This is an amazing trip for those who have been to Bali and are looking at something further afield, and completely different, elsewhere in Indonesia. I would make this a first- or second- half of a trip to Bali or elsewhere in Asia.
I did a fantastic 4-night trip from Bali to Kalimantan (the Indonesian bit of Borneo) with a couple of friends and I can honestly say it's in my top five greatest adventures worldwide. Seeing the orangutan in the wild (possibly before they die out) should be on everyone's bucket list. This is if you have the means, of course, but actually this it not an expensive trip. Return flights from Bali, accomodation and food added up to around A$1300 per person (less than US$1000). You aren't likely to see the wild animals of Africa or South America that cheaply.
This is not a luxury trip; it was clean and mostly comfortable but you can't really do this in a more upmarket way. If that's your thing, you could look at the Malaysian side of Borneo which looks a bit more commercial, more expensive and possibly busier, with fancier boats and resorts available for the well healed. There is also a bit more to do and see up there; Tanjung Puting is all about the Orangutan (although we saw loads of other animals, so keep reading).
Our time frame was perfect; I wouldn't recommend longer but you could do 3 nights instead of 4. There are three specific spots you can see the big primates in the Tanjung Puting National Park, and apart from river cruising, a night jungle walk and a little village excursion there aren't many other options for activities. You may want to look at sites elsewhere in Kalimantan to include in a trip, but actually everything is a flight away since the national park is still very remote.
On that note, there will be at least two whole days when you will be unable to access telecoms at all. Expect some digital downtime during your river cruise. At the lodge there is (very slow) wi-fi available at the office; without the bandwidth for uploading lots of photos or long video, but enough to send panicked work emails.
Everywhere on the standard tour is only accessible by boat. I'm afraid this is not (like much of South East Asia) a wheelchair accessible place. However the treks through the jungle from the river were all around forty minutes or less with no inclines, so you don't need to be fit. Kalimantan is slightly stickier than Ubud but cooler than south Bali. Late August when we went is great for the cooler, drier weather (although the heavens did open on us during a trek) and good for the primate viewing, but apparently April has fewer crowds. I didn't find it unpleasantly busy with tourists despite being on the tail-end of the high season.
The fastest way from Bali is a domestic 1-hour flight to Surabaya and then another 2-hour flight to Pangkalan Bun in Kalimantan. Your tour company will pick you up at the airport for a half-hour drive to the port. We had an unexpectedly long layover in Surabaya Airport after LionAir changed our flight last minute. This was a pain and it also meant we missed out on an activity on the first afternoon. We made this up on our last day though...a good reason to make the trip 4 nights with some extra relaxation time.
Mini Airport Review
Six hours in Surabaya airport was an awful long time. For a regional terminal in a semi-large city I give it 3.5 stars. We quickly found the Concordia lounge which you can use for US$10. This has comfortable seats, wi-fi, clean loos, a nice buffet and half-decent espresso coffee. A bored wander up and down the terminal will find a Periplus bookshop with English books and magazines, a Starbucks and Gloria Jeans, plenty of cheaper Indonesian food and some mediocre western food, a cool Surabayan snack store and my highlight...a reflexology/massage parlour. Possibly one of the best foot massages I've had, the place at Surabaya airport cost me just A$15 for an hour and I walked on air back to the lounge.
We were meant to get to Pangkalan Bun at midday ensuring we had time to go to one of the feeding stations that afternoon. It was closing in on sunset when we finally arrived so this visit was pushed to our last day. Instead we boarded our Kelotok (or Klotok), relaxed, had a beer and enjoyed our first cruise past the large port of Kumai on the Kapitan river, then into the Sekonyer river, the national park and the deeper jungle.
A klotok is a traditional Indonesian river boat, whose name comes from the sound it makes (kle-tok-tok-tok-tok). It is large and comfortable, but not luxurious. There is also no fan or aircon overnight when the engine is off, so you need the mosquito nets. I was quite hot through the night and I needed a nap during one of our cruises during the day. The toilet is a western sit-down loo that you have to flush yourself with a bucket of water. There is a shower of sorts (it's a glorified hose) in a second bathroom, but we didn't bother until we got to the lodge two days later. All part of the adventure!
Our guide Diaz is a bit of an ornithologist and he was thrilled to point out a Storm's Stork during the late afternoon. We dutifully took pictures without realising the importance until he told us there were only 500 left in the world.
Just after night fell, we pulled up next to a large colony of fireflies, so our introduction to the national park was a little bit like Christmas. The meal of fresh fish, rice and veggies, and gado gado for our vegan friend, was amazing. We cruised a little further into the national park then the crew set up our beds with mosquito nets and we went to sleep, lulled by the sounds of the jungle.
On our first full day we were served breakfast and coffee before being taken up to the Pondok Tanggui feeding station. These stations were originally where orang-utans were released (mostly those orphaned by deforestation and/or rescued from the black market). They are no longer released like this but the park management maintains these stations to supplement the diets of the big apes. The orangutan don't need them anymore, but it helps the authorities to keep an eye on the population. The former orphans are now joined by their offspring and some wild apes. Pondok Tanggui was a bit of a trek through the jungle, so sneakers or walking shoes are useful. You will likely see lots of Macaque monkeys at this place, and we were also thrilled that a gibbon came swinging by for a bit of banana.
Orangutans and a Gibbon
Later that day we went to camp Leakey, which is the oldest feeding station set up in 1971. This is a short stroll through the forest so sandals are fine, but there are a billion mosquitos. Wear loose light coloured clothing and a ton of spray. Some good quality deet will also keep the leeches off. The skies were looking ominous on this walk, and halfway through Orangutang feeding time, the heavens opened. By the time we got back to the boat the umbrellas provided were pretty useless. It's warm and sticky in Kalimantan in late August, so it didn't take long to dry off. That evening we saw loads of Proboscis monkeys in the trees on our cruise.
Before dinner, we were taken on a night safari. This was super fun; we were provided with headlamps and wandered through a jungle path to see what we could see! The apes stayed in bed but we saw a few snakes, a tarantula, and a gorgeous kingfisher. Just being in the jungle at night was a thrilling experience.
The next morning we got to visit the local village of Sekonyer (also called Harapan). The village was moved OUT of the national park to the other side of the river when the park was first set up for wildlife preservation, and it is now linked by road to other villages beyond. The people who live there are Dalalu speakers, and used to make a living on the river. This is still the case although many now work for the palm oil plantation up the road, the nearby mining company and some, like Diaz, work as rangers and tour guides. It's pretty and interesting and the people were genuinely welcoming, and it was good to remind ourselves how a lot of people in world live.
After lunch we were taken to our favourite spot of the tour, Tanjung Harapan. This was amazing for the Orangutan experience, with dozens coming out and playing around us. We stayed for the whole two hours of the feeding time and just drank it in. Afterwards, the crew dropped us off at the lodge for a very very welcome hot shower, although we were invited back for one more delicious meal with them on the boat.
Rimba is a clean, comfortable, certified ecolodge accessible by river only. It's also the only place to stay in the national park, apart from on a boat. The lodge can organise side trips (the same ones we did), but I'm glad we went through the tour company. Rimba was a bit useless at communicating, and I was hoping to organise something else to do since we were there for two nights and a full day. After getting no replies to three emails, I assumed I would arrange an activity when we arrived. No luck; no-one could find anyone to deal with us, although we eventually discovered that there was indeed nothing else to do and we couldn't re-visit the feeding stations because the paperwork wasn't organised. After having a white woman whinge, I found out that the park was heavily short staffed after the pandemic, so I felt bad for them - I'm sure they'll be amazing and prepared for next high season (for foreigners who can and will pay, a talk on flora and fauna, something about conservation, maybe a cooking class...? No-one seems to listen to my opinions on these things).
We spent the morning relaxing and watching the proboscis monkey troop do their thing until I was finally able to send our tour company a message. To our delight, they arranged for us to visit Tanjung Harapan again in the afternoon. The lodge WAS able to provide a guide and two little local boats to take us over. This was super fun, travelling like a local, and while there weren't as many orangutan as the day before, we enjoyed our trip back to the feeding station. The evening meal at Rimba was excellent, with dozens of authentic local dishes and plenty of tasty options for our vegan companion.
The next morning we were picked up in our next mode of transport - a little speedboat - which took us back to Pangkalan Bun and from there home to Bali!
The Tour Company
Dessy and her team at Orangutan Applause were absolutely amazing. Dessy went out of the way to accomodate us and put together an itinerary that would work, then rushed around to help when our flight was delayed and when one of our party needed an antigen test to fly home. Our tour guide Diaz was fun, knowledgeable, genuinely excited to be with us and sometimes as thrilled to see the fauna of the national park as we were.
The crew of our Kelotok were lovely and efficient and the cook deserves a chef's hat. The Rimba Ecolodge, as noted above, was a little short staffed when we were there so soon after the pandemic. However the employees tried to help and were very sweet. Also the food was amazing and super cheap. I'm glad we had Dessy to arrange things for us, and actually it was cheaper to organise the lodge through her than direct.
Our cook & some of her amazing meals
We booked our flights by ourselves from Denpasar through Lion Air. The flights were about R4,000,000 each, and the full 4 night tour cost R6,500,000 including most food and drinks except for 1 day at the lodge. So, altogether the trip cost around US$900 each for three people.
About the National Park
The park was set aside in the 1930s by the Dutch colonial government for the protection of the orang-utans and proboscis monkeys, and was designated as a UNESCO reserve in 1977 then a national park in 1982. It is over 416,000 hectares of rain forest, drylands forest, swamp forest, mangrove, and coastal forest. Despite its national park status 65% of the forest is degraded and various foundations are working towards habitat restoration. The park is still threatened by fire, illegal logging, illegal mining and forest clearing for the palm oil barons (a pox upon their houses).
All visitors to the park pay an extra fee (usually within your tour cost) which goes towards helping the national park foundation secure and restore the forest. You can also help further by making a donation to the Friend of the National Parks Foundation here.
What to bring
Luggage: If you're coming from Bali try and take carry-on only. This is much easier for the flights of course and you really don't need anything bigger for 3-4 nights. There is no-where to swim so my costume went unused. I should have brought one extra outfit and underwear since we got drenched one day, and everything gets a bit sweaty.
Shoes: You should take one pair of sandals and a pair of walking shoes (I just used sneakers which were fine) as there are leeches after rain and the mosquitoes are vicious. On the smaller walks we just used our sandals. My friends had flip flops which didn't survive the jungle.
Booze: Kalimantan is technically dry however your tour company should be able to pick up some blackmarket Bintang. We brought 6x 750ml bottles for A$45 (more expensive than Bali but still pretty good value and it goes so well with the local dishes) and donated one to the grateful crew. We also brought two bottles of wine between the three of us...I was certain we wouldn't get them through airport security in our carry-on but apparently they don't care. I wouldn't push it and take more than a bottle per person though, and you may get a less relaxed security guard so be prepared to lose a bottle.
Mosquito Repellent: If you can find deet, bring it and lather it on - you do not want to get Dengue. The standard spray you get in Bali chemists is okay, but you have to use a lot. Deet will keep off the other bugs and leeches too (if you're Australian, get the trusty Bushman's brand).
Light cardigan/jacket: I was a little cool one evening and used my sarong which was fine. The rest of the time it wasn't needed for warmth but a rain jacket to cover your camera/phone might be useful. I didn't bother and just got soaked on our one rainy afternoon which was part of the fun. The weather is unpredictable, you may not get any rain at all.
Long sleeves and pants: The mosquitoes alone makes this important but also Kalimantan is a more traditional area than Bali so try and be respectful in your dress.
Snacks: We bought some Balinese Pod chocolate from the airport in Denpasar and a few packets of snacks from the airport in Surabaya, ranging from tasty-to-weird. This was not really required on the boat where we got three square meals a day, but they were useful during our stay at the less-than-organised Rimba lodge.
A big shout-out to Dessy, Diaz and the team at Orangutan Applause for the amazing trip, and to my lovely and enthusiastic travel companions, Vanessa Liew and Ava Winter. Extra kudos to Vanessa for the amazing photography.
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