Note: Last month, cameraman Mike Simon accompanied Ann Curry to Borneo and into the Sebangau National Park in search of wild orangutans. He may have gotten more than he bargained for.
I've taken a lot of adventurous trips with Ann Curry. We traveled into the heartbreak of Sri Lanka after the tsunami. There have been three trips into the Darfur region of Africa, including the $4 a night guesthouse in Adre along the Chad/Sudan border. Our crew slept in sleeping bags for a week enduring Hurricane Katrina. We wore flak jackets in downtown Beirut. So, she knows how to rough it. I thought this trip should be easy. After all, any story that didn't involve body armor had to be a good one. But our trip to Sebangau National Park in Borneo would soon join this league of adventures.
We were late getting there because of a permission issue from a suspicious headhunter - one of the many colorful characters Indonesia holds. But that is definitely another story.
At dusk, we loaded up six people and thousands of dollars of heavy camera equipment into two small klotoks, traditional Kalimantan longboats, which seem better equipped for just two people. We skimmed four inches above the Sungai Sabangau River with little room to spare. I kept my eye on the spectacular Indonesian sunset so as not to remind myself that our boat, with its expensive equipment and precious human cargo, could capsize at any moment.
Soon, we slowed and eventually glided to a stop. In a half moon, I could make out a railway that hovered inches above a swamp. There was a handcart that would take us to the research facility. A handcart? Actually pumping up and down on a railway cart? But it was the only way to the research station.
For the first trip, we loaded our gear and three passengers. Our guide, Mark, our fixer Dian, and our anchor, Ann Curry. This was the path to the orangutans? They started down the railway descending into darkness. At 100 feet, the car derailed. Fortunately, the only damage was to our nerves. Nobody dropped into the drink. But, it had to be scary in the darkness of the Sebangau National Park… or should I say the Sebangau National Swamp.
Our railcar journeys were far less adventurous. We arrived with the camera equipment intact at the research station. It didn't quite feel like a research station. More like a rustic Louisiana fishing camp filled with Indonesian and British scholars. Like Grace from Oxford, England. She is literally watching trees grow. Then there is Laura from Cambridge who is studying, and I kid you not, watching peat moss develop on the forest floor. Soon, Krista, another one of the research scholars, arrived back from the forest with most of her trousers drenched. That was our first indication that we were in for a wet time.
We ate a very nicely cooked Indonesian meal that was prepared by the research station chef. Then we sat down to learn the ugly truth about Saturdays shoot. We would leave at three-thirty in the morning, march thru the same occasionally waist deep water that Krista and everyone else must go thru en route to tree and orangutan studies. But most importantly, for tonight anyway, we'd need to bag up whatever food we had and place them into plastic bins. Otherwise, the rats would smell it and crawl through our windows, across our mosquito net covered beds and attack the food. As horrible as that sounds, what tortured me that night was the fact that my shoes were going to be ruined and I'd have to travel home wearing my sandals and black socks.
Three-thirty in the morning arrives earlier in the jungle than anywhere else in the world. Fatigue enhances the feelings of isolation. The black water emphasizes it.
Mark our guide told us, "don't worry about any leeches in that water. It's too acidic for them to survive.” That was good to know. The directions were simple enough: walk through the forest and water for two kilometers. Make a right at the path and walk into even more dense jungle. Walk another kilometer and start to look for wild orangutans high up in the trees. Really high, like fifty feet up. Along the way, we would all stumble and fall into the water. I would stumble in the swamp and reach out for something to steady me.
Unfortunately, many things live in the density of the jungle including poisonous ivy and tree bark. Those things infected my hand in a way that I'm still dealing with weeks later.
After finding, gaping at and photographing a beautiful wild orangutan mother named Inda and her baby, Isabella, we started making our way back. Along the way, a funny thing happened. We started enjoying this wet and dangerous place. We finally felt comfortable in our sweat soaked clothes and sloshing shoes that were filled with peat moss from the forest floor. We could look up at trees that soared hundreds of feet up and watch a wild orangutan climb effortlessly between them. We could listen to the beautiful sounds of the macaque monkey as its loud voice punctuated the jungle canopy. Most importantly, we learned that adventure is often messy. Just like life.