I have been putting off writing this blog update about our trip to see Orangutans in the Tanjung Puting National Park, in Kalimantan, Borneo, as it was an such an incredible experience. Somehow I really don’t seem to have the words to describe it.
Maybe a big part of the magic was the river trip up the Sungai Sekonyer tributary of the Kumai River. Although the Klotok was quite quite basic there was something decidedly romantic about travelling in a traditional boat up a narrow river tributary with profuse, lush, and greener than green rain forest, outsize ferns and mangroves on either bank.
Echoes of the African Queen reverberated in my mind and I half expected to see Humphrey Bogart round the next bend in the river on the African Queen with his perky little sailor’s hat on his head and a cheeky kerchief around his neck and Katherine Hepburn with her cheekbones glimmering, chiding Humph for swearing.
Capt’n Birdseye and I had visited an Orangutan sanctuary some years ago (maybe 12 or 13 years) in Malaysian Borneo near Sandakan and I must admit, we weren’t that impressed. Basically we had one viewing session which consisted of us sitting in a forest clearing and waiting for a small troop of young Orangutans to come and eat the food left out for them.
On this trip we had three forays into the national park where we walked through the forest for around twenty to thirty minutes listening out for calls and looking out for the startling red coat of the Orangutan.
On the first walk we started off hearing some Orangutan calls and caught glimpses of red in the trees a couple of times.
Then, to our great surprise, we saw a very large creature sitting in a tree ahead of us but really low down . Amazingly it was an Orangutan just hanging out.
Now I know that this specimen was one that had most likely been rescued and gradually introduced back into the rain forest, I know I wasn’t seeing a “wild” Orangutan but what I can say is that he had no cage, no iron bars, no stress from habitat clearing. He could come and go as he pleased, be there to be stared at if he wanted or to run away if he didn’t. It was a breathtaking experience to be so close to such a magnificent creature.
It was so interesting to watch him watching us. He seemed genuinely curious and interested and I’m sorry all those who think seeing an Orangutan completely in the wild is the only valid experience – you would never get so close to one in the wild as they of course normally very fearful of humans.
Having seen an Orangutan at such close quarters I really felt if I didn’t see another one the whole time we were there I wouldn’t have cared!
We kept walking and sat down in a clearing near a roped off platform with other tourists who had also travelled by Klotok or speedboat to this special place.
As we sat there we watched several Orangutans up in the trees who gradually and some quite warily, swung their way down to the platform where bananas were piled high.
You could tell the ones that were more habituated to being close to humans but there were one or two that were very shy and literally just grabbed as many bananas they could hold in their hands, mouths and any where else before shinning up a tree and making a break for it.
While we watching the Orangutans the air around us started to crackle and the sky began to darken. A storm was on its way! We slipped away to get back to the Klotok as we didn’t have any wet weather gear at all – not even an umbrella.
By the time we were half way back the earth path had turned into a fast moving stream and the mud and roots combined made the going treacherous. It was raining stair rods and we were soaked to the skin.
Unfortunately there were casualties – the screen in Lucky’s camera stopped working and my phone packed up. Fortunately we kept it plugged in and eventually it resurrected itself although the speaker still doesn’t work! I was very happy that I hadn’t lost my precious photos.
We carried on up the river in our Klotok as the sun set and were served an excellent dinner (after an equally good lunch and fried bananas in batter as a snack). We certainly didn’t starve!
As it was raining we were unable to sit on the upper deck for dinner that night and the crew had to work round us to lay down mattresses and erect two massive room size mosquito nets to protect us while we slept. We all bunked in together and it was a bit like being at school camp again.
The following day some of us were more bleary eyed than others but the lack of sleep didn’t seem to matter as we had another day of floating blissfully up the river with no work to do and all our needs provided for.
We saw an array of birds, including a giant hornbill that flew directly over us. We glimpsed some monkeys and a couple of wild Orangutans in the trees but from quite a distance.
We arrived at our second “camp” quite early in the morning and walked for a while along a boardwalk that turned into an earth path. There was a visitor’s centre that was quite informative about the history of saving Orangutans from domestic situations and from being made homeless through destruction of their habitat due to the ever increasing palm oil plantations.
Along the way we heard the distinctive call of gibbons and we were hoping to see these athletic creatures when we reached the feeding spot.
Alas, there were none there but we were again excited by a close encounter with a young Orangutan who appeared to think the humans were very fine entertainment and was quite partial to a bit of showing off too.
The feeding platform was never empty while we were there and we watched Orangutans of all different levels of maturity, including a mother and baby who of course, all the people there found very endearing, especially as the baby was very curious and moved around examining everything but always had a couple of fingers hanging on to its Mum’s lovely red coat.
Our last call was at the famous Camp Leakey – established in 1971 by Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas. Her research and conservation work is legendary.
Again, we first visited an information centre which described the work of Dr Galdikas and gave information about its conservation practice.
We watched as Orangutans gathered in the trees above the feeding platform and their antics as each of them took their turn on the feeding platform.
What made this experience so different and so special for me was that a mother and her baby left the platform and walked right up to the single rope divider between them and the tourists. I was standing right in the corner where the rope finished and there was another rope at right angles to the rope in the front. She ambled right up to me – I could have put my hand out and touched her. After a few moments she walked parallel to the rope fence at the side with her baby on her back and disappeared into the forest. It was a breathtaking experience. Unfortunately my iPhone was still recovering from its soaking the previous day so I was unable to take any photos.
Then another young male followed her and also walked right up to where I was standing then continued walking following the rope divider around and then climbed into a low tree and literally hung out with all the visitors! He was enjoying himself hugely and reminded me of a young human juvenile – showing off and enjoying the effect he had on the national park visitors!
At Camp Leakey we were also fortunate to see wild gibbons and huge boars at the feeding station but again, because my camera had stopped working I have no photos of these.
That evening we were treated to a very beautiful sunset and a delicious meal on the top deck.
After a better sleep we meandered our way back down the river to the little port of Kumai seeing bulbous nosed proboscis monkeys (endangered and only found on Borneo), a couple of wild Orangutans high up in trees and enjoying the bird song from within the forest.
It had been a magical few days and an experience I would love to repeat. For me, the river trip was the only way to experience seeing semi-wild Orangutans as it felt like we were travellers rather than being simply sightseers.
Put it on your bucket list!