I’m in the exotically named East Kalimantan city of Samarinda – roughly two hours north by car from Garuda Indonesia’s Balikpapan hub – which is the logical jumping-off point for trips up to Wehea (pronounced we-heya).
Words and Photography by David Burden
At almost 500km away though, it’s more of a leap than a jump, and so in preparation for the long car journey ahead I spend an afternoon stretching my legs, poking around the impressive Islamic Centre in the middle of town. Inaugurated in 2008 and overlooking a wide bend in the Mahakam River, its huge dome and seven soaring minarets make it the third-largest mosque in Southeast Asia. On this particular afternoon, bathed in glorious golden sunlight and surrounded by well-kept gardens, it feels more like being in some oil-rich Middle Eastern state than provincial Borneo.
Afterwards, my guide Abdullah takes me to a local ikan bakar restaurant on the river, where we dine on delicious barbecued garoupa and red snapper with all the trimmings. A jovial chap in his early forties, Abdullah is also an expert dealer in Dayak antiquities and possesses a comprehensive knowledge of all things Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). He tells me that Wehea has been officially protected since 2004, thanks to a cooperation consisting of local and regional authorities, US-based NGO The Nature Conservancy, Kaltim Prima Coal (KPC) and, most importantly, Pak Ledjie Taq – the Dayak chief of Wehea sub-district. “If we’re lucky, we’ll get to meet him tomorrow, but he is a busy man,” shouts Abdullah over his shoulder as we bike home through the Samarinda night.
The following morning we saddle up and head north, crossing the equator before making a sharp left inland near the port town of Sangatta. A few more hours pass by as we wind through the plantations of East Kutai regency, eventually arriving at the tiny outpost of Muara Wahau just before nightfall. We’re met by our local fixer John at a restaurant on the main strip, who tells us over steaming bowls of hearty rawon (beef broth soup) that unfortunately, Mr Taq is away in Germany attending a conference, and so we won’t be able to catch up with him in person. Undeterred, we press on; the last couple of hours into the forest are along bumpy dirt tracks, and so we hop in John’s 4WD, pulling into Huliwa forest lodge sometime around midnight, and collapsing into our bunks shortly afterwards.
The next morning I arise to the unmistakeable din of the forest – ever present yet wonderfully calming, and a constant reminder that I’m well and truly immersed in nature. The lodge itself is a simple but beautiful two-storey house, built in the traditional Dayak style out of ironwood. Its six modest rooms see around 100 visitors a year, from research and conservation parties to plain old tourists like myself who love getting off the beaten track. There’s no phone signal (good) and no Wi-Fi (great!), so after a quick shower I amble out onto the porch for a spot of breakfast and to meet the rangers, known as ‘forest guardians’, who are stationed here. Around 40 men from the surrounding area work month-long rotating shifts of 10, charged with doing whatever they can to help protect this fragile area from illegal loggers and poachers. They also act as guides for visitors like myself, and so head honcho Boni assigns the young Umar (25) and even younger Boi (18) to show me around. Both are knowledgeable and easygoing lads and prove to be invaluable in helping me get the most out of my time in the forest.
Wehea covers an area of around 380km2 and is home to a huge variety of species, most notably: orangutans, black and red gibbons, wild boars, clouded leopards, sun bears, otters and snakes. Five trails circle around the lodge in a loop, ranging from the leisurely 600/600 route (just 600m), to the more challenging tower trail (5.4km), giving visitors the best chance of spotting wildlife along the way, while also taking in the sights and sounds of this pristine environment.
We start off with the medium-difficulty eco-trail (3.3km), and it’s not long before we spot a pack of gibbons swinging effortlessly through the canopy. Known in Bahasa as wak-wak due to the sound of their call, it’s a thrill to see these agile creatures at home in the wild. Soon afterwards, as we pass the enormous meranti merah tree (so large it takes 16 people to link arms around its trunk), a pair of hornbills – Borneo’s iconic bird – swoop overhead, unfortunately disappearing too quickly to fire off a photo.
We stroll back into camp along broad red dirt tracks to find Boni busy replacing the wooden handle of his knife. Essential for forest living, the long blades are known as mandau and are an integral part of Dayak culture and tradition. Every man carries one in the forest, but I’m told that these days the younger generation like Umar and Boi are more likely to buy or trade than make their own. As the eldest, it falls to Boni to teach the others, and everyone looks on, fascinated, as he carefully melts a special kind of tree bark into the new carved handle to secure the metal.
A simple but hearty meal of fried noodles, chicken and potatoes whipped up by Abdullah in the lodge’s kitchen takes care of lunch, and we then set off in search of a secluded waterfall, once again happening across a party of gibbons making a mighty hullaballoo in the treetops. Apparently a raging torrent throughout the rainy season, today the falls are no more than a tranquil trickle. Beautiful nonetheless: we peel off our shoes and socks and let the cool water soothe our feet before resuming the trek back for dinner and another early night. Our final forest foray the next morning sees us up at dawn to tackle the challenging tower trek, which as a round trip clocks in at almost 10 km.
Like a scene out of The Jungle Book, we traverse a couple of enormous felled trees, momentarily halted by the irate grunts of a sizeable wild boar on the other side of the ravine. Luckily it barrels off into the bushes and we continue unabated, soon reaching the 14m-high viewing tower that affords us magnificent views of the misty tree line. My time in the forest at an end, we head back to town in John’s 4WD, making an all-too-short detour to the traditional Dayak village of Miaow. This ancient Bornean culture is slowly becoming less visible, and so it’s fantastic not only to see a traditional longhouse surrounded by carved statues, but also to meet a few surviving Dayak people who bear the indicative features of long earlobes and tribal tattoos.
The long drive back through the plantations to Samarinda is tinged with the sadness that so much of Kalimantan’s native forests have been cleared, but ultimately there’s plenty to be hopeful about. The fact that there are so many concerned people like Pak Ledjie Taq doing wonderful work to protect places like Wehea is cause for optimism, and with any luck, the catalyst for a new wave of responsible tourism to this region’s breathtaking ancient forests.
Jakarta to Balikpapan
Flight Time 1 hour 55 minutes
Frequency 56 ﬂights per week
From Colours October 2016
5 Senses – Touch
A common creeping plant found all over the forest, the parkis stem is a symbol of Dayak art, and is used to make a number of items like woven bracelets and rings. The outer layers of the stem are stripped away to the core, which is incredibly strong and durable, before being interlaced by hand.