Searching for gibbons in the Heart of Borneo

The alarm on my phone goes off and I wake with a startle. I respond as I don’t think nature intended, almost bouncing, out of someone else’s bed and into someone else’s shower.

It’s 3.30am and I have a spring in my step, eager for the day to unfold. I’m a long way from home and the knee-height cold tap hotel management have declared ‘the shower’ will not dampen my spirits. It barely wets my hair, my spirits have no chance.

I’m in Central Kalimantan, visiting Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) base in Puruk Cahu. The last couple of days have been a wonderful learning experience. Traveling to FFI programmes is the best part of my job. To meet the people I Skype, email and telephone, putting faces to names of the folk doing the hard work, day after day, on the ground, often in difficult circumstances, is rewarding beyond belief.

Calling Godwin’s bluff

The early hour is all due to a suggestion made yesterday, by Godwin Limberg, FFI’s man on the ground (Project Manager) in the Murung Raya district of Kalimantan. While trekking the forests near Mount Bondang, it was mooted we rise early to hear the calls of the Bornean white-bearded gibbons not far out of the village. I’m not sure if his bluff was called but Angela Hawdon, visiting from our FFI Australia office, and I have been like small children ever since. I know he’s done this many times before, but secretly I think Godwin’s every bit as excited as us.

We bound into FFI’s office, three doors up from where we are staying and gulp coffee while we wait for transport. Pretty soon we’re issued helmets and find ourselves clinging on for dear life on motorbikes, gibbon bound.

On yer bikes

Godwin has Angela on the back and I’m with Ratu, FFI’s admin and finance officer in Puruk Cahu. A recurring quality I’ve found amongst FFI staff worldwide, is the ability to balance high level scientific intelligence with an unequivocal joy for life. Godwin and Ratu further reinforce this, but Ratu is less fluent in English so her body language and facial expressions become paramount. Her sense of playfulness has kept us amused for days, (I only hope she has enjoyed my dodgy attempts at her language even half as much!) and I’m torn between the thrill of expecting her to live up to her own cheeky standards, giving me the ride of my life, and the terror of being flung off by a pot hole in the road.

I start tentatively, clinging to her waist like the clip on koala I later stick on her computer lead, fogging up the visor of my helmet with anticipation. Ratu was no speed demon, and soon I found myself willing her to go faster.

We arrive, at the home of Badiansyah, thinking I might suggest I drive on the way back (“not a chance”) but I lose some of my imagined Evil Kneival aura as I trip off the bike and fumble with the chin strap on my helmet. Ratu laughs, and everyone else has the good grace to pretend they don’t notice.

Competing for the airwaves

Badiansyah is part of the Village Council and a very knowledgeable man. We walk from his home into the rubber gardens of Danau Usung, accompanied by a soundtrack of greatest gibbon hits.

Crossing a felled log bridge we head into the forest to find the trees way above rustling and singing. It was magical. I could feel my mouth drop open, scarcely believing it was real, I was here and there was a concert underway, right above my head.

They were so loud! Badiansyah told us the gibbons make a racket because they must compete for the airwaves with the 5am call for prayer in the local mosque, so they sing their little throats out. The noise is simply unbelievable. It makes us feel like tiny specks of insignificance on the forest floor below.

Badiansyah goes on to reveal there are two gibbon groups in this area, part habituated due to years of villagers walking through the rubber gardens under their homes. The gibbons have come to understand they are not at threat, but are part of the community and are often seen at eye level reclining casually on a branch.

We hop back on the bikes and ride into the sunrise with the majesty of Mount Usung rising in the distance. It’s not a view, or an experience, I could ever tire of. This region is often referred to as the “heart of Borneo”. And now I know why.

Main photo: White bearded gibbon. Credit: Claire Thompson