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Postcards From Borneo: The Boat Trip Upriver

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he Laman family traveling up the Air Putih river to reach the Cabang Panti Research Station. Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan Province, Island of Borneo, Indonesia

I wake up. It’s a misty morning in Lexington, Massachusetts. But today that won’t matter because I’m leaving for the other side of the world. I’ve been waiting all year for this day when we make our annual family trip to Indonesia to visit my mom’s research camp in Borneo, where she studies wild orangutans. I’ll be traveling with my mom and younger sister, Jessica, and after days of flying and sitting around waiting in airports, we will meet my dad in a little town in Borneo. Dad is a National Geographic photographer, and this year, he is already out in Borneo photographing orangutans for a new article.

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Fast forward a week and I’m in the Indonesian town of Ketapang. I have reunited with my dad at last and it’s time to travel up to the research camp in Gunung Palung National Park. There are two ways to head up, one is by river and one is by hiking. So that we can successfully bring up all our gear, we decide to travel up by boat—three Indonesian sampans, little dugout canoes that are rigged with motors seemingly held together by rubber bands. As we pile in amongst our hoards of gear, I can’t wait to get moving. There’s a moment of foreshadowing when the motor takes almost ten tries to start up, but then the engine roars. I shove my earplugs into my ears so I don’t go deaf.

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As we head down a little canal leading out from the small village of Sedahan, I wonder at the trip to come, thinking about the other summers I’ve done this—long hours of sitting in a cramped boat under the beating sun, anticipating finally arriving at camp. As we travel up the wide river I watch the birds scurry about above me and the fruits hanging over the water.

About an hour into the trip the motors start breaking down. We continuously have to wait for the other boats or to restart our motor. In the first four hours, we probably spent two hours fixing the boats. The most common word said by far is “aduuuu“, meaning “darn it” in Indonesian. I end up saying “aduuuu” every few minutes.

Around hour four the sun really starts to beat down. We left around 9:00 am and now, at 1:00 pm, the sun is almost straight above us. To make matters worse we start to enter the most unpleasant part of the boat trip—the grass. For miles we travel through a sea of long grass teeming with spiders and all manner of insects that jump onto us as we plod by. We seem to stop every two minutes, untangling the propeller or bailing the boat so we don’t sink. The only thing that keeps me going is the thought of the forest ahead and the huge mountain in the distance that houses the camp.

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Finally we enter the forest. Trees start to loom over the water and the unbearable heat recedes. The bottom becomes shallower and sandy. Despite the ever curving and winding river, we make good progress—until we hit a log. Boom! The impact tips the boat and it half fills up with water. My dad holds his camera above his head. Luckily, most of our gear is in dry bags so none of our most important equipment is ruined. Despite this minor setback we finally arrive at the point where the river splits into two. We stop for about 20 minutes so the boatmen can make a new rudder for their boat. Below the fork, the river is red and murky. To the left it continues that way and to the right it becomes clear and clean, the direction we go. From here it can be anywhere from two to six hours to the research site depending on the water level. It’s now 4:00 pm.

As we motor along we start scraping the sandy bottom. Eventually everybody gets out and we end up walking in the water, dragging the boats after us. After two hours it starts to get dark and we all put on our headlamps. The river becomes a little deeper so most of us hop back into the boats with the boatmen pushing.

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I marvel at how far we have come and notice how alive the forest is at night. The insects buzz and the fireflies make little spectacles as they scurry around. After another hour we come to the outer boundary of the study site. Another hour to camp. We finally reach a spot in the river about a half mile from the camp where there is a trail and we decide to walk. Despite all we’ve been through the forest still has to retaliate and I get stung twice by fire ants, a type of stinging ant that feels like a small bee sting. Finally we see the lights of camp. It’s 8:00 pm. I can’t believe that I’ve come so far. Just a few weeks ago I was going to school in Massachusetts, and now I’m at a research camp in the middle of the rainforest of Borneo. I can’t wait for the adventures to come.

Over the coming weeks, Proof will be following the adventures of Tim, Cheryl, Jessica, and Russell in the rainforests of Borneo. Tim’s story on orangutan behavior will be featured in an upcoming issue of National Geographic. Cheryl is a 2004 Emerging Explorer and has received grants from the National Geographic Society for her work with orangutans.

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