Into the Jungle...
Itching to get into the forest, much of my first few days in Borneo were actually spent doing lots of administrative work in the city of Palangka Raya. Meeting the Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF) team, fellow students from Palangka Raya and attending a very official board meeting in which there were many introductions and thanks giving between BNF, Universitas Mohammad Palangkaraya (UMP) and us (University of Exeter). Exciting as it was going through the formalities and meeting important people, I just couldn't wait to get into the forest.
On leaving Palangka Raya, we took a 2 hour bus ride to a small village known as Takaras. Here, we had a spot of lunch then loaded our kit onto some boats before embarking on a 20 minute journey upriver to our host-village of Mungku Baru.
Before we even got going we had our first exciting wildlife sighting, a Brahamy kite circling over the river we were about to head up! The journey upriver was beautiful and it was my first proper look at tropical rainforest. The trees genuinely are massive, pushing 25-30m tall near the riverbank! I vigilantly watched for crocs or monitor lizards in the water but I was not rewarded this time. Swifts darted and danced over the water and amongst the riverbeds. It was nice to see them in their natural environment after seeing so many surrounding swift towers in Palangka Raya. Swift towers are huge concrete structures with holes at the top designed to encourage swifts the nest in them. A particular species of swift, the edible-nest swift (aptly named...), makes its nests using its spit. This may sound disgusting but owners of the towers will collect these nests to mostly export to China. Like shark fin and pangolin fetus soup, bird's nest soup is also a delicacy, except it isn't illegal to collect the nests.
“Like shark fin and pangolin fetus soup, bird's nest soup is also a delicacy, except it isn't illegal to collect the nests.”
On cruising round a final meander, we caught sight of some precariously built houses on the water's edge. The engine quietened and we slowed to a stop next to a wooden barge. We had arrived at the village of Mungku Baru. Many of the locals would join us on our expedition and we would stay here for a night to rest before entering the forest tomorrow! The lack of health and safety in regions like Borneo is rather refreshing (albeit sometimes terrifying!). The village was up a steep bank from the river. We jumped off the boat onto the barge, headed across the water via some very wobbly wooden planks and up a log with some steps cut into it. Baring in mind I had to balance on all these with a heavy 75L rucksack which makes you feel like bambi on ice!
We were told before coming to Borneo that we might get stared at a lot as most of the locals rarely or have never seen white people before. They call us 'bules'-the Indonesian word for foreigner. Once we arrived on the main road in the village, we certainly did feel a little like celebrities as people going about their everyday lives turned heads and glared. The children laughed excitedly but nervously and were unsure whether to approach the pale, tall people. At first it is a little uncomfortable but you soon get use to it and have a laugh about it.
That night we were hosted in the houses of two men who would be joining us on the expedition; Pak Edo and Pak Yuli. They were kind enough to let us sleep in their houses and Pak Edo's wife cooked us a wonderful dinner of rice, veg, tempe and tofu. Often in Indonesia, fathers and older men are called 'Pak' and then the name of their oldest child which is a sign of respect and it becomes the name everyone knows them by.
Sleeping on wooden boards covered in plastic flooring was not the best bed not going to lie and I did wake with a pretty sore back but today was finally the day we'd go into the jungle! We woke early so we could walk when it was cooler, avoiding the midday heat. First we had to cross another river behind the village via a raft. With around 15 people on board, it could just about hold without the water seeping through the gaps! Luckily it was a short pull across to the other side. We then headed up a hill (which was knackering even in the cool of the morning!) and waited for a ride on a big truck. This was super fun but I had to hold on for dear life on the bumpy, dirt track roads!
After the short truck ride, we started hiking into the forest. It was pretty hot by now and with heavy rucksacks on my front and back, it was hard going! We walked along a river for the first half through course sand. The colour of the river was unlike anything I've seen before! A deep reddy brown colour but crystal clear! It looked beautiful in contrast with the white pebbly sand and vibrant green trees either side. The strange colour of the water is due to the peat soils in the area and the water being highly acidic. On later testing of the pH, we found it to be 3.8 in most parts. Similar to the pH of dilute sulphuric acid! And this was the water we'd be drinking without any treatment for the next month!
About 20 minutes in the landscape changed pretty dramatically to forest cover. This is due to the previous logging and gold mining in the area. Straight away as we entered the forest, there was a deafeningly loud, high pitched droning noise up in the trees. My automatic thought of what it could be was something mechanical or man-made to do with logging or mining. It's pretty sad really that whilst sitting in such a beautiful place my first thought about an unfamiliar noise was that it was something artificial and to do with destroying the forest because that is what us Westerners have grown up with. Actually, the culprit for the mysterious noise was cicadas! Cicadas (which means 'tree cricket' in Latin) are in fact true bugs, in the same order as leafhoppers and froghoppers. Their song, a series of extremely fast, continuous clicks, can reach up to 120dB-the same as a chainsaw! It's enough to cause serious hearing damage and hearing loss if the cicada is right by your head. Luckily none of them were ever that close to us! This is a sound we wouldn't stop hearing over the next month and it became actually quite comforting!
It was a pretty nice walk through the forest to our camp. Shaded by the canopy and walking a track that was well worn, it was too difficult. It didn't take us long to get our first sight of camp through the dense undergrowth. The bright blue glow of the tarpaulins penetrated through the trees. This would be home for the next 4 weeks...let the fun (and work!) begin!