We finally made it back to Tarakan--and still half alive! It would be a dramatic understatement to say that this trek was by far the most grueling and difficult trek we've ever done through the jungle. It was much, much more than that--it was quite frankly insane (but that can be said with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight). Here's a shot of Paul and I and with our families just before departing the MAF hangar in Tarakan.
On the second to the last day of the trek we broke out of the canopy with a view looking back upriver at where we'd come from. At the lower right of the picture you can see a river. That river snakes it's way up through the rugged cliffs and mountains into an area that we pilots refer to as "no man's land." Indeed, what was supposed to take six to eight days took double that--and never, till the last day of hiking did we encounter a trail. In fact, the majority of the time, we saw not a single sign that a human had ever been in the area before--no sign at all! It was indeed "no man's land!"
Our trek took months of planning and preparation. It all came together in the last week, when we flew three guides (friends of ours) out from their respective interior villages (near our ultimate destination), who then accompanied us on an MAF flight into Data Dian. From there we took two motorized canoes a day and a half up the Iwan river towards Malaysia. Here's a shot of the four guys from Data Dian (that drove the boats) and our three guides, one each from Long Jelet, Long Pua, and Long Pujungan, and Paul and I, on the banks of the upper Iwan River.
From the Iwan, we entered a small, clear-black water river called the Suhen. This is a shot taken just beyond the mouth of the Suhen River as Pak Markus is getting ready to throw out a fishing net. Yes, it really was as wild and rugged as it looks. Very few people ever venture into this area anymore, and in a matter of days we would be in an area where NO ONE goes at all!
We only made it a few hundred meters up the Suhen river before we hit gravel bars. From there we said goodbye to the boats and any hope of help or rescue from the outside world. We set out (five of us) with our 45-50 lb packs and a lot of energy and excitement, hoping to find signs of an old trail that was used in the early 1900's.
Though we would never find that trail, and indeed were slowly forced into a desperate bush-whacking scenario for the next two-weeks, we did enjoy the primordial beauty of a lush, undisturbed, virgin rainforest! Waterfalls abounded as streams cascaded down the steep slopes of jungle-covered mountains and rugged ravines.
But then the rains came. It began to rain and rain and rain! I guess that's why they call it a rain forest! The rains swelled the rivers, and on day two or three our guides made a critical decision to abandon the search for the old trail, and instead continue on the left side of the Bahung river, which would eventually spit us out into the Pujungan river system and eventually into the area of Long Jelet. The truth is that they had no way of knowing where we were or which direction we were going--and were unable to remember the area from many years before. There was literally no sign of anyone having ever been where we were going--ever.
I was extremely grateful for my awesome Garmin GPSmap 62S handheld GPS, into which I had loaded navigational charts of the area that we use for flying--without which we would have literally had no idea where we were or which direction we were going! There's many stories related to this, but too long to share here. Suffice it to say, the GPS was a life-saver--not just figuratively, but probably almost literally!
Below, Paul crosses one of many "creeks" that was swollen do to the heavy rains!
And yes, we suffered our fair share of leach bites, scrapes, falls, rotting flesh, blisters, stings--you name it we suffered it! This is par for the course for those that travel without the airplane!
After the second and third and fourth day it becomes harder and harder to keep things dry. In fact, everything--including us--begins to take on the smell and look of something rotting and/or dying. Perhaps more than anything else, this is one of the toughest parts of long-distance jungle trekking--there is no escape from the elements, they just seem to start consuming you!
Well, that's a quick intro into our jungle trek of 2011. I plan to do two more posts on it, but there's obviously way more to write and show you than what would be practical, so we'll have to settle for just the highlights. As it is, I'll leave you with this shot, which was the first time we were able to see the sky in our first eight days of trekking. The jungle canopy swallows you up and shuts out all but the faintest of light. Beyond that, the incessant rain and clouds gave a gloomy, ominous look to small holes of light that we were able to glimpse now and then. However, on this evening, on the banks of the upper Pujungan
Tune in next time when I'll highlight some of the critters and creatures we encountered along the way. And I'm sure some of you have questions like, "why in the world would you do something like this?" "Are you seriously nuts???" I'll try to answer some of those questions as well.