Voyage to Shackleton Country
Our companions on this sea voyage from the Falklands to South Georgia were a medley of albatross and petrels. Hardly ever flapping their wings, they glide effortlessly in the wake of the ship, soaring high above us one moment, and then barely skimming the waves.
We had a following sea, with howling winds pushing us to our destination, the ship corkscrewing along in a lurching rolling movement. There are a lot of green faces.
South Georgia is where Shackleton landed with two of his men after rowing 800 nautical miles through these seas. Experiencing first hand the size of the waves, the power of the wind, and the sheer cold, it is hard to imagine a journey of such hardship successfully completed.
Indeed, to this day, not one person has managed to replicate this epic of human endurance. Not only did Shackleton get his boat across these heaving freezing oceans, but he managed to climb over the southern mountains and hike across glaciers and crevasses to arrive in Grytviken in winter. All equipped only with canvas, wool and leather gear.
It's humbling to reflect on this kind of endurance - in today's modern age with gortex, satellite links, email and text, we are never that far away. I often wonder whether anyone from today would survive, dropped into similar circumstances with what little existed in 1914. Or have we become too soft?
Our most arduous experience here is a tummy bug that was introduced to the ship - we are nearly all laid low with some symptoms, but at least we have a warm cabin with hot and cold running water, and three meals a day when we can face up to them again.
After two days we spot land. All of us are photographers of some kind or another, so we are getting trigger happy after only having birds on the wing to try and shoot. It certainly hones our tracking skills, but there's only so many blurred images of albatross that I can snap before I tire of it.
The dawn brings a misty landscape; tendrils of fog wreathe the tree canopy and lie softly on the water. The klotoks emerge from the darkness as misty apparitions. The sun is making a watery appearance through the moisture, colouring the view with gentle hues of pink.
We set off for Camp Leakey, founded by Louis Leakey who trained Dianne Fossey in primate research. Louis chose women researchers because he had more faith in their observational abilities. He believed that women are more able to pick up subtle non-verbal cues.
The Camp is situated in Tanjung Puting National Park; the largest, most diverse and extensive example of the coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest which used to cover much of southern Borneo. The area was originally declared as a game reserve in 1935 and a National Park in 1982. While the Park has a chequered history of weak protection, nonetheless, it remains substantially wild and natural. It contains 3,040 km2 of low lying swampy terrain punctuated by blackwater rivers which flow into the Java Sea. The best known animals in Tanjung Puting are the orangutans, who are the primary reason for our visit.. Tanjung Puting also boasts the bizarre looking proboscis monkey with its “Jimmy Durante” nose, (called longnose by the locals) as well as seven other primate species. Clouded leopards, civets, and Malaysian sun bears cavort in the park, as do mouse deer, barking deer, sambar deer, and the wild cattle known as banteng. Tanjung Puting also has two species of crocodiles, the fresh water and the garigal, dozens of snakes and frogs, and numerous endangered species.
Excerpts from A Guidebook to Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan Tengah (Central Borneo), Indonesia, by Dr. Biruté M.F. Galdikas and Dr. Gary L. Shapiro, published by PT Gramedia Putaka Utama and the Orangutan Foundation International, 1994. © All Rights Reserved.
Our arrival at the Orang-Utan rehabilitation centre is rewarded by a welcoming representative. Terry, a juvenile male is waiting in a tree by the dock, and as we alight from the boat, he ambles down to check us out. He climbs up to sit beside us on the railing, discreetly observing with down- cast eyes and indirect gaze. Humans go into a frenzy with their cameras and iPhones morphing into papparrazi.
When Terry has posed long enough, a wet blanket, (of the blanket variety) catches his eye. He climbs off his pedestal, grabs the sodden prize, throws it over himself and ambles along the boardwalk. Sensible chap – it’s 32 degrees in the shade and evaporative cooling works for me too. From time to time he plays peek-a-boo from under his blanket. Soulful brown eyes peer at us and invite more photos.
We relinquish Terry and continue to the camp – hoping that Terry is not our only encounter. And indeed we are not disappointed. As soon as we arrive at the camp, Mut and Mario are waiting for us. Mut is mum, and Mario is her son, a cheeky chap who reminds me of Homer Simpson. Mum sits at the base of the water tower contemplating life, while Mario is busy trying to suck the water out of a down pipe. Mario pulls faces, sucks on the pipe, and generally clowns about until one of the rangers decides he’s being naughty and shouts. Mut rises gracefully, climbs up to her recalcitrant child, and drags him unceremoniously back to earth.
My thought is they are bright –preferring clean drinking water to that from river or stream. We are warned not to wave our plastic water bottles around – they are quickly appropriated by the orange locals who don’t even bother to take the lid off, but puncture the bottle top with an incisor and then suck out the contents. If the plastic lid comes off, it quickly disappears into a baby’s mouth and proves a choking hazard. I cannot understand the humans who can’t understand this basic rule, and are surprised when their bottle disappears up a tree in a hairy hand.
We are also treated to a visit from Boswell, a gibbon with a handsome black, grey and white face who swings elegantly from tree to roof to tree, looking like a super athlete. Boswell is a rescued monkey, who now has a wild wife and several children. His family is too shy to come visit, but Boswell regularly stops by for a chat and a feed.
One of my travelling companions has had bad experiences with the other species, the long tailed macaque. These ones have eyes that are altogether too close together, so they have a bit of a suspicious look about them, despite their feigned innocence. They have quick, expressive faces, eyebrows that twitch up and down, and look ready for a bit of biffo. Their brethren in Bali are hit and run thieves, responsible for bag snatching, and petty theft of designer sunglasses and cameras. These ones are more circumspect, though I do keep a watchful eye in case one of them is eyeing me up.
After our time up close and personal with Mut and Mario it’s time to hike through the jungle to the feeding station, a platform where rangers put out highly aromatic fermenting bananas and some liquid drink. At any given afternoon there will be more or fewer Orangs arriving, conditional on the availability of food in their forest. We are blessed; about 15 Orangs arrive to partake of the feast.
They arrive in various ways. Some arrive early, scurrying in and grabbing everything they can, shoving bunches in their mouths and grabbing more in their hands, then racing off up the nearest tree where they can consume their booty in private. Others swing on to the platform and make themselves at home, slowly stuffing oozing fruit into their gobs until they look like they’ll burst. The containers with liquid are surrounded, and the younger Orangs do forward bends until their heads are invisible in the buckets. Others put their hand in and lick the solution off their dripping fist. Boswell the gibbon swings by and takes a position at the edge of the platform until one of the much larger orangs claims his space, when Boswell takes a breathtaking leap into the nearest tree until it’s safe to swing in again.
The rather less glamorous creatures scrounge around underneath the platform – wild boars desperate to woof down any droppings left by the apes. But they are wary – if one of the larger Orangs takes umbrage, one smack from a fist is enough to kill.
Eventually the bananas are gone, and the Orangs retreat again, silently disappearing back into their jungle. They are so well camouflaged, the only evidence of their presence is the shaking of the trees as they move through.
It’s an awesome experience, only marred by humans. Princess mum continues to reinforce my early opinions by obliviously hogging space. Wherever you turn, there she is right where you’ve managed to get one of the locals in your view-finder. Between her and Princess, it’s difficult to get a photo without some part of one of them intruding, and sometimes the only thing you can see is the back of their heads as they crowd in with one of their digital devices. I reflect about their likely reception at a professional photo safari: after their first outing with real professionals, they would be banned from further participation for their breathtaking lack of concern for other people’s interests.
Day two, fly to Pangkalan Bun and transfer to our first houseboat.
The road from the airport to Kumai is long and full of pot-holes. The best way to get about seems to be by motor bike, swerving to avoid the holes in the road is so much easier on two wheels. I am tempted to try to ride on our cycle-mounted guide – it looks way more fun!
We arrive at the river and the National Park office where our klotok awaits us. They are aptly named after the noise they make with their two stroke motors. As opposed to the takatak noise that the motorised canoes make.
One of our travelling companions has arrived, a delightful woman from Adelaide who teaches music and plays trombone in a jazz band. We discover that we have all subscribed to the same deal, a bargain tour of Camp Leakey.
Unfortunately we have to hang about in the heat for another two travelling companions. While we are waiting, we are surrounded by the loud sound of bird calls – not the birds themselves, but recorded and piped through loudspeakers atop massive warehouses. The bird song is to entice birds to move in - these warehouses (larger and nicer than the average home), house nesting birds; all mod cons provided. When the chicks have flown, the nests are harvested and sold for a fortune to be made into birds nest soup. I must confess, the thought of eating broth made out of sticks, bird saliva and other excretions does nothing for my stomach. Well, there’s no accounting for taste!
Finally our tardy travel companions arrive; mother and daughter who give some story of being given the wrong information. I am not sure why they are late, since they over-nighted in Pangkalan Bun, whereas we had to fly in from Jakarta.
A premonition of things to come happens when mother comments to daughter “I’ve booked you a really nice hotel in Jakarta so you should be happy with that.” My friend and I roll eyes at each other, hoping against hope that we are not travelling with a princess.
Without any ado, briefing or drill, we cast off and start our journey up the sluggish brown Kumai River towards the Sekonyer tributary. There is no safety drill, no emergency information, no overview. No life vest demonstration, rules about wash rooms, toilet paper, flushing. No sign of beds either, and our bags are whisked away below decks.
Our captain is called Tonno, our guide is Muk and the boat boy is Onyo. So we discover as we go along, but only by asking. We also have a cook, a nameless woman who spends the rest of our journey below decks where she cooks, eats, sleeps and prays. Mostly hunched over because below deck is only 1 meter high and even Indonesians are taller than that. Every now and then we see her to congratulate her on the food and are rewarded by a beaming smile, and she beats a shy retreat.
Princess mum helps herself to the best seat in the house, which she proceeds to do whenever she can, with nary a thought about her fellow travellers. By the end of the trip I am convinced we are travelling with a narcissist, since she seems completely oblivious to the needs and desires of any of her fellow journeyers. But that unfolds slowly.
The river banks are lined with townships, replete with bird houses, wooden houses, mosques, boats, tugs motor canoes and klotoks. The sky is sullen, the air sultry and close. After an hour up river we leave the main river and motor up the tributary. The morphing of the vegetation is clear – for the first hours on the Sekonyer, the banks are exclusively lined with palm trees. Evidence of the replacement of the rain forest with palm oil plantations. The seeds float down river and embed themselves so the banks are an impenetrable mass of palms. The brown water follows us up stream, effluent from the gold mines which work night and day, pumping their wastes into the river system.
Within an hour we are treated to a tropical downpour; plastic covers are hastily released side back and front, so we can travel in relative dryness on the boat. The afternoon has darkened, and we motor along in the gloom watching the water pelt onto the river surface and lash the palms.
Dinner, when it arrives is delicious. It is hard to imagine our cook putting out such marvellous fare with a kerosene burner and a couple of woks. We are treated to fish, rice, fried tempeh and vegetables, followed by tropical fruit. And kopi – coffee for the uninitiated. I feared our fare would be instant coffee, but no – we are served Indonesian coffee, which is the same as Arabic or Greek; rich, finely ground and served with carnation milk. Delicious, though one has to beware the fine grounds left at the bottom.
When it is bed-time, we get to know the sleeping arrangements. Our bags stay stowed below, they bring 5 mattresses on deck, slip on sheets, throw us a pillow each, hang sleeping nets, and hey presto, the whole upper deck is our communal bedroom. Care must be taken at night not to garrotte oneself on the sleeping net ties if we stumble our way to the bathroom. Sleep is elusive: the mattress is lumpy, two of my companions (Princess and Princess Mum) snore loudly enough to breach the ear plug barrier, and the night gets cold enough to need blankets – which do not exist on the boat. I am required to wear a woolly top and use my sarong to try to preserve warmth.
But hey – it’s only a week and we have great Apes to look forward to!
Well, leg one of the journey to visit our long lost cousins, is successfully complete.
We enjoyed an eventless flight to Jakarta, which is always the best kind of flight don’t you think? We both agreed airline food is much maligned as we hoed into our chicken and vegetables and cous cous.
9 hours passed relatively quickly with inflight entertainment and kindle books. Christine fell asleep minutes after we took off, rousing from time to time to enjoy the splendour of the red centre as we flew over it – water water everywhere! A most amazing sight to see water courses and lakes where there are usually only red dust dunes..
We arrived at Jakarta airport to go straight through to the baggage hall – no queuing at immigration, because immigration comes to us – in our airline seat! Three hours after we took off, a couple of trolleys were wheeled down the plane and I kid you not, two immigration people checked passports, visas and declarations and we were processed!!! In fact we came out so quickly we even bounded past our pick-up...
I felt like one of the competitors of the Amazing Race or whatever it’s called – back pack and running shoes on, trying to get clues about money changing and where we would find the guy who was to get us transferred to the hotel. So we were in and out of terminals under the instructions of a variety of people until eventually one of the security guards allowed us back in to the arrivals area and we managed to quiz some hotel limo guys who pointed us in the right (or rather left) direction and we found our guy, who was definitely wearing a very yellow uniform, but not the yellow hat we had been advised to expect.
All is good now – hotel is great, shower even better. We were shown into a room with a ginormous king-sized bed at first; they obviously didn’t follow our request for two singles. But soon enough we were transferred into a new room, so all is well – Christine and I won’t have to worry about thrashing about in bed, or inadvertently cuddling each other in a forgetful moment...
It’s 30deg C and I even had a cool shower...
My overall impression of our first landing place is polite, friendly and helpful. Sleep, perchance to dream of red-heads until an early start tomorrow...
One of the more joyous travel moments of 2011 was a trip to Exmouth in Western Australia, accompanying a friend on a swim with whale sharks, a pleasure I had experienced in 2010.
We left booking everything to the last minute, which is generally a big mistake, and more so this time because we were planning our trip for the Easter weekend.
Alarm bells sounded when it was nigh impossible to book accommodation. In the end we took a camp site without power, and borrowed a tent.
On arrival we scouted around town to see if we could book a day out with the whale sharks. Undeterred by the bemused looks we received from most of the tour operators when asked if they had any seats available that weekend, and the hopeless look that followed a request to go on a wait-list, we finally found the one last seat on a boat. Friend and I wrangled over the place, and my superior logic finally won out: I had done it before so he should take the tour.
Now, my friend and I are eternal optimists, so I was only slightly dismayed at not getting a ride as well. We cheered each other on by commenting that something would happen, and he had a good feeling.
On the appointed morning for the rendez vous with the sharks, I was roused by my friend stomping about infuriated that his morning tea wasn't available. Since I was awake anyway, I accompanied him to the bus pick-up, to send him off.
When the tour bus arrived, my ever optimistic friend asked the driver if they had any vacancies, and again, there was that pitying look.
And then a voice at my elbow said: "My friend is sick and can't come, would you like to buy her ticket?" Would I ever!!!!
I have never been a sluggard at getting ready for things, but this time was a record - one blink and I reappeared with snorkel, fins and a grin from ear to ear.
Our up-beat-ness was rewarded big time - our tour followed a small juvenile, a mere two and a half meters long; juveniles are said to be far more curious than their grown up versions, diving less and staying on the surface more to check things out.
If you have never been swimming with whale sharks, the process goes like this: the boat takes you out into the deep sea, where the spotter planes help to locate sharks feeding on the surface. The boat then moves to a position in the shark's path, and a group of us leap into the water and swim furiously - with little idea of where the shark is. If our course is right, and we followed our group leader, we find ourselves in the path of the oncoming shark. One minute staring into an expanse of cobalt blue water, and the next a massive mouth appears out of the blue (both figuratively and literally) and we flap to get out of the way of the approaching maw. Have no fear dear reader, these creatures are gentle giants, and an accidental ingestion of humans is unlikely: anything larger than coral spawn is likely to be spat out or avoided in the first place. Then we swim alongside, and the most dangerous creatures are our swimming companions, all desperate to wring the most out of this experience - elbows, fins, hands and legs may be deployed against you to get as close as possible to these extraordinary creatures. Eventually, the shark has cruised enough, or has had enough of the following horde of humans, and dives into the depths once more, doing a reverse of its appearance, for long minutes you can see the creature descending, spots and all, and then suddenly, it's disappeared into its surrounding, so perfectly is it camouflaged.
At the end of our outing, like over-exited kids wanting just one more ride, we begged the captain for just one more swim, to be rewarded by our "little" friend who spent close to thirty minutes cruising around and about the boat, snapping at air bubbles, turning suddenly, prompting a flurry of fins while we tried to maintain the requisite 3 meter distance.
Thirty minutes of magic, a triumphant result of positive thinking.
PS: I have an uncanny knack of finding perfect parking spots too!
Not the best photos in the world, but you try taking a shot underwater with a disposable camera of indeterminate age.
Starting a photo website is proving to be both easy and challenging - putting the elements in is easy - but putting the photos in is proving more challenging.
And photos is what I want to load!
Out of my depth; image taken with iphone at Bondi Icebergs