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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Trekking With My Son -- The Pujungan Hulu Adventure: Part 4

The next morning we hiked up into the old crater.  On our way up we saw several deer and pigs.   The rim was really no wider than five or six feet in places and dropped off sharply on both sides, especially on the crater side.  Although it was steep on the outside where we had just ascended, that was nothing compared to what we now faced going down.  In places, it was a sheer drop off of several hundred feet!  In fact, we search for quite a while before finding a place where we could "safely" descend.

The view from the top of the rim was incredible.  We could see a long way up the upper Pujungan river system, with rugged mountains and cliffs on both sides.  Several hundred feet below us, at the edge of one of the swampy ponds, we saw a large black animal of some kind.  I didn't have any binoculars, and couldn't get my camera out in time to see it any closer.  But the guides thought it was a sun bear.  Sun bears are native only to the forests of Southeast Asia, and especially like the higher, mountainous areas of Northeast Kalimantan.  

Our hope was to transverse the crater below, and make our way over to the rocky cliffs on the opposing wall, visible in the picture below.  There are some old burial ground in some caves in those cliffs, and I wanted to see them.  However, we never made it all the way to the cliffs.   It was slow going because there was just so much to see.  Plus, we had to allow enough time to get back to our campsite before dark.  Perhaps another time.  (Originally, before our multi-day rain delay, the plan would have been to camp close to those cliffs on the second night.  But you've got to roll with the punches when it comes to jungle travel.  It's very unpredictable!)  

What we did see and do was amazing though.  The trees and forest floor where totally different than anything I've seen in the jungle here anywhere else.  The trees were generally a lot smaller, and it was pretty open underneath.  It didn't really feel like a jungle.  Occasionally we'd come across a huge tree with enormous branches that looked like you could build a house inside.  We also explored several of the ponds, which were obviously visited frequently by all kinds of animals.  We saw a LOT of wildlife.  Lots of birds, various monkeys, several kinds of deer, and lots of pigs.  There were a lot of fruiting trees down there and the animals were everywhere, eating the fruit.  At one point we climbed a huge fruit tree where we had come across a pack of monkeys, gorging themselves on fruit.  In the span of 45 minutes, while we sitting in the tree, we saw a bunch of pigs and deer all come up right underneath us to eat the fruit which had fallen from the tree, or been thrown down by the monkeys.

That night, after getting back to camp and eating dinner, we ventured out with the guides for a "night hunt".  We needed some meat.  It's amazing how many animals are out and about at night.  It almost seemed like a zoo!  Britton shot a large mouse deer.  Sure it's a small deer, but this is actually a large one of it's kind.  Our guides had the meat cooking and smoking over the fire within the hour.  By the next day, we had a nice little supply of smoked deer meat--some of which we ate right away, while the rest we brought back to their village.  We were able to bring some of that back to share with Joy and the kids too.  Britton said he had mixed emotions--he was sad for the animal--the first one he's ever shot--but he was pretty proud to be able to provide some meat!  And none of it went to waste--part of the reason he was glad to shoot something small, rather than large.

The following day we began the long hike back out to the river.

Remarkably, by this time it had actually been two entire days since it had rained!  That was a real blessing for us, since it's a pain camping in the jungle when it rains.  Out of the dozens of nights I've spent camping in the jungle here, there's been less than a handful when it hasn't rained.  I guess we felt like we sort of deserved it after getting delayed for two days by rain. Ha!

The fact that we were going mostly down hill now, combined with the fact that the creeks were smaller and there was less mud, made for easier hiking.  If you get a good hard rain the water level of these creeks will double or triple in literally minutes.  But it also goes back down quickly--so it's constantly changing out there.  Anyway, the hike out both scenic and enjoyable--certainly less stressful and exhausting than the hike in.  We paused a few times to grab a classic, "Deep in the Heart of Borneo" photo, as seen below.  How cool will that be for Britton to show his son someday?  I can picture him saying, "Well, back when I was 12, Grandpa Forney and I were on an epic adventure, deep in the heart of Borneo, when..."  And here's a picture to prove it!

This time we stuck to the original trail, which meant that we eventually came out at the Pujungan river, quite a ways upstream from the village of Long Jelet.  We had previously arranged for someone to pick us up there by motorized canoe, assuming the water level would be agreeable.  It was.  While waiting for the guy to show up, we made a fire, drank some tea, and generally just relaxed on the banks of the upper Pujungan.  If you look closely you can see Britton sitting on a rock part way out in the river.  He did quite a bit of swimming while we were waiting.  He'd hike up the bank, swim out to the middle, then let the current bring him racing downstream till he came to where we were.  Then he'd do it all over again.

When the guy showed up with the boat, we still had a few hours before dark, so I asked if we could head a bit further upstream to the Uung Meluung Waterfall, something I've always wanted to see.  Upriver from here there are places where the river is plain down violent!  There's boulders the size of houses, strewn about everywhere.   The current is very fast and smashes against these rocks with a force that would pulverize a boat and it's occupants in a split second if given the chance.  To lighten the boat and make it easier to navigate up through these waters, our two guides stayed behind, electing instead to hang out drinking tea, while Britton and the boat driver and me headed upstream.  Below, on one of the calm stretches, we take in the view--with the blue sky as the backdrop behind the Batu Ului (Ului Rock) jutting up high above the right bank.

After an exciting and sometimes frightening 45-minute boat ride upriver, we began the short hike to the waterfall.  Along the way we saw some hornbills and deer, and heard a pig.  We also saw a honey tree (below).  You can't tell from the picture, because I'm on a ridge looking out even at the tree, but it's actually quite tall, growing out of the ravine below.  I've seen trees like this where the people have constructed bamboo ladders up the tree to get at the honey, which is very tasty, and also worth a lot of money if sold in the city.  They'll go to great lengths to get at honey, high up in the trees or cliffs, and if you taste it, you'll know why.  It's the sweetest, tastiest honey I've ever had!

We heard the waterfall long before we saw it.  When we first arrived there a deer was casually licking the salty rocks under the ledge of the falls.  Eventually it saw us and ran off.  I think the photo captures the beauty of the falls pretty well--a lush, green area, nestled deep in the virgin jungles of Borneo.  What it doesn't capture is the noise and feel of the falls.  The constant roar of the water, and the ever-blowing wind and mist that leads to everything being coated in a thick layer of moss.  Of course, Britton and I had to go down and check it out.  If you look closely you can see him down there at the edge of the pool, standing on a rock, which gives you some idea as to the size of the falls.  Eventually I joined him and we jumped in and swam across the pool.  After checking the depth, and to make sure there were no hidden rocks, we dove off of the rocks on the opposing side.  It was a lot of fun!

After spending another night in Long Jelet, we left the next morning on our way back down river to Long Pujungan, where I had parked the MAF plane six days previous.  When we made it to a calm stretch in the river, Pak Lajau gave Britton (known locally as Lawe--a name given to him a few years ago by a village elder in Long Alango) a lesson in driving the boat.  Britton took over for a few minutes and had a hard time keeping the smile off his face as he was obviously having a great time!  Other 12 year old boys might be driving sports cars in an arcade, but I bet they're not driving a boat down a river in the jungles of Borneo!

Well, there you have it.  Our adventure into the Pujungan Hulu area in a nutshell.  Here's one final shot--a group picture with the four of us.  From left to right: Pak Lajau from Long Jelet, Pak Yu Taang from Long Pujungan, Lawe (Britton), and me.

It was a fantastic trip--something that I'm sure Britton and I will never forget!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Trekking With My Son -- The Pujungan Hulu Adventure: Part 3

Well, you guessed it!  Pretty soon that distant thunder was directly overhead and it began to rain again.   It rained all that night and the river was even higher by the next morning.  Britton had a great attitude, but we were understandably a bit frustrated by the weather.  Did I mention that this is the reality of jungle travel?  Imagine if you had a medical emergency and needed to get out of there quickly.  There's no airstrip in Long Jelet.  There's no other way out other than by taking a boat down the river or by several days of hiking to Pujungan, where an MAF plane could pick you up.  But the river was out of the question!

Since it now seemed that we'd be stuck at least another day in the village, by this time we were contemplating canceling the rest of our trip and simply waiting for the first chance to head out.  I don't get a lot of vacation time each year and we didn't want to take the whole six days sitting in a village if we could bug out sooner and try it again at a different time.  About then a village elder came along to see what our plan was.  He mentioned that if we were up to the challenge, we could simply cross the flooded river directly across from the village and bushwhack our way straight up the mountain until eventually intersecting the trail that we had originally intended to take which started much further upriver.  Having done an excruciating two-week bushwhacking trek two years ago, I wasn't sure this was a good idea, especially in light of all the rain and bad weather we'd been having.  It can be a LOT of work!  But Britton was 100% gung ho, even if it meant we might not ever get to our intended destination.  He just wanted to get out there and get into the jungle.  So that's what we did!  

Thirty minutes later, having wolfed down a hearty breakfast of boiled fish, rice and bamboo shoots, we were standing knee-deep in a muddy rice paddy on the other side of the river, staring straight up into the cloud-shrouded mountains up which we intended to climb.  It was the very definition of hot and muggy!  Light rain was falling, the fog came and went, and we were soaked to the bone--the conditions were perfect for a full-immersion- Bornean-jungle-trek experience for Britton!  (Incidentally, those are just the foothills in the picture below...the bigger, steeper, mountains behind are hidden in the clouds.) 

Right off the bat the hiking was extremely difficult.  Actually, it was less hiking than it was a combination of mountain climbing up and sliding down.  It was so steep and slippery that even using both hands and feet, there were still places where we were unable to keep from sliding back down 10 or 15 feet before catching a root or shoot of some kind.  We were totally covered in mud from head to foot with steam rising from our bodies like an overheated car on the side of a summer highway.  And since I didn't have a water-proof camera, I wasn't able to take any pictures of that.  You'll just have to take my word on it.

Britton did great!  The guides kept offering to take his pack, but he was determined to carry his own gear for the duration of the expedition.  He kept up a steady pace, despite the relentless vertical climb.  Eventually, after about an hour and a half of climbing up, up, up, (but what seemed like half a day of climbing) we passed by a big buttressed tree trunk, where the roots were all dug out underneath by pigs.  Britton's excitement suddenly began to grow as it hit him that we were truly deep in the virgin jungles of Borneo.

We began to hear all sorts of birds calling to each other, jungle dear, monkeys and other animals.  And as we eventually found our way onto a ridge, the rain tapered off and the skies above cleared.  Even if 90% of the sunlight was blocked by the thick jungle canopy, it's always nice to see the sparkling shafts of sunlight poking through up there.  By mid-day we had found the original trail--much sooner than our guides had expected.

We stayed on the trail for a while, but eventually broke away from it, trying to make up for lost time by cutting corners.  Also, the trail only went to the base of the Bum River Waterfall, and we were still hoping to make it all the way to the crater, beyond were the trail ended.  The guides had actually never been to the crater from this direction, so eventually we had to split from the trail and make our own.  It was all very exciting!

Here's a few shots of some of the plants we saw along the way.  In one area we passed by hundreds of these flowering orchids.  We smelled them long before we saw them.  They had an unbelievably powerful, sweet aroma that was like a perfume or something of the sort.  The guides said that people in the city will pay a lot of money for these orchids, and that they had never seen so many in one place before.  But we left them undisturbed.

In the lower elevations, near the river, there were great stands of impenetrable bamboo.  The locals use bamboo for all kinds of things.  It's incredibly strong for it's size and weight, and widely available.

Everything in the jungle is in a constant struggle and fight for survival.  Plants and animals are all fighting for space, light and food.  And often, one plant or animal's death brings life to a myriad of others.  Everywhere you look, if you really stop to observe closely, you can see these epic battles being waged--whether it's fig vines slowly strangling the life out of a massive tree in the canopy above, or an army of ants devouring a fallen bird or insect on the jungle floor below.  Here, a small tree clings to the edge of a moss and dirt covered bolder at the edge of the creek, fighting for a foothold in the floor below as it shoots towards the light high above.

Throughout the day we crossed, and re-crossed the Bum River many times--probably 10 or 15 times total.  Britton did awesome!   He never fell, which is pretty amazing for his first time on a trek.   It's a lot harder than it looks, as every rock is covered with moss and algae, and it often feels like you're trying to walk over a bunch of giant ice cubes, whilst someone is trying to push your legs out from under you (the strong current).  In places it was up to his waste, and the roar of water was so loud that we couldn't hear each other from one side to the other, even when shouting.

Here we are catching a quick break late in the afternoon.  Wherever you sit, the leaches are quick to find you.  In fact, within seconds of sitting down on a rock or log, you can literally see the ground moving at times, as dozens of hungry leeches make a mad rush towards you from all directions, each one intent on gorging on your blood.  So this time, Britton decided to find a seat up off of the ground.  This hanging vine did quite nicely, and he got a 10 minute break, without having to do battle with the leeches.  Smart guy!

That afternoon we saw several pigs, some small deer, some really large deer (there's several species here--the smallest ones being no bigger than little dogs, while the largest ones are almost the size of a small elk), some monkeys and a bunch of birds (including hornbills) and insects.  We were looking for meat to eat.  Our guides brought rice, but we were all counting on getting some game to go with it.  The number-one most enjoyed meat here is a fat jungle pig.  Britton had the chance to try to shoot one of the pigs we saw, but it was much to far away for a kill shot.  

Late in the afternoon we found a place to set up camp, just below the base of the crater rim that we intended to climb over and into the following day.  Britton and I set up our Hennessy Hammocks (foreground), whilst our guides set up a tarp under which we kept the cooking fire and all of our gear.  Originally, our plans had been to camp at a different spot each night, completing a giant hiking circle over the course of four or five days.  However, because of our loss of time due to all the rain delays, we decided that we'd just make this our base camp, from which we'd set out to explore the following day.  Not having to clean up and set up camp again would save us time and effort.  Plus, we already knew that we'd have to return via the same route we entered, because we no longer had enough time to do the full circle.

Britton was intent on learning and helping with all of the tasks to survive out there.  He helped clear the area for the camp, and helped set it up.  He helped get things ready for the following day.  He helped look for firewood.  One of the big tasks each day is getting safe drinking water.  The guides drink very little water compared to us, so they just boil it once per day and they're done.  However  I drink about six to ten liters a day... but I only carry about four liters at a time.  So several times each day I have to pump water through a filter.  Depending on how clear the water is, it can sometimes take a bit of effort.  Near our camp was  little stream that provided a nice place from which to pump water.  So Britton refilled our Nalgenes and Camelbacks, so we were all set for the next day.

Work hard, play hard, that's my motto.  So after all the work was done, we goofed off.  Britton found a vine hanging over the creek from way up high in the canopy above, and was soon swinging from side to side across the creek.  You can't really tell from the picture, because I'm shooting it from up on a small ridge above, but he's about 10 feet above the creek as he swings from one bank to the other.

That night, one of our guides shot a deer while we slept.  The next morning Britton joined him as he cut hunks of the "best" choice meats from the dear for us to eat for breakfast, including but not limited to the heart, liver, intestines, udder, and other unidentifiable organs (since I wasn't there when they cut it, I'm not sure what they were--but Britton had some guesses).  Oh, and they threw in a few pieces of boring ol' standard meat too, just for good measure.  In the picture below, Britton watches as breakfast cooks over the fire--a pot of various deer organs boiling over, while some spongy udder begins to roast in the foreground, along with some other pieces of meat.  

I was really proud of Britton.  He eagerly tried each and every type of "meat", and ate all of it with a big ol' smile on his face.  In fact, he even took seconds.  Obviously, this is not the type of thing we normally eat as average Americans, but every people and culture in the world enjoys all kinds of foods that other people would think strange.  And if they eat it and survive, it must be safe to eat.  So it's mostly a mental thing, to be able to eat something that you think to be strange, but really is just fine.  We've tried to teach our kids to be open and polite to accept and eat whatever is offered by a host, and to do so with a good attitude.  Britton though, has gone beyond that, and actually "enjoys" many of the foods that, well, to be quite frank, are quite "gamy" and strong in flavor.  By this point in the trip, the guides were absolutely loving having him along.  They kept saying that he was certainly half Dayak--because of the way he hiked so sure-footed,  and his natural strength, and his desire to learn about the jungle and animals etc. etc.  They were very impressed.  And so was I!

Check back soon to find out the conclusion of our jungle trek--what we saw and did in the crater, and what we encountered on an exciting night hunt!