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Trip Report 4 days with Orangutans Balikpapan + Camp Leakey

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Greetings,

I'm a single woman traveling from Singapore to Borneo for a few days to see the Orangutans. I've arranged the main part of the trip through Discovery Borneo.

I wonder if anyone has tips of things to see in the one afternoon/evening I have in Balikpapan. And any tips on what to bring that will make the trip more comfortable?

Many thanks!
kaz

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    I'm not sure if you would get many responses on this forum as I've not come across any reports from fodorites back from Kalimantan.I haven't been to the Indo part of Borneo,which is my destination in the near future.But during the part of my info gathering research on LP's thorn tree,on Sulawesi, I did come across a very informative thread by a a well traveled and well informed TTer Laszlo.I've dug it out for you.
    I'm not even sure if I'm violating rules here on fodors by posting the TT link.If wrong,my apologies,it could be removed by the moderators.My intention is to purely assist.

    http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=401447

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    Hi inquest, I think it is fine to post a link to a TT thread. Laslo is the expert on seeing Orangutans in the wild. I've not been to Kalimantan, having traveled to Sabah to see the orangutans. Note that travel to and within Kalimantan is more logistically difficult than to Sabah and Sarawak.

    As far as what to take to make your trip more comfortable - leech socks, mosquito repellant.

    I hope you will do a report upon your return. Kalimantan is on my list! You too, inquest, I'd love to hear about your trip.

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    TRIP REPORT:

    Hi friends,

    Following is a trip report on my recent Orangutan adventure in Borneo (called Kalimantan by the locals)…I’ll put general notes at the start and more detail below. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions.

    Some initial context, as I hate trip reports that don’t take into account calibrating for the traveler. I’m a late-30s experienced female traveler, but I was traveling solo on this one, which initially made me a bit nervous (for no reason, it seems). I prefer “glamping” to really roughing it, but I’ve also spent quite a bit of time in serious, far-flung eco-tourism spots, from Fiji to Costa Rica to Venezuela, so I understand the nature of less-developed or purposefully lower impact areas. And I was on a semi-limited budget.

    High-Level Route and Tour Details:

    * Los Angeles via Tokyo to Singapore (where I was attending a conference)
    * Singapore to Balikpapan (Indonesia/Borneo) to Banjarmasin
    * Borneo Discovery Tours (BDT) (http://www.borneo-discoverytours.com/tour_16_Camp_Leakey_4D_3N.html) had a representative meet me there to pay the balance of the fee (the rest was sent by bank transfer as a deposit) – cash only
    * Spent one night in Bandjarmasin (often spelled without the D), which may be required due to limited internal flights, but make sure to check as schedules change, and got up at 4.30am to see the Floating Market
    * Flew Banjarmasin to Pangkalan Bun (pronounced Pankalan Boon) where I was met by the BDT contact, who took me by taxi to Kumai
    * Boarded the Klotok (traditional river boat) in Kumai and headed up the Seykonyer River for 3 days in the Tanjung Puting National Park, including 2 feeding stations, a reforestation station, and Camp Leakey rehabilitation research camp (http://www.orangutan.org/our-projects/research/camp-leakey)
    * Stayed all 3 nights at the Rimba Eco-Lodge (http://rimbaecolodge.com/) but had all meals except breakfast on the boat
    * Return to Kumai and taxi transfer to Pangkalan Bun
    * Flight to Jakarta and back to Singapore for the return to LA

    Overall Rating:

    I would HIGHLY recommend this trip to those interested in eco-tourism or wildlife – seeing the Orangutans in this way is something I will never forget. I found the people to be lovely and generous, I didn’t feel nervous or threatened traveling alone, the dollar goes a long way in most situations (though the tour companies know how to corner the market, so book or find guides BEFORE you go), and once you arrive in Kumai, the trip is pretty comfortable. I’ll provide details below on all tour guides and contacts, as I found this group to be more than satisfactory. I did see some other boats from tours that seemed, perhaps, a bit better appointed, but the differences are minimal, and it’s more a question of what you want to spend. Also, BDT made the internal flight arrangements for me, and it all went off without a hitch.

    Banjarmasin and the Floating Market:

    This town is quite grubby and odd, and unless you have to overnight here, I think it’s safe to skip. The main hotels are about 45 minutes from the airport, and the town seemed haphazard enough that I didn’t want to chance going out after dark, when I arrived. I stayed at the Hotel Mercure, which was obscenely upscale in the scheme of things but cheap given US standard rates. I must admit I felt uncomfortable staying there, amid the poverty, but as a solo traveler, I’m glad I did.

    The rep from BDT, Joni, agreed to meet me at 4.30am to go to the floating market. Because I hadn’t booked in advance, it was priced higher than the guidebooks quoted. Still, it only cost 500,000 Rupiah (about $50 USD) for Joni’s time, that of the boatman, and the boat. But it was worth it. This is said to be one of the most authentic floating markets in all of Southeast Asia, and I found it charming and not at all touristy. You see the locals waking up, bathing, and preparing for the day all along the river, as you go the 40 minutes to the market. We pulled over shortly after we departed, and someone lifted a basket of boiled water, coffee/tea, and breads for breakfast into the boat. Life along the river is quite interesting – including a breath-taking variety of mosques and these gigantic buildings with arrays of PVC piping going into them which house swallows, whose nests are sold to the Chinese market.

    One by one, the mostly female sellers began to appear with their goods. I didn’t buy anything, as I was heading onto 2 more flights, so I felt a bit badly that I was just taking photos, but no one seemed to mind. Everyone was friendly, some shared fruit to try, and while a number of other tourist boats came, it didn’t feel overcrowded. It was easy enough to get back to the hotel in time for a shower before the airport. A note: it’s VERY hard to get taxis as the city is so dispersed, so be sure to get your hotel to pre-book you one for the airport.

    GUIDE: John Zia aka Joni
    Johnzia.borneo@gmail.com
    085287713747


    Tanjung Puting and Camp Leakey:

    I landed in Pangkalan Bun about 15 minutes early, so I couldn’t find my BDT guide when I came out of the airport. Someone asked if he could help, and once I provided the name of my guide, Danny Hamdan, he texted and found him snoozing in the air-conditioned waiting lounge. So, be sure you have a name and contact number for whoever is meeting you – it’s often not the person with whom you correspond to make arrangements.

    We whisked off in a cab to the city of Kumai, about 30 minutes away, a dusty port town, which does brisk business for Palm Oil, among other things. Don’t be put off by the shabby dock huts that every tour company has. You spend barely a moment there, which is why they’re simply not kept up. I boarded the Klotok, was immediately offered a coffee, and off we went.

    The Klotoks are two levels, and they sway. But it’s a solid, old-school river boat, and much better for viewing the wildlife than the speed boats which occasionally zoom past. Generally, you’ll stay on the upper level, which is shaded and perfect for being almost eye-to-eye with the wildlife if you’re watching the trees go by. There is a carpet and a mattress with a pillow (you can stay on the boats, which many people do), a couple of deck chairs for lounging while watching for wildlife, a table where you have meals, and that’s about it. The crew (your guide, a captain, an assistant, and a cook) will generally hang below on the lower deck. All cooking happens below, and there is a basic toilet on that level as well.

    On my trip, both our assistant and the captain had incredible eyes for spotting monkeys and things, so I’d hear a shout and the engine would stop, and we’d scramble to the best viewing spot. I loved spending time on the boat, and I think the trips up and down the river were as much a highlight as the time in the jungle. I will admit it felt a bit “colonial” to have a crew of four attending to my needs, but they all seemed very happy with the work and most prefer to be showing off their country than working for the mining or Palm Oil companies.

    Also, don’t worry if other boats “beat” you to a spot to see monkeys. I found that even if a couple of boats pulled up, we all got a good look. And sometimes, it’s just as well to be behind or in front, as you catch other things. On our morning return, we passed a boat with a couple I’d met the day before. They were moored by some reeds where there was a wild Orangutan in a nest. We didn’t realize it, so we kept going (I heard from them later when I saw them at the airport), but we saw a troop of Proboscis monkeys swim across the river, which was incredible.

    We saw quite a bit on our way up the river, but it was past dusk when we arrived, so keep in mind that the travel time really cuts into a “four day / three night” tour…I’d say I had 2.5 full days and 3 nights.

    The Rimba Lodge has the air of days gone by. The buildings are all strung between elevated boardwalks and are made from Ironwood, to last in the constant damp. I stayed in an “Emerald” room, which had a King bed and air conditioning, but it was more like a fan, which was still a relief after a day in the thick air. The rooms are shabby but clean, which is all that matters to me in places this far flung. The shower was a bit odd, as there is no drain. So, you kind of shower and the whole bathroom floor gets soaked, but it seeps down through the Ironwood overnight (they provide flip-flops but if you’re squeamish about feet or fungi, make sure you have shoes you can get wet). There are Macaque monkeys and frogs and lizards all over. I didn’t see any during daylight hours, but you are very much amid the jungle noises at night. Breakfast was simple but all one needs – some choice of eggs or toast and coffee/tea and fruit. I spent very little time at Rimba apart from appreciating a shower at the end of a day, getting a good sleep, and up by 6am to eat quickly and get back on the boat.

    Day 1 started with a visit to Pondok Tangui feeding station, where the Orangutan are semi-wild, and the trip to Camp Leakey. The feeding stations are managed by full-time rangers, who put out fruits, sweet potatoes, cassava and sometimes milk at set times. Each feeding platform is a 15-20 minute walk in from the river’s edge, usually past a small encampment where the ranger’s live. We probably saw 15-20 Orangutan at Pondok Tangui during the 9am feeding, including the mother and baby who were waiting on the boardwalk from the boat to the ranger station. The rangers will usually advise on how to behave, but the Orangutan are definitely a bit unpredictable, and you may find one suddenly heading towards you to breeze past.

    Definitely mind the males, and do not get in between a mother and her baby or between a male and female. While there is a designated platform where the food is placed, the Organutan pretty much appear out of the jungle from every direction, and they come and go according to social hierarchy all around the few scattered benches. A highlight from that feeding was a mother who suddenly was loping towards me – I typically tried to stand with my back to a tree, as I felt less in the middle of things that way – and when she stopped, just inches from me, to see which tree she wanted to climb, her little baby stuck a curious finger out to poke my sandal. I was constantly struck by how human and similar their personalities are.

    Next we got back on the boat for lunch, keeping eyes peeled for the antics of the various wildlife along the river and the 2-hour journey up to Camp Leakey. We arrived before the 2pm feeding with enough time to check out the information center, which feels like a small-town science exhibit. That said, there is some very cool stuff – from samples of the vast biodiversity, massive seed pods which bring home the scale of the old growth forests now being threatened, and an amazing photo family tree of all the Orangutan who have been rescued there. While wandering through the Camp, which is definitely more research station than tourist center, a large wild boar roamed through looking for scraps. And we got to see a mother scoop her baby up and scamper into a tree. It turns out that wild boars are the next biggest threat to baby Orangutans after humans. The feeding was again quite spectacular. These are more habituated Orangutans, so they are more forthright in “demanding” food from the rangers.

    We ended up towing another boat back towards Rimba lodge, as their engine had gone out, so it was slow going on the return home. But I didn’t mind, as a storm was drifting past on the horizon, and I lay back on the mattress and watched the heat lighting, as a rainbow appeared ahead. We saw plenty of monkeys, as the Proboscis settle into the trees by the shore at dusk to sleep for the night. And the jungle has stretches with fireflies twinkling at all levels.

    Day 2 included a return to Pondok Tanguy for another 9am feeding, a quick hop to the Peselat Reforestation outpost, a visit to Tanjung Harapan village, and the Tanjung Harapan feeding station at 3pm. We saw far fewer Orangutan the second morning, which is good news from a wildlife preservation standpoint, if perhaps disappointing to the tourists who have yet to see greater numbers – if Orangutans don’t show up for feedings, it is largely because they are finding sufficient food in the jungle on their own.

    The big male Orangutan that came on both days didn’t want to let us pass on our way out. And he mistook a long leaf that one of the guides was carrying for a stick, so he became aggressive as we tried to pass. We all had to scurry back away from him as the guide dropped the leaf and tried to placate him with open hands. It was scary more because it was so unpredictable. We waited until he settled, and he took his time, posing and hanging from various trees, asserting his authority. Eventually, we were able to pass, though he followed us part way back to the camp.

    The highlight from our stop at Pesalat was the 1000-meter boardwalk that wends through the swampy jungle. Great for spotting strange mushrooms and small orchids and insects, like the hairy poisonous caterpillar we found. No one was present at the station, so we just took a gander at the well-labeled varieties of saplings intended to help restore parts of the jungle that have been destroyed by logging or burns. There is a section with labels indicating medicinal applications of plants, roots, and bark.

    We then set off down the river for a quick stop at Tanjung Harapan village. There’s little there to see formally, but it’s worth a stop. There is a tiny hut on the dock, which has some gift things, but it was locked and no one was around when we stopped. It was just as well, as I didn’t feel inclined to buy schlocky t-shirts and was happier giving a substantial tip to the boat crew, to help support their efforts in working for eco-tourism rather than mining or Palm Oil. The village is typical of remote developing world, with the exception that it’s basically sitting in the flood plain of the river. So, everything is on stilts, with man-made paths and small wood plank bridges.

    Just across the river is the feeding station, and it’s a bit of a longer hike into the jungle for this one. Also, it’s closer to the river itself, so the feel is more swampy with incessant mosquitoes. This is where I got a few bites, as they seek out any spot that isn’t slathered in repellent. Tanjung Harapan is interesting, though, as there are tons of liana vines here, so the way the Orangutan interact seems more playful with lots of swinging and antics all around. A huge number showed up, including two very large males. They stayed at opposite ends of the area, and there were complicated hierarchy issues unfolding all around, as one of the males went after a female. And the other dominant one was scaring away all of the others from “his” food on the platform. I stayed at this spot for almost 2 hours until everyone had left, my guide was more than patient, to really take in the quiet with the last few who picked through the scraps left by the others.

    The last morning, I was up early to be sure we didn’t have trouble getting back down the river in time for the flight. We made good time and saw a lot of Proboscis and Macaque monkeys on our way out. I tipped the boat crew before we arrived back at the port, as I wasn’t sure about the expectations of the main BDT contact, and I wanted the money to go to the people who took such good care of me on the trip. I was accompanied back to the airport, straight through paying the exit tax and going through security (the local contact apparently has to report back to the HQ that a guest has been returned safely to their flight before the trip is considered complete).

    LOCAL CONTACT: Danny Hamdan
    0852 4918 8195

    TOUR GUIDE: Husni Jien
    husnijienborneo@gmail.com
    0821 5141 8654

    TOUR OPERATOR: Borneo Discovery Tours contact: Pasha
    borneo.discovery@hotmail.com
    Pasha
    Hotline: +62-812 5361 221



    Things to Note for Preparations and Precautions:

    • Airlines – I flew Silk Air (which is a perfectly high-end regional branch of Singapore Airlines), Swirijaya Air and Kalstar Air. The latter two are smaller regional airlines, and the planes are shabby but much better than flights I’ve been on in South America or Fiji. The overhead bins really vary, though, so be sure you have a small enough carry-on with anything you really need, in case you have to check a larger suitcase and it gets lost. Unfortunately, the timing between flights and airlines is not optimal. It would be hard to take a chance and cut it too close and miss a flight when there is often only one a day or even less. And, while I had no issues in between layovers, leaving a lot of time to hang in uncomfortable small airports, it was clear that anything could happen.

    • Visas and Airport Fees – It seems like you pay a fee at almost every airport in Indonesia / Borneo either entering or exiting. And you need cash. So, even if you’re getting your Visa on Arrival (VOA), as I did in Balikpapan, you need cash BEFORE you arrive. There are no ATMs or currency exchanges before you enter, and the line backs up for Visas. In general, I’d keep cash handy.

    • Toilets – Ladies, once you enter Indonesia / Borneo, unless you’re in Jakarta, all other airports are tiny, and in the three I passed through, all had rough squat toilets. Bring toilet paper (REI has the handy little rolls) and be prepared to balance your bags, if you don’t have someone to watch them.

    • Water – the water is filthy. Everyone washes in it, all waste and sewage gets dumped in, and most of the river is now polluted from the effluents and mercury coming from the illegal gold mining up-river. All tours will have endless supplies of sealed bottled water. But you can bet nothing is washed in it – so, if you’re really squeamish about this, it will be hard not to consider what your dishes were washed in and the knives used to cut fruit. I’m not sure there’s a way around this, and as of this moment, I’ve survived with no stomach problems on the whole trip. They boil mineral water for coffee. So, I ended up not needing the purification tablets or Steri-Pen that I had with me. But it’s not a bad idea to have one or the other just in case.

    • Insects – Mosquitoes are ubiquitous, but a good DEET-based repellent will be effective. I’m a fan of Sawyer (http://www.sawyer.com/tech-bugs.html) and 3M Ultrathon (http://solutions.3m.com/wps/portal/3M/en_US/Ultrathon/Products/). I did take Malarone for Malaria, just in case, but I hardly got any bites, as I was careful to be pretty fully covered at most times. See the note below about clothing, as I think my single greatest protection was from Permetherin-treated items. Otherwise, there were some spiders and the usual creatures but nothing to watch out for apart from common sense (aka if it’s fuzzy or very colorful, don’t touch it)…

    • Clothing – As you’d expect in the jungle, it’s HOT. I’d definitely suggest quick-dry clothing, in layers, as you’re just pouring sweat at the feeding stations in the jungle, but you’ll dry quickly once back on the boat. The best purchase I made was an Ex-Officio hoodie of extremely lightweight, breathable material, pre-treated in Permetherin (http://www.exofficio.com/products/details/womens-bugsaway-lumen-hoody). I threw it on whenever we headed into the jungle, over a tank top, and it kept mosquitoes away like a charm. I also had treated a couple of pairs of pants, which helped immensely. I’d recommend sandals tougher than flip-flops, though plenty of tourists were making do…but there are jungle roots, mud, and it can be slippery if it rains. So, I was glad I brought my Keen’s.

    • Electronics – Almost every airport I passed through had a Starbucks (sad, yes, but I hate to admit also handy) with free wifi and plugs to charge electronics. If you’re headed into the jungle, that will be last place to do so, unless you bring solar chargers. The Rimba Lodge did have a couple of outlets in the room, but I felt guilty using them, as they have limited solar and mostly diesel power. That said, I did use them to charge camera batteries, and I HIGHLY recommend getting a few extra rechargables. Despite the three I had with me, I ran out of juice by the end of the first day. The jungle is so stunning, that I did a lot of video, so the batteries drained quickly. If you have other sensitive electronics (like a hearing aid), I’d recommend you bring a Bheestie bag to de-humidify overnight. (http://www.bheestie.com/)

    • Toiletries – whether you’re staying on the Klotok (boat) or in one of the few eco-lodges, I’d suggest bringing bio-degradable products. All water waste goes directly into the river, and it’s a shame to contribute to the pollution if you can avoid it. Aveda makes wonderful products (http://www.aveda.com/products/5249/Collections/ShampureTM/index.tmpl), and I left my extras with the cook on our boat. If you prefer, some Burt’s Bees are fully bio-degradable, and Dr. Bronner’s Soap definitely is. Toothpaste is a bit harder, but if you can stand Tom’s for a few days, I’d go for it. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have a pack of Bio-Wipes (http://www.rei.com/product/750942/adventure-medical-kits-fresh-bath-travel-wipes) or YES! Cucumber wipes (http://www.yestocarrots.com/product/yes-to-cucumber-facial-towelettes?product_id=1023), as you’ll be grateful by midday when you’ve had multiple layers of bug repellent and a couple of stints in the jungle.

    • Season / Leeches – I was here during the start of the dry season (May), which was great for avoiding the leeches – but I hear the deeper it gets into the season, the more tourists will crowd the sites (July and August sound AWFUL). While I had read warnings, I didn’t see any leeches, and only one other tourist mentioned he’d gotten one in the few days of running into people. Instead of buying the leech socks, which seem ridiculous, just treat a pair of lightweight hiking socks with Permetherin, carry some rubber bands to put around your pants if you like, and little packets of table salt, which is the best way to get them to hop off.

    • Food / Snacks – They feed you plenty on the Klotok, so it’s just a matter of what kind of stomach you have, how comfortable you are with whatever is served, and whether you prefer some of your own snacks. I ate most of what was served, but I drew the line at fish and shrimp. I just didn’t feel comfortable with the level of refrigeration on the boat, though they always offered a cold Coke or bottle of water when I returned from the jungle. Hot tea or coffee is always available, and you get snacks around 10am (usually some kind of packaged cookie) and 4pm (the best was the daily ration of fried bananas!)…dinner by candle light on the boat is quite magical surrounded by the sounds of the jungle. I had protein snacks with me and packets of both Emergen-C and Coco Electrolytes. I used the drink packets, as the dehydration is pretty intense with the heat and trekking.

    • Tipping – Tipping isn’t that common in Borneo, but I felt strongly about supporting the locals who are choosing eco-tourism work over the high-paying lure of the Palm Oil plantations or the illegal mining interests. I also discussed cost of living and salaries with my guide, and they get paid what seems about one quarter to one half of the fee paid to the tour company. This translates to about $20/day for the guide, $10/day for the boat captain, $5/day for the assistant, and $2.50/day for the cook. It costs about $3000 to buy a plot of land for a home well outside of the town, just to give some context. I ended up tipping $40 for the guide and $20 for each of the others. I didn’t have a lot of disposable income to use beyond that, but I felt it was appreciated and fair.

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    Thank you so much for coming back here and posting a report on your trip! Thanks for all of the practical tips. I was surprised to read that you paid more for your trip to the floating market because you didn't book ahead, as usually in SE Asia, you get a better deal on day trips and guides/drivers by hiring on the spot. So that is very useful information.

    Let me clarify the place-names issue, as it is very confusing. The whole island is "Borneo." The island is divided among three countries, tiny Brunei, Malaysian Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak) and Indonesian Borneo, called Kalimantan. Kalimantan is the area most difficult to travel to/in. While I and a number of others here have traveled to Sabah and Sarawak, I believe yours is the first report on Kalimantan.

    A question about orangutan sightings: were all of the orangutans you saw at the feeding stations? Did you see any in the wild?

    Thanks again for your excellent report.

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    Hi Kathie,

    Thanks for clarifying the names! I found a lot of the local references to be confusing...

    I didn't happen to see any fully in the wild, though some other tourists did. I saw lots of nests and "evidence" of their being around, but I didn't spot any...

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