Orangutan Awesomeness in Borneo, Part 1

We flew into Jakarta from Yangon on a fairly uneventful flight, except for the part where we got lunch during our layover in Singapore and had a small heart attack when the bill came. Foreign exchange market, why do you hate us so.

Anyways, from Jakarta we flew to Pangkalan Bun, the closest airport city to Tanjung Puting National Park. The flight was over an hour late due to the smoke from forest fires in Borneo, but we had booked it a day before the actual start of our orangutan trip in case of this exact scenario, so all was well. As such, we had a day in Pangkalan Bun of just hanging around our hotel, eating and goofing around in the pool (there is pretty much nothing to do in the town). The next morning we were picked up by Yusuf, our guide from Wild Orangutan Tours, who was right on time. We lucked out by getting him, as we learned later, because he has been guiding for over 15 years and seems to be one of the original people of the park (he also seems to be a bit of a ringleader for the other guides). He also told us later that he had been the person that the BBC journalist covering the crashed Air Asia flight had chosen to be the translator and so he had gotten to ride in a military helicopter to view the wreckage. But based on his comment that he had seen the bodies (while covering his face miming the smell) and his pointing out that journalism seems to be a very stressful job, it seemed like a bittersweet experience for him.

It was about an half hour drive to Kumai, the town where the klotoks (a.k.a. wooden houseboats) were docked, and also the home town of our guide Yusuf. On the way he pointed out some traditional houses on stilts, apparently built that way to protect the family inside from headhunter night raids. When we got to the boat we hung out for about an hour as the last preparations were made. We were excited because we had been told there may be no electricity or bed sheets but there were both! Also the sheets were pink Hello Kitty ones, which pretty much made my life. The boat was small but cute; basically we would be living on the upper deck, which consisted of a little sitting area at the bow, our mattress, and a two person table. Our crew of four (plus the cook’s tiny adorable son) slept below and there was a little washroom at the back which ran on river water. The “shower” was a bucket on a string, so that was going to be an adventure.

Our boat!
Our boat!

Once we were stocked up on food and water we headed into Tanjung Puting, a national park known for its orangutans, which are found only on the Indonesian/Malaysian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Tanjung Puting is also particularly famous for its orangutan conservation/rehabilitation efforts and is the home of Camp Leakey, the original 1971 orangutan research station of Dr. Birutė Galdikas. If you don’t know who Birutė Galdikas is, she is basically the Jane Goodall of orangutans, and also Canadian. If you don’t know who Jane Goodall is, you clearly aren’t a cool kid like me who did a report on her in elementary school, and you should fix that. Yusuf told us that he had in the past transported orangutans in one of his boats to Camp Leakey for Dr. Galdikas. He wasn’t pleased as they had peed all over his mattress.

Excited!!!
Excited!!!
Important park information.
Important park information.

Anyways, we took a leisurely cruise down Sekonyer River to the first orangutan feeding site, Tanjung Harapan. The river starts off surrounded by palm trees (the main industry here is palm oil, a bit of a controversial subject since it provides most of the jobs but is also what is destroying the forest as they burn the jungle to make way for plantation land), then slowly turns jungle-y. When we got to Tanjung Harapan we had a delicious lunch on board (eating was literally one of the best parts of the boat, our cook knew what she was doing) then a short digestive rest. It was still early (the feeding wasn’t until 3pm) so we met with a park ranger for a short hike around the area. One of our boat crew also came with and walked around barefoot (turns out he is from a nearby village and so grew up in the jungle basically). Due to the number of crazy insects we saw that seemed like a death wish to me, but he was fine. On our walk we saw our first orangutan, a giant male up in the trees, and were very excited.

Into the jungle.
Into the jungle.
Lunch!
Lunch!

Then we went to the feeding station. There are three feeding stations in the park and they exist for three main reasons, 1) the “soft” release of rehabilitated orangutans back into the forest, 2) to provide supplementary food for the orangutan population, since due to deforestation, finding enough fruit in the wild is sometimes difficult, and 3) for eco-tourism. IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: Everyone should come visit the orangutans because creating jobs from eco-tourism > creating jobs from palm oil plantations.

What's that?
What’s that?

The feeding platforms are about a kilometre hike into the forest, and have some benches and a rope that stops people from getting too close. At feeding time, a ranger comes and puts a whole pile of bananas and some bowls of coconut milk on the platform. Then they make periodical whooping calls to let the orangutans know the food is here (it’s the same time every day though, so they usually know). Sometimes orangutans come and sometimes not; it depends on the season and abundance of other food. The orangutans that hang around the feeding platforms are either rehabilitated (i.e. rescued or orphaned) or are the offspring of ex-captive orangutans, so they are mildly used to people. This means that while they won’t come and give you a high five, they won’t run away from the sound of your footsteps either.

Just hanging' out.
Just hanging’ out.
Drinking some coconut milk.
Drinking some coconut milk.

One of the first orangutans to appear was a GIANT male, even bigger than the one that we saw before. Definitely the biggest orangutan I have ever seen, he looked like he could crush Chris with his orangutan strength (which is at least 8 times greater than a person’s, FYI).

Alpha male orangutan having a snack.
Alpha male orangutan having a snack.

As he shovelled bananas into his mouth, a number of females and their associated babies came and snatched a few bananas when they could. Orangutan offspring stay with their mothers until they are around 8 years old, so mother-baby pairs are a common sight. Orangutans usually don’t have another offspring until their first has (literally) left the nest, and at 5-8 years this is the longest interbirth interval in mammals.

Momma and baby.
Momma and baby.

At one point the giant male decided he wanted to shorten this interval and chased one of the females into the trees for monkey fun times. She seemed less enthused. He was pretty calm when he returned, so maybe he was successful? Yusuf said he is the dominant male and we were lucky to see him because he doesn’t come to feedings often. When he does, no other males can show up as they will get punched. When he left, an adolescent male did come, but he seemed pretty nervous and didn’t stay long.

Grab and go.
Grab and go.
Just chillin'.
Just chillin’.

When the orangutans had eaten and gone off to build nests for the night (as they do) we continued up the river in our boat. We saw a lot of proboscis monkeys and macaques on the way; dusk is the best time to see monkeys on the riverbank because they go there to sleep since there are less predators (mainly clouded leopards and sun bears in Tanjung Puting). We also saw a couple crocodiles, which cured our desire to dangle our feet in the water.

Monkeys at dusk.
Monkeys at dusk.

Upstream we docked our boat at a random spot (they just tie up to anything), had a delicious dinner, set up our mosquito net and went to bed early due to it being pitch black out by 8pm.

The next morning we had a lovely breakfast of tea, toast and eggs on the river then headed to the next feeding station, Pondok Tanggui.

Morning on the river.
Morning on the river.

This time, a lone orangutan showed up and furtively grabbed as many bananas as he could carry in hilarious fashion.

Greedy orangutan.
Greedy orangutan.

On the way back to the boat we came a across a praying mantis, and Yusuf tried to kung fu fight it with his fingers, mantis-style.

Praying mantis.
Praying mantis.

Back on the boat we had lunch, allowing Chris to work on perfecting his ability to eat a whole fish without impaling himself on a fishbone. Next up was Camp Leakey, Birutė Galdikas’s original research station!

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