Scooter bombing through the frills on Denpasar’s outskirts (embroidered under the influence), I seek an address as illusive as can be expected here. The gate and door ajar, Shinta looks up from maps strewn on the tiled, living-room floor just as I bomb past her house, brake, and turn around.
She introduces me to Ecologist Tom Haley and a stack of snakes in a wall of terrariums: two albino, Burmese pythons, a king cobra, and the North American king snake. Most of these she’d acquired through her work rescuing reptiles – both wild and captive – usually from pricey, private villas or compounds, while working with Bali Reptile Rescue.
“Oh, have you seen that crazy foreigner around Kuta – goes around with snakes around his neck?” I ask. “Goes to the bars with them on? Wears them like accessories!”
“Oh, does he have albinos?” asks Tom.
“Yeh! That’s him!” I reply.
“Saya tida pernah lihat orang itu,” says Shinta. “No I’ve never seen that person.”
I let the friendly constrictors twist and cuff my limbs like chains, while curious neighbours peer through the house’s rear windows at this bule foreigner – in snake skins.
Tom decides it’s a good time to inform me then, “If constrictors decide to kill you…Well, just imagine trying to lift a grand piano – all by yourself. That’s how hard it’d be to get loose.”
This is when Peter from Australia pulls into the tiny slot of their driveway.
“Peter!” says Shinta. “This is David. He’s coming to Borneo too. He was just talking about you and your snakes!”
Later that same week, we would continue our conversation in a busily ornate living-room – on the island of Borneo, in the city of Banjarmasin and province of Kalimantan Selatan, in the home of the founder of Sahabat Bekantan (Friends of the Proboscis Monkey) Pak Feri.
Pak Feri had our lodgings ready: three bedroom doors opening directly onto a pond, brown water stirred by catfish and turtles, surrounded by cages of babbling parrots and cockatoo. A tame burung rangkok hornbill hops from shade-to-shade, panting with its great bill agape. In the driveway, a team of slow lorises inspect every square of their spacious enclosure (by night), and a group of five proboscis monkeys peep adorably; like five regulars, suddenly looking up from their pints; five gentle, orange vegans, peeping.
For the next few days Tom and I would be sharing our experiences and knowledge in four classrooms, including one masters’ class. In the evenings though, we would get muddy, scouting and photographing on Bakut island.
Cut in half by the Trans-Kalimantan highway’s Barito Bridge, Bakut island is likely the most urbanized and accessible habitat for wild proboscis monkeys in the world. They had been relocated from Kaget island, downstream, after their arboreal food-source had been used – to make cork. We were on Bakut to observe, record, plant trees, clean up mounds of trash, photograph, and be photographed – as the first volunteers to join this promising ecotourist venture. The transportation, accommodation, volunteer opportunities, and the locations were no let-down.
Before we could relax into this routine, however, we would head South in a small convoy to a village-on-stilts known as Huar Gading (Bamboo Tusk): Board-walks adjoining communities, schools, workshops, and Mosques above rice fields, marshes, and misty, jungle-brown rivers. The next morning we would broach the iconic forestry of Borneo – to find the orang-utan of South Kalimantan – that were previously claimed not to exist. The hundreds of loggers in this board-walk hamlet refute this popular claim, saying there are ‘people of the forest’ here.
Our loaded-down kelotok boats run aground and jam in the narrow canals that crack Huar Gading’s bold forests. Finally we choose to turn back to the village. In the rain season, the trip would have been easy, they say. Knowing this for the future is more valuable than it was costly and arduous to come to this conclusion.
The next morning, we go at it on foot. After pushing through barring foliage all the way to the base-camp, carrying just more than a day’s worth of fresh water with us, we head off down an old logging trail with our local guide, Pak Sehari. Sweet keretek smoke swishes in the the swinging of the Dayak machete carried our guide, severing stems and foraging the trail ahead. I muse on how the whole scene – the iconic imagery of adventure itself – seems almost cliché, and yet never gets old, for me. We stop to photograph an orang-utan nest of green leaves no more than a day old. Then, the sun going down, our guide is ready to leave us behind for his fear of ghosts – like the floating head of Kuyang – more than anything wild or poisonous. We high-tale back to camp and call it a day.
The next day we cover more ground in groups. After a full day on foot, Shinta’s group returns with a story to tell. She’d gone to the feeding grounds of the orang-utan. Feeling the heat (at over 40°+ C), she took off her jacket, which lured out the male orang-utan, appearing in three, blurry photos that she’d snapped – as a taxi driver swerves potholes.
This was the first, shaky evidence of the existence of orang-utan in the province; the start of an effort to protect Huar Gading and the surrounding forest. Seeing as male orang-utans need around sixty square kilometres of elbow room – and noting the logging companies’, palm oil plantations’, and coal mining industries’ interests in the area – it’s not going to be easy.
Heading back to Banjarmasin means tunnelling through white-walls of smoke as forest fires blaze either side of the road. The lungs of the world are in a thick haze, and the only thing that crosses these fields at night are embers.
At the cluttered local airport, we break like billiard balls back to our niches, feeling honoured to have been the first volunteers in the trials of this large, new ecotourism venture. While admittedly the program is still in a formative stage – and should only be undertaken during the rain season – South Borneo Orang-utan Care and Sehabat Bekantan already provide a wild crash course in conservation for anyone who wants to go out on a limb for the orang-utan. Bali Reptile Rescue’s nightly snake-hunting tours make a great introduction – to Shinta and her endeavours in Borneo. Otherwise, it’s almost naive to imagine things going too smoothly on that island. There will always be the flavour of adventure there; the salt and rujak (spicy fruit salad) of life.