I am awake at 3 am. Not to find out the score between France and Belgium, but to prepare for the next stage of our adventure: a trip to Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) for a river trip to see orangutans in their natural habitat.
Indonesia is one of the worst palm oil offenders, cutting down swathes of virgin rainforest every year, most recently in Papua, and slaughtering these magnificent apes. The Tanjung Puting National Park is a reserve where there are both wild and semi-wild/rescued orangutans and a research programme.
We arrive at Pangkalanbun airport and are met by our guide, Hermann, who whisks us off in a taxi to the port of Kumai, whose main export is birds’ nests. The town is dominated by the austere concrete blocks that house the swallows: rest assured they only harvest the nests once the chicks have hatched, he tells us.
We board our onomatopoeic klotong, which will chug us up the Sekonyar River which meanders through the park. The palm trees that thrive in brackish water and line the river soon give way to fresh-water-loving pandanus, and we scan the vegetation for proboscis moneys and hornbills.
It is too hot already so we have to wait until the evening cruise to be rewarded with a huge troupe of these extraordinary looking monkeys, almost humanoid, eating wild figs, and squabbling over the best roosting sites.
We dump our bags at the Rimba Eco Lodge, where we will spend the night – we declined to sleep on the boat on a ropy old mattress after the luxury of the Dewi Nusantara, afraid also of mosquitoes and being too hot/cold/wet if it rained!
After a yummy lunch cooked on the boat by Tutti, the woman chef (despite being Muslim Hermann tells us that Indonesians are very tolerant so it is quite normal for there to be a woman crew member on male boat, even for overnight trips), we arrive at a Feeding Station 1, Tanjung Harapan. There are 6000 orangutans in Tanjung Puting, and the few hundred around the feeding stations are all rescued and rehabilitated or their descendants.
As we walk through the forest we see our first orangutan, a mother and baby, slowly making their way through the canopy to the station. Gradually we hear the tell-tale rustling and see the tree trunks bend as apes of various sizes, ranging from the old alpha male (kings as they are known) to tiny babies, swing from tree to tree in anticipation of their rambutan and banana treats.
Feeding stations are all part of the lucrative business to help save these extraordinary anthropomorphic creatures from extinction. As a business model it’s not so different to us feeding the whale sharks from the bagans. In the high season, like now, about 30-50 klotongs disgorge their guests at the various feeding centres. It also provides invaluable employment in a part of Indonesia where there is no industry (apart from palm oil). Apparently there are now over 100 klotongs, and that’s still not enough in high season.
I always enjoy looking at the other tourists, and amazed at the number of languages spoken, mostly Spanish, Italian and French. There is a large Korean delegation from an oil palm business in Pangkalanbun, where we spend our last night, a centre of the oil palm industry and a city run by billionaire Mr Rashid and his relatives. A local politician appears with his bevy of policemen’s wives dressed in camouflage tracksuits – their sports club uniform apparently, giggling and charming despite their threatening appearance.
We are mesmerised by the antics of the gentle giants, especially two naughty girls at Tanjung Harapan who enjoy a good old rough and tumble, slithering about on squashy fruit, doing the splits and playfully attacking their older relatives. They are particularly adept at stuffing as many bananas as possible in their mouths like cigars, and grabbing handfuls before they shimmy up a tree out of trouble.
The king, Gundul, who grabs the central spot from the get-go is having none of it and he swats the little pests away, gently but firmly. A mother with a tiny baby only a few months old hangs motionless above until he finally leaves – she is too afraid to approach while he is there.
We notice the pecking order at the other feeding stations we visit. Mothers and babies are generally unworried unless the baby is very young, but when King Doyok arrives at Pondok Tanguy, his face pitted with fighting scars, young male Atlas scampers off, raining pee down on the forest – and some unsuspecting tourists.
At Camp Leakey, the original research station, we are greeted by Queen Siswi, who inhabits the jetty area and is quite a character. She has been known to soap and rinse herself in the river, like any human, and even paddle a kayak. Now she is old and today she is digging for worms with a big stick and putting them in a cut-through plastic water bottle.
It is caterpillar season and all the apes here are in the forest stuffing themselves with this much needed form of protein and we see only Terry, the king of Leakey, 32 years old and enormous – he has already seen off two other kings, one his brother. Far too lazy to go caterpillar hunting when there’s an easy meal. These kings patrol their territory, often covering as much as 50 kms daily, and are far too big to swing from the trees.
Two full days and one night is about right we feel; had we been on a more luxurious boat it might have been fun to sleep on board (we saw a couple with fine four-posters on deck) but cold at night. We enjoy the river life too – brilliant blue and yellow kingfishers, a greater coucal, a pair of Asian black hornbills, plus an oriental hornbill, and even a swimming monitor lizard. But no wild orangutans sadly.
My last memory of Tanjung Puting is chugging slowly back to port, trees alive with screeching proboscis monkeys and macaques as they jostle for night roosts, the setting sun casting a crimson reflection on the river, giving way to an inky blackness, with the stars appearing one by one, the palms on the bank lit up like Christmas trees with the fireflies.
Thanks to Ross for his wildlife photos. See his website here