Rainforest retreat

Print edition : January 27, 2012

Kalimantan is literally caught between paradise and palm oil as Borneo's fabled biodiversity gives way to an endless continuum of monocropping.

COMFORTABLE as Sukhadana is, we desert it the next day in favour of further adventure deep in the jungle. Our next destination is LubukBaji, the campsite hidden away in the jungle. It is not on google maps; after all, it is just a notional shelter, a half-hearted shack made of wood, with neither walls nor doors but just a sloping roof supported by wooden pillars hoisted on a platform with a ladder to climb. It is situated on top of a hill in the jungle. But to those who have trekked the rainforest to reach here, it is nothing short of paradise.

AN AERIAL VIEW of oil palm plantations in the Kapuas river delta.-

FLOATING VILLAGES ALONG the Kapuas.-

It takes seven hours of jungle trek in pouring rain to reach LubukBaji. The route is strewn with mossy boulders, sodden leaves in various stages of rot with the attendant lurking creatures underneath, logs that have sprouted bright-coloured toadstools and harbour insects galore, vines that criss-cross your path tempting you to hang on to them for balance only to snap suddenly and hurl you down, copious quantities of slippery slush that creeps into your shoes and socks, fluorescent and venomous creepy crawlies that eye you warily from the trunks of trees and under the boulders and everywhere around, cobwebs fluttering like buntings as if in ceremonial welcome. The rainforest is indeed a daunting place for a city dweller to be. With 10 kilograms of gear strapped to my back, a heavy SLR camera dangling down my neck, an ankle-length raincoat that gets caught in every brush and branch, spectacles that blind me with steam if not with the pouring rain, it takes all my reserve energy and resolve to negotiate this stretch.

We spend a couple of days at LubukBaji exploring the jungle at different times of the day, all equally dark and steamy thanks to the thick canopy. Our porter-cum-cook, who skipped lightly through the jungle in his rubber slippers, has carried all our groceries, including vegetables in a rucksack. Now he magically transforms these into delectable meals cooked on open fire with logs. How he managed to light the ever-damp logs is a mystery. We even get dark brown Indonesian coffee to top up our gourmet meals. The space below the platform serves as an effective shelter from the rain and doubles as a kitchen as well. A group of schoolchildren on environment study tour is already camping there. There is neither mattress nor pillow and all of us sprawl on the hard wooden floor, and have never slept so soundly even in our own beds at home!

At night, the jungle turns into a veritable tower of babel. Nocturnal creatures emerge from the woodwork to exercise their vocal chords. They produce a cacophony of sounds that mimic some we are so familiar with in the cities like the screech of a tile-cutter or the hiss of a water pipe that has run out of water. There are other unfamiliar ones, quite unlike any you have heard before. Insects set up such a racket that you have to cock your ears to catch that guttural grunt of orang-utans. An alarmed bird lets out a shriek before flying away, flapping its wings noisily. Luminous eyeballs in the foliage remind you that there are elusive creatures, perhaps jungle cats lurking out there. We sit up on our wooden platform listening to the myriad magical sounds of a rainforest, which goes to make such a wonderful jugalbandhi (musical duet) with the pitter-patter of rain in the background providing the tanpura (drone) effect before exhaustion and sleep overtake us.

WALKING ON AN embankment to board the beached boat.-

The journey back from LubukBaji to Sukhadana is memorable for the non-stop downpour, which makes passage extremely risky. We hurtle down some slopes, cling to vines and branches and swing along in some stretches, crawl on all fours in others. Every time you grab a vine or a tree trunk, an army of angry insects crawl on your arms and explore your torso, leaving red welts on the skin. Kapilan and Malavika, the two teenagers in the group, sprint and skip lightly and reach the waterfall ahead of us where they frolic under a frothy natural spring. As for the rest of us, the seven-hour ordeal is one of the toughest we have ever undertaken. But for our patient and encouraging guide Dar, we might have ended up spending one more night in the jungle, perhaps out in the open. We finally reach the plains, dripping from head to toe, scratched and bruised all over, but with a sense of exhilaration that we had been able to glimpse some primordial wilderness in all its glory.

IN THE BRESOUL Express, which plies between Sukhadana and Pontianak.-

In the evening, we stroll down the streets of Sukhadana looking for a dining outlet. It is a tiny village with neat rows of houses having inviting patios and beautifully maintained small gardens. There is an order and discipline in the layout of the village. It reminds me of the Madras (now Chennai) of yore where I grew up. There is just one high street, no ATMs or money changers. If you need to change currency, you have to either drive, take a bus or hitch a ride on a scooter to Ketapong. On the main road, there are a few stalls with petromax lamps; all have live specimens eyeing you warily from their glass cases. If you don't relish squid, octopus, sting ray, fish or sea snake, your options are rather limited to ayams (chicken) in various avatars. Our efforts to obtain a vegetarian variant of nasi, Bahasa for rice, did not yield any results. Obviously, there is no concept of vegetarian food, and we were offered packets of biscuits containing palm fat. Of course you can have durian to your heart's content, if only you can stand its smell.

THE RAINFOREST IN all its natural glory on the outskirts of Sukhadana.-

There is no time to dry our drenched clothes since our boat out of Sukhadana is to leave at 8 a.m. the next day. We just stuff the smelly lot into our suitcases and rush to the boat jetty only to find that even by 9 a.m., there is no sign of Bresoul Express! It comes all the way from Ketapong to pick up passengers in Sukhadana. The low tide has beached it a mile away in mid-sea. Now we have the rather daunting task of dragging our luggage along a half-a-mile-long embankment, which is all of 12 inches wide. There is no other way to reach the boat, which we must reach if we are to catch our flight from Pontianak to Jakarta that evening. The embankment is about six feet high and it takes all your nerve to negotiate the stretch in the blazing morning sun. Like Arjuna, you wear imaginary blinkers to keep out peripheral vision and focus on the narrow strip ahead. Finally, we come to a spot from where we have to drop down six feet to reach the wading pool of seawater below. For locals this is routine and they do not seem to mind. A local man offers his shoulders for me to hold on to when I jump; I accept gratefully and land with a thud, but no damage done. We wade through ankle-deep sea, which soon rises to knee level and then to waist level. Before it climbs any further, we reach our beached boat and heave ourselves in. Our luggage is loaded atop the boat and secured with tarpaulin and ropes. We are packed like sardines in this little boat.

The campsite at LubukBaji.-

The boat ride through the inner delta is absolutely stunning. Lush mangroves line the banks; there is nothing between you and the wide horizon and your boat rocks in harmony with the gentle tide. En route we see a few villages on stilts and occasionally there are some floating markets as well.

TOADSTOOLS ONa fallen tree trunk on the Kubang hill.-

The Kapuas is the lifeline of Kalimantan for many reasons. It is the lone waterway that enables villagers from many parts of the island to travel since flights are few and far between and quite expensive. Pontianak perches between the Kapuas and the sea and is a bustling port town that does brisk business in exports. No wonder it has sprouted many business hotels. Long before you reach Pontianak, the delta becomes a beehive of activity and the river is packed with traffic. On the waterfront, houses sit on stilts, and people use boats much the same way we use cars to move around. The Kapuas is at its widest near Pontianak and we see a curious construction on the river banks. There are tall buildings, which look like warehouses. There are neither doors nor windows, only little alcoves splattered all over the walls. They seem to be custom-built for a purpose. And they are noisy, with the raucous chatter of birds.

Our curiosity takes us to one of these and we learn that these are custom-built birdhouses where swallows are enticed to build their nests. Bird's nest soup is a delicacy relished all over South-East Asia and elsewhere, and is a rupiah spinner for the people of Kalimantan. We don't kill the birds or harm the young ones, we just take away the nests after the fledglings fly away, grins a villager.

COLOURED LIZARD, PROBABLY a native of Borneo.-

Bird's nest is big business in Pontianak just as timber is. Our boat skirts several flotillas of logs bobbing in the river. Sometimes they stretch across for kilometres. I am told that Bornean jungles are rapidly felled to make way for palm oil and rubber plantations and their wood is prized. I had earlier noticed while flying over the island what seemed like forest fires. These are not forest fires but slash-and-burn deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations. Felling timber is perhaps the lesser evil if forests must be destroyed.

A TINY TOAD.-

In fact, when we were flying into Pontianak, I leaned over the smoky window to catch a glimpse of Borneo's fabled biodiversity. After all, it is the most biodiverse rainforest on our planet, richer than even the Amazon jungles in their stunning flora and fauna. Yet, all I could see for half an hour or so was an endless continuum of monocropping. As far as the eyes could see, oil palm plantations lined up with sickening monotony.

The island of Kalimantan, or Borneo as it is known, straddles the South China Sea and is shared by three nations Indonesia controls two-thirds, Malaysia, most of the remaining landmass, and Brunei, the richest sultanate in the world, occupies a tiny slot in the north-eastern corner. Malaysia was the first to figure out that the unyielding mangrove, native to the island, can be coaxed to host oil palm plantations, a discovery that threatens to convert the last remaining rainforest into a vast expanse of oil palms. For millions of Malaysians, palm oil has brought quick prosperity. The island of Borneo has become the favourite destination of ocean-going steamers that load palm oil onto massive containers and ferry them to all parts of the world where this gooey gelatinous substance transfigures everything from biscuits and pastries, processed foods and bakes into the trans fat-laden junk food we so relish. Indonesia, waking up to the possibility, has launched a massive drive to convert its virgin forests into anodyne plantations growing oil palm and rubber.

A TYPICAL WEST Kalimantan house-

Pontianak, in recent times, has been attracting unflattering attention to itself, being at the centre of the inevitable development versus environment conflict. Even as its population has swollen to half a million mostly Malay and ethnic Chinese being the largest minority an increasingly disenfranchised native Dayak tribe, whose natural habitat in the rainforest has been supplanted by oil palm, rubber and tobacco plantations, is fighting to retain its traditional way of life against the onslaught of multinational corporations in search of cheaper raw materials.

IN A MARKET in Sukhadana.-

Visitors to Pontianak must contend with a thick haze that hangs over the town, enveloping everything in sight. It is caused by slash-and-burn cultivation, and the villagers have been reporting a very high incidence of respiratory diseases, a new phenomenon in this otherwise clean environment.

It is already dark, but we decide to visit the Equator Monument, a tower holding up a mock Planet Earth. Pontianak has two newspapers, both in Bahasa. We drive around the town soaking in the sights and ambience. When we return to our hotel we find that it is hosting a traditional Bornean wedding. Because of our foreign origin, we are able to gatecrash into the wedding celebrations to take pictures with the beautiful bride and groom in traditional attire.

A BORNEAN BRIDE and groom in their traditional attire in Pontianak.-

The next day we are on the flight to Jogjakarta to visit the magnificent Buddhist temple at Borobudur. From the airplane, the delta appears to be a tangle of varicose veins of dozens of swollen rivers and hundreds of rivulets and creeks. The landscape is largely flat with occasional hills sheathed in gossamer mist. Pontianak, like many other towns in Indonesia, is completely devoid of high-rise blocks. How long it will remain so, especially with the palm oil glut and prosperity, is a million barrel question though.

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