On our fourth day in Pangkalan Bun, in the depths of the lush greenery of Central Kalimantan, we visit Keluang Bay and immerse ourselves in the people there. Keluang Bay is a local fishing village, a family-friendly Sunday destination. People bring their children here to swim, while fathers fish and mothers sit in groups along the shorelines, eating seafood caught that morning.
We find ourselves, with our pale skin and loudly spoken ‘Ingriss’, the subjects of intense, polite curiosity.
Keluang Bay is a short drive from the hotel in Pangkalan Bun. There is so much space in Borneo. Once you leave the densely clustered city, packed tight around the river that sustains it; the properties are spread wide apart, tiny wooden houses that squat on huge blocks of jungle.
And then there’s tiny wooden houses, set amongst plantations of palm oil trees in all different stages of growth. Large, dull yellow dump trucks that look like over-sized Tonka toys are everywhere on the rural roads of Kalimantan. They are referred to, simply, as ‘the palm oil trucks’. We see them waiting patiently in line for diesel fuel every morning, a lumbering line of belching vehicles and their cigarette-smoking drivers stretching up and around the corner; waiting patiently for access to the shiny, newly-built commercial petrol station.
It rained last night, heavily, thrumming on the roof of the hotel, vibrant blue lightning crackling the sky and outing the hotel’s power supply until the generator kicked in. We’re only going as far as Keluang Bay today because the roads beyond it are washed out, impassable by car. The roads into the Bay itself are a mixture of poorly laid asphalt and huge, slippery mud puddles formed from densely packed clay soil. The palm oil trucks, motor scooters carrying two or three people, and over-crowded people-movers compete for space on the road in a way that is peacefully terrifying. Erin has taught me the Arabic word ‘Inshallah’– ‘God willing’– and the phrase becomes a helpful mantra for travel on Bornean roads.
It takes less than half an hour to reach Keluang Bay. There’s a huge seafood restaurant dotted with knee high tables where freshly caught crab, lobster, and fish are served. There’s not much beach to speak of on this side of the bay– the slightly muddy water washes up to a dirty shore, longboats and small klotoks occasionally moored to the breakwalls. The dusty promenade is lined with vendors selling Coke and Sprite and Nestle Milo in cans out of branded cool-boxes. There are gaudy children’s toys and sugary snacks on display. Men carve huge green coconuts into edible, drinkable treats.
A wooden jetty sticks out into the middle of the calmness of the bay. There’s a pondok– an ornate, beautiful sheltered area– that sits serenely five or ten metres from the end of the wharf. Once they were connected, Garry the tour guide tells us. Now the pondok just sits, calmly, waiting to be reconnected to the land. A testament to the best of intentions.
Across the Bay, on a small peninsula of land that juts out opposite the peninsula of Tanjung Pating National Park, is the Hawkbill Turtle conservation area. That’s where we’re headed, the four of us plus Garry and Ivend, as well as the skipper and crew of our river klotok; who we’re ecstatic to discover Garry has invited for lunch. We board a small boat that smells of diesel and sit quietly, rocking in the gentle waves as the front of the boat splits the water, cuts the Bay in half, to deliver us to where the turtles are.
We’re further out toward the sea than we were on the Sekonyer River– we can see the entrance to the ocean as we leave the jetty. The spit of land we’re headed for is the last headland before the Java Sea opens up beyond it. Where the land meets the water, it’s a very close approximation of an Australian beach– white sand, gently rolling breakers. The side of the island we first alight onto reminds me almost surreally of Paradise. Most of the dense, knotted jungle growth has been cleared here. Sturdy pines, prickled with the pine needles I saw a thousand times during my childhood, ring the shoreline.
The turtle conservation center is a few hundred metres inland. Hawkbill turtles– they’re probably exactly the kind of turtle you’re imagining, Finding Nemo style and all– are amazing creatures.
Baby green sea turtles are just about the cutest things I’ve ever seen. (Right up there with, say, baby orangutans.)
The turtle conservation program is ridiculously effective for something so simple. Turtles come up to the beach at night to lay their eggs. Not only are they are a delicacy for Komodo dragons; they’re also a delicacy for people, and turtle eggs fetch 5000 rupiah a piece. So the rangers who work for the conservation project head out at night and wait, digging up the turtle eggs once they’re laid and the mother has left. They then re-bury the eggs in a fenced-off area, wait two months until they hatch, feed them up for another two months, and release the extremely adorable babies back into the ocean.
For about five Australian dollars, tourists can release their own turtle. Where I planted a tree for an old life, I release a turtle for a new one.
There’s a trick to releasing baby turtles, apparently– you have to face the turtle toward the shore, a few feet away from the water; and let them turn themselves around and make their way into the waves.
They are, as I said, amazing creatures. In the thirty seconds it takes the to do that, they develop a mental snapshot that will last their whole lives- they’ll always know to come back to this beach, to lay their own eggs in the future.
Turtle video, coming soon to YouTube.