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Indonesia

Our last email left us in Surabaya, a large Javanese town which, while not unpleasant had little to commend it from a travelling point of view except that it was a hub of transportation to Kalimantan, the Indonesian share of the huge island of Borneo.

Banjarmasin is an unusual city. Built on and around a major river it's locally referred to as the Venice of the East, a title it doesn't deserve. Yes, there are many interesting buildings on and around the canals and waterways / large open sewer, on  the plus side there is no tourism whatsoever and the locals are exceptionally friendly. We hired a small boat to take us through these canals. As the boat went along the locals washed, children waved and swam out to high-5 us while housewives prepared vegetables in the water for the evening meal.

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The following morning went to the dawn floating market. Boats turn up selling delicious fruits - especially rambutan, vegetables and other staples for local life. One of the boats had various cakes and tea and coffee for breakfast. To get the cakes you needed to use a long pole with a nail in the end with which you'd spike your food. This was a great idea on the narrow boats that saved the risk of capsizing.

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The information that we had for flights from Banjarmasin turned out to be out-of-date. The airline had gone bankrupt leaving us with few other options than to take a jeep for the 15 hour journey across to Kumai. It was a long and very bumpy day but through some fascinating countryside. Much of Kalimantan has been burned for agriculture. In the late '90's the island burned for 2 years solid as farmers and oil plantation developers cleared virgin rainforest only to find that the soil was poor, as it is in all rainforest and hard to farm. As a result, large areas have been burned and no farming has taken place. It's a senseless waste of such a precious environment.

Our destination in Kalimantan was a sanctuary for many of the animals effected by this indiscriminate clearing. Tanjun Puting National Park is one of the oldest parks in Indonesia. Originally set up in the 1930's to protect orangutans and the asian rhino, it's now one of the most important areas in the world for the preservation of the orangutan. The rhino hasn't been so lucky. As you might expect, poaching has wiped them out to assist Chinese men in bed.

The way you get to Tanjun Puting National Park is unique and wonderful. You hire a 'klotok' - a river boats that you live on and travel upstream. You sleep on top of the boat under a mozzie net and in the morning there's a wonderful dawn chorus or birds and gibbons calling across the forest and river. At night you can shine a torch out looking for eye shine from the two species of croc while listening to the calls of birds (owls, frogmouths, nightjars), insects and frogs. It's also one of the most wonderful places to wake up. 

But the star attraction in the park are the orangutans. There are over 5,000 of them, many of which have been saved from fires, loggers, the pet trade. They're the most beautiful, generally extremely gentle and graceful and powerful of animals. We were extremely privileged to spend a wonderful 4 days with them. They are in the wild and they are wild animals, but some of them have had a lot of contact with humans either as rescued pets or as they have been nursed back to health after being injured. As a result, you can get very close to them in safety.

Orangutans are extremely intelligent. One of them nicknamed Princess would take the canoes mored at the rangers' pier. She'd untie the boat and paddle human-like along the river in search of food. At which point she'd abandon the canoe. This annoyed the rangers who would submerge the canoes to stop her from doing this. Princess would just empty the water out and set off.

I can't say enough good things about Tanjun Puting National Park. In fact, dad said it was the best birthday present ever! It's easy to get to once you have the correct information. Flights from Jakarta through Semerang mean that you could be ready to go a few hours after leaving Singapore or KL. It's also inexpensive and family friendly, so if anyone is interested in going and wants more details then just flick me an email.

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From Kumai we headed back to Java and then up to Thailand, which is where we are now and where our next email will be from.