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.
The harbor sits at the mouth of the estuary and had been cleared and hard-banked to support buildings and boats.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Coming up: Part 2 – seeing apes and monkeys in the forest.