Monday, January 24, 2011

A Wild Week in Sukadana

Jacquelyn and I returned to Sukadana with a new year's resolution to get out into the surrounding forest.   Weddings, birthdays, and holiday parties before the break kept us in town without complaint, but we've decided that now it's time to play outside.  Taking only a few steps off the beaten path, we quickly discovered that Borneo has retained a bit of a wild side.

A trail just down the road from Klinik ASRI leads up a forested hill within the Gunung Palung National Park boundaries.  The trail was well-worn, despite a lack of local tourists or hikers, and after hearing more chainsaw activity lately, we worried we might not see as many big trees as we should.  We were amazed, however, at how quickly the heat of the agricultural valley transitioned to a cool, lush, shady forest.  Before we were a quarter of the way up the hill, birds and butterflies began to emerge, we paralleled a clear, cascading stream, and a troop of leaf monkeys followed our progress with as much curiosity as we had of them.
Wondering what's up with all these trestles along the trail.

Soon after that, suspicious signs began to appear.  Makeshift trestles over obstacles, greased with motor oil, cigarette trash and packets of Ener-G powder suggested that others use this trail, for purposes different than ours.  As the trail became steeper, and after a rest or two, we heard yells and crashes and a rumbling that grew louder until, around a bend, our questions were answered.  Eight or nine men, heaving and pushing and running and pulling, emerged above us, guiding two enormous dugout canoes, carved from trees that must have been 5 feet in diameter.  Both parties startled to see each other, we exchanged smiles, pleasantries, gave the men a reason for a break, took a few pictures and headed on our way.

What's a canoe doing half-way up a forested mountainside?
We continued our climb aghast and comically perplexed by such an interaction in a national park.  Less than a half-mile later we reached a steep clearing where the trestles stopped in sawdust, wood chips, leftover tree trunks and gaping holes in the forest canopy.  Still a bit dumbstruck, without the words to contemplate what we were witnessing, we munched on some granola without the excitement that energized the start of our hike. We passed the canoes again on the way down, laid to rest at the bottom of the hill, and marveled for a moment at their size, the skill with which they were crafted, and the effort and energy it must take to produce them.
Smile? Kari atop one of the felled trees that became a canoe
 Whether or not a coincidence, the next day Immigration officials showed up at clinic and asked to take all of the foreigner's passports to Pontianak for review.  Our refusal bought us our own escorted trip to Pontianak, five hours by boat, on the following day.  Fearing fines, deportation, or time in an equatorial jail had us prepared for the worst, so a stern lecture from a uniformed official about visa approvals and volunteers getting health department authorization left us quite relieved.  A 5-hour boat trip the next day put us back in Sukadana to pick up where we left off.

Lunch on Pulau Juanta
With our interest piqued after the previous hike, we were even more eager to explore Sukadana's natural treasures.  The weekend came and we boarded a boat for one of the offshore islands, Pulau Juanta.  Sitting on the hazy horizon, Juanta is one of many uninhabited and reportedly undisturbed islands off the west coast of Borneo.  Our excursion turned into a fun-filled ASRI field trip, with conservation and clinic staff joining the fun.  Truly untouched, the jungle was impassable beyond 10 feet from the beach.  We filled the morning fishing, snorkeling, and climbing rocks at the water's edge.  Fresh fish, caught with hand-lines and grilled on the beach, were a pleasant addition to our picnic lunch.
Wild times offshore
With the rain forest spilling down to the water's edge, we couldn't resist lounging in the shade and reflecting on what a wild week it's been.  Borneo is changing fast.  The large tracts of forest and indigenous culture that give this island it's mystique are disappearing in plain view, being rapidly replaced by wild life of a much different sort.  As disheartening as it is, we're thankful to be here now, to have found a way to help through ASRI, and to have a few more weeks to make good on our new years resolution.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Holiday Recap: once again, Indonesia wows us

Happy travelers on New Years Eve. Rinca Island, Komodo National Park
Jacquelyn and I are back in Sukadana after a whirlwind holiday across the Indonesian archipelago.  In a little over two weeks we managed to set foot on seven different islands and were constantly amazed at the cultural and biologic diversity that this country holds.

The island of Java shouldn’t count - we only saw the inside of Jakarta’s airport, but the visit was notable because there we met up with Tom and Ashley, our two great friends from back home in North Carolina.  Avid birders, fishers, divers and lovers of all things outdoors, these two helped us set a course for a few of Indonesia’s best natural playgrounds.  We quickly caught a flight to Lombock, the western most island in the central chain called Nusa Tenggara.

A big breakfast on Gili Air, before a big day in the water
 On Christmas Day we took the first of our many boat trips, this one carrying us from Lombock over to Gili Air.  The easternmost of the three Gili Islands, Air isn’t as rowdy or thumpin’ as Gili Trawangan, but has a little more to do than beach walks and shade-snoozing on Gili Meno.  We hit a couple restaurants with fresh seafood and enjoyed wandering through the villages on the island’s interior, but most of our time was spent either off shore in the coral or in a beach hut with breakfast or a beer, depending on the location of the sun.
Tom, wishing the Gilis farewell and headed down to Kuta Lombok
 After a wild ride through a few too many tourist traps, we made it down to Kuta Lombok.  Rain limited visibility of the sprawling rice fields and Gunung Rinjani’s jagged crest behind them, and kept us indoors for the first two days.  We caught a bad case of cabin fever, so by the third day the rain didn’t matter, and we had a wonderfully wet surf session on Grupuk’s inside break.  Not too hefty, the waves were right for all of us and Ashley and Tom looked nothing like first-timers by the end of the day.  The evening was capped with a big score from Jacquelyn – a quick motorbike ride put us on top of the hill behind Kuta at a restaurant called Ashtanga, a vegetarian paradise with sweeping views of Lombock’s southern coastline.
All smiles at Ashtanga, after a big day of surfing at Grupuk
 With the days of 2010 waning, we set off again, headed east by plane, over Sumbawa and onto Flores Island, where we hoped to spend New Years with some really big lizards.  Labuan Bajo turned out to be a funky little port town, refreshingly devoid of tourist excess, but with a handful of excellent eateries and a garden hotel that boasted the best view I’ve had in quite a while. 
Enjoying an early morning mug of Flores coffee, en route to Rinca
 Rinca Island was our last of 2010.  We caught a slow boat out of the harbor at 7am on the 31st, and enjoyed slowly waking up and sipping coffee as we puttered between grassy-peaked islands and primitive fishing outposts.  Rinca is one of two islands that the Komodo dragon calls home, both very well managed by Indonesia’s national park system.  The dragons are not to be messed with.  Rows of teeth and Listeria-laden saliva have left water buffalo skulls littered across the island.  Still, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe when staring into the eyes of these horrendous beasts.  
One of several big dragons we saw, getting every last bit of my zoom.
After a quick snorkel (lion fish, turtles and eels, oh my) we made it back to Labuan Bajo for a big New Years Eve dinner and firework celebration.  Not a bad way to wrap up an incredible year.
Boom! Our staff waging a roman candle war on the hotels across the bay.
We savored our fun on New Years day, but boarded another boat on the 2nd, bound for the smallest of our holiday islands, Seraya Kecil.  Amenities here were sparse, but a dugout canoe, masks and snorkels and a couple of hammocks kept us quite occupied.  The reef facing our beachfront bungalows was the best yet, with more colorful coral, diverse fish, and crazy crustaceans than we’d ever encountered.  Quick hikes up to the hilltop yielded views of equally as deserted surrounding islands, and slivers of sunset through the rainclouds.  The end of our third day and our last boat trip, back to Flores, came too quickly.
Young man and the sea: Tom takes the dugout for a spin off of Seraya Kecil
 We had our last hurrah on Bali.  As densely packed as it is, we welcomed the fluid infrastructure and sweet culture as much as it welcomed us.  Predominantly Hindu, streets and beaches are lined with small temples and shrines, business is concluded in anjali mudra with a smile, and flowers seem requisite for anything that sprouts and bears roots.  Our favorite beach didn’t have the waves we hoped, so we swam and laid in the sun instead.  We had our final feast in Jimburan Bay, with fresh seafood in the sand, and were serenaded by a Balinese Mariachi band.  They closed the night with the Stones’ “Satisfaction.”
 Jacquelyn and I left Ashley and Tom to explore Bali for another week.  An email today suggests they’ve already fallen in love with Ubud.  Our two day journey back to Sukadana left plenty of time to reflect.  This country, it’s 17,000 islands and cultures with over 300 languages, is absolutely incredible.  We visited some of its best – safely protected and amazingly diverse coral, well managed national parks, and some local culture that blends almost perfectly with tourism.  It’s good for us to see successful models of conservation, park management, and tourism.  It’s also good to be back in Sukadana, and good to be back to work with ASRI, trying to bring similar success here to West Kalimantan.