On that Monday, we woke up in our beautiful jungle home. Our office would be the trees, and we didn't know it yet, but today we were going to have the best (and most challenging) fun ever. We would do two forest treks, swim in a waterfall, trek along a stony riverbed through moving water, and then float down one of the many tributaries in Betung Kerihun National Park in our life vests. We lived. It was my favourite day of the whole trip, and one of the best days of my life.
Day 4: Exploring Betung Kerihun National Park
Today was our first real day in the jungle. We woke up early at about 5am, to see if we could spot gibbons on a 6am trek.
It was so pleasant here, sleeping by the river in our tents; all the insects and birds calling around us. As expected, the rainforest was cooler in comparison to the heat in the cities, but I'd still sweat within mere minutes of doing anything, even standing still.
Our tents were on concrete slabs that had been built into the campground, which made for some sore sleeping. My bruised bones from the boat ride the day before made it uncomfortable to lie on my back, but lying on my side was impossible: my hip bones pushed into the hard ground and I would immediately turn back over. I made a mental note to try sleeping on top of my sleeping bag tonight, willing to risk being a midnight snack for malaria-infested mosquitoes. Nevertheless, I now understood how the phrase "happy camper" might have come about—for a group of people who woke up at the crack of dawn after just having slept on concrete, we were perfectly content.
We heard the unique call of the gibbons even from our campground. Before breakfast we headed out, trekking in two separate groups so that we'd be quieter and have a better chance of seeing them. For one and a half hours we trekked around the campsite, exploring, and our tour guides would often stop at a special plant or seedling to tell us all about it. It reminded me of my days at Biology camp in my senior years of high school, except 10 times sweatier and way more awesome.
|Fried rice being cooked for breakfast, for when we return from our morning trek|
|A helicopter seed variety. These grew to be massive in Borneo.|
|Just one of many species of fungi|
|Stopping, holding still with anticipation: we heard something in the trees|
Luck wasn't on our side when it came to the gibbons: they hid themselves well by the time we got deeper. Our tour guides and local crew even tried drawing them out, making their calls to no avail. Even so, we came across so many other signs of wildlife here in this small pocket of forest; chief among them being a peacock's mating ground (a wide, smooth open space on the ground where there were absolutely no leaves) and a very old orangutan nest. Even the sheer volume of different plants and seedlings and fungi and insects was encouraging. The jungle was thriving here, and I was relieved that at least some part of this ancient place has been able to survive.
|Basically a wild hazelnut. I ate it after this photo.|
|Stepping over huge tree roots, many of them far taller than this one.|
|Back to camp in time for breakfast|
|Little brown leech trying to find a place to suck on Jimmy's finger|
We got back to camp in time for breakfast before we set out along the river once more. Our next trekking location would be to a waterfall, about half an hour away via longboat and deeper into the forests of the national park. Getting off the boat to start our trek was a mission in itself: the rocks by the river were incredibly slippery and smooth, providing us with nothing for our shoes to grip on. It was then a muddy, nearly vertical climb to get to the forest floor, holding onto a rope handrail that our crew had quickly put together. As we climbed, the men would each hold out a hand and I would very gladly take it; I'm not convinced I would've made it up there without them.
|Very slippery rocks|
|The leader of our boat crew at the top of the incline, helping us up|
|Made it to the forest floor. You can tell we're rather high now, looking down on the river|
One of the highlights of trekking, for me, would be finding edible fruit and nuts and eating them right there; just one of many ways we were immersed in our jungle experience. This trek was challenging in the muddy terrain, with lots of tree roots to trip you and leaves to disguise them and very little space to safely place your feet at times.
I very quickly realised two trekking poles would be absolutely useless: I needed a spare hand to hold onto vines and branches so I could hoist myself up or safely bring myself down without sliding face-first into mud.
There were also many fallen tree trunks, some too big to even try to stand on, so I'd have to sit myself on it and then slide my legs over to get to the other side. The locals would always be so quick and sure on their feet, completely putting us to shame—we later thanked them for never laughing at us and always being so willing to help.
|Old shells of durian fruits (a favourite amongst the orangutans)|
|Hundreds of beautiful seedlings|
|Anthea & Wendy, fellow pocket rockets|
|It's me! Photo by Jimmy Syahirsyah.|
|Down I go, hoping I don't fall on my face while Jimmy takes photos on my camera.|
After about 40 minutes or so of trekking, we made it to the waterfall. When we were going down the mountain Jimmy took my camera and my trekking poles off me, letting me concentrate on getting down. Justine encouraged me to keep my feet sideways when going down, a technique my Dad and Martin had also shown me once: that way your shoes build up a wall of mud or dirt as they slide, acting as a brake and preventing your legs from sliding out underneath you. Nevertheless, it was easier said than done, and I didn't have complete faith in my feet.
|Virginia taking a big step down—you can tell how steep it is here. Photo by Jimmy Syahirsyah.|
We finally got to the waterfall. It was magical; a perfect reprieve from the dirty clothes sticking to our sweaty skin. I didn't waste any time, changing quickly into swim shorts, staying in my sports bra and getting into our well-earned slice of paradise.
Some of the girls were taking turns putting their heads under the waterfall. It looked like fun, but I hadn't done it before, so I hesitated. After some gentle (and appreciated) encouragement from the girls I pushed off the rocks and swam against the strong current. I dived underneath the pounding water, eyes tightly shut, reaching my hands out in front of me to find gaps in the rocks where my fingers could go. The gaps were barely big enough and I held on with only my fingertips, pulling myself up to the surface as the waterfall roared around me. I heard cheering—I must've made it.
I soaked it all in; the strength of the rushing water, the sensation of it hitting the top of my head and my shoulders in a hundred different places at once, dozens of fat liquid hammers bouncing off my skin. To be in this place so ancient, where nobody else had been before, underneath the immense power of nature—I was alive, aware and grateful. I quietly commended myself: I said yes to a trip completely outside my comfort zone (I hadn't even ever gone camping up until Borneo) and all the while here I would say yes a million times over, despite nervous moments, genuine challenges, and all the uncertainty in between. I promised myself that I would, and I did.
|Some of the team about to abseil down the rocks|
After I had already gotten out and gotten changed, some of our group started abseiling down the rocks and jumping down into the pool underneath. I was certain there would be some happily-earned bruises and scratches later on. I wanted to get closer, sitting on the huge lichen-covered logs and carefully inching back towards the waterfall, but eventually decided to play it safe for the sake of my camera. It had been a pretty slippery climb up to the rocks earlier, and neither Caroline or I were able to make it closer to get shots of everyone sliding down.
|Kellie thanking one of her sponsors in a fun photo op|
|Jimmy and Maria|
Then it was time to leave. We packed up and got ready for "river trekking", which is exactly what it sounds like: following the current from the waterfall out to the main river and our boats. I was glad I had invested in water sandals; I could only imagine how sore my feet would've been if I had done it barefoot like some of my teammates.
The rocks were slippery and at times it was deep (collarbone-deep for 5" shorties like me). I was glad one of the men was carrying my daypack and Jimmy was carrying my trekking poles. A few of us were lucky to have our packs carried by the crew, but there weren't enough men for all of us, so others had to carry their packs above their heads.
The water was murky from the mud and soil of the forest, so I couldn't tell when my shin was about to smash against an unexpectedly high platform of rock. We warned each other when we discovered surprise rocks the hard way, so others wouldn't have to make the same mistake.
|River trekking. Photo by Caroline Pang*|
|Photo by Caroline Pang*|
|Photo by Caroline Pang*|
|Photo by Caroline Pang*|
We finally saw where the trees opened up to the river, the light welcoming us with its warm, green-tinged glow. We got back into the boats and headed towards Tekelan for lunch and a long break before our later activities. It was a beautiful afternoon, and I spent most of it sitting with Justine and Virginia. We talked about lots of things, and I was grateful that conversation flowed genuinely and with ease. Connected, comfortable conversation is so rare; instantly getting along with a stranger even rarer—so when I find people I can instantly open up to, I never forget about them.
After a couple of hours it was time to get going for body rafting. We were going to float down the river in our life jackets, holding our knees and bums up and letting the current lead us. To say the current led us is an understatement: we got to some extremely strong rapids that added more bruises to our legs, moving so strong and fast that I could barely stand to get to the rocks and grab hold of something. We were all laughing and didn't want it to end.
I thought of everyone back home, where it would be about 6pm. They'd all be coming home from work, in a car or train or bus, or about to make dinner, and here I was in a river, basking in the soft glow of the afternoon with the light filtering through all the leaves, often laying my head back and looking up at the sky so I could make sure I had seen this place from every single angle; so that I could remember every possible detail for the rest of my life.
|Our little bobbing heads. Photo by Caroline Pang*.|
|Albertus chopping up our "forest potatoes" for dinner later that evening|
At the end of the night we gathered around our bonfire, on the stones by the river. If not for our head-torches, some very distant fireflies and the glow of the moon between the trees, it would have been pitch black. Someone in our group suggested we sing an Australian song; we thought of Waltzing Matilda and the national anthem. We started reciting the lyrics together and sang the first verse.
We thanked our local team for their amazing efforts with us over the last two days, Jimmy translating back and forth between us. We thanked them for all their help in the boats and in the jungles; telling them we had felt completely safe in their hands all the time. They were so welcoming and friendly and we hoped they had just as good a time as we did.
We encouraged them to continue the work they were doing, to protect the forest and to teach their children to do the same. It was also our last night with Albertus until the end of the week, and he gave a long, passionate speech to them in Indonesian.
A few of the locals gave little speeches in Indonesian too, all thanking us for visiting this place, their home. My heart swelled knowing that our presence here and all our hard work was making a difference as we spoke; not just for the wildlife and the forest but also for the people. By showing them how grateful we are and how in love we are with this beautiful forest, we hoped they would understand how important it was to protect it. "When we come back, we want this place to be the same", we said.
|Hermas tending to our bonfire.|
*On a separate, and huge thank you note: I cannot thank Caroline enough for the beautiful photos of us river trekking and body rafting. As a photographer I often have to make the choice between either participating in an activity or capturing it, and in a situation where water is involved, DSLRs without housings don't mix. None of us would have had these mementos if it weren't for her. Such was her commitment to taking those photos that shortly afterwards she lost her balance on the longboat and fell into the river with her camera, which refused to work for the rest of the trip. Despite it all, Caroline was always be smiling and in high spirits. Thanks so much again Caroline!
Caroline regularly runs photography tours & workshops around South East Asia through her company Indie Travellers. If you're interested in photography, travel and ecotourism, keep an eye on the Indie Travellers Facebook page so you can stay up to date with all their upcoming tours.