There were two centrepieces to our most recent gadabout. First, to be part of a small group of adventurous, enviro-concerned individuals venturing to the tropical rainforest of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) to view, possibly commune with endangered orangutans, our close genetic cousins. Second was to continue an annual tradition to spend New Year’s Eve with two dear friends. It was to be our 17th together and we agreed upon Sydney, Australia. Primo location as Sydney is first on the planet to splashily welcome the New Year and, we naively thought, it’s in the same general ‘hood as Indonesia, right?
As we hatched plans months in advance, hotels in Sydney filled and room rates jacked up at sickening speed. Shut out of choice locations, we ended up with a chain hotel at about three times its standard rate. This widespread gouging is well known, gets bad press but will no doubt continue. Though not our choice hotel or location, it was near the excellent Sydney subway, had great city views and the area was funky with plenty of good eateries.
Reportedly 1.5 million people gathered waterside for the famous New Year’s Eve fireworks. Pop diva Kylie Minogue was master of ceremonies. Apt theme of the evening was ‘Embrace – Earth and Love’. We did this once-in-a-life thing up right and had pre-booked a harbour dinner cruise. Spectacular views of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge were the stuff of dreams. A delectable meal was served by attentive staff, with good Aussie wines and generous French champagne pours at midnight. Outdoing all this were the fireworks – a mild preamble at 9 p.m. for young families and a full-on set at midnight framing the famous bridge.
Sydney is a lively city with wonderful public spaces, fine dining, hopping pubs and coffee joints. Also worthwhile is a train excursion to nearby Blue Mountains. We indulged our inner gourmands at a couple of very fine restaurants, Aria and Rockpool, and at ‘yum cha’, the local name for dim sum. Husband and I added other bucket list locations in Oz – Uluru/Ayers Rock, Alice Springs, Adelaide and Perth.
At our first rock-related outing at Uluru, champagne and hors d’oeurves at sunset on a rise in sight of the magnificent rock were followed by al fresco white-table-cloth dining. We tried crocodile and kangaroo – they taste like chicken! Good food, wine and lively conversation segued to ultra-clear star gazing. The Milky Way, Magellanic Clouds, usually faint constellations and Southern Cross were the best ever. A few hours later, a pre-sunrise second excursion caught the rock and sky in all their blazing glory. One gets a serious spiritual feeling out there and we have amazing photos to remind us.
Uluru sits out there on the outback horizon as a big red monolith. Per our tour guide, it is hard sandstone, 348 meters high, 9.5 Kms around, sits 6 Kms deep and 35 Kms wide underground, in form akin to an iceberg. It is sacred to Aborigines who still perform rituals atop it and live off the land. Colourful petroglyphs evince ancient habitation and rituals. Some rock faces are so sacred one can be fined if nabbed filming in any way. Nearby Kata Tjuta is also within the National Park. Meaning ‘many heads’ in Aboriginal language, it is a group of 36 large domed rock formations. The tallest (Mt. Olga) is 200 meters higher than Uluru. Sadly, some folks still climb Uluru despite requests by Aboriginals to the contrary. Looks like a tough climb, straight up smooth rock face while hanging on to a chain. Many descend sliding on their bottoms, some have fallen off, some have died. The single climb path is barred when it is windy or hot. And was it hot! Australia was in the grips of a blistering heatwave with hundreds of bushfires burning out of control. Uluru at 46 Celsius was the hot spot in the country.
A bus trip along the world’s longest highway, the John Stuart (2,000 Kms long), got us to Alice Springs. This fabled mining, cattle and communications centre was established by Europeans in the early 1880s but Aboriginal people have occupied the ‘Red Centre’ for many millennia. Now mainly a tourist destination for outdoor pursuits, it is accessible to mountains, canyons and rivers. The global economic dive has negatively affected tourism. A secretive satellite tracking station here is reportedly owned and operated by the CIA!
Despite an arid surface, we learned that this region is not considered a desert. The Great Artesian underground lake is a source of water even in drought. A ‘what were they thinking?’ ecological disaster has befallen the outback. It is overrun by more than a million wild camels. Introduced to Australia in the 1800s to transport people and goods across sand, owners turned camels loose when replaced by trucks and trains. As in all such well-meant blunders, wild camels have no natural predators and ample grazing land. Periodic bounty culls attempt control of this population, with select healthy, disease-free specimens shipped off to Dubai. We saw none. On to Adelaide, then Perth. Both lovely cities we explored on foot and by public transit.
Drawback of a direct flight from Perth to Jakarta is that it is offered just a couple of times a week and in wee morning hours. A Jakarta city tour meant much time in crippling traffic, a steady stream of motorbikes and scooters weaving impossibly through idling vehicles. This bustling capital region is home to over 23 million and new construction is everywhere. It boasts several large monuments and traffic circle sculptures, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia in harmony with a Catholic cathedral across the street and Batavia, the old Dutch town. I was thrilled to reconnect with a cousin and his lovely family doing well in Jakarta. Smart folks, they have named a daughter Meera! A relatively young, educated populace and enviable GDP make Indonesia an Asian financial ‘tiger’ to contend with. But they must do something about that wad of currency one must carry – 10,000 Rupiah = $1!
Agog with anticipation, we met up with our group for the Kalimantan expedition. Following a short flight, we were in Pangkalan Bun on the island of Borneo, third largest island in the world. It lies north of Java and is shared by three countries – mainly Indonesia at 73% (Kalimantan), Malaysia (Sabah, Sarawak) at 26% and tiny, wealthy Brunei occupies about 1%. Once covered in dense jungle and home to countless varieties of flora and fauna, the rainforest has been severely reduced, originally for timber and now for palm oil plantations. Global demand for palm oil is huge and growing exponentially for food, soap, cosmetics and biodiesel. A super-sized environmental catastrophe in the works! Some legal, most not, slash and burn continues, resulting in diminished natural habitat for indigenous, endangered primate species – orangutans, proboscis monkeys, macaques. Many primates are poached, illegally traded as pets or consumed as food. Adult animals may be attacked, hurt or killed, leaving vulnerable orphan babies.
Bornean orangutans have a long term protector and champion in Dr. Birute May Galdikas, one of ‘Leakey’s Angels’ deployed in the early 1970s to study primates by archaeologist Dr. Louis Leakey. Her colleagues in this venture being Jane Goodall who has studied chimpanzees and Dian Fossey (deceased) studied
mountain gorillas. Dr. Galdikas has toiled for over 40 years to ensure survival of this only Indonesian great ape. She was one of two dedicated conservationists, subject of the 2011 IMAX documentary film ‘Born to be Wild’. She established and heads Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) which cares for and raises vulnerable orphans, intended for eventual release into protected forest habitat. No mean feat as orangutans are territorial and habitat is fast disappearing. OFI attempts to acquire and set aside secure property for this purpose. They have played a role in the decades-long fine balance between people, nature, jobs, politics, religion and money. OFI is funded by charitable donations and by benefactors fostering orphan baby orangutans. (Please visit and support at: www.orangutan.org).
At Pangkalan Bun, we boarded klotoks, traditional open but covered riverboats to ply a bit of the Java Sea, then Kumai and Sekonyer Rivers towards our home for the next 5 days. Several oil tankers were in harbour, probably intended for the booming palm oil trade. We progressed through brackish estuarine water bordered by dense forest edged in native mangrove, the Nipa Palm. On the way to remote Rimba Lodge, we saw colonies of macaques and endangered large-nosed Proboscis monkeys in the trees, some colourful birds, butterflies and few humans. Rimba Lodge is built on stilts in marshland, really very comfortable given our remote location. As elsewhere in the world, we used bottled water to brush our teeth, shut eyes and mouth tight in the shower, employed mosquito netting, repellent and anti-malaria meds. We were instructed to dress in long pants and sleeves in drip-dry material and to prepare for high humidity, temperatures, rain and leeches. But hey, we had clean rooms, running water, AC, good food – and in mornings, were awoken by macaques scrambling on our roof!
We had early rises, long treks in 12-hour days and dripped sweat for the next 3 days but have never been happier. Spent hours travelling on klotoks, then in wait for wild and rehabilitated orangs to appear and feast on milk, bananas and rambutans at Camp Leakey feeding station in Tanjung Puting National Park. We were accompanied by and gained invaluable insights from Dr. Galdikas. So many highlights, but unforgettable was hanging out on the porch of Dr. G’s old house at Camp Leakey, just inches from regular visitor, 30+-year female orangutan named Siswi. Nicknamed ‘The Diva’ by husband, Siswi had a cameo role, sharing a plate of spaghetti with Dr. Galdikas in ‘Born to be Wild’. We returned to Camp Leakey and luckily viewed some males, including dominant magnificent Tom. Adult male orangs are solitary, with lustrous long hair, big cheek pads and throat pouches used to make loud warning calls. Females travel in groups of sisters, mothers and offspring. All dwell, travel and sleep in trees in nests made of leaves and branches. Ergo, forest is essential!
We ‘met’ our fostered young orphan orangutans at the OFI Care and Quarantine Centre in Pasir Panjang. They are playful, rambunctious and will steal anything loose – water bottles, hats, cell phones. The Care Centre houses and feeds ex-captive or injured orangs that require medical care and skills for eventual return to the forest. The centre employs veterinarians in a well-equipped medical facility, several handlers, volunteers and a currently burgeoning orangutan population of over 300. Add to this sundry needy or injured wildlife – bearcats, sun bears and cassowaries, and OFI’s financial needs are endless.
Bidding farewell to new pals and holding happy memories tight, we returned to Java to visit Borobudur, a 9th century Buddhist shrine and UNESCO World Heritage site. This stunning structure consists of square platforms topped by round ones surrounded by many carved stone relief panels, stupas and statutes of Lord Buddha, all nestled in a verdant valley among rice paddies, banana plantations, fields of chili peppers and lemongrass. Highly enlightening, spiritual and serene. On to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A couple of days at hip, centrally-located Traders Hotel, in view of the world-famous Petronas Towers, fine Malaysian fare at Restaurant Bijan and a little shopping, After adieus to our ‘New Year’s’ pals, we endured the 24 hour transit home.
A Journey by the Numbers:
More than 8 months of planning, booking, anticipation and mental lists. Eleven flights on 7 airlines. At least 12 urban centres in 3 countries over 26 days. Countless taxis, vans, buses and aquatic vessels. Up to 16 hours time difference from home. Several ecological disasters in our wake – new colours to designate catastrophic high temperatures on weather maps, bush fires, flooding, seafoam inundation in Australia; flooding, fires in Jakarta; states of emergency in both. Upon return home, many days to know where we were when awake in the wee hours and to realize we did not have a full itinerary ahead the next day.
We hope to hang with our good pals for more New Year’s Eve celebrations, but will not even try to outdo number 17. The Kalimantan eco-expedition is indelibly etched in our psyches. Could we again physically do this stuff – who knows? We have reached inside for strength and resolve, then out and grabbed memorable experiences in fantastic places with special people, all with carry-on luggage.
Regrets – nil!