Day 8: Mangroves, coal and a tiny snake
Peeling ourselves off the thin and sticky mats, we assessed the multitude of mosquitoes that had been successful through our meagre protection. Hoping none contained malarial plasmodiums we got up, skirted the hole in the floor. Shooed off a few cockroaches and staggered through the pre-dawn air to meet Agus-Din. Slightly concerned to find breakfast was not waiting for us, our fears were quelled when Agus-Din pulled up in his big Sungai Wain branded pick-up, breakfast on the flat bed.
Ted jumped in the front while I clambered into the back, unwilling to be far away from the food.
We began to drive as the sun was rising, golden rays filtering through leafy greens as the truck bounced past a few small wooden houses. Stopping at the tip of a dead end we hopped out, grabbed breakfast and wandered down a sloping path to a sluggish, almost still river. thundering filled the air as the 15 metre long open boat chugged into view. Piling in, Agus Din took over tiller and rumbled through the brown water up until we reached a wider part of the river that allowed the turning of the vessel.
Swinging back around to the jetty another guy jumped in carrying a small trangia stove in his hand. Taking control of the boat, he handed the stove to Agus Din who began to make coffee as the deafening engine rumbled us downstream and towards the big river.
Trip to the river
Sipping our incredibly sweet drinks we began to scan the overhanging greenery (in between large mouthfuls of breakfast). Being too far away from the leaves for insects, birds were the primary order of the day. We didn’t actually manage to spot a huge amount (probably due to the sheer volume of the thunderous engine) but what we did see was nice. A rather plump pigeon looking pleased with itself on a branch was identified as a green imperial pigeon. This large dove is mostly clean pinkish grey but has amazing emerald wings, far outpacing any UK pigeon in avian beauty contests.
Ted's drawing of an imperial pigeon. Here's a link to his instagram: @teddywalliker
As nice as pigeons are, especially pretty ones such as this, they do often pale in comparison to kingfishers. One kingfisher specifically was the avian highlight of our boat ride and that was the Stork Billed kingfisher. While somewhat similar to our UK species with its orange chest and azure wings, this cousin is much bigger; measuring nearly 40cm from tail to bill. Its head is a dusky brown and it is its beak that gives it those extra few inches. Large and red (to match its feet) the bill is used by the kingfisher to snaffle up fish that it plunges down upon from perches 2-4 metres above the surface.
Ted's drawing of a stork-billed kingfisher. Here's a link to his instagram: @teddywalliker
Rounding a meander, I nudged Ted and pointed to a few moving branches ahead. A buff-orange head appeared, complete with large nose, as a proboscis monkey emerged from from the greenery. This monkey also goes by the name of orang belanda here in Indonesia. Translating as ‘Dutchman’ as a result of the monkey’s similarity to the Dutch colonisers who also had ginger hair, big bellies and large noses. Male monkeys use their large noses to attract the prettier females as the nose acts as an echo chamber which amplifies their call, making the male more attractive. Their stomachs are not to make them more alluring however, and are necessary to help them digest the poorly nutritious shoots, leaves and unripe fruits. They live in small groups of up to 30 individuals but their overall population is declining rapidly. This is due to the fragmentation of their rainforest habitat as a result of human population growth and over consumption of resources such as palm oil, sending the proboscis’ population, by some estimates, to just 1000 individuals in Borneo today.
Male proboscis monkey
Marks of the human population were also evident on and around the river. Many of the lower branches of the mangroves were draped in plastic bags but the plastic pollution is not the main problem affecting the river. Coal is mined nearby and then transported to Balikpapan before being shipped out around Indonesia from the harbour town. As of 2017, authorities began allowing the coal to be transferred between ships at sea to reduce the time taken to load up on land. This practice has become more common since April when an oil spill caused by a broken pipeline closed Balikpapan for any loading/unloading activities. As a result, more coal has been lost into the sea during the transferral process and this is not only affecting the natural environment but the livelihoods of many local fishermen. They staged a protest earlier this year because they say that all the fish have gone from within the estuary. Their nets come up with just coal. The coal is damaging the reefs too as when it reacts with sea water the coal releases high concentrations of sulphuric acid, upsetting the delicate equilibrium for marine life to thrive.
Infuriatingly for the fishermen and the rest of the world’s fish lovers, the region’s energy ministry spokesperson flat out refuses to admit that there is any pollution and that everything is done by the proper procedures…
Ship that may be involved in coal transportation
Feeling a bit disheartened by the stories and sight of the coal, we thundered back upstream. Suddenly a scaly head poked out of the water and our spirits were immediately lifted as a water monitor lizard swam to the bank. This is the second largest lizard in the world, beaten only by the gigantic komodo dragon. The largest known water monitor reached 3.2m from tail to nose but our one was not much more than 1.5m long. Where these lizards are found in Thailand, they are referred to as ‘hia’ which is also used as an offensive word meaning bad and evil things. This is probably quite an undeserved name as they look to be friendly creatures, unless you are a something they could eat, which is pretty much anything smaller than them. They may also have venom as small venom glands have been found in specimens of different monitor species and they certainly have extremely potent mouth bacteria which would not do you any good.
Water monitor lizard
The sun had begun to beat down and we had forgotten our hats so when the small jetty came back into view, we were quite pleased to see it, even if it did mean our time in Sungai Wain was nearing an end. Wandering back up the path to the truck and bouncing back to the lodge, our hearts were heavy. Photos taken with Lintar and Agus Din, we grabbed our bags and through them into the car Agus Din was using to kindly drive us back to Balikpapan and our hotel for the night. Just before I packed my camera, Sungai Wain offered one more jewel with legs, the beetle Proagoderus schwaneri. With twin horns like a triceratop’s crown this beetle is stunning normally, but this one was extra special. Usually this species is a darker, more camouflaged hue but our beetle was like a sapphire, blues shimmering whichever way you looked.
Our little group - L-R Ted, Agus Din, Lintar, Me.
An amazing Proagoderus schwaneri
Grateful for the parting gift, we piled into the car and headed back to civilisation. We said our goodbyes to our excellent guide Agus Din in the hotel’s carpark and checked in to have a beer and cigarette for Ted.
Beers in Balikpapan
The rest of the day passed in a blur of sleep, wandering around Balikpapan being waved at by the locals who hadn’t seen many white, blond haired people, watching millions of swifts returning to roost using the roads as their route and, most excitingly, Ted spotting the smallest snake we had ever seen; a flowerpot snake! These almost-too-small-to-be-charming (almost) snakes survive by eating the eggs of ants.
Tiny, tiny flowerpot snake!
We eventually fell into a food induced sleep, ready to make our journey to Tarakan to meet the rest of the field trip and head into the jungles of Tane Olen…