Kumai — Orangutans vs Palm Oil

In a word, our 3 1/2 day passage from Lombok to Kumai (south coast of Borneo) was HOT! The dark transom steps are frequently too hot to stand on, and of course the metal fittings can get hot, but never before have I experienced such heat on my feet just pacing the off-white deck. We had a very welcome wind blowing off of Bali the first night. But after that it was motorsailing, or simply motoring, most of the way.

Our direct path would take us over a reef in the middle of nowhere. Arriving in that area about mid-day, we decided to head in to the reef and snorkel. There were several fishing boats apparently at the fringe of the reef, so I chose an empty area between two and headed for it. Luckily I was also watching the depth, because suddenly it was ten feet, and then five! The engine went hard into reverse, and we stopped with coral clearly visible in the water all around, even though the fishing boats were still a mile ahead. Maybe the reef was an atoll, with a deeper area in the middle, and they were inside. The chart shows no detail. In any case we put out an anchor and a few feet of chain, and went for a swim. It wasn’t the most beautiful snorkeling we’ve done, but that wasn’t the point. It sure felt good to cool off, if only for a little while.

One more highlight of the passage was a fabulous roast duck, prepared by Chef Tim. In Lombok we had stocked up on groceries. One of the services available was “let Molly do your shopping for you,” where you simply checked off what you wanted from a list (including whole frozen duck), or simply discuss it with Molly, since she was happy to get anything. Along with lots of other things, we got a duck. Tim stuffed it and roasted it with an orange marmalade glaze. So good! We’ve been thinking of it as our Thanksgiving dinner, since Jesse and I are not going to be home in time for Thanksgiving.

Approaching Kumai we could smell fire, even though we were told it was out. We finally got clear of the ash, and now I feared we would be breathing smoke for two days… But no. Later we learned that we were sailing downwind of the area that had burned, and it smelled like a dead campfire, but it was fine when we arrived at Kumai.

Like so many other places we’ve been to, Kumai turned out to be quite different from what I expected. No ATMs? Guess again. Kumai is not the remote national park ranger station we had been led to believe. It is a busy port, with ships coming and going constantly. The waterfront had not only the usual docks and mosques and boats large and small, but also huge gray concrete structures, some seemingly with no windows and others with narrow slits for windows. They were a mystery, until later we learned they are full of nesting birds, with the nests harvested for birds nest soup (popular in China, especially for pregnant women). I think it is strange that enough birds would choose to nest there, and I would think that nesting materials would be scarce in such a densely populated area (dense with both humans and birds). We could hear the constant chatter of the birds, a mile or more away.

We came to Kumai for one reason: to visit the national forest where there are orangutans. In fact, Jesse and I joined a river tour boat a couple hours after we arrived, we did the overnight tour which returned the following night after dinner, and we made our departure from Kumai the next morning. (Tim did an all day tour the second day, that met up with us.) We never even put our dinghy in the water; never went ashore except on the tour. Our only business besides visiting the park was to replenish our supply of diesel, which was brought to us at the boat.

We shared a tour boat with the Tahawus crew. We all lived on the upper deck, while the crew and cook lived below, and our guide went back and forth. The food (five meals plus tea and snacks) was excellent. Our sleeping quarters was the same area where we ate and sat watching the jungle glide by. Mattresses appeared from below, and mosquito netting, and it was pleasant to sleep with the sounds of the jungle all around. And I do mean all around, since we simply pulled to the side of the river and tied to some vegetation for the night.

We made three stops near places in the park where food is provided for orangutans, and they commonly come to eat. Sometimes they don’t come, as the food provided is not their favorite. They would prefer to eat durian fruit than bananas, so they often do not show when the durians are ripe. But we saw orangutans at all three spots.

The orangutan habitat is threatened. The biggest threat currently stems from the commercial production of palm oil. This oil is in high demand for its low cholesterol and other desirable properties. As a result, forest is being cleared at a dramatic rate in Indonesia and being replaced with palm oil farms — the diverse natural habitat replaced with a monoculture. The land is often cleared by burning, which is assumed to be the origin of the fires that spread into the national park.

Our guides are members of a group called O Green. They call each other “brother” and they are on a mission to save the orangutan and lands that are their home (both the animal’s home and the people’s home). They do the tours that raise money and raise awareness. They fought the fires. The organized the townspeople (school children especially) to plant seedlings after the fire. They raise money to purchase private land across the river from the park. A few hundred meters in from that river bank it is all palm oil farming now. They hope to purchase the remaining strip of river bank to protect the habitat and beauty. They have purchased one kilometer. They dream of much more, though they know it is a distant dream, and there may not be time before the land is purchased by the palm oil growers instead.

I found it interesting to be so near the “front lines” of such a battle. Putt-putting up the jungle river for hours, seeing the monkeys and the birds and the fireflies and the remote beauty, and seeing the magnificent orangutans…and seeing in the distance the palm oil trees. The “O Greens” indeed seem to be brothers, and I’m on their side of the battle.

“Orangutan” means “person of the forest,” and let’s just say it: they are totally cool. So probably I will post too many photos. Enjoy…

Medina Marina at Lombok; nice place except for having to clean the volcanic ash off the deck each day
Medina Marina at Lombok; nice place except for having to clean the volcanic ash off the deck each day
Molly will get you duck, and just about anything else.
Molly will get you duck, and just about anything else.
No wind
No wind
Kumai. Note the gray concrete structures -- giant bird houses...
Kumai. Note the gray concrete structures — giant bird houses…
Our anchorage
Our anchorage
The river tour boats picking us up
The river tour boats picking us up
Tim left behind. But his day tour will meet up with ours in the morning.
Tim left behind. But his day tour will meet up with ours in the morning.
Relaxing on the upper deck
Relaxing on the upper deck
Up the river we go, in company with Chapter Two's tour boat
Up the river we go, in company with Chapter Two’s tour boat
The parking lot for one of the orangutan feeding stations
The parking lot for one of the orangutan feeding stations
Here comes one!
Here comes one!

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Here comes Mom. Mothers carry their babies for four years; then four more years of training before the youngster can fend for itself.
Here comes Mom. Mothers carry their babies for four years; then four more years of training before the youngster can fend for itself.

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The dominant male looks the part. Others clear out while he eats.
The dominant male looks the part
Others steer clear while he eats his fill
Others steer clear while he eats his fill
Or at least they are ready to beat a hasty retreat as they grab something to go.
Or at least they are ready to beat a hasty retreat as they grab something to go.
I'll take mine to go...
I’ll take mine to go…
The major fire was several miles away, but we visited some scorched areas nearby.
The major fire was several miles away, but we visited some scorched areas nearby.

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With twilight approaching we returned to the boat and motored further upstream. Along the way we could see monkeys settling into treetops for the night.
With twilight approaching we returned to the boat and motored further upstream. Along the way we could see monkeys settling into treetops for the night.

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It was dark by the time we stopped for the night, but you get the idea about simply tying to some vegetation on the river bank...
It was dark by the time we stopped for the night, but you get the idea about simply tying to some vegetation on the river bank…
Mattresses out and mosquito nets rigged
Mattresses out and mosquito nets rigged
In the morning we go even further up the river, our guide pointing out the crocodiles (the few we saw were much smaller than what we saw in Australia), the monkeys, the birds, and explains more about the struggle to save the habitat.
In the morning we go even further up the river, our guide pointing out the crocodiles (the few we saw were much smaller than what we saw in Australia), the monkeys, the birds, and explains more about the struggle to save the habitat.

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Sign telling us we still have 8 kilometers to go
Sign telling us we still have 8 kilometers to go
May not look like anything unless you zoom in, but this stick is a termite superhighway...
May not look like anything unless you zoom in, but this stick is a termite superhighway…
Time for more orangutans
Time for more orangutans

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Here comes the local king
Here comes the local king

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Good advice...
Good advice…
Wild (sort of) boars hang around this feeding station, picking up scraps
Wild (sort of) boars hang around this feeding station, picking up scraps

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A gibbon came for a snack, too.
A gibbon came for a snack, too.

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Just as we were about to take the path back to the boat, a "person of the forest" comes up that path
Just as we were about to take the path back to the boat, a “person of the forest” comes up that path
In fact, three "persons of the forest." We had to step aside and let them pass.
In fact, three “persons of the forest.” We had to step aside and let them pass.

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Back at the dock
Back at the dock

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Back down the river we go
Back down the river we go
One last glimpse of an orangutan on the river bank
One last glimpse of an orangutan on the river bank

3 thoughts on “Kumai — Orangutans vs Palm Oil”

  1. I really felt very drawn to two of the last pictures of “people of the forest” that you had to step aside for in order for them to pass. What engaged me so much was the eyes. So bright and alert. We humans relate fastest to other animals with eyes that look straight forward in the same way we do — and connect I did. I seldom see a photo of these amazing “people” (I love that they are called that!!) with such a clear look at their eyes. It is like a meeting of some sort. To know that they are also threatened makes me so very sad. Are we determined to destroy Everything in the name of money????

    Like

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