15 October 2019
Borneo. What does that conjure up in your mind? Jungles? Biggles' war time exploits, trials and tribulation? Great apes? How the heck did we ever end up here?
Whatever, Borneo is a big contrast to the other Indonesian islands. For one , it's relatively flat. At least, on the south coast where we made landfall. We'd come to see the monkeys. Well, Orangutans actually.
These endangered beasts (stop eating Palm Oil based products folks) live in the jungle a few miles up a side river from the town of Kumai and its neighbouring city of Kanjung, or was it Pankalan? Kumai isn't much. Just one long street with the usual small shops and shacks flogging anything as long as its wrapped in plastic and litre PET bottles of petrol for the thousands of scooters that whiz by all day every day carrying everything from planks of wood, jerry jugs of water to the whole family, dad driving, nipper number one behind, then mum. Lastly, smaller child number two, is stood in front, between dad's arms, sometimes stood on a converted bike seat, hanging on for grim death spitting flies and bugs. I call them the airbag children.
To get to Kumai we first had negotiate our way through a huge fishing fleet, thirty two boats around us at one point on all points of the compass. Another Custer moment. All of this in the dark of course. Blowing thirty five knots of course. In torrential, blinding rain. Of course, but oddly, there's no fishing port here. Where the fleet goes we never found out which is a shame as they were amazing. All shapes, colours and sizes, their bows curled up way above the waves like a pair of Egyptian slippers. And all painted like an explosion in a paint factory.
According to the pilot book, it was a miracle we got to Kumai at all. First, it has a bar entrance, my favourite, "least depth 2.1m". The writer goes on, "Approach from S. As the entrance narrows......stay 200m off the beach. As you cross sand spit, make a hard turn to port. At point C, make hard turn to starboard". Which we did. Nerves jangling, eyes straining into the murky water trying to will more water under the keel until we broke through and breathed a sigh of relief. We were in. It was therefore something of a surprise on arriving at the anchorage an hour later to find numerous hundred metre long oil and gas tankers, bulk carriers and multi-deck inter-island ferries all of whom apparently had to hurl their bulk through the same twists and turns that we in our tiny boats had to do. Sometimes I wonder if the folk that write these books do it from the comfort of their living room with a Google Earth picture and maybe a wee puff or two on the wacky backy.
From the river, as we approached Kumai, the waterfront looked very industrial with its tankers at anchor and large grey buildings lining the main drag. It turned out these grey buildings were "rookeries" ( if they'd been rooks, that is. They were in fact swifts, hundreds flying around gobbling up any winged insect careless enough to be out in the daylight.
It turned out this was the source of Birds Nest Soup. I'd always thought that was a euphemism. Surely folk didn't actually eat birds' nests. I mean, as a kid I used to poke about in the garden hedge each Spring looking at the nests and new chicks. All twigs, old feathers, spit and crap. But apparently it's the spit and crap that turns twigs and sticks into a delightfully tasty dish. Mmmm. Yummy. Haud me back. A thousand dollars a kilo mind you. All bound for China. Which is a relief.
Before heading for monkey town we headed for the market to re-provision. Kumai has a "Traditional Market". (See Gallery - Shopping). We've become used to, or is it hardened to these markets, both a visual and olfactory experience. Lots of old ladies sitting around in their stalls selling today's veggies, hopefully newly plucked from their allotment, or simply hoicked out the jungle. Their wares are displayed in little pyramid shaped piles of six or so, five thou a bunch. Fifty if they see you coming. Fruit, veg, spices, nuts, rice, fish and things that look like chickens, it's hard to tell what's beneath the squadrons of flies, all laid out on bamboo tables. You can possibly even buy an old lady, as later in the day you'll find them laid out on the display table. We picked up a few things then, having heard of the Hypermarket Citimall in the nearby big city, we hired a car and driver and off we went......,in twenty minutes, from shacks, dirty grey birds nest soup buildings, old ladies flogging a few pathetic bananas, to a first world, bright shiny, marble shopping destination.
If you couldn't make it up river to see the monkeys, for a few rupiah you could ride a wheeled one around the mall. Tempting.