Gloriously wild

Print edition : January 13, 2012

Canoeing down the Kapuas river in the deep jungles of Indonesian Borneo.

THE Kapuas may not be as well known as the Cauvery river, but is as wide and impressive. Its delta is a tangle of tributaries, each as wide as the parent river itself, and spreads over several kilometres. At 1,143 km, the Kapuas, originating in the highlands of central Kalimantan and flowing west into the South China Sea, is the longest and biggest river on the island of Borneo, Indonesia. Unlike the Cauvery or the myriad other great rivers that flow through our planet, the Kapuas seems to support few human settlements, at least in this part of Indonesian Borneo called Kalimantan Barat (or West Kalimantan. The entire Indonesian portion of the Borneo island is referred to as Kalimantan in Indonesia). No flourishing civilisations have ever been found on its banks, no ancient ruins, no archaeological finds to challenge historians, and not even such modern townships that one finds in almost every corner of the earth. Could it be that the Kapuas holds brackish water, which can support little more than mangroves? I bend over the side of my tiny boat and scoop up a handful of water to taste it. It tastes different, but not brackish.

IN TELUK MELANO village, where the speedboat ride to the Kubang hill begins.-

Our motorised canoe splices the tranquil water like an arrow and speeds merrily, riding the crest like a graceful swan, creating nary a ripple. And, of course, there is absolutely no traffic on this river. Every 10 miles or so, an occasional village perched on stilts fleets past. Even these villages are recessed and away from the river and have no more than a dozen houses, all thatched and floating on water. You know there is a village only by a rudimentary jetty with logs bobbing up and down next to a floating platform made of bamboo and thatch. We stop over in one such village. We have to be hauled over a floating log and virtually pick our way through floating platforms. Now I know why there are not many settlements in this part of Kalimantan. There is hardly any land here on the banks of the river. Huts are perched on floating and shifting land. Fishing is the sole sustenance of these villages. They do not even have regular transport to go to towns down the river, only an occasional one like ours which would give them a ride. That means they are self-sustaining enough to remain isolated. We realise we are in the true wilderness.

A KALIMANTAN VILLAGE by the Kapuas. Huts stand on stilts.-

Lush mangroves of a unique variety, some with fronds like tropical palms and others laden with fruits that look like mangoes but are inedible, wave a cheery welcome. The horizon is a perfect arc, splattered by a setting sun carelessly dripping resplendent ochre across the firmament. That skies like this still exist gives you an exhilarating sensation. The setting is tranquil to the point of being surreal. Cool winds caress your face and transport you into another world sublime and primordial. If ever there is something called bliss, this must be it.

We are on our way back from the Kubang hill, where we had been, primarily to spot wild orang-utans and proboscis monkeys. The Kubang hill is somewhere in the deep jungles of Indonesian Borneo, reached only by the determined, persistent and hardy traveller. Ours is a motley group of two teenagers, two seniors and a middle-aged woman, all from India. We had flown from Jakarta to Pontianak, a West Kalimantan town perched right on the Equator, taken a seven-hour ferry to Ketapong along the shores of the South China Sea, driven a couple of hours in a sports utility vehicle to Sukhadana at the mouth of the Kapuas, and made it our pit stop to explore the wilderness around the region.

To get to the Kubang hill, the only hill for miles around in this flat plateau, dense with primordial jungles, you need to first drive to a village called Teluk Melano and from there hire two speedboats each can take no more than three, and we are five. The first couple of hours are a peaceful sail through the Kapuas, the only sound being that of your outboard motor, with the fronds waving a ceremonial welcome and the expansive horizon receding further as you move towards it. At some point you take a right turn into a mangrove creek where you transfer to two paddle canoes.

Canoeing in the creeks of the Bornean jungles is an experience of a lifetime. The creek is narrow not more than eight feet wide in most places with sticky red residue floating along the edges, suggesting the presence of oil. The vegetation overhead is so low that in many places you have to crouch on the floor of the canoe to avoid getting tangled in the creepers and branches. They form a continuous canopy overhead all along the way. The reflections offer a kaleidoscope of unique designs that no graphic designer can hope to reproduce. There is deafening silence all around, occasionally rent by the helicopter-like sound of a hovering hornbill in search of its dinner or the strident calls of gibbons feuding over territory. The two young boys who paddle our canoe avoid making any sound so that we do not scare away game.

A FLOATING VILLAGE. There is hardly any land on the banks of the river.-

The setting is straight out of a ghost movie. Monster roots of mangroves jut out of the water in scary shapes; they appear double since the placid waters reflect them faithfully. Even the tree trunks seem to take on a fierce demeanour like the forest in Noddy books. The overhanging branches have all but blocked out any sunlight. We paddle gently and very slowly looking for movement on the banks. Ali, one of the paddlers, points to snakes dangling from the branches overhead. We can see only their pinkish underbelly. We deftly avoid the snake-laden branch to paddle deeper and deeper into the jungle. Occasionally a branch swings violently, testifying to the presence of a primate perhaps, but we can hardly see anything through the dense foliage. A rotting log felled by a tropical storm blocks our passage. The two boys climb down into the knee-deep water and heave it away from our path. Dar, our guide, tells us how the previous year a crocodile had swallowed a local villager. That is when we realise how courageous the two village lads have been, rolling up their trousers and plunging into the waters.

After about two hours of paddling, we reach the Kubang hill camp, a half-built shelter on one bank of the creek. The Kalimantan forest department has put up this shelter but has not completed it yet. It still lacks a roof. It is most basic with absolutely no amenities, not even water. The bank is all clay; it is slippery and there are no steps or even a ladder. We have to heave ourselves up the slope to reach this partial shelter.

A VIEW OF the Borneo rainforest from the top of the Kubang hill.-

Earlier in the day, at Sukhadana, Dar had been resourceful enough to pick up rice and vegetable stew wrapped in the local Bahasa newspapers. We perch on fallen logs sprouting iridescent woodchips to savour our lunch. Butterflies in psychedelic colours provide a fetching distraction.

A COLONY OF proboscis monkeys frolicking on the Kubang hill.-

And then begins our ordeal. We have to reach the top of the hill where there are massive durian trees bursting with fruit. Not that spotting durian takes any effort, your olfactory nerves sense their presence long before you spot them. Just follow your nose, as they say. Easier said than done though. Each of us has two sticks to help us navigate this treacherous stretch through pristine jungle. There is knee-deep water throughout, left behind by the rains of the supposedly dry season. No one minds getting wet, especially if you choose to come to Kalimantan, but here, at Kubang hill, you do not know what you are stepping on.

The nest of the orang-utan.-

Often it could be a tree-stump that cuts your toes or tries to throw you off balance. But more often than not, you are the target of scores of leeches that latch themselves on to every part of your anatomy. We had to take off our shoes and wade barefoot and almost at every three metres or so, we would stop to pick out leeches from between our toes or from various parts of our feet and legs. Sometimes they manage to leap and settle on the neck or hand. You pluck all those you notice, but what about all those you did not, especially because their bites are quite painless? Only the bloody clothes reveal how you have been outwitted by a mere leech that has had its fill and left its mark.

PADDLING THROUGH A mangrove-canopied creek off Teluk Melano.-

But leeches were the lesser of our problems on the Kubang hill. We could be stepping on snakes, venomous insects or plain thorny shrubs that could lacerate your feet. There is nary a dry spot throughout this trek. Many a time you step on a pile of metre-deep sodden leaves with insects lurking underneath. The trees in the jungle are so tall that you can hardly see the canopy unless you crane your neck. Finally, Dar stops and points to a fruiting durian tree. The tree in the wild grows to a height of over 30 metres and its fruit is the favourite of orang-utans, gibbons and macaques. But all you can see on top is a hairy blur and a fleeting flash of fur which Dar says is an orang-utan. Despite tiptoeing to the spot, the big ape seems to have sensed our presence and with one swing of the branch, vanishes. All we are left with, after all this effort, is a violently shaking branch and a few durian peels, spiky and mushy, on the ground.

LUSH MANGROVES WITH fronds like tropical palms.-

But orang-utan or no orang-utan, this forest is gloriously wild, a true feast for the senses. Even as your eyes take in chlorophyll that comes in a range of shades and shapes, your ears are tuned to the irresistible cacophony that rules the rainforest. Strange bird calls resound at sunset while insects set up their own orchestra. It either pours or drips, and you are perpetually drenched to the bone. Almost every other tree seems to sport an orang-utan nest a leafy pile that the primates make every night to lie on, but we cannot sight the beast. We spot quite a few gibbons. Soon it is time for us to turn back since the forest shelter is not yet ready and there is no way of camping in this waterlogged jungle. So we reluctantly hop on to our canoes and paddle our way back through the same vine-festooned creek with its weird and varied flora and fauna. Once we reach the Kapuas river, we have a riot of proboscis monkeys darting from branch to branch, in an effort to catch the last of their supper before nightfall.

Our hotel in Sukhadana is a traditional Kalimantan structure perched on stilts and jutting out into the sea. Its walls are decorated with colourful and intricate rush mats woven by villagers in isolated hamlets. The hotel is surrounded by green expanse on three sides and an inscrutable grey sea on the fourth. We dine by moonlight on a wooden deck that overlooks the sea. In the morning, the low tide leaves behind sea snakes and scores of mud skippers; the latter entertain us with their mesmerising courtship dance. Mudskippers are amphibians that use their pectoral fin on land and are quite at ease swimming in and out of slush.

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