After a hot, hard and uncomfortable night at Sikundur research station, we awake at six and are greeted with an amazing breakfast in the kitchen. We finish packing our rucksacks for the journey upriver. Today we are heading north to find a specific location in the forest where previous research on forest structure and orangutan density had been carried out over ten years ago in what we believed was primary rainforest. As we don’t have the exact GPS coordinates, we are relying on Ben one of our Indonesian research assistants (and forest guides) who had accompanied Prof. Serge Wich to remember the exact location. The two boatmen and our team of three assistants think it will be five hours upstream (in reality, this turned out to be eight).
The boat and the crew arrive and we load up all the kit and provisions required for the following three days. Sat wedged in between a sack of rice and the tents we await the off. But as the boatmen turn over the outboard, it repeatedly splutters and dies. We sit tight as tools are passed down from the research station and the crew set to work. Surprisingly, it isn’t long before we leave our tiny harbour between two fallen trees and set off up the lively river, which although shallow, has a fast and strong current. The wooden dug out boat is similar to the one we had arrived on yesterday and although it feels unstable when loaded with all this extra weight, we quickly learn to trust both the boat and its two very skillful crew. The river is their life and they know how best to navigate it, and so we begin our long journey up river into the rainforest.
It isn’t long before the water becomes too shallow to use the engine and our assistants are out of the boat and pushing us upstream. We feel like colonials, sitting watching the men struggle on our behalf. This thought makes us eager to walk, but even then two of the men give Mandy and I their shoes so that we can grip the stony riverbed, we gratefully accept them feeling a mixture of guilt but relief as our feet are not accustomed to such hardships. Whilst the crew take the heavy load, we wade through this lively river, crossing from point to point and following the meanders and beaches. With the mountains as our backdrop, every new bend provides a new and beautiful scene. The morning light, the burbling river and forest sounds give it a calming and serene feel: a timeless wilderness where are our imaginations are free to roam.
We all spread out, walking and wading at our own pace; lost in our own thoughts. Blue distant mountains, dark luscious canopies, green and turquoise waters and the hues of the grey rocks are our companions. I ponder how lucky I am to be here, how life takes strange twists and turns and that we never know what opportunities lie ahead. I am in my element here. Despite the heat and the discomfort of walking on the uneven stones there is so much to take the eye and absorb the spirit. Several varieties of kingfishers (white-throated, black-capped, collared, and common) lead the way, so too do purple herons and sprightly grey wagtails skim and flit across the water from beach to beach. There is an occasional crested serpent eagle perched high on the riverside watching and waiting for shoals of fish, and a lone male wild elephant foraging in the undergrowth but in full view – we hold our breath as we walk slowly past him as lone male elephants can be dangerous beings.
The boatmen struggle relentlessly pushing the boat upstream, overcoming the strong currents, floating logs and fallen trees. Some parts of the river are deep enough to be navigable and so we jump back in the boat and relax for a while letting the engine take the strain. Supre, our research assistant, and one of the boatmen get out their fishing nets and began to take advantage of the shoals of river fish which will stock up our food provisions. Apparently the fish you get upstream are sought after for their delicate flavours. Watching them with the nets lain over their shoulders ready to be cast at the sign of movement, is another special moment to behold. I can’t help realizing how far away from nature we have become in the West, how far we are from having these basic skills. These two boatmen and our assistants from Sikundur are vital components of this expedition; we could never manage all this by ourselves. Eco tourists need local expertise.
Eventually after nearly eight hours of travel, it is decided that the river is too shallow to go much further. Ben thinks that from here, it is only an hour’s walk through the forest to the place we want to reach but that here is a good place to make camp. We empty the boat and begin to get our tents up. My attention is immediately drawn to our crew, who as soon as we arrive get to work. One boatman is up a tree hauling the tarpaulin over a branch, firewood is being collected and a fire already lit with water for tea on the boil. Ben, our cook and forest guide, arranges his makeshift kitchen. They are all so resourceful.
Mandy and I set up our small tent in some vegetation above the beach for privacy. We set out our sleeping bags in this tiny hot space. By now it is on the cusp of late afternoon and early evening. Before the sun sets Mandy and I take the opportunity to walk upstream to the next beach and bathe in the cool, fast flowing water. As we get dressed we can hear something large foraging in the vegetation along the riverbank. Aware that it is likely to be elephant we stay still as it tears off small branches, time to go. We make our way silently back to camp where we are greeted with much excitement as the men reveal how they had just watched a family of wild elephant cross the river. Timing is everything it seems!
During our journey we have seen much evidence of wild elephant which is really pleasing as we plan this to be our next study site where a primatologist and elephant specialist will work together to study animal populations and behaviours. During my times studying and writing about wildlife and ecotourism, I have come across numerous places and occasions where witnessing the evidence of large charismatic species is almost as pleasing as seeing them in the flesh. During our walks today we have passed several places where elephant footprints have collapsed the banks as they have made their way to the river. Just to stand where wild elephants have stood and to share the same spaces is a wonderfully evocative thought.
Back at base Ben has cooked us a wonderful supper: fish, rice and veg spiced up with red chillies; all cooked up on a skillet under the tarpaulin. The light is disappearing fast as the sky turns a deep pink and crystal green, I walk down stream to do my teeth and toileting and notice how the moon smiles up at me from the surface of the river. The day shift sounds switch to the night shift and there is nothing left to do other than bed down for the night. Our tent is airless, hot and alive with cockroaches, leeches and mosquito, and even when we have disposed of them, there is a sense that others may take their place. We talk until a fitful sleep eventually overtakes us – this was going to be a long difficult night, and so it was….