Orang-Utans live only in the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra. I came to Pangkalan Bun in the south of Borneo to see these great apes. I had rented a boat with a guide (and a captain, and a cook, and a guy for everything else) to take me up the Sekonyer river into Tanjung Puting National Park, where both wild and rehabilitated Orang-Utans live. The rehabilitation program makes captured and freed Orang-Utans fit for a life in the wild. Believe it or not, some people try to keep Orang-Utans as pets, which is illegal everywhere.

To see the Orang-Utans, it takes a long walk through the rainforest from the boat pier. Deep into the forest, a giant male crossed our path, hand over hand along low tree branches. We have all seen pictures of Orang-Utans, but they can’t describe just how large and powerful they can be. It looked like it could break a man in half without breaking stride, but it seemed to have more important things to attend to and paid no attention to us at all.

Every camp in Tanjung Puting has a feeding station; a raised platforms where park rangers offer food, mostly bananas, corn, pineapples, and other fruit. A lot of females, which are much smaller than the males, come here, carrying a baby. Conveniently, there is a roped-off place with benches nearby for tourists to take pictures. Much easier than spotting them in the wild; Orang-Utans spend most of their time high up in the trees.

River touring

The long-tail boat keeps going upriver, and the river is increasingly narrow. In one place it was blocked by a logjam big enough to build a house on, so we couldn’t just run over it at high speed. So the guide and Captain did what must be part of any respectable jungle trek: they got a big gnarly machete out and hacked a way through the mangroves to get around the logjam. Check.

Stayed in a longhouse in Mancong. Longhouses are, unsurprisingly, long houses, built from hardwood and divided into many narrow sections, one per family. Entire Dayak tribes can live in a longhouse, although these days many villages have grown too large for that. Accommodations are simple but comfortable, and Rusdy, my guide, was again working miracles in the kitchen for dinner.

Whenever I walk alone in a village, everybody stares at me, waves hello and calls out “yes mister”. Children want photos and adults, usually giggling veiled women, want selfies with their arms on my shoulder (hard because I am usually one or two heads taller than them). Children know a few English words but adults do not. Fun.

Mahakam River

The Mahakam River in East Kalimantan is nearly a thousand kilometers long. Along its shores are primeval rain forests where one can spot some unusual animals like the long-nosed monkey and colorful kingfisher birds. I went up the river with a guide and a fast long-tail boat to see what nature has to offer, and the various villages by the locals, immigrants from Java and Sulawesi, and native Dayak tribes. The Dayak used to be headhunters, but no more, I was safe.

The water level changes during the seasons, so all the villages are on really tall stilts, both the buildings and the streets. It’s all made of the hardwood that grows here. The river villages are very simple, no luxuries like electrical power or running water. These people lead a very simple life. The first night I stayed in a losmen, a kind of simple guesthouse. Cold showers (actually, a small plastic bowl to pour rainwater over your head) are not very cold in the tropics…

A guide is important here. Nobody speaks English and there is a lot to arrange: permits, boats, accommodation, and access to native villages. A day with a guide is worth three days without, at least. Not all guides and organizers are honest (DeGigant seems to be an especially bad offender), but I had a recommendation for Rusdy from Rimba Borneo Kalimantan that I’ll pass on gladly: www.borneokalimantan.com, +62542738569. Very friendly guy, speaks very good English, knows everything and everybody, and is a brilliant cook on top.


To the south of the South Chinese Sea, complete wrapped by the other Indonesian islands, the Phillipines, Vietnam, and Malaysia there is a large white spot on my map: Borneo. Most of the island is part of Indonesia, called Kalimantan, and the main city is Balikpapan. From here I’ll start my explorations with a trip up the Mahakam river, into the jungle interior.