ATR propeller plane

Boarding an ATR 72 propeller plane for TriganaAir flight IL125. What I like about propeller planes is that they fly below the cloud level, so we got a nice aerial view of Kalimantan (although it’s depressing to see the scale on which rainforest is being replaced with palm oil plantations). Propeller planes are also more ecological than jets.

Many villages in the jungle-covered interior of Kalimantan are accessible only by boat or (bush) airplane. The few roads that do exist are often in bad condition, making transport incredibly slow and uncomfortable. The night ride from Kandangan to Balikpapan was a grueling twelve hour journey in a hot bus with barely enough leg space for the average Indonesian (who is half as tall as us), no head rests and reclining seats that had permanently stopped reclining a long time ago. To make sure that this wouldn’t keep us from sleeping the bus was also filled to the brim with noisy, chain-smoking passengers.

And that was the easy part. The onward journey to Tarakan, close to the Malaysian border, would have taken another twenty hours by road. Our weary bones were glad to get on a one-hour LionAir flight instead. It saved us some time on our Indonesian visa’s too, as they’d soon be running out.

Two other flights we took: TriganaAir IL125 from Pangkalan Bun to Banjarmasin, to avoid another twelve-hour Indonesian bus ride, and the long stretch to Peninsular Malaysia as there are no direct ferries from Borneo anymore.

Orangutan Spotting

Male orangutan

A sixteen year old non-dominant male orangutan in Camp Leaky. Male orangutans are eight times stronger than us, humans, weigh up to 150kg and become 1m50 tall.

The year was 1971. A young twenty-five year old woman, together with her husband, arrived in the rainforest of Borneo and founded Camp Leaky. The next thirty years Dr. Galdikas devoted her life to the field study and protection of orangutans, the great ginger apes that are only found on Borneo and Sumatra. Not only was her research groundbreaking, she also started a rehabilitation program for orphaned and ex-captive orangutans. The program was a success and several new generations of so called ‘semi-wild’ orangutans have been born here over the years, living happily in the jungle alongside their wild cousins. Protection of the orangutans habitat is essential, now more than ever, as more and more of Borneo’s rainforests are being logged or replaced with palm oil plantations.

Today, Camp Leaky is part of Tanjung Puting National Park and can be visited by boat. We chartered a klotok, a basic wooden houseboat, and spent three days on the Sungai Sekonyer river. It became one of the highlights of our Indonesia itinerary, a truely unique experience, floating through lush jungle and spotting wildlife on the river banks, while relaxing in a comfy chair on the deck or having a nice meal prepared by our own personal cook. At night we slept on the deck under a mosquito net and in the morning we were awakened by the wonderful call of the gibbon, at 5 AM, still better than the usual call for prayer at sunrise time…

But the main reason to come to Tanjung Putin is of course to spot orangutans. We went ashore to visit Camp Leaky and two other feeding stations. These are in fact little more than bamboo platforms on which rangers empty a few baskets of fruit at feeding time, once a day. If you’re lucky, a few (semi-wild) orangutans will materialise from the jungle after a while. Some of them are quite shy, but as a visitor you can still observe them from pretty close, maybe five to ten meters and without a fence. It might also be that there’s plenty of food in the forest at the moment and no apes come down to the platform at all, though you can always return the next day and have more luck (like we did). All in all we’ve been very lucky and have seen many orangutans, including one dominant male in Camp One. And since we visited during the rainy season, there were no crowds, we even had one station to ourselves for a while.

A wild gibbon stealing as many bananas as he can carry from the platform and quickly disappears into the trees again.

A gibbon stealing as many bananas from a feeding platform as he can carry, before disappearing into the trees again.

Proboscis monkeys

Ah, the life of a proboscis monkey, watching the sunset from a tree along the river bank, without any shame…

Watching wildlife from the boat

Spotting crocodiles and other wildlife from our comfy chairs.

Selamat Datang di Sampit

Welcome to Sampit

Welcome to Sampit, on the island of Borneo!

We boarded the Leuser, a passenger ship operated by the state-owned Pelni company, in Surabaya to cross the Java Sea to Kalimantan. This journey to the Indonesian part of Borneo took a long twenty-seven hours, but was very comfortable as we traveled in a nice two-berth cabin. Unfortunately, this way of slow travel is becoming less of an option nowadays, as more and more ferry routes in the world are being replaced by low-cost flight connections.

Leuser cabin

Old-school travel in a first class, two-berth cabin with ensuite bathroom and all meals included, at the same fare as a cramped AirAsia flight on the date we traveled. A bargain.

Het Blauwe Vuur

Ijen krater

De krater van de Ijen vulkaan in het oosten van Java. Het kratermeer is het grootste zure meer ter wereld, het water is zo zuur dat je kleren er gewoon in zouden oplossen (en jijzelf waarschijnlijk ook).

De krater van Kawah Ijen is continu gevuld met gele zwaveldampen die zo heet zijn dat er blauwe vlammen ontstaan. Het ‘Blauwe Vuur’, zoals men het hier noemt, is enkel in het donker te zien. Dus vertrokken wij na middernacht naar de krater voor een steile klim naar de top van de 2600m hoge vulkaan.

De sereniteit van onze nachtelijke tocht werd enigszins verstoord door de honderden lokale toeristen die samen met ons naar boven trokken; hier in het weekend komen was duidelijk niet het beste plan. Maar het was grappig om de macho-Indonesiƫrs, die ons eerst met veel vertoon waren voorbijgestoken, al snel achter ons te laten. Als we iets in de Himalaya hebben geleerd is het wel hoe je een berg op moet lopen: langzaam. De parabel van de haas en de schildpad is niet zomaar een verhaaltje.

Eenmaal op de top van de vulkaan begon de echte uitdaging: via een steil, glibberig pad omlaag de krater in om tot vlakbij het Blauwe Vuur te komen. Bij zwaveldampen denk je meteen aan stank, maar er is nog veel meer: het gas doet je ogen tranen, snijdt je ademhaling af en brandt in je keel. Terwijl wij beneden ons best deden om zo goed mogelijk uit de giftige dampen te blijven, liepen de mijnwerkers – die samen met ons in de krater waren afgedaald – de dikke gele wolk in tot op het punt waar de zwavel wordt afgezet. Wij kropen vermoeid weer naar boven, maar ondertussen zeulden zij veertig, sommigen zelfs tot tachtig kilo zwavel op hun schouders mee naar boven. En dat voor een luttele achthonderd rupiah per kilo (een goeie vijf eurocent). Die tocht doen ze bovendien twee of zelfs drie keer per dag.

Gelukkig kunnen die arme mannen een beetje van het toerisme profiteren, door figuurtjes van zwavel te verkopen. De IndonesiĆ«rs waren er dol op en zeulden hele zakken mee naar beneden. Ironisch genoeg was het beeldje van de schildpad hun favoriet…

Ijen miner

Nog voor zonsopgang vult een mijnwerker zijn manden met zwavelblokken voor de eerste keer, met het Blauwe Vuur op de achtergrond.

Ijen miner selling sulphur

Sommige mijnwerkers verdienen iets bij door zwavel te smelten en in vormpjes te gieten om te verkopen.

Ijen warning sign

Een bord op de top van de krater waarschuwt bezoekers, maar wordt door iedereen genegeerd.

Olaf en An in de krater van Ijen

Een vochtige handdoek maakt het ademen iets gemakkelijker, maar houdt lang niet alles tegen. Het heeft dagen geduurd vooraleer de zwavelgeur uit onze neus was verdwenen.

East Java

East Java

While the ferry is about to dock, the evening call for prayer sounds from a mosque in the distance with Kawah Ijen as the backdrop. We’ve crossed the narrow Bali Strait to East Java, the islands most natural region and home to no less than forty-five active vulcanoes. Mount Semeru is the highest and together with Merapi the most active, Bromo may be the most beautiful, but on this trip we’ll be visiting Ijen.

Tirta Empuls Holy Springs

Tirta Empul

Holy spring water gushes out of waterspouts at the Balinese temple of Tirta Empul. The springs are believed to have magical powers and people have been bathing here and adorning the pools with colourful little offerings for more than a thousand years.


Ubud rice paddies

Plowing rice paddies in the rain, by hand-tractor. This photo was shot on my iPhone, from our balcony in Ubud.

After ten years of traveling to Asia, from the islamic countries in the Middle East and Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent and tropical South East Asia, I’ve covered quite a bit of ground, and in the meantime, so has An. But it’s a vast continent and many blind spots remain on our travel maps. This new trip is about connecting the dots, places we’ve skipped on previous trips, mostly due to lack of time or because they were too far off our route, as well as a few countries we’ve never been before.

To start this trip we’ve taken a one-way flight deep into South East Asia. We chose Bali as our starting point because it’s easy to fly to, not affected too much by the prevailing monsoon and the perfect place for relaxing a few days before hitting the road. After a few hectic months at home we indulge ourselves in Ubud, watching other people work in the rice paddies and savouring delicious food at its many excellent restaurants.

From Indonesia we’ll work our way up through South East Asia and towards China. The exact itinerary is still very much undetermined, but to quote Paul Theroux: “tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.” What we do know is that we’ll be traveling overland as much as possible, crossing land borders instead of traveling through time between sterile airports that all look the same. Unfortunately, we don’t have our own transport this time. Instead, we’ll be taking trains whenever possible, as trains are certainly the next best way to travel after motorcycles, at least if you ask us.