An Accident Reminds Us Just How Remote We Really Are

Constant Breakdowns

The team arrived in Naan from Camp Bravo after spending the previous day hauling  all the supplies down a mud slide around 100m long to the boats, only to have to unload them again here and then reload all of the kit and supplies onto new boats. It’s important we share our trade around between the villages so as not to cause conflict between them, but it does make for slow and difficult progress.

With each stage new boats and drivers have to be found, new deals need to be agreed, and new walkways of wet, slippery logs need to be navigated. Patience hasn’t worn thin, but the desire to get into the field and begin the research becoming very apparent.

To make matters more difficult, the boats are smaller and there are lees of them than we had hoped for. We ended up moving upriver in a flotilla of 8 small boats with the whole team in one boat. Our engine promptly broke down, was fixed, and broke down again 5 minutes later.

Spare Parts, Spare Boats, and Disaster!

A boat was sent back to bring parts and another boat back up from Naan which I jumped into with Rusty and Munir, only to break down 20 minutes later. The original boat passed us before we were going again. Slowly but surely we were getting there, to the last village in the region, the jumping off point for the expedition.

Ten minutes later, after settling down to listen to some Indonesian lessons on my iPod while watching the forest zoom by, scouring for wildlife and marvelling at the enormous trunks of the trees growing sideways out of the bank and over the river, we rounded a bend to encounter a scene of carnage on the left bank.

One of our boats had seemingly run aground. It was stuck half way up the muddy river bank, its cargo had been unloaded and was piled up next to it, and some of it was clearly water damaged. The driver and the only passenger, Aspor, were on the bank, but who knew what damage had been done to our supplies, and what we had lost in the river during the accident.

Not Quite Disaster Management, but Close

The other boat stayed to sort things out while I went ahead to inform the village of our arrival, to send a boat back to help the stranded boat, and to organise the unloading and storage of our goods. When I arrived I was faced with half a dozen boat drivers who wanted to know why they were going to have to stay the night at Tumbang Tohan because I was so late, a dozen or so unsmiling men from the village who wanted to gain employment as porters, and the acting Kepala Desa who intended to greet us as we arrived.

With the help of Munir I shook each of these groups free and managed to hire a boat to go downriver. Next up was some very hard bartering with the porters to get the price down from more than 2 times the average daily wage here to the price given to us to begin with by the acting KD. Then it was over to the boatmen to discuss the accident with their representative and to explain that we would need to check what damage had been done before we made any payment for the boats, especially since we learned that it was caused by him refuelling while driving.

Just as that was finished the rest of the team arrived, tired, hungry, and no doubt worried about Dale who had been left with Aspor to watch the stranded cargo. Nightfall was approaching fast and the boats needed to be unloaded, first onto a floating landing which became submerged with the weight of our goods, and then up a bean pole of a log onto the bank before being carried up some steps and across the village to our store-room and sleeping area.


Hard Lessons and Aspor the Hero

In the evening Dale and Aspor arrived with the stranded boat. Aspor was the hero of the day after we learned that he had rescued almost all of the boxes which had gone overboard, including the medical supplies we had bought for the village. Ian checked our stores and reckoned we were only missing one box, which is a small miracle.

Later still, Agung and Munir helped me through a meeting with Wawan and Yunting from Naan about the accident, and then another, long and tortuous meeting with some of the people from Tumbang Tohan to discuss the hiring of boats and guides for our time in the field.

It was a difficult day, and a bad way to arrive in a place where pleasantries and formalities are very important. We had no time for either, and as it turned out this village is particularly wary of outsiders anyway. The people are tough, hardened by remoteness and the difficulty of finding food and income, and fearful of interference with their ways of life.

I can’t imagine a day that sums up the challenges of an expedition such as this. Not one that ends happily at any rate. I went to bed, on the floor of our store-room, exhausted, contemplating the lessons to be learned from the events of the day, and going over the back up plans for the next, final leg of the journey to our base camp.