Have you ever had a moment in your life where you had to stop and think, "Is this real? Is this actually happening to me right now?" Because that's what our trip to Borneo was like.
A Little Backstory
I don't know how I got the idea stuck in my head, but I'd been wanting to travel to Indonesia for years. The reason it took us (my boyfriend and I) so long to go was that I wanted to go at a specific time of year. I didn't want to go between November and March because that's the rainy season. But I also didn't want to go in the middle of summer (July-August) because that's at the peak of the tourism season. So, I specifically had to plan my trip to Indonesia between April and July. Lucky for us, Covid travel restrictions were lifted this year just around that time—and it was perfect!
We knew that we didn't want to just visit the normal tourist places, we really wanted to experience Indonesia and its wildlife. Experiences with local animals are always my favorite! That's when we stumbled upon a company called Orangutan Applause on a random travel blog, and it looked amazing. So we booked our tour, and here's how it went.
Side note: Even if you're not a big fan of tours, there are some places in the world that you can't visit unless you're on a tour, and this is one of them.
Getting to Borneo
First, I'm going to get the boring stuff out of the way by explaining how to get to Borneo, because it's a little bit of a trek. If you're just here for the fun stuff, then skip to the adventure.
Borneo is an island located east of mainland Indonesia. The island isn't owned by one country; it's split between Indonesia and Malaysia and there are only a limited number of flights that go there (mostly propellor planes, from what we saw).
The airport in Borneo you need to fly into is Pangkalan Bun airport (PKN). We booked our flight out of Jakarta because it was the most convenient airport for us to get to. Although, you can also get there from Semarang and Surabaya. There are no direct flights from Bali.
You'll want to book your domestic flights through the Indonesian booking app Traveloka. We struggled to find and book our flights from the US until the tour company told us about this app. It's reliable and it's the only app we found where we could book domestic Indonesian flights from abroad (since they're through smaller, local airlines).
Okay, now that I got through all the boring stuff, let's move on to the fun, bloggy stuff!
At the crack of dawn, we caught our flight from Jakarta to Borneo where someone from Orangutan Applause picked us up. She explained that the only airport in the area was one shared with the military, so there were guards stationed at the entrance.
It was only about a 30-minute drive to the river where we would be boarding our boat—which would be our home for the next three days.
When we arrived, we were warmly welcomed by our tour guide, Eros, and introduced to the boat staff (the cook, captain, and deckhands). Everybody was super friendly and made us feel right at home.
Oh yeah! Did I mention that we were the only guests on this boat? Because we were and it was amazing. The deck was set up so we had a bed, table, and bathroom all to ourselves. We felt like we were in the Jungle Cruise movie...besides the Cars bedsheets.
And almost right away, we were off! As we made our way out of the docking area and towards Tanjung Puting National Park, we were served a huge breakfast.
It would be a while until we got to the area where orangutans hang out, so we spent some time getting to know our guide, Eros. He spoke English really well and he was a super-cool guy. It was thanks to him that our time on the boat in between stops passed by so quickly.
On the Boat
I'd never slept on a riverboat before, and the experience was everything I could've imagined.
As my boyfriend and I watched the sunset from the roof deck, we spotted proboscis monkeys (big-nose monkeys) and macaques in the trees around us.
We were served another amazing meal, and then we took showers with cold river water (hey, it's all part of the experience, right?).
Then the deckhands set up a bug net around our bed and we fell asleep surprisingly fast.
I won't keep going on about the boat, but just trust me when I tell you that it was a really special experience.
We made three stops on this trip to see orangutans, but the last was the absolute best so I'll talk about that one (you don't need three separate accounts of similar events).
On the final stop of our three-day, two-night boat tour, Eros led us through a trekking trail in the jungle. As we arrived, he told us that there were two trails: the easy one and the scenic one. Of course, we chose the longer, scenic route. But just a few minutes in, we realized we made a mistake.
The sunny afternoon quickly turned dark as a huge thunderstorm rolled in. Since we're geniuses, we left the nice rain jackets we'd brought specifically for this reason on the boat—so we got stuck in a crazy downpour with just our bucket hats to protect us. It was a pretty insane experience. We trekked through the jungle in the pouring rain, booming thunder, and lightning. The only "scenery" we saw on the route was the ground as we stared at it and tried to avoid the massive puddles that instantly formed. About 45 minutes later, we arrived at the clearing.
Earlier on the trip, we were told that orangutans don't like the rain, so we were worried that we wouldn't see any that day.
However, as we entered the clearing where the orangutans would be fed, the rain subsided and the clouds parted. Maybe we'd get lucky?
We heard rustling in the leaves above us and that's when we noticed that we had nothing to worry about, the orangutans were already gathering around us. In addition to the orangutans, we also spotted a gibbon, which Eros told us is pretty rare.
Then, it was time for the feeding. A park ranger came and threw piles of bananas on a wooden platform and the forest suddenly came to life around us. Orangutans came from everywhere. At one point, I counted 14 orangutans, a gibbon, and a pack of wild boars around us. I felt like I was in a movie, or a documentary, or Tarzan, or something. It was unreal.
My boyfriend and I (and some other people who were on their own tours) were in shock. We stood in the clearing in awe; we collectively knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
There were orangutans from all stages of life around us: alphas, mothers, babies, and adolescents. I watched a cheeky baby run over and pull an alpha's hair then run away, I watched the gibbon swing in to steal bananas and scram, I saw a mother shove as many bananas as she could in her mouth and leave before the alpha could stop her, and I watched the boar family eat the peels that were dropped on the ground. The jungle was bustling with life.
Because I didn't mention it before, let's be clear here: there were no cages or enclosures. There was just a clearing and a wooden podium that the ranger threw the bananas onto. At that moment, we were a part of the jungle and it was exhilarating.
A few times, the orangutans did come into the clearing and walk amongst us and I'll admit, when one mother walked within an inch of me and almost brushed my leg, I was nervous. But thankfully, orangutan attacks aren't very common and after looking up at me, she peacefully passed by.
The next morning, we started heading back to the port, but not before getting a chance to do a little good. Orangutan Applause donates part of its profits to reforestation and we were grateful to take part in that.
We pulled over and trekked, once again, into the jungle—spotting another orangutan on the way. We eventually reached an area with no trees. Eros explained that the area was previously damaged in a forest fire and they were trying to reforest it.
We finally reached a small shack in the woods where a man, who I would consider to be somewhat of a hero, resided. The old man who lived there was the sole person propagating and planting the trees. He lived away from his wife and children for months at a time so he could help the jungle.
My boyfriend and I each chose a sapling and planted it nearby. Hopefully, those saplings will grow to be big and strong one day.
The rest of the tour went as you'd expect. We made our way back to port (getting slammed with a huge tropical storm on the way). We thanked our crew for an incredible adventure, and we were taken back to the airport.
If you have a trip planned to Bali, you should set aside a few days to go to Borneo. You won't be disappointed.
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If any of this information helped you, or if you have advice of your own, feel free to give this post a like, comment, or share!
See you soon!