A Voice From The Field: Gunung Niut

The sun greeted me early on a Friday morning as I woke up in the city of Pontianak.  The affects of jet lag still lingered in my body as I struggled to adjust to the humidity after departing from the high alpine desert in my home of Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.  While this was not my first trip across the Pacific to Indonesia, I felt slightly debilitated in my efforts to adapt.

After a refreshing mandi, the traditional bathing method of Indonesia, I excitedly packed my bags for the next seven days.  With my field necessities: mosquito repellent, camera, various lenses, SPF, notepad, and a good book; I embarked on the short walk two blocks over to the Planet Indonesia headquarters, known to the staff as “the office”.  The energy was high as people shuffled in and out of the front door in last minute preparation for seven days in the field.  I took this as an opportunity to sit down in front of a fan and check-in with loved ones at home before being disconnected from Wifi.

Once the two rental cars were packed up, the team of eight, including myself, set off on our journey towards Gunung Niut Nature Reserve.  Amongst us were Planet Indonesia directors Adam and Novia, conservation intern Marsel, biodiversity graduate students Nchay and Desy, and orangutan experts Sabri and Agitoa from International Animal Rescue.  After six pothole-filled hours of weaving through breathtaking landscapes filled with bright green rice fields we arrived at our place of rest, a hospitable homestay within the buffer zone of the nature reserve.

Over the next four days I documented the team participating in a wide array of activities. From meetings with village heads over late night coffee, to establishing orangutan nest survey transect base camps within the reserve, I was present to witness with my camera. Unable to speak or understand Bahasa, I often found myself attuning to the body language of the circumstances I was in.  Characteristic of Indonesians, I was received with some of the largest and most genuine smiles I have ever encountered.

As the team aimed to establish transects within a variety of locations in the reserve we had the opportunity to experience several different villages.  Through observation I gained the felt sense that Planet Indonesia was welcomed within each community.  While each village encompassed commonalities, such as being distinguishably rural and situated outside of the inactive volcanic tree covered mountains of Gunung Niut, every community was unique in its own way.  The first village had the most dramatic mountain backdrop, while the last was the most remote due to the audacious road, which required an off-roading vehicle to navigate.

A typical hike to the interior of Gunung Niut involved walking a few miles through village farmlands, also known as gardens. For our daily expeditions we would set off early in the day to race against the heat.  On our approach to the forest we walked alongside woman and their dog companions as they made their way towards their rice fields, supplies for the day ahead contained within hand woven baskets suspended by their foreheads.

Arriving at the edge of the rainforest was easy to distinguish due to the dramatic change of landscape, tree line rose high towards the sky and the space between floras significantly decreased. As the path beneath our feet thickened with forest floor coverage I found myself grateful for our local village guides and their navigation abilities.  The temperature dropped as the tall trees created a spacious container for a variety of tropically diverse residents.  The sounds of cicadas and foreign birds filled my ears.  I took photos as the team diligently worked together to determine the park’s boundaries and the best location for orangutan nest survey transects.  To reenergize via our packed lunch of rice, noodles, and eggs we often stopped by fresh streams or rivers.  I looked forward to these brief breaks because it meant filling up our bottles with cool mountain water.

I would be lying if I said my time in the field was not physically and mentally challenging. Yet, I emerged with a newfound sense of respect for Planet Indonesia and anyone who is on the frontlines of conservation in the rainforests of Borneo. In my experience, change within the spectrum of reforestation is slow, but vital to the livelihood of the world we are inhabitants of. While the rainforest of Gunung Niut Nature Reserve is seemingly disconnected many miles from the comfort of my home in Santa Fe, NM I now feel an intrinsic tie to this place due to my first hand experience in the field.

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Chelsea Call, a childhood friend of Adam Miller, cofounder of Planet Indonesia, Chelsea is a photographer and graduate student of Art Therapy/Counseling in Santa Fe, NM, USA. www.chelseacall.com