• July 9, 2014

Postcards From Borneo: The Boat Trip Upriver

Russell Laman
Tim Laman

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.

Gunung Palung National Park, Borneo, West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

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.

The 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

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.

The 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

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.

View of research station main camp building in Gunung Palung National park

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.

Related story: A Family Adventure Begins Anew
Related story: Chasing Orangutans
Related story: The World’s Stinkiest (but Best) Fruit
Related story: The Best Swimming Hole in Gunung Palung

There are 41 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Nava
    October 4, 2014

    Nicely written Russell. I feel like I was there.

  2. Hera
    October 2, 2014

    great, i’m indonesian. but i never go to there.

  3. Nilesh
    August 27, 2014

    Wow ! Very nicely written.Almost felt like a fiction for us…

  4. Helen
    August 17, 2014

    Super adventure.

  5. Octa
    July 26, 2014

    I laughed when i read the part where you kept saying “aduuu” hahaha. Amazing story Russell. Welcome to our country, again. Keep up the good work and looking forward for more adventures from you and your family.

  6. Gordon Laman
    July 25, 2014

    Great job, Russell. Excellent, vivid writing. Thanks for sharing your adventures. It almost felt as though I was going along on your trip

  7. Kee Seok Hoe
    July 22, 2014

    Appreciated you share with us. Nice picture, nice family, nice acts.

  8. Wita
    July 20, 2014

    Amazing story!
    What a wonderful family you have, Russel.
    Thank you for writing and posting this wonderful picture and story.

  9. Margie Singer
    July 20, 2014

    Wow, Russell, this is amazing writing, and the beginnings (or the middle?) of an amazing adventure. It leaves your readers hungering for more! I love the photos of you in the water. I don’t know if I’d be so brave in your place. Fire ants and a jungle at night both sound like they would require a stout heart!

  10. Wahyu Susanto
    July 20, 2014

    In 2008 i met Cheryl for the first time, 2009 i met her family at Cabang Panti, 2010 i was stayed at her house in Lexington for 3 months. Now…i keep learn from them how to make a wonderful family life. Love you guys from Indonesia…

  11. Rose and Wayne Tyson
    July 17, 2014

    Russell, you’re not JUST articulate, your writing is clean and direct; don’t change that. I hope National Geographic is paying you well. And you’re a man already. Pulling that canoe, I can now see your Dad in your face. While you could hardly do better than to be “like your Dad,” we love you for being your own true self. We are “proud” of you, and your whole family. Love, Rose and Wayne

  12. Hesa
    July 16, 2014

    Great family adventure!
    Welcome to my country..

  13. lou lennear
    July 13, 2014

    Wonderful and very nice and sweet pictures and enjoy very much

  14. natha
    July 13, 2014

    Amazing this is not the first writing check this http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2014/07/01/postcards-from-borneo-a-family-adventure-begins-anew/, russell has grown up and his baby siter too

  15. Gina
    July 13, 2014

    I have often wondered how it would be traveling like you and your family does. Sounds exciting!!! Were you afraid to get out in the water and help with the boat?

  16. Paulette Woods
    July 12, 2014

    Hi Russell, I knew your Mom when she was our next door neighbor. So much has changed in your lives. What a joy to read about your adventures. I look forward to following all that you and your family experience.

  17. Phyllis & Ron Johnson
    July 12, 2014

    Your family adventures are amazing! We will follow you along…..thanks for sharing.

  18. Cynthia Knott
    July 11, 2014

    Great article and photos! HAPPY BIRTHDAY RUSSELL!

  19. Tammy Van Dierendonck
    July 11, 2014

    Wow! An adventure of a lifetime! Keep us posted.

  20. Julie
    July 11, 2014

    Well written. Can’t wait to read more.

    July 10, 2014

    Nice article….. Enjoyed reading it. Try to visit northeastern Indian states next time.

  22. Brenda Czich
    July 10, 2014

    My two teens and I enjoying your log. Carry on! And enjoy your adventures.

  23. Ja Krutchaiyan
    July 10, 2014

    Such a great adventure Russell,please keep us updated. O would love to read more of your articles. By the way, happy birthday 2 days in advance❤️

  24. Gunung Palung Orangutan Project
    July 10, 2014

    For those who are interested in learning more about Cheryl Knott’s project and what kinds of research the family will be working on at Cabang Panti, visit our website! http://www.saveGPorangutans.org

  25. Silke Knott
    July 10, 2014

    Greetings from the Maryland Knotts. What a cool trip you are on! Keep posting, we will follow your adventure. Your cousins Sophie, Annalena and Max say “Hi”!

  26. Sean Long
    July 10, 2014

    You are a very articulate young man, Russel. I enjoyed reading this entry quite a lot, and look forward to reading more of your adventures. Keep up the good work!

    Also, I am positively green with envy when comparing my own life at your age, to the trips your family has made. 🙂

  27. Ramneet Kaur
    July 10, 2014

    Enjoyed thoroughly reading this article.

  28. Thai tran
    July 10, 2014

    Good wrting, feel like I am there with you amazing!!!!

  29. Eliza
    July 10, 2014

    Sounds like an amazing trip and a wonderful adventure! You are a fabulous writer! Would love to be there to experience everything first hand! 😀

  30. Oreet Herbst
    July 10, 2014

    Wonderful – can’t wait for the next update!

  31. Valerie
    July 10, 2014

    How exciting (except for the bugs)! Wish I was there too…

  32. Sandra All
    July 10, 2014

    Wow! Russell, you’re an amazing writer. I’m excited to hear what’s next on your adventure.

  33. cahyo agung nugroho
    July 10, 2014

    Nice picture n story….thank you for coming to Indonesia…

  34. Penelope Young
    July 10, 2014

    How fascinating, very well written. I am looking forward tovreading more about your families adventure. Thank you.

  35. Pardeep Varma
    July 10, 2014

    I love your photograph

  36. James
    July 9, 2014

    Did a trip quite similar to this in 2004 in Tanjung Puting to Camp Leakey with Dr. Gary Shapiro. Incredible experience and can’t wait for the Nat Geo story.

  37. Jennifer Marks
    July 9, 2014

    What an amazing experience. I can’t wait to live it vicariously through your words.

  38. ting cw
    July 9, 2014

    great adventure !

  39. Vivi Indriana
    July 9, 2014

    Great adventure . . .

  40. Audrey Carter
    July 9, 2014

    I can’t wait to read your logs as you continue your adventure!

  41. Joyce Knott
    July 9, 2014

    Such a thrill to follow this fabulous adventure!

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