Heart of Darkness 2

Day two, fly to Pangkalan Bun and transfer to our first houseboat.
The road from the airport to Kumai is long and full of pot-holes. The best way to get about seems to be by motor bike, swerving to avoid the holes in the road is so much easier on two wheels. I am tempted to try to ride on our cycle mounted guide – it looks way more fun!

We arrive at the river and the National Park office where our klotok awaits us. They are ptly named after the noise they make with their two stroke motors. As opposed to the takatak that the motorised canoes make.

One of our travelling companions has arrived, a delightful woman from Adelaide who teaches music and plays trombone in a jazz band. We discover that we have all subscribed to the same deal, a bargain tour of Camp Leakey.

Unfortunately we have to hang about in the heat for another two travelling companions. While we are waiting, we are surrounded by the loud sound of bird calls – not the birds themselves, but piped through loudspeakers atop massive warehouses. The bird song is to entice birds to move in – these warehouses (larger and nicer than the average house), house nesting birds; all mod cons provided. When the chicks have flown, the nests are harvested and sold for a fortune to be made into birds nest soup. I must confess, the thought of eating broth made out of sticks, bird saliva and other excretions does nothing for my stomach. Well, there’s no accounting for taste!–

Finally our late travel companions arrive; mother and daughter who give some story of being given the wrong information. I am not sure why they are late, since they over-nighted in Pangkalan Bun, whereas we had to fly in from Jakarta.

A premonition of things to come happens when mother comments to daughter “I’ve booked you a really nice hotel in Jakarta so you should be happy with that.” My friend and I roll eyes at each other, hoping against hope that we are not travelling with a princess.

Without any ado, briefing or drill, we cast off and start our journey up the sluggish brown Kumai River towards the Sekonyer tributary. There is no safety drill, no emergency information, no overview. No life vest demonstration, rules about wash rooms, toilet paper, flushing. No sign of beds either, and our bags are whisked away below decks.

Our captain is called Tonno, our guide is Muk and the boat boy is Onyo. So we discover as we go along, but only by asking. We also have a cook, a nameless woman who spends the rest of our journey below decks where she cooks, eats sleeps and prays. Mostly hunched over because below deck is only 1 meter high and even Indonesians are taller than that. Every now and then we see her to congratulate her on the food and are rewarded by a beaming smile, and she beats shy retreat.

Princess mum helps herself to the best seat in the house, which she proceeds to do whenever she can, with nary a thought about her fellow travellers. By the end of the trip I am convinced we are travelling with a narcissist, since she seems completely oblivious to the needs and desires of any of her fellow journeyers. But that unfolds slowly.

The river banks are lined with townships, replete with bird houses, wooden houses, mosques, boats tugs motor canoes and klotoks. The sky is sullen, the air sultry and close. After an hour up river we leave the main river and motor up the tributary. The morphing of the vegetation is clear – for the first hours on the Sekonyer, the banks are exclusively lined with palm trees. Evidence of the replacement of the rain forest with palm oil plantations. The seeds float down river and embed themselves so the banks are an impenetrable mass of palms. The brown water follows us up stream, effluent from the gold mines which work night and day, pumping their wastes into the river system.

Within an hour we are treated to a tropical downpour; plastic covers are hastily released side back and front, so we can travel in relative dryness on the boat. The afternoon has darkened, and we motor along in the gloom watching the water pelt onto the river surface and lash the palms.

Dinner, when it arrives is delicious. It is hard to imagine our cook putting out such marvellous fare with a kerosene burner and a couple of woks. We are treated to fish, rice, fried tempeh and vegetables, followed by tropical fruit. And kopi – coffee for the uninitiated. I feared our fare would be instant coffee, but no – we are served Indonesian coffee, which is the same as Arabic or Greek coffee; rich, finely ground and served with carnation milk. Delicious, though one has to beware the fine grounds left at the bottom.

When it is bed-time, we get to know the sleeping arrangements. Our bags stay stowed below, they bring 5 mattresses on deck, slip on sheets, throw us a pillow each, hang sleeping nets, and hey presto, the upper deck is our communal bedroom. Care must be taken at night not to garrotte oneself on the sleeping net ties if we stumble our way to the bathroom. Sleep is elusive: the mattress is lumpy, two of my companions (Princess and Princess Mum) snore loudly enough to breach the ear plug barrier, and the night gets cold enough to need blankets – which do not exist on the boat. I am required to wear a woolly top and use my sarong to try to keep warmth.

But hey – it’s only a week and we have great Apes to look forward to!


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