Friday, May 07, 2010

Jungle Massive

This week, I managed to skip Jakarta's 21st century heart of darkness and headed into the jungles of Borneo for a few days to do a Lord Jim. In Conrad's novel, Lord Jim, a disgraced young seaman, heads into the jungle in order to live with the Dayaks and so I rocked up in Palangkaraya in central Kalimantan with a bag full of mosquito repellent and amusing hats.

Palangkaraya is a small city, however it received a lot of attention from Sukarno. Indonesia's first president got the Russians to build some nice, wide boulevards around town when he was flirting with the red menace and also had a fancy woman shacked up here it a rather tasteless pied-a-terre. Sukarno even considered making Palangkaraya the Indonesian capital at one point. 

Sukarno's successor Suharto, rather hubristically decided to make Indonesia self-sufficient in rice by draining the peat swamps in the huge rainforests and jungles that lie beyond the city and starting a huge program of planting. Not only did the rice not materialize, due to the peat soil being too acidic for the stuff to grow in, but Indonesia's current status as the world's third largest producer of greenhouse gases is largely due to these dried out swamps releasing their previously locked in carbon into the atmosphere. In the words of that intellectual colossus, Homer Simpson, "Doh!"

As well as the rice disaster, rampant deforestation, slash and burn agriculture, forest fires, palm oil plantations and a rapidly dwindling orangutan population have led to a veritable army of tree hugging, granola munchers to descend on the area in order to hold conferences and to try and engage communities in and around the rainforests in conservation efforts.

I myself haven't burnt down any significant area of forest for many years now and often hold in any unpleasant bouts of digestive greenhouse gas after an enjoyable Nasi Padang session, however I wasn't in town to jam with either Sting, Bono or Bob Geldof. I was going to ford upstream into the jungle on a pleasant three day riverboat cruise.

For the past few years, a couple of lovely ladies, Lorna Dowson-Collins and Gaye Thavisin, have run riverboat eco-tours from Palangkaraya up into the lush jungles of Borneo. The pair have built a huge cruising boat, which can house groups of up to 10, and on the spacious top deck of which tourists can recline in comfort, enjoy prawns the size of canoes and spy on the orangutans at the water's edge as they muck about and exhibit appalling table manners.

The rivers themselves are the quintessential jungle waterways. As calm as mirrors and between 50 and hundred meters in width, they meander through lush protected forests with only the occasional illegal gold mining operation or chainsaw buzzing in the distance to remind one of the dangers that this ancient environment now faces. The tour is an educational one and has previously been enjoyed by various European and Australian Parliamentary delegations, as well as the Prince of Denmark, who apparently had a whale of a time.

We made a brief stop at an orangutan rehabilitation centre at one point and learnt that some of these hairy chaps are in a very sad state indeed. Orphaned and suffering from malaria and/or flu, the centre nurses them back to health and gradually releases them back into the wild. It's becoming a losing battle however as there are now more orangutans coming in than are going out.

The cruise itself is magnificent though and takes one through idyllic areas of primary rainforest as yet completely unspoiled by man and his vociferous appetite for destroying things and soiling his nest. Mind you, I was still able to get a mobile phone signal for the entire duration of the trip. The heart of darkness is fully wired these days you understand. It can only be a matter of time before those orangutans that I spied at the river's edge are downloading banana themed wallpapers onto their Blackberries or texting each other across the jungle, "Found sum coconuts, c u in 10 minutes. GOL" (that's "Grunting out loud").

If you’re up for a cruise like this then take a look at: An interesting one will be taking place between May 20th and May 23rd in fact. If you find the Jakarta Highland Gathering a bit passé then the Isen Mulang Cruise will take you to the traditional Dayak games of the same name. One of the events is a game of soccer played with a burning coconut. Silly sods.

Meanwhile, in terms of saving this ancient environment, if you're not willing to chain yourself to a tree the Greenpeace way, then consumer choice is perhaps your best weapon. Don't eat the baso in East Java that locals were recently found making from kidnapped monkeys. Another good one to avoid would-be palm oil perhaps, which is apparently present in 10% of all supermarket products. Giving up Indonesia's Blue Band palm margarine shouldn't be too difficult for Westerners though, seeing as the stuff tastes like clarified goat bile. Mind you, the less of the stuff that's eaten, the more that can be used as chainsaw lubricant. Anyway, let's all sit in a circle now and sing, "We shall overcome."