My guide meets me at the airport, I recognise him immediately as I walk through arrivals, my eyes being drawn to the sign he’s proudly holding up and waving in my general direction – his name is Deddy.
This is a small airport, with just one baggage carousel as long as three office desks are pushed together. We wait patiently as it trundles into action, each bag is carefully thrown from the other side. Typically my bag arrives last with Deddy scooping it onto his back before I can grab it. ‘This way’ he says as we start walking towards the exit. Leaving the air-conditioned building behind, I’m suddenly hit with that oven-like warmth I’d momentarily forgotten about.
I’m in Pangkalanbun, a small city on the southern coast of Indonesia Borneo and am here to hopefully see the mighty Orang-utan that live in the dense forests of the Tanjung Puting National Park. Made famous by Professor Galdikas’s establishment of Camp Leakey and her pioneering study of the Orang-utan in the 70s, images of her paddling deep into the jungle by dugout canoe stick in my mind. I can’t wait to get there!
As we pull onto the swept, tarmacked road leading out of the airport, it’s not long until the potholes begin to appear, the road narrows and the beautiful little villages start lining the streets. Children wearing faded Manchester United tops are kicking footballs at one another and chickens are busily scratching around in the dry, dusty earth. ‘That’s my house!’ Deddy exclaims, pointing to the left. ‘My mother lives next door, my wife’s family over there, my friend there, ooooh and that’s the shop, the butcher, internet, post office…’ Before I know it I’m having the tour de grand of his own village and it’s not long until the taxi pulls over and I’m invited in to meet his extended family.
Locally ground coffee is brought out on a tray accompanied by what can only be described as a treasure trove of deep-fried delights. A small bowl containing a fiery red liquid appears next to it and I am encouraged to dunk one of these patty-like treats into the sauce – all eyes are on me as I pop one into my mouth. Unsurprisingly the red liquid turns out to be Sambal, a local chilli concoction, with my taste beds soon letting me know of the heat involved. Looking around the room, Deddy’s family appear to be tentatively waiting for the decision. A thumbs-up followed by a somewhat muffled ‘It’s very good!’ as I swallow the last mouthful gives way to an unexpected commotion, gold teeth peep through big grins and soon they are all reaching for the plate in front of me.
We bid farewell after a short while and continue our journey towards the port town of Kumai, where a traditional two-tiered boat known as a klotok is waiting to take me downriver. It’s beautifully painted baby blue and two Orang-utan murals are cheerily smiling back at me as I step on board. I meet the Captain, the Captain’s Wife who doubles up as the cook and the Captain’s assistant who is busily preparing for us to disembark. Up on top deck I slump into a deck chair and admire the view as the motors grind into action, ‘Tea Sir?’ the Wife’s Captain appears alongside me with yet more plates of goodies, deep-fried banana, tea, coffee and biscuits. I could get used to this I think to myself as our klotok starts puttering down the Kumai River.
We pass ships of all shapes and sizes, a water taxi whizzes past loaded with passengers, local fishermen appear disgruntled as the wake of our boat knocks him slightly off-kilter and children along the river banks wave excitedly as we go. On the other side of the bank, I see Mangroves stretching to the horizon. ‘Over there!’ Deddy’s pointing to a small opening far in the distance – ‘TANJUNG PUTING’…
Watch out for Charles’ second blog coming soon…