The quayside of Kumai, in Kalimantan, is encrusted with workshops and kiosks, people often barefoot.   Between ash-grey shacks ‘Eperidi’, turquoise, blue and white, is parked near the muddy waste of the estuary.  The engine turns…Kelo…Kelot…Kelotok, the name they give to these fishing vessels.   Through smoke and mist we pass galleons mounded high with forest timber. Suddenly we turn towards a wall of green palms, meters high, that spread open and divide and we’re drawn towards the unknown.  The water, creamy-brown, dugout canoes moored at intimate openings …green  corridors that serpent away from view.   The night falls, silhouettes of primary forest replace marshland palm.   The feint glimmer of our headlamp picks out trunks of severed forest trees floating on the river course.
High heat at Tanjung Puting when we set foot on the boardwalk to Camp Leakey.   Carrying drawing materials and paper with humidity at 100%, I have the idea that we too are composed of 80% water, we can open our pores…and osmosis! Biruté Galdikas says of this climate, “I feel I’m smothered in a warm moist blanket”.  Her encounter with paleontologist  Louis Leakey led her to this forest life, observing and protecting the Orang-Utan population.   He thought that women incited fewer aggressive reactions from primates, hence his support also for the research of Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall, already established in Africa. I had spent several hours drying and ‘fixing’ my first drawings which delayed the trek into the forest.  The  boatman  Pak Ari  strode  ahead  with  the  ranger,  their  calls  rebounding  on  the trees, “eeeee-yahou!”    We were going in search of the “beings of the forest”.The crack of a distant branch and a glimpse pf russet, lit from above…Orang-Utang! She cast an inquisitive fleeting glance. Grasping a stem which bent under her weight, she reached out for the next tree and so on, recalling the movement of a stiltwalker.

A huge male moved in with dexterity from tree to tree. He swung to the forest floor, where his enormous presence wasn’t entirely reassuring! Biruté Galdikas believes that you loose your place in the jungle if you retreat. Anyhow, to be so close to draw them is thrilling! As a curiosity you may hold their attention but if you hesitate…these are the precious ephemeral seconds. However, in a spot, to have to hunt for an image trains the eye to detail at speed. I’m sure that to draw  animals well, you have to become a bit MORE animal!

“Princess” has crossed the barrier between our worlds. She communicates with signs. Though primates  lack the apparatus for speech, their use of tools is often recorded. Perhaps captivated by the technique of drawing, she has watched me closely. Her eye caught my vermillion pastel and like lightning it was between her fingers.

Foolishly, I turned to retrieve it, but no, she had plans! The ranger tried to grab it so she took vengeance on his shoe! With her pastel she applied sensuously the red to her lips! Then, taking my walking stick, she described a languorous red line from bottom to top…checking on the results briefly…she gulped the pastel Drawing in the wild is made more hazardous with charcoal and pastel, skidding and slide-slipping, each touch at risk from the next. You muster a jumble of ‘essential’ bits, rubbed and crushed. Often you have to run for your life!  You are always looking for that perfect travelling equipment to protect drawings in extreme conditions.

We leave Camp Leakey aboard Eperidi late, in the last light of the evening. Soon after, now dark, the boat stops abuptly. At first view, the propeller shaft has sheared..the boat immobilized. The engine silent, the shrill whistle-hiss takes over…a screech echoes across the water.

These few days in the jungle had lulled me ino a false state of security. At night it takes on a menacing guise. Furious at my dilletantism, I imagine swimming to the river bank, through crocodiles, drawing folder on my head! But Pak Ari plunged into the inky water to replace the crankshaft with a rusty bar. Bounding back aboad with a  smile he tried the engine…kelo…kelot…kelotok!

The spirit calmed, we set off through  the black velvet night, two hours to the landing stage, and our cabin. I caught sight of water seeping into the bilges. Pak Ari and his mate, now pumping and bailing out energetically to prevent us from sinking. Later I reminded him that there were crocodiles in those waters. “Ah”, he said,  “the crocodiles are my friends”.

Though at night the jungle sounds menacing, to sleep within it is hypnotic. A fine rain falling refreshes the air and the sound of the least insect is audible. In fronds, fireflies sparkle. At dawn, misty threads hide the detail which gradually reveals itself to the first rays of sunlight on the flat mirror of the river. Orang-Utang, proboscis monkey, hornbill, crane, crocodile and butterfly stir. Like the animal leaves tracks, drawing is your mark. A line can be a scratch or a stroke…spider-deft  or planted and rooted…but always with a breath of life. Lie in wait for your ‘prey’…move closer…pursue with the eye…stalk like the hunter…seize the image with a pencil stroke!

As initiates, we retrace the multiple meanderings of the Sekonya river, surrounded by Belian, Serangan-Batu, Ramin and meranti, precious beleaguered trees often more than two meters in girth.   Mercury and mud from goldmining upstream are deadly for river life.   Water becomes glaucous, fish die and the Orang-Uli tribespeople of the ‘longhouses’ , are uprooted and leave for distant towns.

Yet this environment is bewitching until the last bend of the river.   From its mouth you see a strand of huts and boats that gather along the quayside of Kumai.   Hendra sloshes the deck, emptys the latrine and rinses the cooking pots in the river water.   He prepares two boxes of rubbish that he flings into the estuary approaching the quayside.  No matter, they are indistinguishable from the rest – old shoes, plastic, shells, metal waste.

Somehow though, there is little rubbish in the jungle.  Not many visitors, it’s true…or foreign bodies! Though I did see a young Orang-Utang peel with care – like a strange steely fruit – a cola can.   He supped the sugary juice.  “They have a sweet tooth”, I’m told.