Borneo’s Heart of Darkness

Borneo’s Heart of Darkness

Borneo’s Heart of Darkness
The Sebangau National Park is a veritable paradise for nature lovers and contains literally thousands of animals and plant species. Alas however, the struggle between illegal logging and the efforts of conservationists is a constant and ongoing battle. Arfiana Khairunnisa climbed aboard her speedboat and explored the heart of Borneo’s green interior.

If The day had not yet begun and the city of Palangkaraya was still shrouded in morning mist. Our car was heading south, cutting through the cool air on its way to the village of Kereng Bangkirai in the subdistrict of Sebangau. On the outskirts of this village, we left the confines of the car and made for the Kereng Bangkirai quay. It was here that our Sebangau National Park adventure was due to begin.
The palm forest was also still covered in mist and the Sebangau River could be seen flowing majestically through it. A kelotok (small motor boat) sped smoothly across the calm water, the engine noise shattering the morning tranquility. Suli Septriani, the head of the Sebangau Hulu Resort, was already waiting for us on the quay. She would be guiding me and my friends as we explored the Sebangau National Park.
The quay at Dermaga Kereng Bangkirai is just one of the gateways through which tourists can enter the amazing wilderness that lies at Borneo’s heart. This conservation area covers an area of 568,000 hectares, making it about eight times the size of Singapore, and extends across two districts and one city in Central Kalimantan. Visitors can enter by way of Pulang Pisau District, Katingan District or from Palangkaraya. I had chosen the latter route, as it takes the least time.
At exactly six o’clock, our speedboat departed from the quay and ploughed across the “Coca-Cola” water. This is what the river is usually called by locals, due to its blackish-red hue. The colouration is caused by the decomposition of the roots and tree trunks that grow in the soft, swampy soil. “Later we will try drinking some of this water in the forest,” said Suli. This non-carbonated version of the world’s favourite burp is indeed safe to drink directly from the river, without the need for boiling.

The view from the speedboat was not an unmitigated delight, alas. After passing through the palm forest, we came across some black, charred tree trunks which were left over from forest fires that occurred between 2002 and 2007. “During the hot season, the swampy soil acts like a sponge, absorbing the water. However in the dry season, it can easily catch fire. Peat moss is actually the first stage in the process of coal formation,” explained Suli.
The area affected by the fires has already been subject to rehabilitation efforts that have included the planting of trees such as jelutung (dyera lowii), belangeran (shorea belangeran) and pulai (alstonia angustifolia). Garuda Indonesia has been one of the donors to this worthy initiative. Through its “One Passenger One Tree” programme, the airline has helped with the restoration project, which is focusing its efforts on an area of 250 hectares.
After 30 minutes navigating the bends of the Sebangau River, the skipper of our boat started to reduce speed. We entered a narrow canal that was only wide enough for one boat and sharp palm leaves on both banks threatened to scratch our skin. A small hut soon appeared, and we found out that this remote sign of life belonged to a farmer who harvested latex from rubber trees. This area is called SPTN area 1, Palangkaraya, and is a managed section of the National Park. It was to be from here that we would start our expedition into the middle of the park’s jungle wilderness.

A large part of this peat-moss-covered area is sturdy enough for people to walk on. Having said that though, walking on the stuff is not so easy. Step in the wrong place and your foot will get sucked into its swampy grip. Fortunately though, the rangers who manage this area have created a footpath by laying thin, wooden boards over the peat. Building this walkway was apparently a difficult process and staff from the resort often sank into the swamp right up to their waists.
Some of the trees were tagged with information about their type and species and I learnt a lot about botany here. During our trek, Suli stopped several times in order to check his piezometer, a gadget for measuring the groundwater level. He wanted to make sure that the peat moss was still retaining water, as dried peat is one of the preconditions for forest fire disasters.
One of the rubber trees had the shape of a letter V carved into its trunk, and underneath it hung a kind of sack which is used to collect the latex. This latex or sap is usually used as a raw material for making chewing gum, and each tree seemed to be owned by a different farmer.
Suli was surprised when he encountered a ramin tree that had fallen down. From the marks on the trunk it was clear that it had been felled by human hands. “The ramin tree is one of the park’s protected species,” Suli explained, and he went on to tell me that ramin wood is looked upon as a premium commodity and is a favourite target for illegal loggers in Kalimantan. Along with the belangeran and ironwood trees, the ramin swamp tree is highly sought after for export, as it can be turned into many different products, including snooker or pool cues. In this conservation area, illegal loggers can still come and go as they please, and the Kalimantan rainforest is too big for it to be guarded effectively.

Most of the stolen lumber is whisked away via the forest’s canals. I stood on the bank of one of them but no illegal loggers showed up that day. The canal was designed to be blockable so as to handle over-drainage, thus preventing the peat in the forest from drying out. Our party then stopped off for a while at one of the canal sluice gates where we cleaned the peat off our shoes and drank some “Coca-Cola” water from the river. It was indeed refreshing!
We moved further into the interior of the forest. Travelling 100 metres here proved to be a very different experience from covering the same distance on a pavement or tarmac road.
“That’s a nepenthes ampullaria,” said Suli (a species also known as the flask shaped pitcher plant). She opened its leaves and revealed its distinctive pouch which was growing out of the soil. This region is well known as a habitat for these tropical pitcher plants, and they liberally dot the area in all shapes, colours and patterns. There are red ones, green ones with batik like motifs, and plain ones with no colour or motif at all.
The water in the pitcher plants’ pouches can be drunk and proved to be just as refreshing as the “Coca-Cola” water in the canal had been. Although it looks scary, Sebangau forest is actually, biologically speaking, a friendly place and an amazing cradle of life. The song of the horn-billed rangkong bird drifted through the trees as I slaked my thirst on the pitcher plant water.
It ended up taking us a whole three hours to trek a mere 1,500 metres, and we eventually arrived back at the speedboat before setting off along the Koran River. This river can only accommodate two boats across its width and dense, leafy trees filtered out much of the sunlight, making the atmosphere seem cool and fresh.

Our speedboat nimbly managed to avoid the logs floating down the river, however my eyes were firmly glued to the jungle in the hope of spotting an orangutan, or an owa gibbon or a bekantan monkey. The Sebangau National Park is a thriving habitat for these cute creatures and is home to between 6,200 and 6,900 Borneo orangutans (pongo pygmaeus) and 19,000 owa gibbons (hylobates agilis albibarbis). In global terms, these are phenomenal numbers indeed.
This conservation paradise gained its National Park status in 2004, and according to Indonesian Forestry Ministry documents, the peat marsh ecosystem at Sebangau boasts a collection of 166 species of flora, 116 species of bird, 35 species of mammal and 36 species of fish. Included in this total are wild animals such as the owa gibbon, the bekantan, and the orangutan.
“This is an orangutan’s nest,” said Hendra, pointing at a tree. We all gazed up at it. “It’s only about two or three days old”. I scanned the tree carefully, but its cute primate inhabitant did not put in an appearance. Although the nests are easy to spot, as you can hear their occupants, the wildlife at Sebangau is generally good at hiding from prying eyes, and is exquisitely sensitive to presence of humans.

Even Suli himself has only seen an owa monkey once during his time working as the resort’s chief. “It is entirely a matter of luck, it’s true. Sometimes in a week you will only see an orangutan once or twice,” he explained. I didn’t manage to do too badly though, and spotted a monkey with a long tail, a kind of squirrel called a tupai, a snake and various birds with beautiful feathers during the course of the day.
From the Koran River, we set off for the mouth of the Simpang Kiri, which is home to the only large belangeran tree that has survived the endless illegal logging. Along our way, we could see the roots of trees that had been burnt, and their shadows reflected ominously on the surface of the dark black water.
Although the huge array of wildlife that makes its home in the Sebangau National Park is indeed impressive, to date this paradise has mainly been the stomping ground of researchers. Tourist visitors—whether they be domestic or from overseas—are still few in number. In fact, Suli admitted to us that we were the first group of travellers that he had ever guided. The cost is the main factor that prevents this place from becoming more popular. The entrance fee for the National Park is low but the speedboat rental can burn a bit of a hole in the pocket. Nevertheless, for me personally, the experience proved to be worth every penny.

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