This weeks Cruise Blog is by our guest blogger Dave Warne. Dave is the Commercial Director for WEXAS, our parent company, and this was his first cruise experience. Join him onboard Orion Expedition Cruises Orion II on his recent trip and discover the amazing ports of call
Day 4 - Samboja and Balikpapan
A 5am start for a full-day excursion today. After dropping us off at the mouth of the river, the Orion II continues to Balikpapan where we will re-join her later in the afternoon. The zodiacs take us two miles to shore and then up the Samboja River to visit two major wildlife conservation projects in East Kalimantan.
At the mouth of the river we pass through an attractive fishing village on stilts. As the village comes to life, the early morning light makes for some great photo opportunities. The villagers seem happy to pose for photos, which slightly surprised me at first, but we soon realise that our interest in the villagers was nothing compared to their interest in us. Evidently a fleet of zodiacs full of pale-skinned cruise passengers isn't an everyday occurrence here and everyone is soon out to see the spectacle. The welcome is warm and friendly, all smiles and waves as we coast gently through the village.
Beyond the village we continue for half an hour upriver, enjoying another good sighting of proboscis monkeys in the trees. On nearing the small and rather makeshift jetty we are advised that the buses for our onward journey have been delayed - another minor casualty of the inaugural sailing it would seem. Again, everyone takes the delay in good humour and after a bit of waiting around on the roadside we are on our way again.
The group is divided into two, with each group visiting one of the conservation projects before swapping to the other. After a 45 minute drive our group arrives at the rather prosaically named 'Kilometre 23' where we are introduced to the amazing work of Gabriella Fredrikkson at the Kawasan Wisata Pendidikan Lingkungan Hidup (KWPLH) education and research facility. Gabriella works mainly in Java but has come especially to give us a presentation. Here we see five sun bears that have been rescued from the illegal pet trade and now have a safe home in a purpose built enclosure.
The sunbear is the smallest of the eight species of bear, the polar bear being the largest. Sun bears have not traditionally been valued in Southeast Asia; they are poached, traded and illegally kept as pets, often being poorly treated. In China they are kept in cages and 'milked' for their bile, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. The single biggest threat to sun bears, however, is actually loss of naturally habitat due to the clearing of rainforest for logging and production of palm oil.
When Gabriella first took an interest in sun bears in the 1990s she found that no formal research had ever been conducted into these creatures. After 10 years of work by Gabriella and her team the sun bear has been classified as 'vulnerable' by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a category that indicates that although not enough is known yet there is a recognised risk that the animal is potentially endangered.
So successful has she been in changing attitudes that the local city of Balikpapan and various businesses have now adopted the sunbear as its official mascot. The impressive visitor centre at Kilometre 23 is now attracting thousands of visitors per year, mainly from local communities, who are also being educated on the importance of sunbear conservation and habitat protection.
After a chance to see the sunbears in their enclosure - actually a large, open space that has been modelled on their natural habitat - we move on to the Samboja Lestari orang-utan rehabilitation project.
Here, over 200 orang-utans who have been kept as illegal pets are either being cared for or prepared for rehabilitation to the wild. Many of the orang-utans here have contracted human diseases and cannot be returned to the wild so are allowed to live safely in a series of man-made islands in the protected area. We see several of these of these wonderful apes in their semi-natural island refuges.
En route to Balikpapan we are treated to lunch at the Beach House, a simple but pleasant beachfront restaurant that specialises in a daily Indonesian buffet that is evidently popular with wealthy locals.
At this point it is interesting to comment on the seemingly relentless march of Islam in the area. Although already predominantly a Muslim region, new mosques in various states of construction appear every few hundred yards along the road to Balikpapan. These are funded largely by Middle Eastern nations as part of a deal to access Indonesia's valuable raw materials. We surmise that this probably explains why we couldn't get a beer at the Beach House, whereas beer was freely available when the Orion Expedition Cruises team visited a year beforehand to plan the itinerary.
Our final stop before returning to the ship is a visit to the markets of Balikpapan. This is not a tourist market but cheap sarongs and beads are snapped up by eager Orion passengers.
The heat and the long day eventually take their toll on a few of the guests and we re-join the ship at 5.30pm, a full 12 hours after leaving. We board Orion II at Balikpapan's functional port - no shiny cruise ship terminal here - and are on our way across the Celebes Sea to Sulawesi just after sundown.
Dinner this evening was a fabulous 6-course gourmet menu. It happened to be our wedding anniversary, so dinner was followed by a surprise cake and crew singing a rather raucous song to my wife and I. Thoroughly embarrassing but very thoughtful - and the cake was delicious.