It is an hour’s drive from the capital, Balikpapan, on the east coast of Indonesian Borneo.
Samboja’s economy is largely based on open-cut coal mines, oil and palm oil plantations. Look out to sea and you’ll see oil rigs on the horizon.
However, some Indonesian Borneans still make a living from the sea and rivers leading out to sea.
Borneo Adventure on Sungai Hitam
One such river is Sungai (translated means river) Hitam, about an hour’s drive from the Samboja Lestari Orangutan and Sun Bear Sanctuary. The river is 35km from Balikpapan.
As part of our two week Orangutan volunteer program we were able to enjoy a late afternoon river cruise.
Sungai Hitam is in a lowland and mangrove forest.
As we left the small jetty, we passed through palm strewn and mangrove banks.
We cruised along to come to a local fishing village seemingly built on dodgy sticks, stuck in the high muddy river bank.
Colourful wooden boats were parked along the river’s edge, sometimes two or three deep, covered by drying nets.
Shanty dwellings were thrown together, but with an odd one having a large satellite dish out the front!
Children gleefully played along the banks with a few kites left over from the Ramadan Kite Festival a few weeks earlier.
They waved at us enthusiastically as Caucasians are a rarity here (perhaps even less common than the dwindling orangutan population) and are quite a spectacle for the locals.
We travelled the whole length of the river and turned around at its mouth in Balikpapan Bay.
Here were the big boys, numerous large commercial fishing boats, bestrewn with impressive rows of strong lights and fancy rigging.
Sunset in the mangroves
The sun was setting, giving a great photographic opportunity. Rays of light shone through rigging lines and bounced off the hulls of these colourful boats.
It was quite magical to re-enter the much quieter waters of the mangroves and leave the bustle of the fishing village behind.
The setting sun illuminated bright green palm foliage in a spectacular fashion. Hundreds of swallows began to fill the sky above us.
Life in the trees
Our guides managed to spot a rough necked tree monitor lizard, stretched along a branch high up in a mangrove tree.
Whilst they generally eat ants, termites, cockroaches and other small insects, they have been known to eat small monkeys.
As if on cue, we passed a cluster of mangrove trees housing a family of Proboscis monkeys up in its top branches. Our arrival sent them scurrying.
Most decided to end their late afternoon snack and descended rather rapidly.
They jumped into the lower canopy palm trees to disappear off into the distance.
Only one big nosed male hung around creating a challenging photo opportunity on a gently rocking boat for those with a long telephoto lens and a steady hand!
The sun set as we motored back to the small wooden jetty from whence we started our journey.
It had been a great experience, one that many of us won’t forget.
Irene Isaacson travelled at her own expense.