Into the forest at Lubuk Baji – Part 1: Hikes and Honey

The small Indonesian town of Sukadana, where I was to be living and working, is surrounded by Gunung Palung National Forest on a bit more than 3 sides and the ocean on the fourth.  The town rests in a small valley, and like many of the towns I saw in Borneo, it sits in the middle of what was once a mangrove estuary.

The hills surrounding the town are within the national park and supply the water that fills the estuary and the water that provides drinking water to the local population.

Gunung Palung NP wraps around Sukadana, to the east is a small hill names Lubuk Baji

Gunung Palung NP wraps around Sukadana, to the east is a small hill named Lubuk Baji

The harbor sits at the mouth of the estuary and had been cleared and hard-banked to support buildings and boats.

Sukadana Harbor

Sukadana Harbor

Like many such places there is tension concerning how to manage the local environmental resources, some want the hills taken out of the national park system so that they can be logged, others realize their value in maintaining the water table and wish to keep them protected in some fashion, others have different concerns.  Concerns focused more on biodiversity, especially of the large, rare local primates and of the incredible diversity of plants, insects, and animals in the region.

In general, the hills surrounding Sukadana are simply called the Sukadana Hills, but, as in most places, each place has a particular and specific name as well.  To the east of the town is a larger hill called Lubuk Baji.

The road there is narrow and bumpy, a raised affair passing between the numerous “wallet” houses, large buildings put up to house formerly cave dwelling swifts, the nests of which are harvested for bird’s nest soup.  The road passes through wet-rice fields and finally comes to an abrupt termination at a partially collapsed (or unfinished) brick building next to a shallow dam that keeps the flow of water from the hills to a judiciously controlled amount.  Behind the dam rice fields and coconut trees rest a the base of the Lubuk Baji hills.

Below the hills of Lubuk Baji lie coconut palms, rice paddies, and a small dam

Below the hills of Lubuk Baji lie coconut palms, rice paddies, and a small dam

The at the base of the hills surrounding Sukadana are groves of partially domesticated durian trees that we had heard the orangutan were visiting in search of the strong smelling ripe fruit.  For those of you who have never had durian, this is a large spiky fruit that a pungent odor that some liken to old socks and others to rich, sweet cream.  The texture of the fruit is like stringy custard and the flavor varies from person to person, ranging from a deep, lemony custard to green onions, to sweat soaked T-shirt armpit.  Those who like the fruit love it, and those who dislike it tend to hate it.  I am one of the few people who falls in the middle ground, to me the fruit is tasty, the texture and smell inoffensive, but I can’t see why such a big deal is made of it when there are fruits like mangosteen in the area.

Eating fresh, semi-wild durian in the Indonesian rainforest

Eating fresh, semi-wild durian in the Indonesian rainforest

The hike up to the top of Lubuk Baji was not difficult, though it was hot, humid, and steep.  At times we could smell orangutan, we found edible fruit dropped by these large primates, and several times we spotted their broken branch sleeping nests high above us in the canopy, but we did not see any orangutan.

There were a variety of interesting things to see other than primates along the way.

One of the most interesting to me was the remains of a honey harvesting operation.  The bees in this part of the world are large and make big, exposed honeycombs.  The heat is so great that the wax is in danger of melting, so the place the hives high in the trees hanging from the bottom of large branches where there is a breeze and they are sheltered from the sun.  The bees stand on the exposed comb and fan air over the wax with their wings when extra cooling in necessary.  The bees are usually fierce enough to chase away any animals seeking their honey, but humans have a particular love of sweet things and harvest the honey when they can.

This is a dangerous process as the bees pick only certain mature tree species.  These special trees are carefully protected by the humans and climbed when the honey is ready to harvest.  The hive may be 150 feet (30 meters) or more above the ground and the trunks of these trees are smooth and unbranched until the canopy.

Bamboo ladder hammered into the tree rising more than 50 meters into the canopy

Bamboo ladder hammered into the tree rising more than 50 meters into the canopy

Bamboo stakes are pounded into the tree and a set of bamboo canes is tied to the stakes with rattan strips, making a narrow and dangerous ladder to the canopy.  The lumps in on the tree in the photo are scars from a previous ladder put up perhaps 40 or more years ago.

At the top of the ladder the branches spread and the remains of old honeycomb can be seen clinging to the bottom of the branches from which it was harvested.

The reamins of honeycomb on the bottom of the branches above the terminus of the ladder

The remains of the honeycomb look like yellow stains on the bottom of the branches.  To the right the bees are building a new hive.

I was tempted to try climbing the ladder, but it seemed like a bad idea… no safety gear, uncertain footing, and a long climb up.  The people who climb up to harvest the honey must cope with those problems while being attacked by angry bees, carrying baskets and harvesting poles, and breathing smoke from fires lit below, the smoke of which is supposed to help confuse and stupefy the bees.

On the ground was an old piece of honeycomb, long since emptied of the tasty honey.

Old honeycomb, about 1 foot long (30 cm) long the long axis

Old honeycomb, about 1 foot long (30 cm) long the long axis

Coming up: Part 2 – seeing apes and monkeys in the forest.

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Pontianak to Sukadana: through the mangroves at high speed

It has been a while since I’ve written a new post.  Quite a bit has happened in the last few weeks, the key bit being that the position in Borneo has fallen apart on me unexpectedly shortly after arriving in Indonesia.

Despite the unexpected disappointment there was a lot to see and experience.  I last left off in Pontianak, a rough and tumble Indonesian city in West Kalimatan, a hardy workman’s city perched on the borders of one of the largest rivers in Borneo.  The name, Pontianak, refers to a specific type of vampire, a woman who died in childbirth, a somewhat strange thing to name a city after.

Boats and buildings line the riverside in Pontianak

Boats and buildings line the riverside in Pontianak

To get from Pontianak to Sukadana one may either take a round-about bus that runs over poorly maintained roads and may not make it during the rainy season, or a boat that races through broad channels in the mangrove swamp.  The slow boat takes more than a day and the speedboat takes between 5 and 6 hours, more if either of the two massive outboard engines are damaged by the numerous floating logs in the water or fouled by vegetation, old fishing nets, or garbage.

Speedboat returning to Pontianak from Sukadana

Speedboat returning to Pontianak from Sukadana

I had been expecting the boat to head out into the ocean and run down the coast.  I was pleasantly surprised that the route ran along the interior channels of the Kapuas River delta  instead.

Inland route from Pontianak to Sukadana.  Roughly 130-140 miles along the winding channels through the mangrove forest

Inland route from Pontianak to Sukadana. Roughly 130-140 miles along the winding channels through the mangrove forest

Mangroves are one of the most mysterious and interesting ecosystems to me, perhaps because I have spent so little time in them and because there are so few intact mangrove forests left in the world.  In terms of carbon sequestration mangroves are one of the most effective ecosystems for carbon storage.  Mangroves are the nursery for many species of fish and crustaceans, and protect coastal areas from storm surges and tsunamis.

The center for diversity of mangroves is in South East Asia where there are some 40 or so tree species from a variety of families that all have adopted the “mangrove” lifestyle.  Trees falling into the general category of mangroves share a number of features despite coming from different families; some form of air-breathing apparatus on the roots (stilts, knees, aerial roots, root spikes that lift above the mud, etc), high tolerance to salt, and floating fruits/seeds.

One of the more interesting plants in the mangrove forest is the Nipa Palm (Nypa fruticans).

Nipa Palms (Nypa fruticans) growing along the banks of the river delta

Nipa Palms (Nypa fruticans) growing along the banks of the river delta

This palm is unusual in several ways.  It often grows in areas where the trunk is completely submerged for long periods, making me wonder how it establishes itself in the first place.  This in and of itself is only mildly remarkable, what is truly odd is that the trunk is horizontal, growing underground, parallel to the surface, with all the greenery visible comprised of individual fronds acting as mini-trees growing from a single stalk.  In some ways the growth habit of this palm is more like that of a fern than a palm.

The fruits form in a large round mass, a little bigger than a basketball, divided into fist-sized floating seeds that break off and float away, sometimes germinating while still afloat.  The flower stalks are rich in sugar and this is one of the palms used to make palm sugar, a laborious process akin to making maple sugar, but limited to collecting sap from the flower stalks rather than tapping the tree.  Some studies indicate that this palm has a promising potential for biofuel production, but the process of cultivating or collecting enough to make this feasible would spell ecological devastation for immense regions of sensitive and already threatened habitat.

Mangrove forests are one of the most imperiled and under appreciated ecosystems in the world.  They are limited to tropical and near tropical regions.

Mangrove forest distribution from Charter Science

Many of the great tropical fisheries of the world owe their existence to mangrove forests; they provide nursery grounds for many aquatic species.  When mangrove forests are cleared to make room for development or for the shrimp farms that feed the developed nation’s voracious consumption of shrimp and prawns, these fish nurseries wither away, taking with them the tropical fisheries hundreds of millions of people rely on for their primary source of dietary protein.

Mangrove forests are found in low-lying, flat areas, areas subject to immense tidal run-ups, storm surges, and, in earthquake prone regions, areas where tsunamis can travel great distances inland.  The presence of mangroves acts as a buffer to these great movements of water, protecting both inland environments and human settlements.

In Southeast Asia the mangrove forests themselves provide a number of immediate resources for local people, including food, building supplies, medicines, and protected navigable waterways.

Local fellow collecting vegetation from the mangrove forest

Local fellow collecting vegetation from the mangrove forest

As in all areas people must make a living.  For some the only option is land clearing, whether for agriculture or timber.  In the Indonesian mangrove forests land is cleared for rice agriculture, aquaculture, and logging, primarily illegal.  Logging in this area is an enormous problem.  Large rafts of logs are often seen moored on the banks of the rivers and small-scale loggers carry short logs to local mills.

A small two person logging operation bringing palm logs home

A small two person logging operation bringing palm logs home

A larger logging operation bringing intermediate sized hardwood logs into the mill

A larger logging operation bringing intermediate sized hardwood logs into the mill

People fishing from a large raft of hardwood logs floated down from the interior forests

People fishing from a large raft of hardwood logs floated down from the interior forests

Nearly all the current logging in Indonesia is illegal.  The legal logging concessions have been cleared, in many cases converted to palm oil agriculture.  New land is legally cleared for palm oil, but current regulations prohibit the felled wood from being sold, thus this wood is often destroyed, resulting in an increased spread of illegal logging.

It is a cycle difficult to break.

In these areas dry land is a rare commodity and whole villages rest on stilts rising over the rivers and soggy ground.  Boats and motorcycles are the primary methods of transport, motorcycles being driven over narrow plank walkways with a casualness that makes the uninitiated cringe and wonder how many motorcycles lie in the mud at the bottom of the river.

Midday conversation on a stilt-village

Midday conversation on a stilt-village

The trip from Pontianak to Sukadana took a little more than 5 hours, an exhilarating 5 hours spent zipping through wide channels amongst one of the more interesting and briefly glimpsed ecosystems it has been my privilege to view first-hand.  I desperately want to go back to a diverse mangrove forest and spend months at a time clambering about, exploring and learning how it functions, but that will now have to wait until some undefined time in the future.

For this job in Indonesia I sold many of my things, put the rest in storage, spent a lot of money I would not have otherwise spent, and tossed my life in the blender with the assurance that the next step on my career path was well and firmly in hand.  Instead of an interesting and tasty life-shake emerging from the blender, the blender was casually and abruptly knocked off the counter, leaving my plans and work spread across the metaphorical floor in a sticky mess from which I am now attempting to salvage what I can.

Back to the job hunt, back to evaluating my life choices, back to laughing at the impracticality of my dreams.

Despite all, I had an opportunity few ever have and was able to see things most never even think about.  For that I am grateful.

Make the jump, take the risk.  If you make that leap you don’t know where you will land, but if you don’t nothing interesting will ever happen.