So this month I got to fulfill a lifelong dream I have had since I was a teenager. A good friend of the family used to subscribe to the National Geographic magazine, and pass on the magazine to us each month. The exposure to this amazing publication opened up the world to me, and I will be forever grateful to the now departed Bobby Campbell, who helped a working class family elevate itself through her kindness. I remember reading about the jungles of Borneo and the beautiful orangutans who populated it. ‘One day I will go there and see them with my own eyes’ I remember thinking.
After 40 years of dreaming my dreams I climbed onto a small ‘klotok’ boat with my adventurous partner and ventured into the jungles of Borneo to see the orangutan in its natural habitat… And not a moment too soon as this endangered species clings to existence in the last place on earth it still exists. The fact that I finally got to realize this dream proves that we can all follow our dreams with enough determination…. I did this trip in memory of a wonderful woman, Bobby Campbell, who changed our lives through her kindness…
In order to see orangutans in their natural habitat, you have two choices – Malaysian Borneo, Indonesian Borneo now called Kalimantan, and Sumatra. Estimates of how many orangutans survive in the wild vary – in Kalimantan we were told around 30 000. In total maybe around 100 000, but these numbers are falling each day due to illegal logging, palm tree oil plantations and hunting.We chose to visit the Tanjung Putting National Park by hiring a ‘klotok’ wooden boat and guide which I found by searching the web. We settled on a well known tour operator Jenie Suburu who offered us the best deal on a three day/two night trip, at RP 6 000 000 ($425) inclusive of all meals, refreshments, entrance fees and transfers. Prices from other operators varied from RP 7 000 000 to RP 9 000 000.
We flew to the small town of Pankalung Bun from Jakarta, which is the entry point to South Kalimantan. We stayed in one of the few hotels in the town, a crummy place called Hotel Bahaglia. We were collected here and drove to the port town of Kumai where we boarded our klotok, which was crewed by a captain, an assistant and a cook. Our guide Sandi was also with us for the duration of the trip.
The klotok is a wooden boat built specifically to travel up the Sekonyer river into the jungle where the orangutans live naturally. It is a double deck boat, and we had the entire top deck to ourselves. We ate our meals at a table erected behind the sleeping area, and relaxed on loungers when cruising up the river. A western-style toilet and primitive washing facilities were located at the rear of the boat. At night our captain found a spot along the banks of the river to cast anchor, weather blinds were rolled down and a mosquito net was erected over our double bed.
On DAY 1 of our trip we departed from Kumai in a heavy downpour and set off up the Sekonyer river. We knew we were taking a risk visiting during the wet season, but the advantage was far fewer other travellers on the river and lower costs for the trip. Luckily the weather cleared further up the river, and we saw no rain again until we returned to Kumai. We saw maybe eight other boats in total during our three days on the river, and at any given time viewed orangutans with maybe 10 other people, which was great. In summer it can get very crowded we were told.
Our first stop at around 15h00 was at Tanjung Harapan Station, where we were fortunate to see at least ten orangutans, including the big dominant male. A unique moment occurred when he mated with one of the females who had arrived with her juvenile offspring. After they mated she rejected the juvenile and chased him away repeatedly, going as far as biting him to make her feelings clear. The screaming juvenile couldn’t understand what was happening. In the wild once female are on heat they focus on mating and no longer care for their juvenile offspring, who must now become independent. It was quite heartbreaking to see firsthand, but this is nature at work.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of actually seeing orangutans in their natural habitat…It was pretty surreal. Of course as a photographer I was pretty much focused on photographing the orangutans as best I could. I finally got to use my 50 – 230mm zoom lens I’d been lugging around for three months to get some decent shots.
After spending about an hour with the orangutans we headed back to the klotok and carried on up the river before docking for the night on the banks of the river. We ate supper before I eagerly transferred by shots for the day onto my Macbook and edited the best shots. It was exciting to relive the time we saw the first orangutan mother with her baby flying through the canopy. At around 21h00 our mosquito net was set up, and soon afterwards we settled down for the night, falling asleep to the lullaby of thousands of frogs and jungle insects.
We were up at 07h00 on DAY 2, and after a wash in ice cold water we ate breakfast before setting off for Pondok Tangui, another accessible jungle stop where rehabilitated orangutans emerge from the undergrowth to be fed each day at the same time. Sometimes one is fortunate enough to see completely wild orangutans on the paths through the jungle, but they generally keep far away from humans because of negative experiences in the past.
Again we were blessed by great sightings of orangutans, mostly females with babies and a few juveniles. Most of the other people on tours left after around an hour, but the weather was good and the orangutans were plentiful so we stayed longer, together with a few other travellers. After spending about 90 mins photographing and just watching these amazing primates which surrounded us, just as we all decided to leave, the dominant male came ambling up the path behind us, and we managed to shoot both photo’s and video of the majestic animal. What a special moment it was…
We trekked back to the klotok and set off for the famous Camp Leakey, established in 1971 by Dr. Biruté Galdikas and former spouse Rod Brindamour. It was named after the legendary paleo-anthropologist, Louis Leakey, who was both mentor and an inspiration to Dr. Galdikas. It was established as the centre of the conservation programme in Tanjung Puting National Park. We spent 30 mins at the information centre chatting to a conservationist and checking out the installation.
The trek through the jungle was quite a distance, and our guide Sandi showed us massive ants along the way which could be picked up and surprisingly do not bite, unlike the notorious red ants also found in the jungle. He also told us to be on the look out for a friendly Gibbon that liked to hang out in the area in search of an easy meal. Lo and behold, he was the first primate we saw. Just watching this graceful animal fly effortlessly from tree to tree was something to behold, and became one of the highlights of our trip.
Very soon several orangutans appeared from various directions and we were able to film and photograph them from fairly close quarters. The cherry on the top was the arrival of the ‘King’ dominant male towards the end of our time in the clearing. Apparently he doesn’t always make an appearance…so once he left we decided to head back to the klotok and savour the photo’s and video we had shot. We knew that we would probably not see any more orangutans on the return trip to Kumai, but that sightings of rare probiscus monkeys and crocodiles was a possibility.
We settled down to supper and chilled out before falling asleep to the sounds of monkey’s and orangutans calling to each other in the darkness. It was amazing how noisy the jungle becomes after dusk, as during the day it is very peaceful, with mostly the sound of birds making up the daytime soundtrack.
At 07h00 on Day 3 we were up bright and early to enjoy our final breakfast on the klotok before we set off on the long cruise back to Kumai. Along the way we saw a few troops of the strange probiscus monkey. The dominant males have a large, almost human nose which makes them look almost comical. We were also lucky enough to see two crocodiles, one of which I managed to photograph, and then totally unexpectedly Akhona spotted a wild orangutan male perched in tree in the jungle on the opposite side of the river to the National Park. I managed to get a belated partial shot of him, but it was a suitable last sighting on our trip. Minutes later the rain came down and the weather blinds came down.
Although quite an expensive excursion for budget-conscious travellers, for us it was worth the expense to finally get to see the wonderful orangutan in it’s natural habitat before it comes under even greater threat of extinction because of human intervention and destruction of its habitat. Here is the video we produced of our adventure: