Bali, Borneo, the Kumai River and the Orangutan Rehabilitation Camps

We generally consider Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes (available on SetSail) to be the bible as it relates to planning our cruising routes. Heading north from Bali to Kalimantan and/or Singapore, Jimmy recommends heading back up the Lombok Strait, along the east coast of Bali. As expected, most of the yachts departing Bali before us reported pushing into strong currents most or all the way to the north end of the island. We’d had enough of the Lombok Channel on our first go, so decided to try a different route.

Departing Benoa, we turned right, and immediately picked up a knot of tail current as we made for the southern tip of Bali. Motor sailing along the south coast of Bali we took in some spectacular scenery; the colossal cliffs, posh homes and resorts perched high above the water, and the massive surf, courtesy of a huge southwest swell rolling in from the Indian Ocean. Once around the corner, we then headed northwest through the Bali Strait between Bali and Java, motorsailing in nearly flat calm seas, still getting bit of a push from the current.

Java volcano.

This current followed us nearly all the way till we reached the narrows between the islands of Java and Bali, where we began to encounter a strong southerly flow. We cut in to hug the coast of Bali on the 10-meter contour, and were able to minimize the current to about 2 knots, and made it easily to our intended anchorage just north of Gilimanuk Bay before sunset. The sea gods had been very kind to us, and after an easy 80-mile passage, we enjoyed sundowners as we watched the sun drop behind the massive volcanic peaks on the west end of Java.

The following day, we knocked off another 68 miles during daylight hours, ending up at a nondescript little island called Raas, which was home to a large fishing fleet. Anchorage was a bit rolly, so we were up early and made our way west about 80 miles and took overnight anchorage along the north shore of Madura Island. Again, anchorage was rolly, and we were awakened by the serenades of Mohammed Presley from the local mosque starting at 0430 the next morning. We weighed anchor, were under way at first light, and got to watch the sun rise.

Madura mosque.

The waters between Madura Island and Bawean Island, our next destination, are very active fishing grounds. We saw dozens of fishing boats enroute, and hundreds of fish traps. These traps consist of a clump of a dozen or so bamboo poles or sticks lashed together, floating on the surface, some up to 30 feet in length, and usually marked by a small flag or a clump of palm fronds to make them visible (ha-ha!) to mariners. The operative word here is usually. What amazes me is that we noted a number of huge ships regularly navigating these waters, and I can’t imagine how they manage to avoid these traps, particularly at night.

As we approached Bawean Island, eighty-odd miles from our starting point that morning, we were pleased that we had been able to dodge all the fish traps. Well, nearly all. Just after I had lowered the mainsail, we heard a thud, bang, and boom. I dove for the throttle but it was too late. Just astern of us, I could see the unmarked fish trap we had just run over. This one won the “triple crown.” It hit the bow, keel and rudder, and when I applied throttle again, there was some vibration in the prop shaft. Oh s–t, I thought, this is no place to try to make any boat repairs. We limped into the beautiful anchorage on the northeast corner of Bawean Island and dropped the hook.

Donning my mask and snorkel, I hopped in to the water to inspect the damage. Other than a few clean spots in the anti-fouling paint, the bottom was fine, as I had expected. The prop had managed to catch a small piece of polypropylene line, which I was able to easily unwind. No damage, thank goodness.

We enjoyed the beautiful, calm anchorage at Bawean so much, that we decided to take a break and spend another day. The only thing on the roster that day was cleaning Moonshadow’s bottom, which hadn’t been touched in four months and 5,000 nautical miles since we were in the Great Barrier Reef.

Departing Bawean Island early the next morning, we headed north-northwest across the Java Sea to the island of Borneo. We enjoyed a nice spinnaker run for about half the day, but then the wind faded, forcing us to motorsail the rest of the day. We passed Puting Point around midnight, and made our way to the anchorage in Kumai Bay in visibility severely hampered by smoke and haze, dodging numerous small fishing boats lighted only by small red flashing LED lights like the ones cyclists wear at night. This was pretty much an “instrument approach,” using the radar to pick up the shoreline, and the night vision monocular to pick up the flashing lights of the fishing boats through the haze, till we could get to a safe anchorage in 6 meters of water.

With good light, much improved visibility and a set of accurate waypoints from one of our predecessors, the next day we made our way over the bar and up the Kumai River to the township of Kumai. With its muddy brown water and densely rain-forested banks, the Kumai River could easily have been the Amazon. Kumai, a small port town, is a gateway to Indonesian Borneo’s gold mines and timber forests. It is also the best place to arrange a tour of the Tanjung Puting National Park and the orangutan rehabilitation centers. If you like monkeys and jungles, you’d be in heaven here.

  Kumai market.

When we approached the town reach of Kumai, we were approached by a small, sporty speedboat and greeted by Harry Roustaman, owner of Harry’s Yacht Service. With a big, friendly smile and gentle mannerism, he introduced himself and guided us to the best spot to anchor. Once we were anchored, Harry dropped a pamphlet outlining his services, which range from jungle tours, fuel delivery, laundry, to port clearances, just to name a few. We were so impressed with his friendly, polite and easy-going attitude that we immediately booked a tour to visit the Park and the orangutans.

That evening we went ashore in Kumai to have a walk and a meal out at one of the local eateries with a group of yachties. While Kumai doesn’t look much better or worse than any of the other small, out of the way Indonesian towns we’ve visited, we did notice that the vibe was definitely more warm and friendly. Almost everybody we passed either waved or gave us a warm “hello mista.”

Dinner at the eatery was OK and nobody got “Bali Belly.” Of the food on offer, most we were unable or afraid to identify. It was smorgasbord style, and they charged more or less by the morsel, but for the two of us the whole meal came to about $4.50 US. Among the offerings we could actually identify were curried tripe, liver of some sort, beef heart, and of course chicken and fish prepared a variety of different ways. The chicken is always a safe bet, I say. The next day we spent relaxing, catching up on a few chores, and getting ready for the jungle tour.

Our guides picked us up at 0700 sharp in a small speedboat. A young man remained on one of the boats in the anchorage to keep a watchful eye on our unattended boats – no extra charge. Harry maintained that while Kumai wasn’t a particularly dodgy area, he wanted to insure that there wasn’t any hanky panky with his customer’s yachts.

We hopped into the back of the speedboat behind driver and guide, and shot down the Kumai River a couple of miles, turning left into a tributary that marked the entrance into the Tanjung Puting National Park. As the river narrowed, the flora became thicker and more beautiful. Everywhere was the lovely scent of pandanus flowers. We occasionally spotted gibbons and macaques sitting in the trees high above the river. Along the river were a few small villages consisting of a cluster of elevated huts and small blocks of land cleared for rice farming. The river was littered with jungle debris, which our driver skillfully attempted to negotiate his way around, but we were never to go more than five or ten minutes without having to stop and clear some sort of plant material from the leg of the outboard motor.

Our first stop was Tanjung Harapan Orangutan Rehabilitation Camp. The purpose of these camps is to provide a safe sanctuary for this endangered species, while studying their behavior in their natural habitat. Because the orangutans have been reduced by the destruction of their habitat to such small numbers, they have become more or less dependent on humans, so the camps provide a regular feeding for those animals that need it.

  Rollin’ on the river.

We arrived well in time for the morning feeding. Walking nearly a mile into the dense rain forest, much of it on an elevated boardwalk, we reached the designated feeding area. In addition to the camp guide, Harry provided us with our own guide, a very knowledgeable young man named Dansa who had worked in the rehabilitation camps for two years, studying and documenting the behavior of the orangutans. He seemed to know all of them by sight, which ones were gentle, which were aggressive and potentially dangerous, which were the offspring of which, and loads of information about their social habits, most of it from personal observation.

At the feeding area, the guides called out to the orangutans and laid out bananas and tubs of milk on a raised platform. Orangutans move with incredible ease and feel safe high up in the trees, so are loath to come down to ground level for food, unless they are very accustomed to being around humans. Within a few minutes, we started to see some of the trees swaying, hear small branches breaking, and began to see dark, furry figures moving through the treetops. Within a half hour, there were at least half a dozen orangutans in sight, some feeding, some just sitting and watching the action from a safe distance, or avoiding getting too close to the dominant male of the area. A couple of the more “humanized” orangutans came right down to where we were at ground level to collect more food. Some of the larger animals were quite intimidating, having absolutely no fear of us. This is not entirely surprising as they weigh as much, if not more than us, and have 4-5 times the body strength of the average human. Orangutans have been known to literally pick up a human standing in their way and toss them over their head. We were happy to keep our distance.

We spent well over an hour and a half observing the orangutans, observing their unique habits and social behavior, and enjoying the cool of the rain forest under the dense canopy. Being in close company with these apes in their natural habitat is a fascinating and indescribable experience.

  Camp Leaky wildlife.

We returned to the speedboat and went further up the river. As we made our way further into the park, the river narrowed to the point of being mostly covered in canopy, the water cleared, and the flora and fauna became more prolific. We encountered numerous exotic birds, a couple of fresh water crocodiles, and even a group of five wild boars swimming in line across the river just ahead of us. Pulling off in a wide spot in the river, we enjoyed a box lunch while taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the jungle, interrupted only by the sounds of a couple of “African Queen” type boats making their way up the river. After lunch, we headed upstream a short ways further to Camp Leakey.

Camp Leakey is the largest and oldest orangutan rehabilitation camp in the park. It has more buildings, more staff and even a small visitor’s center/museum containing lots of interesting artifacts, photographs and information about the orangutans. There were also a number of very tame orangutans milling about the camp, as well as a wild boar, a domestic cat and a few gibbons keeping an eye on things from some nearby trees. None of the animals seemed to pay too much attention to each other.

Nonetheless, we trekked a mile or so into the jungle once again in order to observe the afternoon feeding. Once more we were very fortunate to be visited by so many orangutans. Our guide explained that the feedings were so well attended because at this particular time of the season, there were fewer new leaves and flowers available, which are their preferred sources of food. Again we spent nearly two hours just hanging out and watching the orangutans while they dined on pineapples and milk, and curiously watched us. I was beginning to wonder who was entertaining whom out there.

We returned back to the speedboat for the one-hour-plus ride back to Kumai. It was approaching dusk, and the monkeys were out in force along the river. We saw literally hundreds of long-tailed macaques, gibbons and proboscis monkeys. The dominant male of the proboscis species have a schnoz that Jimmy Durante would have been jealous of. As we passed below on the river at high speed, some of the monkeys would become irritated by the noise, run out on a tree branch and begin shaking it wildly, and in some cases throw bits of food or plant material at us. We were definitely in their turf, disturbing their evening meal, and they weren’t happy about it!

Moonshadow at Carimata.  

Back on Moonshadow, over sundowners that evening, we toasted to our best day yet in Indonesia. The beautiful rain forest, the monkeys, and our excellent guides will all be indelibly marked in our memories. Harry popped by that evening to check up on us. From the copies of our passports that we provided for entry permits into the park, he discovered that Merima had just had a birthday a couple days before, and presented her with a small gift.

Considering that some parts of Indonesia rely heavily on the tourism dollar, or in this case rupiah, we couldn’t understand why our visas granted us just 60 days to stay. The process of extending visas is expensive, and requires interface with the Indonesian officialdom, which means delays, endless amounts of paperwork and, in some cases, baksheesh (bribery). We were loath to deal with this any more, so we decided to check out of the country at Kumai. Harry organized our clearance for just US$25. This meant that technically, we were meant to proceed directly to our next port of call, which was Singapore, so we would have to be in stealth mode for the rest of the time we were island hopping in Indonesian waters.

The following day we took on a bit of fuel, got some washing done, picked up a few provisions, did some email, said our goodbyes to the friends we had made in Kumai, and prepared for the last stretch of our Indonesian tour, the 600-mile island hop to Singapore. We had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in Kumai and it was the first place in Indonesia that we were truly sad to leave.

The following morning, we easily retraced our track down the Kumai River with the tide ebbing, and took a long 115-mile leg to Pulau Mangkut. Typical of sailing and flying, the leg was hours of total boredom punctuated by a few moments of sheer terror. As we approached the small islet, we were motor sailing in light air, following the 10 meter contour. All of a sudden, I noticed a strong current on the nose, the seas started stacking up and the bottom was coming up fast. The last thing that I wanted was to crest one of these waves and then be dropped on the bottom, pushing the keel through the hull of the boat. I dashed to the helm, switched off the autopilot and threw the helm hard to port, where there were no standing waves and the chart showed deeper water. Within 30 seconds both the bottom and my heartbeat had receded substantially – and we had not even kissed the bottom. An hour later at around midnight, with a good moon, we made our way into a safe but rather rolly anchorage for the night in the lee of a small, rocky islet.

  Bathing at the spring.

We were underway early the next morning, and sailed most of the day with the spinnaker. It was another long day sail, but this time the destination was much more to our liking. We arrived late that evening at a lovely bay on the north side of Serutu Island, and were guided to a safe anchorage by some yachties already at anchor. After two long sailing days, we took a day’s rest and enjoyed the beauty and quiet of this uninhabited bay.

From Serutu, we made a short 15-mile hop over to Carimata Island, and again relaxed in a beautiful anchorage in the lee of the lush, green island. Just ashore from our anchorage was a natural spring where the water was led down to the water’s edge in a pipe fashioned from some lengths of bamboo. In the absence of rain, this was apparently the only source of water for two fishing villages on neighboring islands, as there were endless streams of boats and people coming to bathe, wash clothes, and haul away jugs of the beautiful spring water. Unfortunately some of them took the opportunity to make noisy close passes to us, or stop and ask for (and in some cases actually demand) food and clothing. We found a break in the action and went over to check out the water source, having a bath in the spring water. Unfortunately, the anchorage was so infested with flies that it made cooking and eating a bit unpleasant. After a day and a half there, we decided to take the hop across the South China Sea.

We departed Carimata in the morning, and reckoned that we would be able to make Kentar Island before happy hour the following day. This would put us in range of Singapore with just a couple of easy day hops.


Soon after we cleared the small and picturesque islands lying off Carimata, the breeze filled in and we had the spinnaker up, making good speed. This lasted most of the day, but eased to almost nothing by nightfall, so we had to drop the kite in favor of the cast aluminum spinnaker. At about 1230 hours the following day, we crossed the equator. For an instant the GPS showed just goose eggs for the latitude, and the N (for north) was superimposed over the S (for South), indicating the hemisphere we were in. Then, after a magic moment, Moonshadow was back in the northern hemisphere for the first time in eight years. Since Merima hadn’t sailed across the line before, she has officially graduated from a “furback” to a “shellback.” Since she was the only crew on board, and fearing a mutiny, King Neptune was unusually easy on her. We arrived later that afternoon and took anchorage in the lee of Kentar Island.

We relaxed the next day, anchored off of a small fishing village built on stilts at the water’s edge. We were visited by a few very nice and friendly locals. We experienced something completely new to us in Indonesia. Instead of coming up to the boat and asking or demanding something, they brought us a gift. Mind you, it was just a coconut – but we appreciated the lovely green “drinking nut” and the charming gesture. We were so pleasantly surprised that we gave them some clothes and lollies for the kids. They were so appreciative, they gave us another coconut!

  New shellback.

Two easy day hops found us within eyeshot of Singapore. Anchored off a small, primitive fishing village built on stilts over the water, it was difficult to fathom that from our third world anchorage, we were gazing across the Singapore Strait at the lighted skyscrapers one of the most modern and cosmopolitan cities in Asia, if not the world.

Although we’ve sailed more than 60,000 miles since we left Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, nearly eleven years ago, this spot roughly marks the half-way point of our circumnavigation. We’re hoping the second half is just half as good as the first half!

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