In The Mist

Dawn in Tanjing Puting

It’s early morning – not even five-thirty – and I’m standing alone on the open deck of our klotok, the wide-decked, open-sided river boat we’ve hired for three days of travel deep into the jungles of Borneo. I feel a very long way from home.

All around, the river water is a peaty red, darkening to glossy black away from the banks where it flows smoothly past our mooring. The blackness is broken only by the reflection of the brightening sky and the occasional deep splash of a surfacing fish. With each splash I turn quickly, hoping I’ll see one of the crocodiles that ate the traveller who ignored warnings not to swim on this very spot a few years ago. I don’t see any but that doesn’t mean they aren’t nearby. The shadows, reeds and fallen trees along the banks could easily hide a dozen crocodiles.

My eyes search the thick jungle swamps on each bank. There are macaques here. I can hear their woo-wooing nearby but haven’t managed to spot any yet. Not that I’m surprised. Their fur blends perfectly with the soaring white-grey tree trunks. Nor have I seen kingfishers, fly-catchers, hornbills, tree frogs, proboscis monkeys or any of the other thousands of species that make this a “biodiversity hotspot”. Only the insects are visible this morning; dragonflies the length of my middle finger, bees, beetles and smaller, indeterminate creatures I hear as passing buzzes beside my ear. And if our trek into the jungle yesterday is anything to go by, I wouldn’t have to go far from our boat to find thick columns of termites or wild, dangerous scatterings of the fire ants that we all fell painfully prey to.

But I don’t mind that I can’t see anything just now. The forest is alive with life. I can hear it. And somehow, gazing out into the confusion of trees, vines, ferns, water plants and bushes, ears alight with whoops, clicks and bird calls, this feels like the most natural state in the World; in distinguishing the complexities of these sights and sounds, I feel my brain slipping into its natural gear. There isn’t a straight line in sight, nor a single colour that diverges from the forest’s natural greens, greys and browns, except with reds and blacks of the water below and the blue of the lightening sky.

I wonder if any of the orangutans we saw yesterday are nesting nearby. And whether this sensation of oneness and peace is how they feel. Their slow, measured gazes and the way they swing through the treetops at whatever speed each tree bends under their weight seemed to imply so.

We’re moored at Camp Leakey, the longest-running research station in the World, where for the last 40 years , Dr. Galdikas has been observing wild orangutans as well as rehabilitating captured ones.

These thoughts are heightened by the thrill of being so far from civilization. There isn’t a hospital for many hundreds of miles and few roads through the jungle on which to reach one… well, except the charity-run orangutan hospital half-way up-river. I guess they could probably set a broken bone at a push.

It took two full days to get here but today we’ll turn our klotok around and begin the return journey, stopping to visit one more orangutan feeding station on the way. This is the remotest place we’ll visit on our travels. From here on we’ll slowly be returning to modernity.

I was going to end there, leaving this post as an elegy on Man’s Primal Being, Oneness With Nature and other romantic daybreak thoughts. But then…

With a crash, a tree beside us swung forwards, showering leaves onto the river. For a moment I couldn’t see what had caused the sudden commotion. The jungle fell silent. Then, the tree snapped back, the leaves spread out into the current, leaving a single, large orangutan a few metres from where I stood. He watched me. I watched him. As entrances go, I had to admit it was impressively dramatic. Then he swung over to where our boat’s mooring rope secured us to a fallen tree.

Was he going to pull us to shore? Come aboard? He gave the rope an exploratory tug but our klotok is big and would have needed a much more serious effort to shift. Looking disappointed, he gave up and climbed onto a comfortable-looking tree, descending occasionally to pick a pandanas shoot or fish a discarded piece of fruit from the water.

Slowly, the rest of our family awoke, drifting forwards to join the mutual contemplation, orang1 and orangutan.

Then the other klotok moored nearby woke up, too, and began calling and throwing watermelon rinds into the river. The spell was broken; the orangutan moved off and we retreated inside for a breakfast of our own.

[1] In both Indonesian and Malay, orang means “man”. Orang utan means “man of the forest”.

2 thoughts on “In The Mist

  1. I am positively jealous!!!!! What an unforgettable moment!!!!!….. sorry to hear about the neighbouring klotok. Thanks for the video.


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