My naive idea was take a month and do Indonesia, covering as many pristine beaches, perfect surf breaks, remote jungle treks and sunrise volcano climbs as I could, then swagger home with one more country notched off on the strap of my backpack. I did all those things and more, yet barely nicked the steamy surface of this vast island conglomeration stretching helter-skelter across the southern Pacific above Australia. I touched down for a few days in Sumatra, later in Borneo, and saw right away that either of those gigantic landmasses could occupy a traveler for months.
Traveling alone, with guidebook hype my only itinerary, I followed an ever-evolving plan that took me from wildlife-spotting in a leech-infested rain forest to a leisurely motorbike tour of Bali’s sublime lushness, a scorching overland search for fearsome Komodo dragons, a boat glide through crocodile-filled waters to orangutan camps and, finally, to the teeming cultural heart of Java and its sprawling, traffic-choked capital, Jakarta.
Along the way I marveled again at how far a sickly dollar stretches in the third world. (I knew I was obsessing when $20 hotel rooms and $5 dinners started to feel like splurges.) I met an ethnically and religiously diverse people as open and grateful to tourists as any I’d met. I saw poverty and pollution and illiteracy that made me ache. I began to see how this 3,100-mile-long archipelago had given rise to great colonial fortunes in spices, tobacco, coffee and rubber.
For the record, leech encounters were far less repulsive than imagined. The slender wiggly suckers are unseen but everywhere in the jungle, keen to bore through hiking socks and latch on for a meal. Sometimes you feel them, often you don’t. Fortunately they pull off easily and only when allowed to gorge unnoticed on an ankle or armpit do they leave a tiny scab, for a day or two.
Leeches hardly distracted me or my guides from canvassing the forest of orangutans. Glimpses of the great auburn-haired primates are fleeting and distant as they swing through the canopy. I had picked Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra—despite the prospect of a seven-hour bus ride from Medan—because I wanted to see these endangered apes in the wild. Many tourists take a shorter trip to Bukit Lawang, where habituated orangutans suffer the ogling of camera-toting humans at daily scheduled feedings.
In four days of walking narrow, humid, at times slippery Gunung Leuser trails we saw a single wild orangutan, hunched high in a tree, sitting dismissively with its back to us, too far away for my lens. We saw scores of birds, monkeys, lizards and insects. A maze of weird plants and trees, some with huge flanged trunks choked in vines, stole the sun and kept the trail in virtual dusk. Butterflies of all sizes and colors floated everywhere, my favorite a jet-black specimen with a jagged chartreuse stripe across a five-inch wingspan. We camped on the edge of the boulder-strewn Alas River, roaring and tumbling wildly from Leuser’s volcanic peak. At one spot, where a hot spring met the river beside a wide bank, the warm ground made for cozy sleeping on a rainy night.
I had worried about rainy season travel. In Sumatra, storms came at night and never disturbed our hikes. Eastward across Bali and the islands of Lombok and Flores, the weather stayed dry as November gave way to December. In Kalimantan, Borneo’s Indonesian province, our riverboat encountered occasionally heavy showers, which never lasted more than a couple of hours.
A bonus of my off-season travel, in Indonesia as elsewhere, was scarcity of other tourists. Over four days in Gunung Leuser we saw no other trekkers, and we spread our gear extravagantly across campsites that are jammed with tents in July-August high season. On a late November dawn in Bali, a guide and I shared the chilly 10,400-foot summit of Gunung Agung with six young Indonesians from west Java who were celebrating college graduation with a camping trip. Had it been high season, dozens of groups might have lined the trail, patiently waiting for a moment of panoramic views atop Bali’s sacred mother mountain.
Despite Indonesia’s sprawl across four time zones, a visit here can be broken up into comparatively cheap one-way flights. Many roads are congested, poorly maintained or both, but competitive domestic air routes make flying appealing for tourists short on time. I flew a half-dozen times, with four different carriers, once to Jakarta from the north coast port city of Semarang, in Java, for $42.
Train service across Java, home to more than half of Indonesia’s 235 million people, is dependable and inexpensive, though time-consuming between distant cities. Long bus rides sometimes can’t be avoided in remote areas and are best endured as windows on the everyday culture. Frequent stops bring aboard all manner of hucksters, from bad amateur singers and guitar players to peanut sellers and old blind beggars—all with their hands out until the bus starts rolling again.
Bali is manageable by car outside the Lauderdale-like Kuta-Legian oceanfront area with its five-star resorts, cheap guesthouses, beaches, nightlife and shopping. I rented a motorbike (about $3.50 a day) and headed north an hour or so to Ubud. At a place called Kafé I thought I’d been beamed back to Marin: New Age ambience, healthy Western menu, yoga classes, evening classic movie series. The city itself is full of galleries, salons, spas, art and dance studios, stone- and wood-carving shops. I watched traditional Balinese dancers perform one evening in a palace before a full house of tourists.
From Ubud I drove east to Gunung Agung and the hardest one-day hike of my life—six steep hours up, six more down, punctuated by incomparable summit views of the sea and most of Bali at daybreak. Next came two days of snorkeling at Tulamben on Bali’s east coast before heading back to Kuta for a flight to Labuanbajo, on Flores. There I hired a boat to go off tramping after Komodo dragons, found nowhere else in the world, and snorkel through abundant coral ringing tiny deserted islands.
I still craved an orangutan fix, and when four Estonian tourists showed me photos from a river trip out of Pangkalan Bun, in Kalimantan, I was on a plane two days later. A downside of solo excursions in low season can be the challenge of finding enough people to fill a boat or trek and keep everybody’s cost down. Which is why I paid an outrageous $230 to hire a klotok (basically a large, double-deck motorized canoe), complete with English-speaking Dayak guide, sumptuous meals and Western-style toilet on board, to pierce the jungle via the black and forbidding Sekonyer River in Tanjung Puting National Park.
Days I spent hiking and visiting Camp Leakey, established in 1971 by the remarkable Canadian researcher Biruté Galdikas, and two other rehabilitation camps where once-captive orangutans are nurtured and returned to the wild. The species, found today only in Sumatra and Borneo, remains at grave risk, both from habitat loss due to illegal logging and palm oil plantations and from the illicit pet trade.
Nights I spent tied up along the narrow, glass-still river, swatting mosquitoes, listening to forest music—birds, insects, monkeys—lamenting the third world’s ecological evils and wondering whether this untamed, unforgiving place, or at least a piece of it, can possibly survive another millennium.
Image 2 and 3: A village woman and her children by the roadside in Guruh / Large figurines outside the palace in Ubud
Image 4: The harbor at Labuanbajo, a fishing community on the eastern tip of the island of Flores
Image 5: Rice paddies in the Bali countryside on the road to Tulamben on Bali’s east coast
Image 6: Orangutans at rehabilitation camps along the Sekonyer River in southern Kalimantan, Borneo’s Indonesian province