Broken Roads of Borneo

I’m not sure where to start. So, for the benefit of people who follow my work closely, here’s the summary:

I’m in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) right now, and was scheduled to leave on a 3 week mountain biking expedition to recce the Sandukui Pinnacle tomorrow (Sunday), or Monday at the latest, in preparation for a first ascent and research program next year. Two days ago (Thursday) I found out purely by accident that a team from Universitas Indonesia successfully summited the pinnacle on 30th August (6 weeks ago) after a 9 day expedition, which also included community research and tourism potential assessments. I believe they also filmed the expedition.

[EKSPEDISI TEBING PURUK SANDUKUI] Puruk Sandukui yang terletak di tengah kawasan hutan Heart of Borneo, Kalimantan Tengah memiliki ketinggian 1100 mdpl. Pemanjatan tebing ini, oleh tim ETPS, dibagi menjadi 7 pitch. Enam pitch pertama diraih dengan teknik Himalayan dan untuk menuju pitch terakhir, yaitu puncak, tim melakukan teknik Alpine dari puncak tebing yang pendek untuk menuju puncak utama tebing. Tim berhasil mencapai tujuan utama dari ETPS, yaitu membuat jalur pemanjatan artificial sampai puncak. Selain menggunakan pengaman sisip, tim juga menggunakan bor untuk memasang hanger karena banyak bagian tebing yang tidak dapat dipasang pengaman sisip. Foto 1: Puruk Sandukui dilihat dari kejauhan. Foto 2: Pemandangan sekitar tebing, yaitu berupa hutan wilayah Heart of Borneo, di sore hari. Foto 3: Fathan Qorib @fathanqoriiib (M-1006-UI), salah satu atlet ETPS, sedang merintis jalur. #ETPS2017 #KalimantanTengah

A post shared by MAPALA UI (@mapala_ui) on Sep 21, 2017 at 4:13am PDT

All of which leaves me a little, lost, to say the least!

As background, I have been dreaming and scheming about leading an expedition to this remote limestone pinnacle for almost 8 years, ever since I saw it in the distance during an aerial recce for the Murung Raya Expedition. I’ve made two failed attempts to recce it. This year I was awarded the SES Inspirational Explorer Award for my proposal to launch a major expedition to the area in 2018, with the plan to conduct the recce by mountain bike this year which would hopefully work where jeeps had failed and act as a promotional tool for the main expedition.

That bikepacking expedition is what I was due to begin tomorrow.

My first reaction to the news (which reached me as a result of a chance email conversation and some frantic googling) was a mixture of amusement, excitement, incredulity and, oddly, pride.

Amusement because, what the hell! What are the chances of the Indonesian team going there now, and of me finding out just before leaving? Ridiculously small, it seems to me, because I’m not all that plugged in to the climbing scene in Indonesia, there has been scant media coverage from what I’ve been able to find, and it turns out I had the name wrong (it’s Sandukui, not Sanduki) meaning my google alerts gave me nothing. You have to smile at the humour in the world.

Excitement because, bloody hell! They did it! What an incredible achievement, completed by people with almost exactly the same high-minded objectives that I had, and not just with a ‘because it’s there’ mentality. Good on them! I really hope I get to meet them to talk about the experience.

Incredulity because, well, see amusement. What the heck are the chances of this?! The timing. The similarities. It’s simply not credible!

And pride, because I love Indonesia, and while I’m not from here and I don’t live here, I have invested a lot of time, money and emotion in this place, and I’m proud that a young team of talented Indonesians have set out with such skill, determination, and noble ideals to achieve a goal that I have been chasing for years. They should be proud too.

Is there a chance that this team discovered my plans online and simply beat me to it? Possibly, but probably not. The only pictures I have of the pinnacle are from random places on the internet, so it’s not as though its existence is a total secret. It’s just really hard to get to and not very well known.

And even if that did happen, so what? Where I procrastinated and tried to set everything up perfectly, they went ahead and did it. It’s a lesson I keep having to learn. What’s more, while my intention was to facilitate an Indonesian first ascent, this is a full on Indonesian expedition, and if I helped in anyway by publishing my plans online then that makes me smile inside and out. Either way, I’m over the moon for the team that managed to pull this off.

But here’s the thing: what on earth do I do now?

I’m out here, with lots of very expensive kit for a long, solo bikepacking expedition, ready to go, and with a short departure window if I’m going to get to the pinnacle and back again in time for my flight home. This recce has been funded by donors and supported by kit sponsors, and if I don’t go I won’t have much to give back apart from apologies.

So just go, right? Have an adventure, produce a cool little film  and write some articles, make the best of a weird situation.

Well sure, except there’s a bigger picture here. Can the Sandukui Pinnnacle Expedition, my Sandukui Pinnacle Expedition, be a follow up to the Indonesian expedition? That team didn’t conduct any biodiversity research, their community research could be developed (a handful of days in each village is not a lot of time to do thorough work), and I don’t know if they filmed at all, or whether they got enough for the kind of film I had planned. Could we help the local government develop their fledgling plans for (presumably adventure or cultural) tourism in the area? Could we put up more routes?

In short, is the Sandukui Pinnacle Expedition still viable, and more importantly still useful, despite this turn of events?

So far I haven’t been able to contact the Indonesian team, and until I do that I can’t make an informed decision on what to do next. But the longer the wait, the less time I have for the bikepacking expedition until I reach the point where I run out of time to do that expedition at all. At which point do I just go, and try to make a beautiful film about all this, or do I double down on contacting the team, perhaps by visiting Universitas Indonesia and seeking the team out?

At this moment in time I honestly don’t know. I have the gear, I’m here, I’m itching to get out there and just go and see this thing that has occupied my thoughts for so long. I want to touch it, photograph it, film it, and have a great adventure doing so. I think I’ll be haunted by it if I don’t. And there’s a cool story in that alone.

My concern about just going anyway is that it’s a lot of time and effort that could be much much more useful if I wait until I’m armed with the information from the Indonesian team, especially if there is the chance of a follow up expedition. On top of that, visiting so soon after the Indonesian team might complicate future projects in the area if the authorities decide to take a special interest in me (if you’ve worked in Indonesia, you’ll understand how sensitively certain areas or topics have to be approached by foreigners if long term working relationships are what you hope to foster). Nobody wants that.

I’m waiting, for now, desperately trying to make contact with the Indonesian team.

Update! I’m in touch with the Mapala UI team and should be ready to make a decision on the next move by Tuesday 17th October.