Thursday, August 26, 2010

An iconic Indonesian experience

... writes our recent guest, Benjamin Reader, in his blog 'Travel Adventures in Indonesia'

Palangkaraya, the capital city of Central Kalimantan province, is where Gaye Thavisin and Lorna Dowson-Collins have located Kalimantan Tour Destinations, a travel agency that is pioneering ecotourism in a part of Indonesia where the potential is high yet to date little has been achieved.

The city is situated two thirds of the way up Central Kalimantan's largest river, the Sungai Kahayan, which has its genesis up near the border of West Kalimantan in the Northern Mountains and winds its way 600 kilometers south emptying into the Java Sea near to the border with East Kalimantan and Banjarmasin.

The presence of one of Kalimantan's mighty rivers and its proximity to some of the last remaining pristine Borneo lowland rainforests and their orangutan and other exotic flora and fauna made Palangkaraya the perfect location for Kalimantan Tour Destinations to launch their keynote ecotourism experience, Jungle River Cruises aboard the Rahai'i Pangun.

Jungle River Cruises provides travelers to Central Kalimantan with minimal impact viewing of its rainforest, wildlife and riverside Dayak villages from the vantage point of a traditional river mode of transportation. It also benefits local communities by generating alternative livelihoods and teaching new skills that contribute to the development of a sustainable local eco-tourism economy. From my perspective, it is also an easily accessible and effective weekend wind-down from the stresses and strains of living in fast paced Asian metropolises such as Jakarta, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

The Rahai'i Pangun is a traditional river freighter converted by Kalimantan Tour Destinations into a comfortable river cruiser, perfectly designed for viewing the impenetrable walls of jungle passing by on either side, whilst protecting its passengers from the fearsome stinging hot Borneo sun and lashing rainstorms often hitting the river hard at dusk.

The deck is covered by a protective canvas that unobtrusively allows three hundred and sixty degree views yet can be extended further when the rains hit to keep you dry. It also has very comfortable rattan furniture covered in soft cushions perfect for snoozing away the cruising hours, exactly what I was escaping Jakarta to do.

A highlight of a Rahai'i Pangun river cruise is the delectable local cuisines, my favorite being the giant freshwater prawns farmed down the river close to the sea, and the river fish cooked in a variety of forms. Local coffee is on call but if your pleasure is downing a cold beer while soaking up the atmosphere as time slowly passes you by then it's bring your own and the crew will keep it ice cold. Sleeping two, cabins are comfortable. Screens over the windows keep mozzies at bay, important as malaria is present. You have to be careful to shut the windows before the inevitable afternoon storm hits as soggy mattresses tend to detract from the deep sleep you'd expect when surrounded by jungle serenity.

Just north of Palangkaraya the smaller black water Sungai Rungan joins the brown water Kahayan. Interesting features of the Rungan are the plentiful lakes and islands, and the flooded forests. Natural obstacles and the flatness of the land cause the rivers of Central Kalimantan to follow a course that weaves back and forth like a wriggling earthworm. Over time the river tends to revert to the shortest route leaving loops of water cut off from its main flow and creating what are known as oxbow lakes or leaving islands around which it continues to flow.

The Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Project uses these river islands as halfway houses for over 600 orphaned orangutans. The orphans are first taught skills they need to survive in the wild and then placed on these islands where they can be observed. Passengers can view them as they congregate on wooden platforms near to where the Rahai'i Pangun anchors for a night. We also saw hornbills flying slowly in the jungle foliage, eagles and kingfisher. Proboscis monkeys and the common macaque also made appearances. We didn't see any gibbons although their throaty call could be heard at dusk and we passed a gibbon sanctuary where access is strictly limited due to gibbon susceptibility to disease.

Getting to Palangkaraya to join the Rahai'i Pangun for a cruise isn't hard. Garuda and Lion Air have daily flights out of Jakarta. The Garuda flight took an hour and a half and cost Rp 1.3 million return. A more adventurous and time-consuming route is to come overland from Banjarmasin or even to come up the Kahayan River on a boat. However one gets there, a river cruise with Kalimantan River Cruises is worth doing and rates as one of those iconic Indonesian experiences.

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