Tanjung Puting National Park is arguably Kalimantan’s best known attraction and deservedly so. Even after years of travelling through SE Asia, it still ranks as my families favourite adventure.
Tanjung Puting, or Camp Leakey to be specific, was where orangutan conservation started when a Canadian researcher Dr Biruté Galdikas set up the world’s first Orangutan Conservation & Research Centre there in 1971. Galdikas was one the so-called Trimates, three women that renowned paleoarchaeologist Louis Leakey sent to study primates in their natural environment. You may not recognize her name but you’ll probably have heard of the other two; Dian Fossey who went to Rwanda to study the mountain gorillas and later found fame in “Gorillas in the Mist,” a movie about her life. The third Trimate was Jane Goodall who studied chimpanzees in Tanzania.
As well as her studies of wild orangutans, out of necessity Galdikas established rehabilitation and release programs for captive, injured and orphaned orangutans, education programs and campaigned relentlessly for their protection. In 1982 after years of pressure from Galdikas, Tanjung Puting was finally declared a national park. Between 1982 and 1995, Galdikas’s rehabilitation program successfully returned nearly 200 orangutans to the wild and Tanjung Puting now boasts the largest wild orangutan population in the world. It is now one of the few places where tourists can see wild and rehabilitated orangutans in their natural environment.
Whilst orangutan are the star attraction, the peat swamp forests of Tanjung Putting host an enormous variety of flora and fauna including a proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, agile gibbon, boar, clouded leopard, civets, Malaysian sun bear, three species of deer and wild cattle known as banteng. Crocodiles, water monitors, turtles and some highly endangered species of frog and fish thrive in the swampy waterways. The amazing hornbill, colourful stork-billed kingfisher and several varieties of sun bird are among 230 species of birds inhabiting the park; some like the white egret and other endangered waterbirds many taking advantage of seasonal rookeries known as “bird lakes.” Towering jungle giants, nipas palm forests, pitcher plants, over 200 species of orchid and an amazing array of colourful fungi are just some of the notable plant life.
Tanjung Puting can only be accessed by boat from the nearby port town of Kumai. The vast majority of visitors charter a two-story houseboat called a klotok and spend the standard 3 days and 2 nights eating, sleeping and cruising up the Sekonyer and Blackwater Rivers, hopping on and off at the three park station spreads spread along the river. From the jetties, it’s only a short walk to the feeding platforms where rangers pile banana’s once or twice daily for the orangutans. The amount of food given is enough only to supplement the primates who spend the rest of their time foraging in the jungle. These days the orangutans who frequent the feeding stations are the ex-captive/rehabilitated orangutan along with their first and second generation. Truly wild orangutans are rarely seen around the stations but if you’re lucky you’ll catch a glimpse of one or two of the people wary creatures from your klotok before they melt away into the jungle.
To mix things up a bit, there are some easy jungle treks from each of the stations and it’s a fantastic opportunity to see some of the amazing flora and fauna with an experience, knowledgable guide.
The klotok experience is an integral part of the Tanjung Puting adventure. Fashioned after the African Queen these 16m long wooden boats are perfect for wildlife spotting and gently cruising the rivers. Picture yourself lounging up on the deck whilst proboscis monkeys and macaques leaping in trees on either side of the boat. If you get lucky, you might see a crocodile or two, maybe even a gibbon; if you don’t see them you’ll certainly hear them whoop whooping to each other.
Each klotok comes with a guide, a captain, deckhand and a cook who take pride in ensuring that their guest are well looked after throughout the trip. Meals are usually served on the upper deck where you spend most of your time relaxing on lounge chairs, cushions or hammocks between excursions ashore. At night the crew put up mosquito nets and make up beds on the upper deck so you fall asleep with the stars and sounds of the jungle.
If sleeping on a klotok really doesn’t appeal, Tanjung Harapun Dayak village located inside the park boundaries offers overnight accommodation at Rimba Lodge which offers clean, comfortable but simple style rooms. Whether you’re staying at Rimba or not, the village welcomes visitors to drop in and have a look around and even offer guided jungle walks.
As word of Tanjung Putting spreads, visitor numbers are increasing. During peak season from June to September, there are up to 60 klotok operating in the park. Numbers drop off dramatically during the wet season from January to March but this is when the Bird Lakes are inundated with water and nesting birds and the wild orchids bloom. With wild fruits abundant at this time, orangutan numbers at the feeding stations may be down but nevertheless, it’s well worth visiting at this time.
The small city of Pangkalan Bun is the gateway to Tanjung Puting. Most people arrive by plane; either from Semarang or Jakarta in Java or by regional flights from other parts of Kalimantan. You can check and book flights on tiket.com. During the high season, pre-booking you klotok tour is highly advisable. Many klotok operators are online so you can book directly or through a tour and travel agency. As well as arranging park entry permits, most companies will meet you off the plane and take you straight to the nearly port of Kumai to catch your klotok.
If you prefer to wait until you arrive in Pangkalan Bun to arrange your klotok, you’ll need to grab a taxi to Kumai and ask around. Be aware that you need to register at the Pangkalan Bun police station before heading to Tanjung Puting so bring photocopies of your passport and visa. Most taxi drivers and guides know the drill so they’ll be able to help with this.