Balikpapan is the second largest city in East Kalimantan, a province in Indonesia bordering Sarawak in Malaysia. The coastal city is situated on the east coast of Borneo and is mostly known for its palm oil, coal mining and oil refineries. Balikpapan is a little off the beaten and track for most tourists. Whilst it’s not your everyday tourist destination, there are quite a few things to do and see around Balikpapan, including a Borneo rainforest walk.
Volunteering with orangutans
I was there as a volunteer at the Samboja Lestari Orangutan and Sun Bear Sanctuary, just outside the village of Samboja. Volunteering is a unique way to holiday as aside from working with these beautiful but sadly endangered animals, we also had the opportunity to see what else the surrounds had to offer.
One of our extra-orangutan curricular activities was a walk in the tropical Bangkirai Hill Borneo Rainforest. The forest is not far from Samboja, and 58km from Balikpapan.
For the other volunteers who were not from Queensland (or similar sub-tropical and tropical regions) a walk in this Borneo rainforest was an opportunity to experience the tropics in all its splendour (and leeches)
Borneo rainforest walk
Close to the renowned Canopy Bridge Walk was the start of many forest treks.
We paid our entrance fee and took a local guide to accompany our group of 12 volunteers.
Off we set.
Light rain rapidly turned into a heavy tropical and steamy downpour, typical of a Borneo rainforest.
Thank God for the $3 poncho I had stuffed into my non-waterproof daypack. It turned out to be a life saver.
Our Borneo rainforest walk wasn’t so much of a walk but a jungle scramble, up and over large wide fallen tree trunks.
We constantly fell over trip hazard vines that grabbed your shoe or ankles.
Wait-a-while tendrils held onto our soaked clothing, many times ripping my protective poncho armour.
Fear of leeches
Once the rain stopped everyone breathed a sigh of relief, but the humidity heightened.
I have a morbid fear of leeches. I refuse to have anything share my blood. No one hops on me for a free ride, if I can help it.
Our guide simply could not understand why I refused to take my poncho off after the rain.
The fear of something grabbing or attaching itself to me in the dense undulating thicket was enough to make me sweat litres under that poncho. And I wasn’t about to take it off for anyone!
I knew about opportunistic acrobatic leeches leaping off leaves onto unsuspecting trampers. I wasn’t about to become a victim.
Lost in the forest
The forest at times was so dense that twelve of us walking through the understory of this stunning primary forest regularly lost sight of each other.
If someone stopped to look at an insect or take a photo, by the time you looked up the group had disappeared with no evidence.
There was no visible track, and signs were virtually non-existent.
I have no idea how the guide knew where he was going. Everywhere we looked, the Borneo rainforest seemed the same.
After nearly two hours of scrambling, I was convinced we had been going in circles.
My Fitbit Charge HR had only registered 3500 steps, but my heart rate on this gentle walk had been a steady fat-burning 130 to 140 a min in the heat and humidity.
Impressive forest canopy
Fear and sweat aside, a primary forest is daunting by the sheer size and height of the many different tree species forming the canopy.
The diversity of plant life and understory plants that would be prized pot plants in any hot house was quite an experience.
Thorns of every shape and size seemed to be a theme. Palms and vines were particularly well armoured.
Some thorns were short and stout, others over 30cm long, running in random directions.
One that caught our attention even looked like a Kiwi carving of a fishhook.
An interesting find was a waxy elliptical hive of native stingless bees at the bottom of a broad tree trunk.
There was also evidence of the forearm strength of wild sun bears as they made light work of hollow trees to get access to their favourite honey snacks by boring large holes into the trunk.
Giant ants made the Australian inch ant look skinny, small and plain. A highlighted ‘onion tree’ smelled distinctly of garlic.
Given that plants use many strategies nature provides to survive, it does make us wonder how on earth a baby orangutan can learn what is good to eat and what can kill them.
As it is, they are the only animal in these forests that can eat the unripe fruit of a mature fig tree giving them a huge advantage for survival in none-mast years.
The end of our Borneo rainforest walk led us back to the car park and a small shop where we stopped to recover. We shared our well-earned lunch with a family of cloned tailless red cats.
Despite DETE-covered socks, shoes and trousers, the leeches had attacked our troops with vengeance.
They feasted on our blood.
Screams of horror interrupted our lunch as those who had thought they had survived the trek leech-free had blood-soaked socks and trousers.
I managed to escape the attack, thanks to my sweat-ridden, floor-length poncho.
Yeh, it was the best $3 I have ever spent!
Irene Isaacson travelled at her own expense.