It’s pitch black. Only in the occasional canopy clearing can I peek up and see stars pricking the mist of humidity, Jupiter burning above us. Fireflies float lazily past my face, then climb a zigging path through layers of sandalwood, mahogany, cedar, and a variety of other jungle leaves too numerous for even a cadre of scientists to name. We are hunting for scorpions and tarantulas, while undoubtedly a jungle leopard stalks us from behind. Each time we find a particular hole at the base of a tree, our boat captain prods the hole with a fern branch and we wait to see what emerges with glowing eyes, furry legs, or a curling tail.
I am unsettled when an ant as big as my thumb crawls across my sandaled foot. Something rustles in the trees behind us. Andrew jumps ten feet and knocks into me, causing me to expel a “yeip!” The night symphony of the jungle is in full cacophony now. Chirps, tweets, croaks, hoots, and warbles all sing out against the violin section of buzzing cicadas. Here in the heart of it all, it’s deafening. Was that a growl?
We arrived on Kalimantan after sailing another 36 hours from Baewean, through a midnight rush hour of squid boats. Kalimantan is the Indonesian portion of the larger island commonly known as Borneo. The word Kalimantan means “Fire Weather” in the Indonesian language, and this makes sense. The sun and the humidity combine to melt the skin from my bones. Like a garden slug, I leave a slime of salt water and sunblock in my path. Andrew has been in Mark Twain mode ever since he turned Sonrisa’s bow into the mouth of the Kumai river, water as thick as chocolate milk.
“Have you ever sailed up a river, Sonrisa?” Andrew asks, but she is silent about the matter. She’s busy falling in love with this river adventure.
We motor against the river flow for two hours, then arrive in the anchorage near the city of Kumai where we give Sonrisa a hug around her mast then board an Indonesian boat to explore further up river to Tanjun Putang National Park. We will be traveling with another family of sailors, who install onto our river boat among other pleasantries, their twelve year old son named Finn. A lover of flop hats, fishing, tug boats, bugs, magic tricks, and the occasional prank, he could be found trailing a hook from a bamboo pole most hours of our day. Our own Huckleberry Finn, incarnate.
We enter the river flanked on either side by palm oil trees encroaching on and altering the more diverse area of rainforest.
We weave around bends in the river, the Captain tracking along sign posted curves. As we enter the protected National Park, the palm oil trees give way to tall jungle grasses, water flowers, and trees offering a perfect perch for the colorful Red Billed King Fisher.
Probosces Monkeys, with their strange muppet noses, sleep, pout, or snuggle their babies as we putt along below them. They seem a little moapy, don't they?
Soon, the milky brown of the river transforms into a crystal clear black water, a sun tea of jungle leaves. It’s time for a stop to see the main attraction: The Forest People in Bahasa Indonesian: Orang (People) Hutan (Forest).
We hike through the jungle, until the guide holds one finger to his lips. A hush falls, and the only sound is the clatter of a few leaves left dancing together as their tree leans once to the left, releases, then sways back to vertical. As my eyes adjust to the light under the canopy, I see a fuzzy, orange Cirque de Soleil performer on approach. A baby rides astride her hip, bare skin on the pads of his feet, tufts of orange mama fur gripped in his baby fists. She reaches a long arm to the next vertical tree pole, maintaining grip with both foot and hand she trails behind until she has solid purchase on her next destination. Upon release, the trailing hand and foot swing forward to a vine, across which she walks like a tightrope.
Mama pauses, looks below her and waits. Food has not yet arrived with the researchers, so she stretches her body across a span of several trees, a Mama-Hammock. The baby rests on her abdomen, peering around her, downward to see my less fuzzy face looking back up at him.
Just a few steps further down the trail, a collection of other River Explorers have gathered at the base of another tree, looking up. I carry on to find a giant Alpha Male with his wide “cheek pads” and heavy chin draped across tree branches. He looks down at the crowd, pooches his lips, then breaks out into an extravagant yawn - mouth wide, teeth bared, eyes squeezed closed. Upon completion, he relaxes until dominos of tourists fall to their own wide yawn. I take my turn, then peek through my camera to another approaching trapeze artist.
You just yawned, didn't you.
Once the food arrives, the male climbs down from his perch pausing at the base of the tree to allow fifty camera shutters to open and shut at high speed repeat, all at once.
I cannot stand the cute-factor when we watch the smallest little baby try to swing himself from one tree to another. With Mama perched below, watching him, he tries to grab one tree branch with his feet, then swing head first toward his destination. He lacks enough weight to bring the tree branch to an adequate bend and he cannot reach. He retreats and tries another method, pulling and pushing the tree he is on to get it swinging, then he spreads his feet between a fork in the branch, then tries to reach out with his hands. Still…not…quite…enough. He tries two more positions, then Mama figures it’s enough training for the day. She climbs up to where he is, stretches her body from the tree he’s on to the tree wants to go to. The baby walks across her body like a bridge, finds the perch he was aiming for and looks satisfied. Mama lets go and follows him over.
We watch The Forest People eat and swing from branches for nearly two hours until a swirl of wind and black clouds chase us back to the boat. We narrowly escape the torrential downpour one can expect if one is prowling about in a rainforest. Our boat crew set up rain awnings and covers, then we enjoy a meal dinner as we putt-putt our way deeper into the jungle.
We carry on a few hours more. Now, we can hear no sounds of the city, smell none of the smoke and diesel that typically hangs around the harbors. As the sun sets, our boat captain nestles the riverboat into the weeds along side and ties off to a tuft of Jurassic Park Grass. Even then, you shouldn’t take your eyes off the jungle as it continues to give its impressive wildlife display. One evening of our trip, we watch a duo of Red Hornbills, who mate for life, cavort in the trees then fly away.
When it’s time to sleep, three mattresses are laid out in the open air of the top deck, then each surrounded by a personal pod of mosquito net. I crack my book to read and relax while jungle singing lulls my crew mates to sleep.
TO BE CONTINUED…