We approached Ben at Dive Safari Asia, asking him if it was possible to weave two scheduled trips together with a mini trip into Kalimantan (Borneo) to see the Orangutan. Silly question really, as anything is possible with DSA! True to his word, a mini trip of 4 days was slotted in between two other trips. All the transfers, flights and accommodation was sorted and booked. Even a last minute cancellation of a flight taking us towards our Orangutan trip didn’t deter them from their task of making sure that all trips run as smoothly as possible within their power! Sure enough, within a short email we were informed of our flight cancellation as well as informing us of the new change of flight details…sorted!
Now onto our mini trip that is what this is all about… Rafael, who was to be our treasured guide for the entire trip, warmly greeted us at the small Ujung Pandak airport. He would also be on board with us for the duration, yes, we were living on a houseboat or ‘Klotok’ as it’s locally known. After a 20minute drive from the airport to the jetty where the boat was moored, we walked along a very rickety, wooden walkway to meet the rest of the crew. Let us please introduce you to our invaluable ‘deckhands’ Iqbal & Wahid who kept everything on board spick & span; our Captain Dow whose skillful maneuvering through narrow waterways was brilliant and last but by no means least, our magician chef, Sahlan, who produced restaurant quality meals and snacks throughout our trip.
We had a choice of 3 sleeping areas to choose from. Two of them below deck and air-conditioned (we chose one of these due to huge windows overlooking the back which let in plenty of light) and one on the upper deck with the breeze to keep you cool. Both cabins had shower rooms plus toilet and toiletries provided. We had gone prepared with wet wipes, so we were pleasantly surprised! They don’t froth as much but they’re eco we are told. We felt that should we choose the upper deck bed, albeit a very large, comfortable looking 4 poster complete with mosquito net, we might feel a tad exposed especially when our friends Iqbal & Wahid started their day’s chores at 5am sweeping and washing down the deck and setting up the breakfast table. Be prepared to start your days early! The chef is also an early riser along with your guide who like to start their morning ablutions in rather a noisy manner! But hey, the day ahead is full of excitement and not to be wasted lying in bed.
Our first morning was met by torrential rain….well, we were in the rain forest! Never fear, Rafael was prepared with heavy-duty ponchos as well as our own re-usable water bottles that we could take away as a souvenir and re-use at home. We walked a fair way, around 20 minutes, into the dense forest. In fact, each place you visit to see the Orangutans will involve a certain amount of walking so wear good, comfortable shoes. Be prepared to wait, quietly and sitting or standing still! The other guides with other groups from all over the world will ask anyone to be quiet or silent who is talking too much or creating a disturbance! Our guide had briefed us beforehand so we knew what to expect. He told us that the quieter people are the sooner we will see the Orangutans appear…and he was right.
The area we were in was The Tanjung Puting National Park and we experienced seeing these awesome creatures every day we were there. Sitting still and quiet with sweat pouring off us (it was very humid and hot) was worth every second when we were treated to over an hour and sometimes two hours of observing these gentle giants. On one occasion, patience and perseverance paid off. We had waited and waited for almost 2 hours with only one or two Orangutans coming down to collect bananas. Gradually the groups got restless and started chatting amongst themselves with voices getting louder and louder. Eventually, after being told to be quiet, quite a large number of people slowly moved off and quietness descended again. After another 20 minutes we were treated to a number of Orangutans slowly making their way to the platform, sitting eating and quietly observing us! Our guide then beckoned for us to follow him back to the path; on doing so we were then treated to the wonderful sighting of a mother and her baby just a few feet away from us and away from the feeding platform. She was quite happy for us to just stand and watch her while she was feeding. The majority of these animals are ex-captive, rescued and rehabilitated. They are breeding and many are now wild and do not come to the feeding platforms, therefore, NOT to see any Orangutans is in fact, a good thing as it means they are foraging for themselves.
Professor Birute Galdikas and her husband arrived in Tanjung Putting National Park in November 1971 in a tropical rainstorm in two small dugout canoes carrying all of their possessions. This was the beginning of Camp Leaky and the start of The Orangutan Research & Conservation Project and is one of the longest running mammalian studies in the world. The border of the Park is the Sekonyer River leading from the main Kumai River. Bordering the river are Nipa Palm trees which are slowly being replaced by Pandan trees favoured by the Orangutans.
On another day we spent a fulfilling task of planting a selection of trees. We set off after breakfast via a VERY slippery, raised wooden walkway on a 20minute walk. Things remain damp for a while round here, especially after a heavy downpour! We arrived at Pesalat, a place that started a conservation project in 2003 planting trees to replace those that had been destroyed in 2 major fires in 1997 & 1998. The fires had been started by hunters to make it easier for them to hunt for deer!! Today illegal hunting is one of the major causes of fires in other areas of the National Park. Since 2003, over 100,000 trees from over 40 different species including those that supply food for the Orangutans, Gibbons & Proboscis monkeys.
Our mission was to select as many sapling trees as you wanted (at a cost of course) and plant them as directed by the gentleman in charge of the site. We chose 4 trees; the ‘Ulin’ or Iron tree (used for boat building and furniture making) two of the ‘Nyatuh’ and a ‘Tentamu’ We wrote the name of the tree, our name, where we had come from and the date on a small chalk board which we placed next to our planted tree. There were many planted from people from all over the world. This 43-hectare site is used to educate new staff about reforestation methods and to educate the local children about the importance of conservation. They now have many reforestation projects both inside and outside this national park.
Some other areas we visited was Camp Leaky; Pondok Tangguy; Kumai- Tanjung Harapan. One expedition that we did differently from other boats cruising the same itinerary as us, was mooring up at the head by the riverbank of a ‘T’ junction. This incidentally was the time when we had that special close encounter with the mother Orangutan and her baby previously mentioned. While we ate a leisurely lunch watching all the other boats cruise past us, we waited for a local fisherman to arrive in his small dugout motorised canoe. It was a different way for us to travel and it was a source of income for the fisherman & his family. The journey was long and slightly cramped and our backsides longed for a soft cushion! My husband sat with his knees up to his ears, clutching the sides. It was a bone-jarring journey causing blurred vision due to the boat’s vibrations!! However, the breeze was divine! After spending almost 3.5 hours with the Orangutans and having our close encounter after most people had departed on their respective Klotoks, we then set off back to our Klotok in our small dugout canoe. Due to its small size we were able to zip along at a fair speed, overtaking all those boats that had left prior to us. We were back on board our boat sipping a cup of tea and snacking on freshly cooked banana fritters, waving at all people on the boats as they chugged past us out of the ‘T’ junction and back onto the main river! Result!
This trip is one of a kind. So many wonderful memories and encounters with the Orangutans, Macaques, Gibbons, and Proboscis, not to mention small bats, fireflies by the thousands like twinkling Christmas lights, flying stick insects, butterflies galore, soldier ants, praying mantis, leeches!
I leave you with a lasting memory….picture this if you will..He was magnificent! A large Alpha male weighing approximately 120kg sits on the wooden platform gorging on bananas. Along comes the alpha female with a youngster plus a baby clinging to her belly, she and Junior settle down to eat. Along comes a young male who sidles up to the platform and nonchalantly leans against a post. The large Alpha male glances up and spots him. The youngster freezes and a staring contest starts. After awhile the Alpha male grants him permission to collect some fruit by breaking eye contact and returning to his own pile of fruit. The young male moves in quickly and stuffs as many bananas as he can into his mouth, grabbing two handfuls for good measure and scarpers up the nearest tree to demolish his hoard of treasure at leisure! Hilarious to watch! There were a few females in this group and all with babies. In this area there are now around 6,000 all due to the conservation work that started back in 1973 and 10 years later, the first Klotok trips were established hence bringing in much needed funds for both the conservation work and for the local people.
This leaves us to say a huge thank you to all at Dive Safari Asia for helping us make our dream come true!0