(Written Posted 7/6 and posted 7/10 due to wifi constraints)
Selamat pagi (Good morning) and hello from the Jungles of Borneo!
After our flight landed in Jakarta on Tuesday we (12 students, 1 TA and Dr. Erin Vogel our leading professor) ate large group dinner to inaugurate our trip. This was the first opportunity we all really had to interact as many hadn’t been able to come to the pre departure orientation and we had all been separated on both flights from Newark. It was a wonderful time of laughter an excitement about what was to come, paired with some delicious seafood rice/noodles and a local drink made from avocado and condensed milk.
We spent that night in a hotel right next to the airport because we had to be up and at em’ the next day at 2:30am to catch another flight to Palangkaraya. This was only a two hour flight and was by comparison with the 16 hour flight to Hong Kong, a breeze. Palangkaraya is the home base for the researchers here, as is convenient to the airport (15 min) and still within driving distance from the boat launch to the research station (2 hour 30 min). After lunch in Palangkaraya and a chance to relax for bit at Erin’s (Dr Vogel; our head professor) house, we boarded a bus to the boat launch. It was a treat to have the chance to just see the country side flying by and really get a grasp of the country’s landscape and how locals live. The last part of the bus trip brought us to an extremely bumpy sand road which we traversed for an hour till we pulled up at the boat ramp. Three canoe like boats each around 30ft long were waiting for us and once our packs were loaded on one, additional supplies for the research station packed on the next the us squished into the third we were off for another 2 hour ride down the Kapuas river. Other than the cramping and stiffness that occurs from being crammed in a skinny boat that you’re afraid might tip, the boat ride was amazing! Along the river we saw local villages, the jungles and our first taste of the endemic primates. We didn’t see any orangutans but several gibbons and macaque made appearances.
At the end of the trip we pulled into a sort of harbor created with wooden docs. The boat couldn’t pull all the way up to the shore so we all took off our shoes and socks (which was quite a feat when 14 people did it all at once in the tight space without tipping the boat), loaded up our bags, jumped out and waded in. We were greeted on shore by a group of smiling children standing around Elise who is one of the full time researchers there affiliated with Rutgers. She works most closely with the locals of any of the researchers as she, in addition to orangutan tracking, is working on the cultural science project about the meaning of the orangutans to the people here. The bond was evident between her and the children crowded at her feet and made for quite the welcoming committee. Some of the local men loaded our bags onto hand carts and we all made our way to the station which is about a mile inland from the river right in the midst of the forest. The trail there begins with a sandy path and ends with a board walk over the bog right to the front door of camp. The station itself is mostly all out door pavilions with tin metal roofs to keep off the rain and the only enclosed spaces are the dorm rooms of which there are 17.
The front door leads directly to the foyer area which has pictures of all the past research groups and visiting students and two rooms off it, one of which is mine with my roommate for our stay Eriel. If you continue straight through the kitchen is on your left where Ibu(a respectful term for an older woman with children) Masak and her two helpers make us delicious meals three times a day. On your right is the wing of the building with the remainder of the rooms which is two levels with porches and stairs lining the walk ways. Right in front of you is the main common area with tables used for research, lectures and meal times and on the far side of the tables is the identification wall. This wall is made up of close ups of the 143 orangutans studied in Tuanan. They are organized by flanged males (a male with a disk face and large protruding cheeks) un flanged males, adolescent females and mother offspring pairs. The orangutans all have names which are a mix of everything from types of alcohol to traditional Indonesian names as the researcher that first finds the Orangutan reserves the right to name him or her. Family trees are organized by the naming system as well because a mother and her offspring always have names that begin with the same letter. For example Kerry, Kondor, Kecap and Ketambe are all related despite being spread out on all different sections of the wall.
The whole structure is built on stilts about 4 feet above the boggy forest floor and separate sections are connected by 2 by 4s which makes the whole experience of walking through camp like going on an adventure through a tree house. Also, in an effort to keep camp clean and reduce he need to sweep, everyone is required to go bare foot which adds to the adventure vibes.
That night we settled in and all hung up our mosquito nets above our beds (despite being “enclosed” the rooms are still prone to wandering mosquitos). After a delicious dinner of rice, a sort of chicken noodle soup and spinach & pumpkin stew we had our first lecture which was about primate survey techniques.
We were exhausted from our long day and many of us opted to head right to bed at around the 7pm after our lecture. Because we are below the equator and therefore experiencing Indonesian “winter” it gets dark early here and so after our long day it was quite easy to collapse on my bed and fall right asleep that early. The next morning we were up at 4:45 am to eat breakfast at 5 and be head into the study area a 6 am. Orangutans wake up around 5am so we needed to be out there soon after their waking to hear the long calls the made in the morning and find some of the previous night’s nests which is what we spent most of the morning doing. The study area is set up in a grid of transect trails cut through the jungle that a marked with tags every 50 meters so you can always identify where you are, where the orangutans are and how to get back to camp. To walk the perimeter of the area would take over 4 hours so getting lost is definitely not advisable.
We all came back from our transect hike to compare date and triangulate where the orangutans were based on the time, direction and distance of their long calls. Then came lunch and the chance to head back out into the forest and see our first Orangutans which were Kerry and her youngest Ketambe. The researchers don’t use GPS trackers on the Orangutans so the only way they know how to find them each day is by the tireless work of the research assistants. The assistants are all young Indonesian males who are orangutan experts as well as experts in local flora and fauna. They head out of camp at 4 in the morning each day to the nest of an orangutan being tracked so when the Orangutan wakes up at 4:30 to 5 they are there and can subsequently follow them all day till around 5pm when they make their nest for the night. Once they settle down for the night the assistants return to camp and mark on the transect map where the nest was so the assistant tracking the Orangutan in the morning can be to that exact spot before they wake up the next day. In addition to tracking all day, the assistants take data every two minutes on the activity of the orangutans down to the exact genus of the species the Orangutan is currently snacking on. Their days are long and grueling but the station itself would function without them and the researchers are endlessly grateful for the expertise of their assistants.
I’m currently sitting back at camp after the chance to follow Kerry and Ketambe for 15 min with Tono their research assistant for the day. It was incredible to see them swinging through the trees playing and eating and realizing that we may be the last generation to see the amazing creatures in the wild.
So far, throughout the trip there hasn’t been a moment that I have had my camera pointed and filming everything happening around me. It would be impossible to capture it all but my hope is to have enough to give my audience even a small feel for the excitement of living in a place thriving with research and discovery and the wonder I and all my compatriots feel at witnessing and fluffy orange primate chilling the trees above our head.