The morning greeted Rekut’s jungle. The light of dawn woke me from a hammock that I tied to wooden poles in the corner of our temporary camp. This was our first morning on the Heart of Borneo expedition in June 2021.
Instantly, the freshness of the air greeted me. I inhaled deeply while looking at the dew and the remnants of last night’s rain on the leaves. It’s already June, but it is still wet – quite unusual. ‘Ah, may this be a sign of blessing’, my mind mumbled.
My daydream was broken by the sounds of nature around me. The melodious gibbons, the chirping of birds, and the roar of the Busang river made for a simple morning orchestra. In this symphony, my ears caught a surprise.
Yes, it’s the sound of a pair of rhinoceros hornbills locally called tingang, an important symbol in Dayak belief. They were communicating by replying to one another, indicating that this pair of sacred birds were looking for food. On hearing this, I sat down to think how lucky and honoured I was to be able to enjoy the sound of this great bird which is now relatively rare in its natural habitat, the Heart of Borneo.
After washing up in the river, I returned to camp. The twelve of us had gathered in the main camp area, preparing for breakfast together and enjoying the food that had been prepared by Pak Edi and Pak Ahmad, two of our local field team members.
After breakfast, we gathered around for a briefing session before setting off into the forest. The Coordinator of the Programme Barito Ulu (PBU) by Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF) Indonesia, Mahmudi, said that today we would expend a lot of our energy and that we need to be prepared and motivated to get through the day. The route we would take was different from those traversed by the team during the previous expedition in April. The contour of the area on the opposite side of the Rekut river (our area of survey this time) was steeper, more slippery and densely covered with vegetation.
“The terrain on this route has very steep slopes between 60-85 degrees. We also don’t know the condition of the track in too much detail,” explained Mahmudi while showing us a map of the area that we were going to.
The team’s main mission was to install camera traps on the other side of the river (second survey area). Installation this time was going to take a relatively long time, so, sufficient food, equipment, medicines, ponchos, ropes, torches and water was to be carried to prepare for a late return to camp.
“We may return to camp when it’s dark,” said the long, wavy haired coordinator, while sipping his black coffee from a green plastic cup.
The team was divided into three groups, namely, the transect team in charge of cutting the path, then the camera trap deployment team and the documentation team. And so, the journey began.
“Barito Ulu, yeeeeeeeeeeyyyy,” shouted all the team members in unison before starting to walk into the forest.
The sound of boots on the humus soil and mossy wood, reminded me of the footsteps of war soldiers marching towards their opposition with gusto. There was a spark and brightness that shone on everyone’s face, as bright as the weather that morning.
The first route we took was called Transect Colin, named after one of the researchers who first conducted research around this route. This is the main route that connects us from Camp to the banks of the Rekut River. Trees with an average diameter of more than 40cm stood tall around the path on a thin layer of peat mixed with mineral soil. Shady trees covered large rocks arranged like a natural fortress blanketed with green moss.
Standing at the edge of the river, I noticed the rocks neatly arranged like a bridge to get across the river. This stone bridge was assembled by several team members just the day before.
Although it rained last night, the water level and current of the Rekut river is relatively low and weak, making it easier for us to cross. However, we had prepared an alternative for in case the water level was too high, we would take a boat upstream.
The first cliff was waiting for us, the dense vegetation became prominent as we crossed the river entering into the forest on the other side. Big, tall, mossy trees dominated the forest vegetation, much taller than what we saw on Transect Colin. The forest was also dark because of the dense canopy deterring the sunlight from reaching the forest floor.
A fallen tree trunk the size of an oil drum was an obstacle that we had to overcome first. Every now and then we saw bear claw marks on dead trees. There were also traces of wild boars on the slightly muddy ground. Several times we stopped to rest. With the incessant incline, it seemed like we were approaching the steep path. There was no flat area at all this time to stop and catch a breath. To climb this cliff, we had to hold on to the roots of trees covered with moss and heave ourselves up. The type of soil in the middle of the hill was no longer peat, but yellow clay-like soil which got very slippery after it had been walked/stepped on several times by the transect team ahead of us.
Rekut Forest is unique, especially in its variety of natural characteristics: alluvial, mineral rich soil at the bottom, then yellow clay like soil to a mixture of sandy-clay soils towards higher elevations. This made us curious about the type of soil at the top of the cliff that we would soon climb.
I also observed the difference in natural conditions and smells in this forest compared to the forests in the hills and mountains of Java that I have explored. Mountains in Java do not have such distinct soil types, there are no massive trees such as ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri), keruing (Dipterocarps) and belawan (Shorea/Tristanopsis) trees, while here they are abundant, large and tall. Rattan stalks spread like sharp thorny ropes around the trees to towering heights. In the mountains of Java there is also no white sand like the beach, while here I found white sand at fairly high altitudes on the hills. This further increased my curiosity.
After about three hours into our hike, the terrain was not getting any easier. The incline was getting steeper and slippery, so the team and I often slipped while climbing. This is exactly what happened to our team member, Budi Maina Putra Yandeng, who we call Buek or Grandpa, a representative from the Environment Agency of Central Kalimantan Province.
During the trip, I interviewed Buek about this activity. He was very happy that he got the opportunity to participate in the deployment of camera traps in Rekut twice. “This is a form of cooperation between the Provincial Environment Agency, Central Kalimantan and BNF so that we know the natural wealth that is here, both flora and fauna. This activity is fun and exciting, reminds me of when I was young.” he said as he took the water bottle from his blue bag.
Several times Buek yelled because he slipped. The rest of us couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the hilarious expressions and behavior of this father of two. His comical and very friendly nature helped bond the team and made it easy to interact with one another. He is also good at playing the guitar and accompanied our singing to relieve fatigue at camp.
“This incline is insane, like a muddy pig’s path. Let’s find another way on the right. Use your machete, open an easier path. We will be destroyed if we use this route to the first camera trap location,” he shouted from behind a rattan plant about four meters above me.
I immediately removed the machete from its sheath and started slashing tree branches and rattan that were blocking our path to find a path that was easy enough for us to tread. Not long after, we found a fairly large dry leaf tied with a yellow ribbon with the words:
“Keep up the spirit! From this point on it’s not crazy anymore – promise, you guys just crossed the The Onerous Cliff!!!”
Instantly I knew who had written the message on the leaf. She is one of our friends named Namrata Anirudh, an independent researcher who helped survey the habitats. The Onerous Cliff, indeed was a very suitable name, it was like the bones in my legs had shattered from climbing it. The incline was steep and we swore in vain every time we slipped and fell.
We continued our journey sweating so profusely that my t-shirt and woven cloth that I used as a headband were soaking wet. Not long after, we finally met Mahmudi and the BNF Camera Trap Coordinator, Adul. Meeting them signified that we had arrived at the first camera trap location. They had started to take habitat measurements – tree girth, canopy and undergrowth cover before setting-up the camera trap.
I finally put my bag down, took out my camera and tripod to make videos and photos of the camera trap deployment process.
Want to know what happened next on our journey and the process of installing camera traps…? Then, stay tune for the upcoming story! (to be continued).
Written by Yohanes Prahara, BNF’s Content Creator and Media Liaison