Light in the Night

Tropical waters

Arriving at night at our harbour in Balikpapan after an uneventful journey from the Arsari office to the Jakarta airport I step into the company speedboat here in East Kalimantan. Loyal Udin, our boat operator, has been waiting to take me through the night to our camp some 20 kilometres up into the Balikpapan Bay. The past few weeks have been more than busy and I so much look forward to getting back to my wooden house in the forest camp where inspiration and ideas flow so much easier than in the urban jungles and noisy airports and tiring meetings.

The two outboard engines start their roar and push the hulk of the boat from the water. 8 o’clock at night, no moon at all, and a sea that seldom is as smooth as it is tonight. Behind me the bright lights of the city of Balikpapan and the huge candle that flickers its light far and all around from the top of the hydrocarbon cracking installation of the vast Pertamina oil refinery. Then while we move away from the city we pass by the many massive boats anchored in the Bay of Balikpapan, their numerous lights reflected on the water, waiting to be loaded with oil, gas, coal, palm oil and wood, carrying Kalimantan’s non-sustainable treasures to faraway places where people have no idea where their light, energy and materials originally came from.

While the city and boats disappear slowly in the distance behind us we pass by the many large and brightly lit industries, loading coal and palm oil around the clock into boats. But soon we are past the Kariangau industry area along the east side of the Bay of Balikpapan and now it slowly gets darker and darker. Sometimes we pass by a small fisherman village on wooden stilts with their small lights reflected in the water which is smooth as a mirror tonight. Having passed those villages we only see the lights of a few people that are in their small wooden canoes on the water fishing during the night and making us aware of their presence with their small torches shining towards us. Going further we slowly leave all signs of civilization behind and the stars and the Milky Way start painting the sky ever brighter.

the night falls in an indonesian harbour
the night falls in an indonesian harbour

In the far distance, we see the flashes of distant lightning, but no sound of thunder ever reaches our ears while we sail on under the starlit sky. The sound of the engines somehow seems to disappear and becomes this soothing monotonous, almost hypnotizing hum while the boat gently glides over the water. Thousands of little fish jump above the water reflecting the single light of our boat in sudden silvery bursts towards us. The soft humid and slightly salty wind strikes my skin smooth as silk and makes the whole experience even more surreal.

Then I see the unmistaken slightly yellowish crocodile eyes along the mangrove trees we are passing by. Just a small one. Clearly not the 5-meter giant that hangs around our area and that may have been the one that recently killed a woman. When I ask the operator to shut of the engines and float towards where we saw the eyes lighting up there is an eerie silence and the eyes have already gone under water. But now we see a faint flashing glow. Slowly we peddle in the dark towards it and start recognizing the tree with yellowish green Christmas lights flashing in unison. Fireflies, beautiful! And now amongst the stilt rooted mangrove trees I notice that whenever we stick our paddles in the water another bioluminescence appears! Algae producing faint rings of bluish light in the ripples of water we create!

The beauty of nature
The beauty of nature

The beauty of nature
Laying still here on the water in the dark night, while the mosquitoes discover us, I think about how far most humans are now away from experiencing nature as I still can out here. How few of mankind seem to realize the beauty and potential of nature. That it will be the living organisms that can provide the planes with the sun-based chemical energy to fly us around this small planet. Such a privilege to learn from nature and bring some of her secrets to other places to make our world a bit more sustainable. Yes there is light in the night!

Willie Smits
Bay of Balikpapan
East-Kalimantan, Indonesia