All photos and text are property of Dave Forney and may not be used without express permission.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Borneo Trek 2011 (Part 3)

Here's the third and final installment on the trek from the upper Iwan River to the Upper Pujungan River.    

Still about six days from our destination, this is where we stopped to camp one evening along the rocky banks of the upper Pujungan river.  It was beautiful to catch glimpses of the sky now and then, but the going was very, very tough along the extremely steep and slippery rock banks (cliffs at times) of the river.  

Another shot along a different part of a river.  It all blends together in my mind after 14 days out there, but our camp was just off to the left, just out of the shot.

This group photo, taken about 10 days into the hike, might adequately show how tired we are, but it does not do justice to the power of the river.  It was literally roaring at this point--pounding and grinding against the rocks so that you could barely hear the person next to you when they were yelling.

Most of the time we were picking our way along the jagged, steep slopes--often climbing hundreds of feet up to traverse a vertical rock overhang, and then back down again.  At times we would walk for hours, only inching forward at a pace of a mile and a half per day.  But once in a while we'd catch a break and find a rocky "beach" along our side of the river.  Then we could hop along the rocks, enjoying an easy pace, even if it was only a few hundred feet long.

The jungle took it's toll on us.  Paul and I both lost a noticeable amount of weight, if not from the prolific sweating, exertion, and dwindling rations, then certainly from the copious volume of blood we were donating to the army of leaches and other biting insects.  And then there was the beard.  With a backpack already approaching 50 pounds, a razor just doesn't make the list of "required" items.  Besides, my kids always love the "new look" upon my return, and the glorious shaving-it-off ritual, where I create all kinds of wild and weird new looks, however short lived.  My wife?  Um, yeah, she's not so fond of that.

Here's a shot of one of our campsites.  In the foreground, my Hennessy hammock--a great way to sleep in the jungle!  In the background, the shelter for our guides, and our cooking fire.  Pauls hammock was just out of the shot to the right.  And yes, the tree in the foreground really is as big as it appears to be!

Our trip took 14 full days from the time we left Tarakan early on a Friday morning, until we returned two weeks later after dark.  The first and last day involved lots of boat travel.  Without the boats the trip (one way only) would have taken up to two months or more!  During the 12 days of hiking in the middle we walked a total of nearly 65 miles (104km), though if you look at our track on the GPS, we were winding all over the place like a lost snake.  Our straight-line distance was about half of our total distance.  But by MAF airplane, we could have flown what we hiked (from the starting point tot he finishing point) in about 10 minutes, less than one minute by air for every day that we hiked.  Over the course of our trek we ascended many mountains--a total vertical ascent of almost 19,000 feet--significantly more than the vertical ascent required to climb Mt. Everest from base camp.   It was grueling and exhausting!!--a great reminder of why MAF is out here!

On the last day of hiking we finally left the edge of the river near Long Saan, an old abandoned village sight, and climbed up into higher elevations where we broke out into open areas with expansive views.   The scenery was gorgeous!  It looks like this would really be easy hiking hugh? Well, think again.  The ferns are about eight feet tall and thicker than flies on manure!  Trying to cut a trail with a machete (or parang) is all but pointless.  Instead, our guides cut a pole about two meters long for a "pusher".  The lead guy would place it up at a 45 degree angle onto the ferns in front of him, and then basically walk up the pole, thereby pushing the ferns down under it.  The rest of us would follow, enveloped in a cloud of fern dust.  But hey, at least we weren't fighting for a a foot or handhold on the edge of a slippery, plunging precipice.  AND, we enjoyed the sunshine.

The Long Saan area was some of the most intriguing and beautiful jungle of our entire trek.  We saw animals all over the place--lots of pigs, deer, payau, monkeys, hornbills and other birds.  It was a really beautiful area!  There were waterfalls and babbling brooks.  We entered an area where the canopy was high but the undergrowth was thin.  You could actually see for hundreds of feet in every direction down on the trails, which was very strange after so many days of hacking through thick bush.  Below is a shot of the old cemetery in long Saan.  We took a "tour" through the old village sight, now overtaken by jungle--a surreal and fascinating place.  We were most excited that for the first time in 13 days, our guides knew exactly where they were and we were on an actual trail--albeit an old one.

After several hours descending back down to the Pujungan river, we still had another day of hiking to get to Long Jelet.  But out of nowhere a motorized canoe showed up.  We were at the very point that is considered the furthest spot upriver that is navigable by boat.  From that point on up, it's violent whitewater.  A couple of young guys had brought a boat up from Long Pujungan to do some pig hunting.  They didn't even know that we were there.  We talked them into taking us the rest of the way to Long Jelet by river, which saved us at least a whole day in the end.  We could only take two guys at a time, because the river is still totally crazy in these areas--as in, lots of intense whitewater.  I only pulled my camera out once, on a nice lazy stretch, to grab this shot of Pak Lajau driving the ketinting downriver to Long Jelet.  It was a great feeling seeing all the jungle and rocks go zipping by at such a fast speed!

We made it all the way to Long Pujungan before dark, by river of course.  Although there is an MAF airstrip in Long Pujungan, we would have needed to wait two days to get picked up by air. for what  would have been a comfortable flight to Tarakan.  However, we opted instead to take a "longboat" the very next morning, and go all the way out to the coast by river.  That was indeed quite an experience!  Over 40 of us crammed into what is essentially a gigantic wooden boat in the shape of an enormous canoe, with four outboard motors on it!!  Then we took off down the swollen river, many time facing waves and whitewater that towered high above the boat.  The scenery was amazing, the ride was thrilling, but mostly we were just glad to be nearly home.

Just before dark we made it to Tanjung Selor and caught another boat (this time a speed boat) to Tarakan, one more hour up the ocean.  After catching some motorcycle taxis home, we surprised our families by simply walking in the front door--five days past when we were originally due, but two days before they were expecting us based on the last word they had heard.  All in all it was an amazing experience, and one that I will never forget.  But had I known what we were getting into this time, I probably would have picked a different route.  As it turns out, trekking through uncharted territory in virgin jungle is much, much harder than simply flying over it!!!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Borneo Trek 2011 (Part 2)

We certainly saw more than our fair share of glorious, deep, undisturbed jungle.  However, to be completely honest, I didn't even try to photograph most of it.  The truth is, I cannot afford to take my good DSLR camera into the jungle on a trip like this.  The camera and lenses would almost certainly be ruined despite the best possible water-proof cases and care.  So I don't even bother.  

Instead, I take a point and shoot along, and even then I'm afraid to pull it out 90% of the time b/c I'm completely, totally soaked to the bone with sweat--soaked and dripping the same as if I had just jumped into a swimming pool with all my clothes on.  So the pictures you see here are just a very small glimpse of what the "real" jungle looked like.  You'll just have to take my word on that.  But every once in a while, usually after we'd taken a short rest and my hands dried off just enough to take the camera out, I'd take a shot of our surroundings.  Above, a gargantuan tree, who's trunk was like a solid mass of spiderweb roots that extended hundreds of feet up into the canopy above.

Well, I promised you some shots of critters.  Once again, many critters that we saw never got to be photographed, b/c I wasn't able or willing to get out the camera.  However, I got a few of them.  One evening we camped alongside the river shown below (but it wasn't at this exact location.)  As we usually did most nights, after hanging the hammocks, making camp, and laying out stuff for the following morning, we'd jump into the river to cool off, wash our clothes as best we could and bathe.  For whatever reason, in this particular spot both Paul and I felt a little bit fidgety--something about the look of the river and the just gave us "chills" a bit.   Something could be hiding in there and we nervously joked about it, cause that's what guys do when you don't want to be a wimp, but there's good reason to be hesitant about something.

This was prime territory for a giant reticulated python, and indeed these are the very parts of the world where they thrive.  A huge python could easily eat a man, though that's obviously not a common occurrence.  However, I can't remember how many times we nervously joked that evening as we were trying to wash our clothes and take a bath, that at any moment a big ol' python might just come up and grab one of us, yanking us under water never to be seen again.  Ha ha. Nervous laugh.  Scrub some more grime from the nasty socks and steel a quick look back behind when the other guy wasn't watching.  But fortunately nothing tried to grab or eat us.

The following morning, however, we were in for a bit of a surprise.   On the very branch that hung directly over the very spot where we were swimming the night before, there sat a fully wild and evil-looking reticulated python.  Now, to be fair, it wasn't a giant in the world of reticulated pythons (they can grow over 30 feet long), but that's not the point.   It wasn't the type of thing you'd want to cuddle with--it was probably only about 12 feet long and as thick as my forearm.  None-the-less it sent shivers down our spines, because it brought a sudden dose of reality to our nervous little jokes the night before.  Indeed, we were deep in the heart of wild Borneo, where we, not the pythons were the strangers and intruders.

But speaking of cuddling, here's a much cuter and cuddlier critter to look at.  One day while carefully negotiating a slippery, steep rock ledge that dropped precipitously into a whitewater river below, (seems like we spent the better part of 13 days doing that--one step from falling tens or hundreds of feet down rock faces to massive boulders below, which gave way to thundering, pounding whitewater,) we came upon a river otter family.  The mom (or it could have been the dad--not sure) promptly jumped off the ledge and that was that.  However, two of the cutest little cubs (or pups, or whatever you call these things) were just sitting there in their little den, too small to run away and to young to be afraid.  We watched them for a few minutes and I managed to take a picture, but then we let them go, hoping the mommy would come back again.  They were about the size of a small ferret, except fatter.  And cuter.

One day while taking a break on the trail I looked down and saw this massively long caterpillar.  It was at least four inches long and a half inch thick.  I have no idea what it turns into (as in what type of moth or butterfly) but it must be big!  Incidentally, the soccer socks hiked up over our pants are not a fashion statement, but rather an additional deterrent, albeit a failing one, to keep out the armies of blood-sucking leaches.  Despite this, and 100% deet, as you saw in the previous post, we still donated plenty of blood to the future generations of Bornean leeches.

As far as large animals go, we saw lots of signs of bear (the honey or sun bear is endangered and only native to this part of Borneo), but Paul and I did not actually see one.  On one occasion we heard two bears, quite close, growling loudly.  According to our guides, they were either fighting or mating, in either or both cases, not wise to interrupt them.  Our guides saw three bear, each at a different location, when one of the guides had wandered off on their own in a different direction for some reason.

We also saw small jungle deer, as well as Payau (large deer between the size of a mule deer and elk), monkeys of various types, birds, and lots of pigs.  Over the course of the trip we shot four pigs for food, about once every three days, as well as a small deer.  Late in the afternoon on the 12th day in the jungle, I shot my first jungle pig here in Indonesia, just as we were getting ready to set up a camp.  Since that was the first pig that we took near a campsite, we were really able to feast that night!  Below is a large pig that jumped out of a pig "den" like the one in the second picture below, and nearly gored one of our guides.  Two of them had to jump out of the way to avoid being run over by the doomed porker!

There's always thousands of insects in the jungle .  The bees and moths never fail to find us within minutes of stopping for a rest on the trail.  It's insane how fast they sniff us out, and how many there are!  They love to suck the salty, sweaty juices from our clothes and backpacks.  But in this case, the morning after we ate a small jungle deer, there were dozens of brightly colored moths (or are they butterflies?) sucking the juices from the entrails of the deer on a rock by the river.  Yeah, it's nasty thought to be sucking on gut juices, but the moths are really pretty.

Check back again for the third and final installment on our Jungle trek of 2011.   I'll show you the conclusion to our trip and give you some of the stats from our 14 days in the jungle.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Half Alive--Borneo Trek 2011 (Part 1)

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.