no primates when we arrived so we sat and quietly chatted with our neighbors. But suddenly, trees off in the distance would start to sway and rustle as the orangutans came from tree to tree and the crowd quieted.
Sometimes the primates would stuff as many bananas into their mouth as they could and then climb up to sit in a tree and eat. The banana peels would fall 50 feet down to plop onto the platform.
After our first station, we left the dock to putter along the river to look for Proboscis monkeys, and it was barely five minutes before we saw a big group of them. They are prevalent up and down the river, and we would often see them in family groups of 20-25 hanging out in the trees.
We saw gibbons three times on our tour. Danu was very excited as they are not that common. Twice we saw them swinging through the trees. They move very, very fast. The third time, though, was at a feeding station where the gibbon made multiple trips up and down the trees to gather bananas.
As with most of Indonesia, long-tailed macaque monkeys are very common. They are small and gray, and we’ve seen them so often I didn’t even bother taking a picture of them in Tanjung Puting National Park.
Once the orangutans had had their fill of bananas, other animals would come in to grab food. There was never a shortage of things to see on our walks in and out of the feeding stations. While the klotok cruised through the river, we often spent our time birdwatching.
Both nights on our tour Danu took us on a night trek. The first night we trekked with a ranger spotted a lot of insects, including scorpions and tarantulas. The second night, we were guided by a local villager on the opposite side of the river from the park, and we had a few very special sightings.
Our last stop on our tour was a part of Tanjung Puting where Friends of the National Parks Foundation has a reforestation project in the works. Visitors to Tanjung Puting are invited to pick out a small tree and plant it to try to rebuild the surrounding area. This particular spot had before and after photos of the devastation after a fire and what the trees look like today.
The ranger pointed out all the varieties of trees to us, and we each picked out a tree we wanted to plant. Signs were made and then our ranger took us trekking out for the best spot. David’s tree was ironwood, strong and hard, which we planted in the shade of the woods. My tree was nyatu, which our ranger said produces a sweet fruit that humans and orangutans eat, and I planted mine in the sun surrounded by a high grass.
We were very well fed on our cruise. Our chef, Mariam, cooked us three meals a day plus two hot snacks a day served when we returned from our walks. Cold bottled water was constantly available, as was hot water for coffee or tea, plus cold sodas. For two meals we had freshwater fish, which was delicious. Overall, though, almost everything was fried and heavily oiled. While it made everything delicious, it wasn’t super healthy.
The Indonesian government has taken a very lax stance on protecting their environment, which we have seen throughout our time in Indonesia. Kalimantan is particularly bad; mining, logging, and oil palm agriculture have wreaked havoc on the wildlife. Danu explained that there are often counterfeit permits or officials are bribed to issue permits.
I had done a lot of research online, although there is not much information available. Basically, companies like Magid Hotel have dozens of employees that work for them. The captains all own their own boats, and the boats are rented by the hotels. The staff is rarely ever the same, and some people work for multiple companies. Our captain, Riyan, was extremely skilled. The klotoks all take turns and shuffle around to pick up and drop off their guests. Sometimes the captains have to make tight turns in the river or fend off large plant matter floating downstream.
As we were on our cruise it was easy to check out all the other boats on the river with us. Most of them all seem exactly the same; I only saw one klotok with an actual bed frame, and I think ours had the nicest lounges up front.
We priced out several tour companies and the pricing ranged from 3,500,000 Rp to 5,000,000 Rp ($234 – 334 USD) per person for a two-person trip. Our klotok could have held six people, and I suspect the prices would be cheaper if you had more people. Also, several of our cruising buddies did a one-night trip instead of two nights. At the end of our second day, I had thought that maybe we should have done that too…as at this point we had already seen plenty of animals. However, that second-night trek ended up being a highlight for us, so perhaps the second night was worth it.
We did tip our staff 100,000 Rp for each of the four persons. Other boats said they tipped their guide more than they tipped the rest of the crew.
We visited Tanjung Puting National Park in October, which is starting to be monsoon season. It rained every afternoon, which we found to be very common in this season and this part of Indonesia. Thankfully the klotoks are well prepared for this: the second floor has an enclosure that can become an awning, extending out from the roof at a 45-degree angle to keep the rain off you, or it can be completely closed up. Clotheslines and pins were available to hang dry wet clothes, which was much appreciated after we got absolutely soaked at Camp Leakey.
Cruising the river and encountering these wild animals was an amazing experience! We feel very lucky to have done this.