Friday, June 4, 2010

Borneo Reborn, says Simon Pitchforth

In this month's issue of Jakarta Java Kini, Simon Pitchforth waxes lyrical about his Central Kalimantan escape a'board the Rahai'i Pangun :

Indonesia contains a great many areas of natural rainforest within its borders, however the famous island of Borneo remains perhaps the most iconic and evocative of these. Despite the environmental pressures on the region, Borneo (the Indonesian half of the island is known as Kalimantan, which translates as ‘River of Diamonds’) still offers tourists one of the world’s largest natural wildernesses.

Jakarta Java Kini headed to the Central Kalimantan city of Palangkaraya recently in order to further explore the island’s heart of darkness, to have its environmental consciousness raised and, above all, to enjoy a extraordinary three day boat tour through the steaming jungles of this remarkable region.

Palangkaraya and its beautiful surrounding rainforests are relatively quiet places next to the hectic hurly-burly of Java. The city itself has a mere 250,000 residents whilst the huge sprawling expanses of Kalimantan as a whole contain a mere 2 million people, compared with Java’s 120 million. The majority of the population are Dayak, the original indigenous tribes people of Borneo.
The city of Palangkaraya itself is a pleasant place and many of its residents still practice the indigenous Dayak animist religion of Kaharingan, which is related to Hinduism. Increasingly however, the population is turning to either Christianity or Islam. Palangkaraya still sports many Sandungs though, traditional Kaharingan shrines to the dead that most closely resemble Native American totem poles. Elaborate purification ceremonies are held to honour the Dayak dead and these involve the ritual exhumation and cleaning of the bones some time after the initial burial of the deceased.

Palangkaraya is also a city steeped in more recent history, as well as ancient tribalism. Sukarno, the republic’s first president, was a big fan of the city and even considered making it the Indonesian capital. Indeed, pay a visit here and you will be confronted with wide, impressive boulevards that are at odds the town’s modest population and which were built by the Russians when Mr. Sukarno was flirting with the red menace. Indonesia’s first president also had a fancy woman shacked up in town and her house is an infamous tourist spot. Sukarno’s successor, Suharto, came up with the idea of making Indonesia self-sufficient in rice and his mega-rice project drained the peat swamps in the huge rainforests around the town. Alas the rice failed to grow due to the acidic, peat soil and Indonesia has now become the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases as the now dry peat dumps its carbon into the atmosphere.The problems of illegal logging, slash and burn agriculture, forest fires, illegal gold mining, palm oil plantations and endangered species currently face the delicate eco-systems here, however the area remains one of outstanding beauty.

Into the Heart of Darkness...

One tour company is now attempting to raise environmental consciousness whilst offering a terrific holiday to boot. Lorna Dowson-Collins and Gaye Thavisin, in a bid to open up Kalimantan to ecotourism revenue whilst raising awareness of the area’s problems, set up Kalimantan Tour Destinations a few years back. This pair of adventure lovers have truly revolutionised tourism in the area and have successfully navigated the often tortuous waters of Indonesian bureaucracy to come up with something truly special. Having sunk a lot of their own money into the venture, this intrepid pair’s project literally took float in the form of The Rahai’i Pangun, a magnificent converted river barge that they offer once-in-a-lifetime luxury tours into the jungles on.

The boat can house up to ten paying holidaymakers in comfort and is a truly magnificent vessel on which to head down the region’s huge rivers into the upper reaches of Central Kalimantan. The staff is attentive and treats the guests to some truly tantilising local food, including enormous prawns and super fresh local fish. The cabins are modern and all feature bathrooms, fans and comfortable beds. You’ll be spending most of your time up on the spacious deck though, sprawling on the comfortable sofas, enjoying the 360 degree, panoramic jungle sweep and taking simply gigabytes of photos.

Tours run from two days up to a week in duration and offer the chance to see a beautiful natural wilderness, as well as many wild orangutans which can be observed and photographed frolicking and feeding on the river banks. Jakarta Java Kini had a marvellous time on its three-day cruise as the Rahai’i Pangun gently pottered up the river from Palangkaraya.

The rivers are between 50 and 100 metres wide in nearly all places and are flanked by a dense green carpet of swampy rainforest on either side. These forests are absolutely teeming with life, although there’s not much of the human kind. As well as orangutans, proboscis monkeys, hornbills and many other species can be spotted. As dusk draws in, the combined sounds of nature emanating from the verdant vistas that flank the boat offer true transcendence from the day-to-day grind. There is also the opportunity to head up some of the rainforests smaller channels in a tiny fishing boat on an exciting hour long diversion from the main cruise.

Lorna and Gaye are driven by a vision to protect the area’s fantastic jungles and to create new sources of income for the local rainforest dwelling communities. Poverty is a large threat to biodiversity and so hopefully, by introducing ecotourism to the region, new sources of income can be generated for the Dayaks and some of the chainsaws will fall silent. The tour has already attracted a whole host of admirers and representatives from the United Nations as well as Australian and European parliamentary delegations and even the Prince of Denmark have all had their eyes opened by this truly special journey.

Jakarta Java Kini can’t boast the highfalutin pedigree of these VIPs, however we hope that this article may sway you towards supporting this fantastic adventure and, let us not forget, enjoying one of the most memorable holidays that you’ll ever have. Indeed, as you gently glide along the crystal clear, ultra-calm mirror surfaces of the jungle rivers and humanity recedes behind you, it’s hard to recall that you ever had a care in the world. On our final night, an amazing electric storm illuminated the skies around us for hours whilst the sound of a million species blanketed us like a soothing echo of humanity’s pre-urban past. Why not take a jungle river cruise yourself and dine on some of the biggest river prawns you’ve ever seen in your life whilst you watch orangutans at the riverside chomping down bananas? It’ll be one lunch date you won’t forget in a hurry!