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May 2017 – I joined a group of travel journalists on a press trip exploring two of Indonesia’s iconic wildlife spots – getting up close to Orang Utans and the infamous Komodo Dragons.
Running 5000kms along the length of the equator, Indonesia is huge and diverse. If you want to see more than just Bali, the two areas we visited, detailed below, are both worthwhile add-ons.
Kalimantan (aka Indonesian Borneo)
The gateway to Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan is Pangkalan Bun which is one hour’s flying time from Jakarta. The town itself is not very exciting and offers mainly backpacker style accommodation. If you need to stay over, the most upmarket option is the Swiss Bellin just outside of town – its comfortable enough with decent, if somewhat dated, furnishings, an extensive buffet breakfast and a small swimming pool. Its perfectly comfortable but with a corporate feel and frequented more by local business travellers than tourists.
What most people do is time a daytime flight in order to directly board a houseboat (known locally as Klotoks) on arrival and head straight up river in to the National Park. Cruise packages tend to be 2 nights/3 days which is ample time for the full jungle experience. Boat standards vary from very basic to pretty luxurious so, unless you are on a tight budget and don’t mind roughing it, ask to see images of your boat before booking.
Overnights are spent on mattresses swathed by mosquito nets up on the open deck, sleeping under the stars with the jungle chorus as your soundtrack. Most boats cater for up to 8 guests but you can of course charter them just for two or a smaller group, it will just cost more per head. If you don’t manage your full 8 hours sleep overnight, the cruising during the day is at a pace where a catch up snooze or two is possible. The houseboats have western style loos and a cold shower and are fully catered with 3 meals a day, snacks and cold, soft drinks. I can’t vouch for others but the food produced from the tiny galley on ours was varied and delicious.
The point of this jungle adventure though is most certainly wildlife spotting. Within the National Park there are three Rehabilitation Centres you can visit – these are semi-wild areas of the jungle where rescued Orang Utans, that have been illegally captured and/or kept in private homes, are re-introduced to their natural habitat with a view to eventually releasing them back in to the wild. Whilst they do so they are observed by scientists and conservationists. Each centre has a number of different feeding platforms where the Orang Utans get to know they will find food at a fixed time each day if needed. Visitors are allowed to hike in to the jungle to observe as a safe distance of around 5 metres. It’s a truly wonderful experience. We share 97% of our DNA with these amazing animals and, up close, you really see their human side – the way the mothers take care of their babies, their facial expressions, the movement and grip of hands and feet, its completely mesmerising.
If you are really lucky, you may even spot Orang Utans in the wild away from the feeding stations. We saw a mother and baby in the trees on the riverbank and another time, walking back from one of the centres, one large male came right up to us on the path. He gave us the once over and what looked like a cheeky grin then ambled off into the jungle. It could have been scary to be that close but he had such an amused expression on his face, we certainly didn’t seem to phase him. Due to deforestation, even within the National Park, the Orang Utan numbers are in decline. It felt like an enormous privilege to encounter one that close.
Aside from Orang Utans, there’s plenty of other wildlife to see too – gibbons, proboscis monkeys and all manner of birdlife call this jungle home. Sunset brings yet more colours to this natural kaleidoscope and as the skies darken, fireflies light up the trees. And, although its apparently very rare to spot them these days, the river itself is not called Crocodile River for nothing.
Komodo National Park
If you want to go chasing real life wild dragons, Komodo National Park is quite simply the only place in the world that you can. The gateway is Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores – a 90 minute flight from Bali. This time it is worth hanging around – the port itself has a lively, yet laid back vibe – there are some great restaurants and bars and a casual dinner down at the waterfront fish market is something not be missed. There are also some really stylish resorts around Labuan Bajo including the luxury Plataran Komodo Resort and the romantic island setting of the Seraya Hotel. There is little access to beaches other than via hotels but one exception is the hip Atlantis Beach Club on Pantai Pede, also part of the Plataran group and a great place for sundowners.
To experience the National Park, once again you will be taking to the water, either by speedboat (expensive but worth it if time is short) or in another style of wooden sail boat called a Phinisi. You can squeeze quite a lot into a day but, better still, spend at least one night on board and experience sailing both at sunrise and sunset. These boats do have cabins (air-conditioned, basic and compact) but if the waters are calm its so much nicer to stretch out on the mattresses up on deck. If the wind gets up, it can get pretty wet though.
There are 26 smaller islands within the park but the three main ones are Padar, Rinca and Komodo Island itself. There are Komodo dragons on all three but the in the biggest numbers (estimated at 1300) on Komodo. The world largest lizard, they grow up to 3 metres and weigh up to 126kgs. When you arrive on Komodo, the first stop is the briefing area where your boat’s guide will be joined by two rangers who accompany you throughout at the front and rear of the party, armed with forked sticks. You then set off on a hike along pathways through the forest – usually for couple of hours. Komodo Dragons are dangerous and scary looking predators and it is important to keep your wits about you although, in fact, the risk to humans is very low. Contrary to popular belief their breath is not poisonous. The dragons in these islands live mainly off the kill of deer, wild boar and rabbits – they circle their prey to disorientate them and then attack with a single ferocious bite – even if the animal manages to escape, the bacteria in their dragon’s saliva is the killer blow. Once it gets into the prey’s bloodstream, septicaemia slowly kills them over a period of days or even weeks. The Komodo Dragons then eat the lot, skin, bones and all. The kill of one deer can provide food for a whole month.
They can apparently move at alarming speed but, if you find yourself in their path thing to do is run away in a zig zag pattern which, with their poor eyesight, confuses them. Luckily the three we spotted out in the wild were obviously on a time out as they barely moved, although we did see one amble off slowly towards an unsuspecting deer. The rest of our hike was largely uneventful and it wasn’t until we got back to the ranger’s station that we got up really close to a group of dragons snoozing in the shade. Lured by the smell of food (although they don’t get fed) from the ranger’s kitchen, this is one of their favourite hangouts and, from the safety of the stilted decking of the buildings, we got a really close look at their scales and long, sharp claws.
To see Komodo Dragons up close is undoubtedly a thrill but its by no means the only attraction in National Park. Making the trek up to the peak on Padar Island was one of my personal highlights. It was a steep and sweaty climb but we were rewarded with sensational triple bay views including the pristine waters and sands of the famous Pink Beach. Strong currents prevented us from dropping anchor there later but there are literally dozens of other beautiful bays and beaches to explore, with wonderful snorkelling and diving in the protected waters. Sadly our time out on the water was all too limited. I would highly recommend a 3 or 4 day visit to this region as an add-on to a Bali holiday or as part of a wider Indonesia adventure.
Cathy travelled as a guest of the Indonesia Ministry of Tourism – for detailed tourist information click here. Airlines serving Denpasar in Bali include Qatar Airways (flying via Doha) and Garuda International