“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness” – John Muir, naturalist and environmental philosopher.

If Indonesia were a person, Borneo would be her soul. Sitting right on the equator, this giant island has for centuries drawn explorers from all over the globe, who come searching for a piece of a lost world, a land that time forgot.

Borneo belongs to three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. The largest portion is Indonesia’s, known as Kalimantan. The name is derived from the Sanskrit word Kalamanthana, meaning ‘burning weather island’, describing her hot and humid tropical climate.

Borneo is home to some of the most ancient rainforests in the world, dating back approximately 140 million years. These forests support thousands of species of flora and fauna, many endemic to this island, including the critically endangered Bornean orangutan.

Acknowledgement of the value of eco-tourism in this part of the world is on  the increase, supported by ventures such  as award-winning social enterprise WOW Borneo, created by Gaye Thavisin and Lorna Dowson-Collins. The pair converted  a traditional riverboat known as a rangkan into a magnificent cruise boat that goes  by the name Rahai’i Pangun, introducing  the first jungle cruise on the Rungan River  in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan,  in 2007. They now operate cruise journeys on three different river systems as well  as overland tours.

Our three-day, two-night journey began  at Palangkaraya’s river harbour. Our guide, Indra Setiawan, helped us board the Rahai’i Pangun, the largest boat at dock, a floating wooden marvel with five air-conditioned bedrooms, an open-air dining area and living room with a large observation deck.

Departing from the harbour at 9am,  we began cruising upstream in what felt like  a floating dream. With a cup of local coffee  in my hands, I enjoyed observing villages  of wooden stilted houses on the river’s edge and canoe-like fishing boats going by. Children waved enthusiastically at us from both sides of the river, some running alongside trying to keep up.

As the human world faded away, the natural world engulfed us, and all we could hear, see and smell were the river and the forest. A couple of hornbills flew gracefully overhead, their large wings whooshing.

Within a couple of hours of relaxed cruising  through the forest, we reached the island of Kaja,  a 25-hectare sanctuary for rehabilitated orangutans, managed by the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation. Kaja has dense greenery as far as the eye can see, and spotting the furry orange friends in the trees was a sight to behold.

There are 57,350 individuals of the Bornean  (Pongo pygmaeus) orangutan species left in  the wild in Kalimantan, and 14,470 of the Sumatran (Pongo abelii) orangutan, a related species in Sumatra, according to a joint report published  by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the Indonesian Orangutan Forum, the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group and other environmental groups earlier this year.

Conservation efforts have paid off, and numbers are up since the first edition of the report was published in 2004. The number of Sumatran orangutans was down to 6,600 at that time.

That’s in part due to sanctuaries like Kaja, where rescued animals are reintroduced into the forest  to form new populations.

WOW Borneo is among the supporters  of forest preservation efforts, through tourism,  as well as increasing awareness of the culture  of the local Dayak people. It donates US$25  to the BOS Foundation for each visitor  on board one of its cruises.

Nico Hermanu, the BOS Foundation’s communications officer, told me that the cruise tours help visitors gain a better understanding of the orangutans, beyond a superficial interest. “They also get to see how these great apes live in the high canopy of trees, helping disperse seeds and maintaining the quality of a forest area,” Nico explained.

Our boat continued upstream. “The river water is brown due to miners churning up silt from the riverbed,” our guide Indra said. “Tomorrow I will take you where the river  is black – that is the true colour of the river.” He explained that as vegetation decays, the leaching of highly soluble tannins creates water that is darkly stained, resembling tea.

We traversed further upstream until we landed at Kanarakan, a traditional Dayak village. Greeted by friendly, curious children, we were given a ritual welcome: white paint made of rice porridge with pandanus leaf was smeared on our faces to cleanse our spirits and protect us. I donned my leaf headdress with pride.

A highlight of the stop was sampling  the local betel nut. An ibu (mother) sliced the orange fruit into small pieces and wrapped them in betel pepper leaves before handing them over to us to chew. She laughed hard as she watched our grimacing faces bite down into a bitter taste. It was a new experience for me: betel contains a mild stimulant, and the kick you get rivals that of coffee, which explains why so many of the village elders had dark red-stained teeth and gums.

Early the next morning, we departed on smaller boats to an island surrounded  by the mysterious black water Indra had  told us about. Cruising through dense jungle on either side, we felt removed from our realities. Aboard engine-powered canoes,  we were able to get much closer to the orangutans, this time spotting seven in total. They groomed and played with one another, oblivious to our curious stares.

After lunch, we continued upriver through small and winding tributaries on another motorised canoe to Bapallas Island,  a 14ha reserve, where 10 orangutans were hanging out. Seeing these stunning animals in the wild, albeit rehabilitated and protected by rangers, was both a hopeful sight and a poignant reminder that our continued development threatens their survival.

As well as celebrating the native flora and fauna, WOW Borneo is creating jobs outside of the typical local livelihoods of fishing, logging and gold mining. The venture employs 20 local people and prides itself  on providing fair wages and benefits, including family health cover and insurance. “We work with community tourism groups in each village we visit, who provide guide services, cultural events and canoe hire  for a price agreed annually,” said co-founder Gaye. “Since we started our company,  a total of US$200,000 has gone directly  to the community.”

Gaye explained that the eco-tour helps  to support sangar, the local dance groups, which had been disappearing in the region  as the tradition started to fade. We watched the lively and colourful Dayak dances being performed by enthusiastic young people  in Kanarakan village, an experience I will never forget. Like true tourists, we wore  the yellow selendang (shawl) and joined  in the festivities, although nowhere near  as gracefully as the locals.

Returning to our normal life after  two nights sleeping in the depths of the forest was, like betel, a hard nut to swallow.  It is heart-warming to know that the winding river of Rungan, with its sprawling jungle  on either side, still exists in Central Kalimantan, and that this social enterprise  is helping to preserve it. I feel as though I left a part of my soul on that sleepy river, and  I would go back in a heartbeat to find it.

From Travel Colours August 2018