Off the Grid in Indonesia with Eco-Minded Local Guides

Oct 15, 2020

Sustainable travel isn’t just about nature immersions and keeping the environment green; it’s also about preserving and learning from the communities who call those beautiful places home, those perhaps descended from the original stewards of the land… or the sea, as the case may be. Early this year, pre-lockdown, photographer LAURYN ISHAK spent a week traveling Indonesia on assignment, discovering some beloved corners of the insanely biodiverse 17,000-island nation through the eyes of eco-minded independent outfitters and guides that champion sustainability, education and giving back. Meet some of them here.

KOMODO NATIONAL PARK

KOMODO NATIONAL PARK, between Sumbawa and Flores, is made up of three large main islands— Komodo, Rinca and Padar—and many other smaller ones. Sunrise on Padar is how most travelers to these parts start their day. After a morning combination workout of stairs and boulder-scrabbling, your reward is the now-iconic 360-degree view of azure seas dotted with rugged hilly islands.

There are around 5,700 Komodo dragons alive today and the species is endemic to this mini-archipelago. At two to three meters in size, they are the largest living lizards on Earth, and extremely aggressive. Therefore, a stroll around KOMODO ISLAND is always accompanied by a local guide, employed by the national park, to make sure you don’t stray from the marked paths. Dragons like to snooze in shady spots during the hot and humid days, so you’re highly likely to spot one—but beware: encountering these beasts can be nerve-wracking.

To find a tour operator in Komodo National Park, I turned to SEEK SOPHIE, an activity-booking platform with a wide array of options in an impressive number of places across Asia, and with an emphasis on those who participate in social and environmental programs. It’s easy to pick an outfitter yourself on their inspo-rich website, but co-founder Lina Gedvilaite says they’re also happy to offer personal recommendations based on customer needs.

A swim at PINK BEACH has crept onto many people’s bucket lists
for good reason. Called Pantai Merah in Bahasa Indonesia, it is the result of some truly cool marine biology. Microscopic animals called foraminifera create a red pigment on coral reefs, and when those fragments mix with the white sand, this stunning rose hue is produced.

I spend this day with ALEXANDRIA CRUISE, whose guides are the type to pick up any litter they encounter, and whose boat crews also have been trained in hiking and snorkeling, to ensure guest safety—and to beef up their skill base. “As a company, we try to walk the talk and employ only those who truly believe in our mission of being more eco-minded,” says founder Warren Hok Beng. “As a result I’ve only hired three guides in the last three years!”

If you want to truly mentally check out, perhaps go with a longer, multi-day island-hopping trip by RAFIDA. They offer private charters or options to join open trips. The boat is owned by a group of young Indonesians who fell in love with the beauty of Komodo National Park and are committed to training the locals to be environmentally aware and responsible.

Those who clear their head best while fully submerged can engage IDIVE. Owned and run by a woman from the area, Marcia Stephanie, the company provides scholarships to their staff to train them up as divemasters and dive instructors even though (or, perhaps, especially because) it’s quite expensive to do.

Tanjung Puting National Park

PANGKALAN BUN, located in Central Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo, is less well known than its northern Malaysian neighbors, Sarawak and Sabah. Herry Roustaman, the owner of ORANGUTAN GREEN TOURS, meets me at the military-run airport with one of his guides, Tiyo. I am about to embark on a two-day trip on a traditional houseboat called a klotok into Tanjung Puting National Park.

This UNESCO Biosphere’s most famous resident is the orangutan, and an estimated 6,000 of them live within the national park. The endangered proboscis monkey is the other renowned endemic species found here. Both of these animals are at serious risk of losing their habitat due to widespread logging and the conversion of the forest into palm-oil plantations.

Herry, along with other like-minded people, have over the years slowly bought the buffer land that borders the river on the opposite side of the national park to ensure that it stays pristine. “My mission is to protect and save as many of these orangutans as possible and to preserve their habitat,” he says. “In the years since I’ve started my company, I’ve reinvested the proceeds into educating the community on the importance of sustainability and the environment. I have also trained many young people to become guides and conservationists. The more of us there are, the easier the message is spread.”

The journey on the Sekonyer River is slow, relaxing and off-grid. Life takes a simpler form—we wave at other boats passing by and laze on the deck staring at fiery orange-and-red sunsets burning in the sky. Most importantly, whether walking on slippery boardwalks, passing through orchid and herb plantations, visiting research stations or just looking into the great green around us, we see plenty of orangutans. “Most are semi-wild or wild, only coming to feed when they need,” says Tiyo, whose interests in photography and nature led him to being a guide. “It never feels like a job, and I get to share the importance of nature with a wider audience.”

On the last day, as we float on the glass-like inky-black water, a sudden tropical thunderstorm comes pouring down and it is liberating. As it clears, Herry tells the boat captain to stop the engines, and turns to me: “Look in the trees—there is a young, wild orangutan feeding.” It is a magical end to this slow life to which I’d quickly grown accustomed.

How to see Indonesian wildlife through the eyes of locals

KOMODO NATIONAL PARK FEES

Entrance and ranger day fees: foreigners Rp460,000 per person weekdays, Rp535,000 per person weekends; locals Rp265,000 per person weekdays, Rp267,500 per person weekends.
To dive: Rs275,000 weekdays and Rp350,000 weekends and public holidays. To visit Rinca Island: ranger fee Rs115,000.

FIND A GUIDE

Visit Seek Sophie for sundry eco- and community-minded local tour operators around Asia. Their vetted partners in Komodo include:

  • Alexandria Cruise (one- day tours from US$81.72 per adult, including hotel pickup and drop-off, guides, lunch, snacks and snorkel equipment)
  • Rafida (three-day private charters from USD$2,700 for a maximum of 16 people, including accommodation in four rooms, return transfer from Labuan Bajo, all meals, snorkeling gear, land excursions and local guides)
  • iDive Komodo (diving trips from USD$130, including two dives with a divemaster, diving equipment, pickup and drop-off, all meals and snacks and land excursions).

When heading to Borneo, call Herry Roustaman of Orangutan Green Tours (info@orangutangreentours.com; two-day/one-night sailings USD$275 per person, three-day/two-night sailings USD$315 per person on klotok boats including guides, meals and land excursions).

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