Orangutan adventures

After two years of living here, we finally had our first non-family visitor. (Sorry Phil, one day doesn’t count!) Our friend J stayed for a week during her whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia. Because of a few national holidays anyway, I decided to take the whole week off and we booked two trips outside of good old Bogor: first, a three-day boat tour of orangutan sanctuaries in Kalimantan, then a few nights away at my work cottage in the nearby mountains.

As soon as J arrived, we filled her full of local Indonesian fare and showed her the mall, since that’s about all there is to do around here. So then to shake things up, we headed off to brave the jungles of Borneo and watch orangutans in their natural habitat. The tour we booked travelled from Palangkan Bun, where we boarded a klotok (a two-story wooden boat) and headed into the Tanjung Puting national park. The boat is about 3m x 13m, designed for a cruise – cooking, eating, sleeping all on board. There was even a “western” toilet, which really was just a normal toilet placed over a hole in the boat floor, leading directly to the water below. There was a shower too, but read the previous sentence again to find out why none of us used it during our stay.

After a hearty lunch on board, we disembarked at the first viewing station just outside a local ranger village. It was a hot, humid walk through a muddy, buggy forest to get to a clearing where a platform had been built to hold a giant pile of bananas and an even bigger pile of orangutans. Of course, as usual, J tripped and fell on a bunch of roots just as we were arriving at our destination. There were a few moments where her wild crying could have scared away all our ape visitors, but luckily after a few minutes she decided that the tiny scrape on her knee was slightly beneath apocalypse level and maybe she would be ok after all.

We saw a good handful of orangutans at this feeding session: a few mothers and babies, one or two adolescents and a male of about 30 years old. They weren’t shy to wander past us on their mission to the bananas, and we got several great close-up views. Soon the bananas disappeared, and it was time for all of us to go.

That night, we anchored the boat in a patch of water reeds in the middle of the jungle and fell asleep to the sounds of proboscis monkeys and night birds, lit by the glow of lightning bugs and stars. In the morning, we set off to the next conservation area for another feeding. Unfortunately, friend J was feeling quite sick that day, suffering from a bout of heat stroke. She decided to stay on the boat and save her energy for the main orangutan camp visit in the afternoon. This feeding station was similar to the first, with a handful of orangutans, with one major difference: this time, we were lucky enough to get a full performance of orangutan lovin’. That’s right, folks, about 20 tourists stood around, giggling awkwardly and wondering aloud if they should turn off their cameras, while Mr. and Mrs. Orangutan paused their banana snacking to share an intimate moment. Well, I can’t be sure that Mrs. was totally into it, but she was begrudgingly putting up with it, at least.

Next, we continued up a smaller and much cleaner river towards Camp Leakey, the original orangutan sanctuary in the area. We knew we had arrived when we saw a huge grandma orangutan taking a bath next to the dock. After a quick lunch, we set off into the forest again. We walked along a boardwalk towards the visitor center and saw at least 5 orangutans just hanging out. These ones were clearly more familiar with people and we could have easily touched them – it’s dangerous to touch them, though. Not only are they still wild and unpredictable, but humans can give and receive viruses to and from orangutans that can make both sick. So we looked but passed by rather quickly…

We stopped at a dimly lit but interesting visitor’s center, where the kids mostly just wanted to look at the skeletons on display (as usual). Friend J was at the end of her strength, so she and B hung around the center while the kids and I continued into the forest for another viewing. It was a long walk, and the kids were so incredibly sweaty, like little milk containers sitting out on a hot day and condensating all over everything. Oh and they were whiny too. Like… little whiny milk containers on a hot day. Anyway, we made it to the viewing area and it was packed. Way too many tourists for the space, and they were all quite loud and aggressive. We arrived partly into the feeding session, so I don’t know how all the ruckus started, but we suddenly noticed that there was a girl of about 12 who had been grabbed by a mama orangutan. I guess the girl got a bit too close to the baby, or perhaps had something that seemed like food in her pocket, and the mama grabbed her arm with both hands and wouldn’t let go. They were surrounded by 4 or 5 guides who were trying to lure the orangutan away with bananas, which they did eventually. The girl seemed unhurt, but it was a very tense few moments. Good lesson for everyone there about how to treat wild animals with respect, and don’t get too close!

The kids’ favorite part was a cheeky gibbon who was stealing all the bananas. J chanted “Go, Gibby, Go!” for much longer than appropriate, but it was all in good fun. We wandered back to the visitor’s center soon after and all hopped back on the boat for the trip home.


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