Captain Hugh and the Reluctant Navigator
The Voyage of Vega

Indonesia X – Bawean, Borneo and Orangutans

March 1st 2020

We are back on Vega in Malaysia after almost three months at home. I have rather a lot of catching up to do on my blog: the last few rally stops in Indonesia, visiting Singapore and then up the west coast of Malaysia to Langkawi. So here goes….


Tuesday 1st to Sunday 6th October 2019


We left Lovina on Bali at 6.30am and headed north-west, motoring initially on a calm, flat, morning sea but as the day progressed the wind increased, as it does most days, and eventually we raised the sails and Vega sped along at a brisk 6-7 knots close hauled to the wind.

To break up the 220 mile sail from Bali to Bawean we had decided to stop for the night on the northeast of Java, joining three other rally boats anchored there in a small, peaceful bay, sheltered by a headland and reef, and we had a sociable evening with sundowners on board Vega. We didn’t go ashore and so we can’t really say that we have visited Java, which is the largest island of Indonesia as well as its most developed and industrialised, its most westernised and cosmopolitan. With a population of 140 million it is also the most densely populated island on the planet. Jakarta, the crowded and polluted capital city, is sinking and is regularly flooded so there are plans to relocate Indonesia’s capital to the island of Borneo. God help the orangutans then.

Another early start at 5am but within minutes of leaving David and Susan on Enchantress had a problem and had to return to the bay. Snorkelling under their boat they found a plastic bag wrapped around the propellor – not uncommon in these waters where there is so much plastic garbage floating past. We motored for most of the morning passing scores of small, colourful fishing boats and floats with flags to mark them, weaving our way amongst them.

It was a long, slow sail on to Bawean as the wind eventually came up, passing oil platforms off the coast of Java. That night the darkness was lit by a crescent moon, which gradually sank towards the horizon, turned orange and disappeared. All around us as we sailed on were the flashing lights of fishing boats and the horizon glowed with beams of light from scores of boats. We heard reports from other yachts of fishing nets, buoys and unlit FADs spotted in the water. Over the VHF radio came the almost hysterical call from one woman whose husband was diving under their boat in the dark to free a rope around the propellor… fortunately he was successful and they were safe.

The anchorage on the south of Bawean island
Landing dinghies on the beach

The anchorage at Bawean was in a bay on the south of the island, by a small village with a couple of restaurants on the beach. A group of enthusiastic young people acted as rally guides. The people here are strict Muslims, unused to western tourists, and we were advised to dress conservatively with knees and elbows covered. They are trying to build up their tourist industry and had invited the rally crew to show us their island so that we could spread the word. The opening ceremony for the rally was held in a nearby showground where we sat through interminable speeches detailing the attractions of Bawean. After a rather charming dance by women dressed in Cossack-looking outfits, Princess Indonesian Tourism tottered up onto the stage in vertiginous heels and with a long split in the back of her skin tight dress and gave a speech. Helium balloons were released much to the upset of some of the environmentally aware rally crew.


Unfortunately, despite their warmth and enthusiasm, they seemed ill prepared on Bawean to deal with tourists; it was disorganised with schedules being frequently changed up until the last minute. Transport around the island was in the back of pickup trucks and Hugh and I decided we lacked the stamina for the all-day tour around the island in one in the heat of the day with no shelter from the sun.

The Gala Dinner that evening was cancelled, then back on, with the start time of 6pm, then 4.30pm and finally 3.30pm. We considered not going but in the end were glad that we decided to as we had a most wonderful evening. After games organised for the cruisers ( including a sack race with prizes of an electric mixer and iron – I came last in my heat), there was another display of dancing, a buffet meal of rice, chicken, prawns and vegetables, then a fashion parade, the women in gorgeous long dresses, some of the male models carrying woven shopping bags or clutch bags (which are a great fashion accessory, I think), followed by entertainment by the ‘Sixties Band’ – locals and cruisers joining in and dancing together energetically – an unexpectedly fun evening of high spirits and good feeling. We have been overwhelmed by the incredible welcome we have received at the rally stops and by the generosity of our hosts.


Sunday 6th to Monday 14th October

Kalimantan (Borneo)

After less than three days on Bawean island we left before 6am on the 190 mile sail north to Kalimantan (as the southern, Indonesian, part of the island of Borneo is named). We set off in company with 9 other yachts, most of whom gradually overtook and left us behind. As darkness fell we had messages on VHF from the boats ahead with warnings of FADs and fishing boats and suggestions of how to avoid them. Later, as flashes of lightning lit the sky, we put our laptops and other electronic equipment in the oven which supposedly protects them from damage should we be hit by lightning (a sort of Faraday cage effect). In the early hours we found ourselves surrounded by 20 to 30 fishing boats, their lights glowing on the horizon, and we repeatedly changed course to avoid them, passing close by to several. It was not a pleasant trip with big seas and the boat rolling unpleasantly and we both became tired and stressed. As dawn approached we had a call from a yacht ahead that there was 35 plus knots of wind with torrential rain – we dropped our mainsail but the strong winds never materialised.

One of the wooden ‘rocking’ fishing boats built on the islands around here.

By daylight we were approaching the low lying headland marking the south of Borneo, the sky overcast with heavy cloud and the sea a pale green colour, and as we sailed slowly towards the shallow entrance to the river Kumai, the wind gradually died.

It was three hours of motoring up the wide, winding, murky river to the anchorage by the town of Kumai, passing a few small settlements on the river banks. Kumai is a dismal-looking place with a commercial waterfront where cargo ships tie up. Dominating the town are numerous drab grey, windowless buildings which we later discovered are where a particular species of swiftlet are encouraged to nest. The birds are attracted inside by artificially broadcast twittering and screeching sounds and they build their nests of saliva in these ‘birds nest buildings’. The nests are regularly harvested (unless they have eggs laid in them, when they are left until the fledglings can fly) and sold to countries like China and Vietnam to make birds nest soup and gel, which is believed to have health benefits such as aiding digestion, raising libido, improving the voice, alleviating asthma as well as anti-ageing properties (rather like apple crumble). It’s an industry which earns Indonesia several billion dollars a year.

We were soon visited at the anchorage by Majid, the local go-to man in Kumai who organises delivery of diesel and clean drinking water to the yachts, for your laundry to be collected and returned clean and ironed the next day, as well as owning the Majid Hotel, a rather seedy looking establishment in Kumai. He also organises orangutan boat tours and our Australian friends Tibby and Rusty had arranged a three day boat tour with Majid and invited us to join them along with Kiwis, Ross and Polly. Despite having agreed the price over a month ago, IDR 2.5 million each for the six of us, Majid now wanted IDR 3 million each (ie £180 instead of £150pp) and was adamant that was the price. Once we suggested it would be a shame if we had to report to the rally that his word was not to be trusted he agreed to his original price (clearly his reputation is important to him) but only if we promised to tell everyone we’d paid IDR 4 million each.

The morning of the tour we were picked up from our yachts by what was to be our home for the next three days, a Klotok houseboat, a two story boat with living quarters for us on the top deck where three double mattresses could be laid out at night with mosquito nets over, a table with six chairs, two sun loungers at the bow, an extremely basic WC and shower, and with living quarters for the crew and galley on the lower deck.

The crew of four consisted of the driver, his first mate, the cook and our guide. We had chosen the basic tour but for another million or two we could have had the luxury trip… much the same tour but with more space on the boat, maybe a carpet, sofa and bookcase, and a bit more comfort. We were all very happy with our boat and the food was delicious, pancakes, fried bread and fruit for breakfast with dishes of chicken, rice, fish, tempeh and vegetables for lunch and supper.


From Kumai the Klotok houseboats run up and down the Sekonyer river, a tributary of the Kumai, with the Tanjung Puting National Park to the south of the river. To the north the forest has been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations and we were shocked by just how small an area has been set aside for the National Park, and even this is threatened by illegal logging and mining operations as well as by the encroachment of palm oil plantations.


Over the three days of our trip we stopped at the three visitors centres and research stations, including the renowned Camp Leakey, where groundbreaking studies were carried out in the 1970s by Dr Birute Galdikas.


Feeding platforms have been set up at these centres and at a designated time each day food is put out for the orangutan: corn, mangoes and bananas, which supplement their diet of mainly fruit, leaves and seeds in the wild. As well as ensuring the orangutans don’t go hungry and so are less likely to raid nearby palm oil plantations where they are considered a pest, they attract tourism and much needed funding. The animals are wild, free to come and go as they please, and the rangers say that sometimes they don’t see the dominant males, the ‘kings’, for weeks. We watched as the apes ate, climbed and hung from trees, the adolescents play fighting. Whilst the dominant male was eating only the occasional female would venture onto the feeding platform, her baby clinging on to her long coat and reaching out for some food, the adolescents nervously hung around in the trees above for their turn or would creep down to quickly grab some fruit to take back up into the treetops to eat. It was fascinating watching the interactions between the animals and the hierarchies that exist between them and we spent a couple of hours at each of the feeding stations, absolutely mesmerised. The apes, though clearly aware of our presence, just ignored us whilst being alert to what the other orangutan were doing around them.

Orangutan are only found in Indonesia and Malaysia, on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. They are critically endangered, threatened by deforestation and hunting, with their habitat lost to agriculture, particularly palm oil plantations and logging, with youngsters being captured for the illegal pet trade and with climate change meaning forest fires are an increasing threat to their habitats.

Young orangutang stay with their mother until they are about 7 years old during which time they learn how to survive on their own, and so orangutan have an extremely low reproductive rate with the females only producing a single offspring every 7 to 9 years. The adolescents, having left their mothers, hang around in small groups but apart from this orangutans are generally solitary creatures. The males may develop flaps on either side of their faces when fully mature, around the age of 35.

They build a new sleeping nest each night, pulling large branches together and weaving in smaller branches to make a comfortable platform up high in the trees.


As well as orangutan we saw proboscis monkeys which feed in the forest during the day but at dusk climb high up into the trees for the night. Wild boars came to scavenge under the feeding platforms and the occasional brave Macaque monkey would dash down to grab some fruit off the feeding platform. We spotted a crocodile which soon dived as we passed it and monitor lizards in the trees bordering the river.

Proboscis monkey and baby

On night walks through the forest we were shown tarantulas, coaxed out of their burrows by the guide, and giant ants, stick insects and a poisonous, jumping giant centipede. We visited a reforestation project and each planted a tree… hopefully the money brought in by ecotourism will help to save the forest in Borneo and the orangutans.

We had been looking forward to our trip to see the orangutans and it didn’t disappoint. We both feel that the time we spent watching them and being so close to them has been the absolute highlight of our three months in Indonesia.


We had one final day in Kumai and the tourist board had arranged a day of festivities for the rally ending with a welcome dinner. We were taken in an air conditioned coach to the Jurung Tiga nature park where we were greeted by a committee of elders wearing traditional outfits. More wonderful dancing, each island having its own very different dances, with completely different styles, music and costumes. We visited Rumah Betang, a traditional wooden long house, Astana Pangeran Mangkubumi, a royal palace, the local vegetable market and had a river cruise from which we could view the life of the people who live along the riverside – children playing and swimming, men showering after a day at work. After wandering around the night market we were officially welcomed by the mayor of the Kotawaringin Barat Regency at the Gala Dinner.



The following day we headed off in the late morning and motored back down the Kumai river to anchor on a sand spit at the mouth of the river, ready for a dawn start for the 275 mile, three day sail west on to the next rally stop, on the island of Belitung .




  1. Nina

    March 3, 2020 - 5:29 pm

    Entertaining as always. Lovely pics of orangutangs – very envious but happy to experience it all second hand!

  2. Liz

    March 4, 2020 - 11:25 am

    Enjoying your trip from my desk!. Liz xx

  3. Michael

    March 6, 2020 - 2:54 am

    A great record that brings back many memories….

  4. Paul Bayley

    March 12, 2020 - 7:49 pm

    Wow it all sounds brilliant, but as others said best sat on my sofa, you are very brave. Hope you enjoyed time at home. Cannot wait for next posting.

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