The Orangutans of Borneo

Off to meet the relatives

Yani, our wonderful guide

And again we were very fortunate.  In addition to the young driver, we had Yani ( as our guide.  Very experienced, he actually runs his own tour guide company but had stepped into the breach to help Herry out.  He was a mine of information, not just about the apes, but all the flora and fauna we were to see, and had eyes like a hawk, soon spotting our first orangutans way up in a tree by the side of the river.

The entrance to Camp Leaky

Our first stop was Camp Leaky, about 90 minutes up river.  It was set up by Biruté Galdikas back in the 70’s and is the premier research station on orangutans in the wild.  Galdikas is one of the Leaky girls (the others being the late Dianne Fossey who studied gorillas and Jane Goodall with chimpanzees) who were inspired and assisted by the work of anthropologist Louis Leaky.

The camp is a loose collection of huts, reached by a long boardwalk from the river.  And we soon bumped into our first orangutan, Sampson.  He had been the top male, but last year was usurped in that role by Tom, a younger, stronger male.  In the wild he would have become a solitary animal and would probably not have lasted too long, but he had adopted the camp as a new home, albeit disappearing if Tom appeared.

A little bashful at first

In addition to Tom, there were about another half dozen orangutans who predominately live in or close to the camp, all females and all with one or two youngsters.  All of them were rescued from captivity, but had become so acclimatised to humans they had failed to really re-adapt to life in the wild.  So they lived in a half-wild, half-camp state, but were happy and what was good was that their youngsters tended to move back into the wild when old enough.

The good thing about the fast boat was that we reached the camp an hour or so before the tourists in the slow klotoks so had time to just sit and chat with the camp staff as we watched the animals.

In addition to the apes, there was a pair of gibbons who had moved in and were just hanging around, some big wild pigs who followed the apes around, eating any scraps and a couple of cool cats who treated the apes with distain and showed no fear.

You need eyes in the back of your head

All too soon, tourists arrived and the orangutans were lost behind happy snappers so we retired to the shade of a big tree and sat with the staff.  A couple of hours later, everyone headed off into the jungle to a feeding station.

These are simply big wooden platforms where extra food and nutritional supplements are put out for the wild apes.  They don’t really need it and tend to treat it like a treat – some days they may pop down for a feed, other days they won’t bother.

That day seemed party time with over 20 orangutans arriving; some grabbing bunches of bananas and heading back into the trees, some just sitting grazing on the platforms.

But what strikes you is how they move through the trees.  These are big heavy animals and they use their weight to travel.  They’ll grab the top of a thin tree and let it bend down until they can reach the next tree.  When they let the first tree go, it slings back upright with a huge rustling – you can hear them from miles off.

Once the feeding was done, we stayed a while and just watched.  Some left quickly, but others, especially the females, hunkered down up the trees and kept a weather eye on their youngsters scampering around.

The Rimba Eco Lodge

From Leaky we headed off to Rimba Eco Lodge for the night – a beautiful setting in the forest with a troop of monkeys who also call it home and work hard at breaking into rooms.  As dusk fell, we wandered down a trail to a look-out point high in the trees hoping to catch sight of the proboscis monkeys – no joy there, but so many stunning butterflies.  Then, joy of joys, a long cold shower before dinner.

Relaxing after a long hot day

After dinner, we sat in the library and read through a few books on the orangutans.  Their DNA is closer to us than it is to the other great apes, and they are considered the most intelligent.  A lovely quote from a Perth zoo keeper (Perth Zoo is recognized as having one the best care and breeding programs for orangutans in the world) struck a chord:

Give a chimp a screwdriver, and he’ll just throw it at another chimp

Give a gorilla a screwdriver, and he will use it to scratch himself

Give an orangutan a screwdriver, and he will use it to escape

The next morning we were off early to Camp Leaky where again we just sat quietly with the staff – just watching half a dozen orangutans passing the time of day.

Peter’s hand being held

And then a truly special moment.  One of the mothers came over to Peter, who was sitting on some steps, and just held his hand.  She felt dry and warm, and was so so gentle, her youngest hanging on to her, mouth on nipple and fast asleep.

We sat there and watched her adolescent son playing with Sampson who was pretending he had noticed the youngster creeping up on him.  The little one would pounce and he and Sampson would mock fight, rolling around in the dust, before chasing off into the bush and up and down trees.  After a bit, Sampson would come back, settle himself down and the game would start again.  Sampson is so strong he could have torn the little one into small pieces, but he was so gentle as they played, letting the little on “thrown” him around.

A watchful eye for orangutans

And in the trees above us, the two gibbons sprawled across a branch, lazily grooming each other, and a cat kept a watchful eye in the sun beside us.

Just hanging about

Three hours passed so gently, seeming to last for ever, but were then gone in a flash as other tourists arrived.  Sadly, we said goodbye to our hairy ginger friends and headed off, spotting Sampson sitting in one of the water cisterns.  He’d found or stolen a bar of soap and was having a fine old time.

From Leaky we headed to Pondok Tangguy, another smaller orangutan rehabilitation centre down river.

Up to a few years ago, young orangutans who had been taken into captivity as pets were rehabilitated at Leaky and a couple of other camps locally and released back into the wild.  The researchers at Leaky noticed however that this was causing some stress within the indigenous local orangutan population and the process was moved to other areas without major local orangutan populations.

A klotok heading home

While Leaky is still the research centre, this has left Pondok Tangguy and Tanjung Harapan without their main reason for being.  However, they are still maintained as outposts and feeding stations because their presence is a deterrent to the illegal loggers who would quite happily clear fell the forest sounding them.

They too have feeding platforms and we stopped at each to watch.  In both cases, there were only four or five orangutans who turned up, and at Tanjung Harapan, we were the food for thousand s of feral mosquitoes that descended on us in a black cloud.

Floating lily patches, a menace to klotoks

Then, as dusk fell, we headed back to Hinewai (after waiting for an hour or so for some klotoks to clear a big floating pad of lilies blocking the river) and spent the evening looking through the photographs and trying to relive the moments.

These are truly wonderful animals, endowed with not only great strength but also poise and gentleness.  They are truly sentient beings, totally aware and capable of thought with their great intelligence.  Yet we are killing them.  The illegal logging, undertaken with the illicit blessing of the Indonesian Government, is destroying their habitat – leaving small groups isolated and so unable to sustainably breed with other groups.

We should be ashamed if we buy a piece of teak garden furniture or anything made with Indonesian wood.  Odds are that when that tree was young, it was bent by the weight of an orangutan as it travelled through the forest – a forest that is now gone leaving only a moonscape behind.

Someone said “The eyes are the gateway to the soul”.  This is so true for the wonderful creatures, but they are more.  Their presence is the gateway to their souls, and we had been fortunate enough to catch a glimpse through that gateway.

The eyes are the gateway to the soul


Signing out from Indonesia

The next day was back to reality – even worse, Indonesian bureaucracy, a Dali-sequel blend of “job’s worth” and rubber stamps.

When you enter or leave a country on a yacht, there are certain formalities to go through.  When we arrived in Bali, it wasn’t too bad since we had an Agent to facilitate everything, but in Kumai, we were going to have to do it ourselves.  But not quite alone, Ifung, who we met through Rian, offered to come along and help.

More yachts arriving

First stop is immigration, over in Pangkalan Bun.  We flagged down a local taxi and squeezed in for the 30 minute drive.  The Immigration department is a stately single storey building with a large tiled office area.  Two desks and a table tennis table.

We sat across the desk from the Immigration Officer and pulled out the four copies of our passports, crew-list, registration papers and any other document we could think off.  And, of course, the all-important Ship’s Rubber Stamp – without which nothing would get done.

It was all relatively painless, the guy was really nice, and with various bits of paper and our passports stamped, and stamped, and stamped, and stamped, and having only had to pay a very reasonable “fee” of Rp100,000, we headed on to Customs.  “Only short walk of 1km” our Agent assured us.  Dripping with perspiration, aching feet and thirsty throats, we limped into Customs, a mere 3/4kms later.

Here, as the first yacht to be leaving that season, we were looked after by one of the senior Customs Officers, who chatted away with us as a junior ran around get the paperwork done (and stamped) ready for his bosses signature.  There was a small discussion about the merit of Scotch Whiskey, but since we don’t carry any, even as gifts, it went nowhere.

A strange coloured goose (?) outside immigration

Then to our surprise, the Senior Officer offered to run us back to Kumai.  We accepted gratefully, an air-con’ed official car is far better than a local taxi.  After a quick stop in his boss’s office, he drove us back to the Harbour Masters in Kumai, and wouldn’t accept a penny.

At the Harbour Masters, again there was a severe outbreak of forms to be completed and stamped.  While Peter was doing this, Jean got chatting with one of the young officers, trying to track down a more detailed up-to-date weather forecast, but with no joy.

Getting back to Herry’s office, we weren’t surprised that there was still no fuel or water, but they promised it would be there by 4pm.  We headed back to Hinewai to get ready to head off the next day, only to see Tom and Rambo coming up the river and anchoring behind us. Tom popped over in his dinghy and we caught up on each others news over a Rum & Coke or two.

Ferrying fuel

At 4, Peter took our dinghy over and, to his surprise, about half the fuel and water was there.  It turned into a ferry evening – take what was available, decant it into the appropriate tanks and bring the empties to be refilled, but at last we had a pretty full load.  So we lifted the outboard on board and tied it off before deflating and stowing the dinghy.

That night, we had the heaviest storm we had seen in Kumai – not just heavy rain, but strong winds.  It didn’t look too good to think about leaving so Tom gave Jean a lift back to shore for her to revisit the Harbour Master’s to see if they had any new weather.  Their internet was still down, but they got round the problem by calling up one of the ships alongside who downloaded a forecast out of Singapore – and it didn’t look great.

The Harbour Master himself took Jean to one side, shaking his finger side to side as he said “You no go today.  Too much wind, big seas.  Very dangerous.  Maybe OK in 2 days, you check again tomorrow.”

One last extra day in Kumai – and departing

A chance for a haircut

So we ended up spending the day with Tom and popped back into Pangkalan Bun.  We wandered around the shops, had lunch in a local café (leave behind food hygiene laws all ye who enter here) and Peter got himself a hair cut.  It was so sweet, the young girl doing the cutting had to go and get her high heels on – even with him slumped in

the chair, she couldn’t reach the top of his head.

Back in Kumai that evening, it was still pouring with rain – not fun to motor across the river in the dinghy – so we grabbed a last meal of Nasi Goring at a little café we’d eaten at a couple of times before.  Those meals had been great, sadly this time the cook went a bit overboard on the chilli – and we discovered that sweet red Fanta is great for cooling the mouth.

Last view of Kumai, swiftlet houses towering over the city under threatening skies

Even though the weather still didn’t look great the next morning, we decided to head off anyway – even if we only got as far as the river mouth, there was a nice protected anchorage we could nip into. 

But the weather was clearing as we motored downstream so we stuck our nose out to find that even though the seas were still reasonably big, the wind had dropped out and was perfect.  So we headed on.

It took us eight days and nights to reach our destination – Miri in Sarawak – but more of that next time.  Slowly but surely catching up with our tales.

All the best

P & J

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