Tanjung Puting National Park is a wetland paradise at the southeastern bottom of the island of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). This region, which is a mosaic of microhabitats dominated by tropical heath forests, mangroves, peat swamps and nipa palm groves, became a national park in 1982 after being set aside as a reserve in the 1930s. It became popular and important in the world of conservation mainly due to the efforts of Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas who came here in the 70s to begin the most extensive study program of orangutans. Her first organization, which has now turned into the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), established the first research stations in the area. These stations are now at the core of any traveler’s experience in the national park. Since there are barely any trails and the land is often flooded, Tanjung Puting’s charm is best experienced on water, while floating along the Sekonyer River for several days on a klotok (traditional Indonesian wooden boat).
GETTING THERE: Short direct flights from Jakarta to Pangkalan Bun in Kalimantan are common, but other major cities in Indonesia are also connected with this town which is the main gateway to the Tanjung Puting National Park. If you are here to experience the park on a floating tour in a klotok, then it’s likely that your tour operator will wait for you at the airport for pick-up to give you a ride to Kumai, the port from where you’ll hop on the klotok. At the end of the trip the tour company can help you arrange a ride back to the airport, usually for an additional cost. If you are coming from other cities in Kalimantan, there are also bus connections to Pangkalan Bun and Kumai. If you want to explore the area in a different way from Kumai, the nearby Sekonyer Village bordering the national park can be reached by a short ferry ride and private boats can take you to the Rimba Lodge. Quick day trips to Camp Leaky, the iconic spot in the national park, can be arranged by speedboat and take roughly two hours from Kumai, blowing past wildlife and coming at a fairly high price. Either way, unless you are on a klotok, you won’t be able to explore much of the park as trails are very limited.
GATEWAY COMMUNITIES/WHERE TO STAY: As mentioned above, the main city close to Tanjung Puting is Pangkalan Bun and Kumai is the port-town where you can arrange boat rides or hop on a pre-booked klotok. Pangkalan Bun has a decent range of hotels and guesthouses if you need to spend the night and is actually a nicely kept city with all amenities available. Kumai, on the other hand, is not as great for staying. The tour company with which we worked, Orangutan Applause, helped us book a very nice, fair priced hotel with breakfast included in Pangkalan Bun. If you want to stay on land in the park, your best option is the relatively expensive Rimba Eco Lodge, located right in the forest along the Sekonyer River. However, the main accommodation option in Tanjung Puting is also your means of transportation on the water: the wooden houseboat called klotok. The company we chose for the tour was, as said, Orangutan Applause, and we opted for a 5D4N private trip (paid in full, no personal monetary benefits for promoting their business). It would be difficult to find a better tour company anywhere in the world and their superlative online reviews prove it. Arif and Dessy (very good English speakers) founded this company out of their love for Tanjung Puting, where Arif worked for several years at the research stations. Dessy professionally manages the booking process and goes above and beyond to accommodate their clients’ every needs. The klotok they own is very well kept and perfectly fit to offer an excellent experience, with a very friendly crew and more delicious Indonesian food than we could ask for. An important thing, as we learned, is for the klotok to be silent because often we were passed by some extremely noisy ones which did not seem like a pleasant experience. Arif has hired in his crew young people that were formerly working for the mining and palm oil industries, and because he prices his tours fairly, he can pay them enough for this to be a better alternative. Everything that he and Dessy do alongside their team, from picking up occasional floating trash to cooking with sustainably locally produced coconut oil and to training young guides from the villages to offer them a real alternative to mining and palm oil, represents a great example of how tourism can make all the difference in a conservation area. We interviewed Arif and spoke with him at length about his vision for the park, about the plans of investing in the protection of the northern buffer zone bordering Tanjung Puting and working with the communities to achieve that, and about their reforestation program in which they involve each of their clients. From the moment we started our journey on the Sekonyer we fell in love with this beautiful place and with Arif and Dessy’s klotok. It’s important to keep in mind though that luxury in a remote place like Tanjung Puting is different than what you can get in the middle of civilization. Heat and humidity are still part of the experience as you are pretty much sleeping under the stars on (comfortable) mattresses on the main deck. Mosquitoes and bugs will get to you occasionally in the evening, when outside the net protecting your bed. The shower and bathroom, even though clean, functional and truly nice, are still not the same as in a regular hotel. But none of these aspects are what matter most in this amazing journey which feels like a fulfillment of your wildest childhood exploration dreams. What puts a constant smile on your face is the experience of sitting at the back of the boat on comfortable pillows and chairs and observing endemic proboscis monkeys and dozens of bird species which Arif then describes by pointing out what they are in his several field guides, seeing a wild Bornean orangutan looking at you from behind the branches of trees along the river banks, marveling at the thousands of lightning bugs around the nipa palms at night, falling asleep or waking up with the haunting calls of gibbons in the distance, drinking delicious tea and eating fresh food, and having a candle-lit dinner on the upper deck under one of the most impressive night skies. Our five days on the klotok in Tanjung Puting had us feel like we had stepped into a magic world, which made unbearable the thought that all this beauty continues to be under threat and could be lost.
ABOUT THE PARK & WHEN TO GO: Tanjung Puting stretches over 415,000 ha (over 1 million acres) in the Tanjung Peninsula of Kalimantan, protecting land and marine habitats within the national park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Its dense vegetation harbors over 280 species of birds, the endemic proboscis monkey, the largest population of wild and “rewilded” Bornean orangutans, red-leaf monkeys, long-tailed macaques, several species of deer, banteng (wild cattle), agile gibbons, two species of crocodile, clouded leopards and leopard cats, Malaysian sun bears and lots of other reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, mammals, bugs, fish and thousand of plant species. The tourism lifeline in the national park is the Sekonyer River, actually the northern western border of this protected area. All the houseboats sail up and down this river where the entrance to research stations and trailheads are. Looking downstream, the left river bank is protected inside the national park, while the right one is part of a fragile buffer zone where only a thin tree line has been left standing, as behind it human development has taken place. We spoke to Arif about this situation and he shared his concern regarding palm oil plantations, which line up half a mile away from the Sekonyer River, and of rice fields that have diverted some of the water through irrigation canals. Since this is where 90% of the tourism action happens, it would be difficult for the destination to remain attractive if one riverbank is turned to plantations, villages and rice fields. This is part of the concerns of many guides and business owners, especially since fires started by palm oil plantations reached the other bank in the national park and set fire to large areas not too long ago. Orangutan Applause, Arif’s company, as well as other local initiatives are looking for options together with residents to ensure that the tree line on the other side of the river, outside the national park, remains standing and relatively wild. At the same time, this main water “highway”, the Sekonyer, has in the past decade turned a brownish, milky color from upstream pollution. This comes from small mining operations and illegal logging. Once turned away from the Sekonyer, the klotok begins floating in the pitch black waters of the many healthy channels, where fish, crocodiles, snakes, frogs and monitor lizards still dwell.
And now a bit about the species which attracts most visitors to Tanjung Puting: the Bornean Orangutan. In the 70s, when Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas arrived in this place known as the Tanjung Puting Reserve, orangutans hadn’t been extensively studied and understood. She was part of the same generation of young primate researchers as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. At the time there was no infrastructure inside the reserve and the law wasn’t really applied to protect the habitats and wildlife. However, the remoteness and harshness of the ecosystems of this peninsula kept the region relatively pristine and only the bordering areas were seeing larger destruction from mining, palm oil, wildlife poaching, timber, rice fields and population pressure — all threats that are still present today. When the studies began, Dr. Biruté Galdikas’s organization established several research stations, with Camp Leaky being the first, in order to be able to live full time in Tanjung Puting. While studying wild orangutans her team became aware of the illegal orangutan pet trade and got more involved in their rescue and rehabilitation, as well as in patrolling the reserve (now national park) alongside authorities in order to insure the conservation of this region. Since 1971, Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) has rehabilitated and released back into the wild over 450 orangutans from several research stations. Nowadays these rehabilitation centers are a central part of what the visitor to Tanjung Puting National Park experiences. Similar to what had happened at the Bukit Lawang center in Sumatra, but under stricter conditions and supervision to ensure the wellbeing of the apes, Bornean orangutans released from the Tanjung Harapan and Camp Leakey stations return daily to a feeding platform where visitors gather up to watch them eat and interact with each other. It is therefore a semi-wild experience and it’s important to understand that these amazing apes were survivors of difficult conditions who were given a second chance to living a more fulfilled life. During the dry season, roughly May through October, the trees and plants bear no fruit and the semi-wild orangutans return more often from the rainforest to the feeding platforms to get an extra supply of nutrients. This period also coincides with the peak tourism season, with hotter temperatures, better crocodile sightings, and with a higher incidence of wild fires. During the wet season, November through April, it rains quite a lot but you get a better chance of spotting wild orangutans foraging for fruit on the river banks, and of seeing more birds. It’s also the low season and you get to share the river with far less people. We went to the national park at the beginning of May, during the transition from wet to dry season, and it seemed like a perfect balance: not as hot yet, still not enough fruit to keep all orangutans away from the platforms, with several chances of experiencing some truly wild encounters with the apes along the river banks, less visitors and just a little rain to cool the air.
VISITING THE PARK: There is an entrance and a conservation/ranger donation fee to access the national park, which should be included in the price of the guided trip. Professional photography and filming also have a pretty high fee. The office of the national park is located in Kumai, from where you’ll embark on your klotok. We opted for the 5D4N trip and we felt like we could have stayed longer, though it’s much more common for visitors to choose shorter stays. Being in the park for longer allowed us to get better acquainted with its wildlife and nature, explore more remote channels in a smaller boat on side trips, do night trips on land and on the river to see species active at night, visit the feeding platforms several times, and go on some relatively short hikes inside the forest, all at a more relaxed pace. Sunsets and sunrises on the river are magical, and having the chance to see more of them while sleeping along the smaller, more remote channels brought us closer to the surreal calls of gibbons, birds and proboscis monkeys. As far as the visits at the orangutan feeding platforms, some complain about the zoo feeling. While it’s true that there are quite a lot of people snapping pictures while the orangutans go about eating and interacting with each other, it’s important to bear in mind that these apes did not live a fully wild life previously and depend upon the platforms for survival. The species is now under such threat that every individual is extremely precious. OFI rangers are present at the platforms and make the loud calls to alert orangutans of available food, but they also keep the public away from touching the animals and there is absolutely no feeding from guides or visitors. Being quiet and respectful, keeping your distance and paying attention to cues from rangers are all part of common sense protocol. However, not all guides impose silence to their guests because they don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. This is where it’s up to us, as visitors, to proactively embrace a behavior that is the least disturbing it could be. When deciding to visit Tanjung Puting, one of the best things you can do to help conservation, aside from researching your tour operator and not going for the cheapest, less responsible one, is to take a trip directly with the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI). If you have the budget for this much pricier option, then your money as a visitor truly goes toward the research and conservation programs at the OFI stations within the national park, which employ dozens of Indonesians. These expeditions benefit from the participation and knowledge of Dr. Biruté herself and are an opportunity to learn from the top world expert about Bornean orangutans and about Tanjung Puting, and visit with her Camp Leaky, which she founded in the 70s and which remains the site of the longest continuous study of any primate. You can also try to get in touch with the Friends of the National Parks Foundation, who offer eco tours and volunteering opportunities in Tanjung Puting. Otherwise keep in mind all the “leave no trace” principles and avoid using single-use plastics. On board the klotok you should have access to fresh drinking water with which you can refill your reusable bottle. If you have two with you, you can leave one on board in ice to wait for you cold when you get back on the boat when returning from the feeding platforms. Since we visited just in-between the low and the peak seasons, we didn’t get to see as many tourist boats on the river. Even so, a lot of the docking areas around the research stations looked close to full capacity and we could understand some of the critiques regarding the park being overrun by tourism. Hopefully in the near future the numbers of visitors and klotok will be regulated, which will likely drive prices up, but will in exchange protect the wildness of the national park (a successful example that could be applied is the way in which the Galapagos National Park is currently run).
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