Back in the jungle. I almost sigh in relief. Life as I know it is not only thousands of miles away, it feels like a lifetime ago, away, gone.
I didn’t even know I was going back to Borneo. My itinerary said Tanjung Puting and something about orangutans. I didn’t put two and two together – wild orangutans can only be found on Borneo and Sumatra today. You should have seen my face when I realized – back to Borneo!
The island holds a special place in my heart and so do those beautiful, fun creatures. I don’t think you can ever have too many orangutan pictures, can you? Now I know how parents feel when they want to share 1001 Facebook photos of their offsprings, but I cannot help it. These faces… (and for those parents who feel offended that I inadvertently compared their kids to orangutans, I am sorry!).We are on a boat, a wooden boat going down the Sekonyer River. I think of African Queen and it feels wildly romantic and adventurous. I don’t even mind the heat and the humidity, we get ice cold towels whenever we return from an excursion and a fresh breeze when the boat is in motion. I write this a few weeks later while I sit in a taxi in traffic, of course. I wish I was back on the boat. Sitting at the stern and staring into the water, watching out for crocodiles and Proboscis Monkeys in the trees. The water from the Sekonyer River is muddy and brown. Later, once we have moved to the Black River, the water while dark, almost inky becomes crystal clear – much better for crocodile spotting as it turns out.We spent only one night on our Klotok (traditional wooden boat), a fact most of us girls appreciate. While there is a proper toilet, sleeping arrangements are simple and remind of summer camp (or how I picture summer camp): mattresses on deck, a big mosquito net, and a pillow for each. Our trip in the Tanjung Puting National Park includes three orangutan camp visits in two days: Tanjung Harapan, Pondok Tanggui, and Camp Leakey. The term camp, however, is relative as orangutans roam freely and come and go as they please. There are feeding platforms but they still need to find additional food themselves and goal is it for most to be reintroduced into the wild.We trek through dense jungle to get to the platforms, sometimes joined by a wild boar or some cheeky macaques who are hoping for their share of bananas and sugarcane. They get lucky except in Camp Leaky – the alpha male is at the platform first and takes all the bananas he can possibly carry, leaving precious few for mama and baby orangutan who arrive shortly after him.Treks are easy enough albeit sweaty – welcome to the jungle! Everything is green and the air is dense, humid and lush as well as the surrounding trees and bushes. Bark, roots, ancient ferns, and lianas that make me hopeful for Tarzan to show up. There are weird leaves, colorful flowers, giant ants, yellow jumping/flying spiders and acid colored mushrooms to match. It is hard not to think of a hallucinogenic dream, an Alice in Wonderland kind of world and I just wonder – where is Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar?Mind you, we are not here for green fairies nor creepy crawlies, they are just a mildly interesting sometimes annoying side-effect of jungle life. We are here for the real deal: the person of the forest (the meaning for the Malay word ‘orangutan’). And we get plenty of what we came for.Our luck has it that we not only see a few babies having lunch but also get a few trapeze shows of note and one alpha male coming too close for comfort – we don’t realize that his calls are mating calls and we are standing between him and his object of desire. Luckily we all make it out of the jungle unharmed but also without baby orangutan company which some may or may not have wished for. Still, our spirits run high when we return to our Klotok. Some people smarter than me have bought beer from one of the tiny speedboats cruising the river and while they paid premium river prices I am envious. But even without, dinner is a festive affair on shore and all boats are tied together for the night. While we are feasting on prawns, fried fish, noodles and fish chips for which I cannot find a better word than ‘interesting,’ Faisal our guide and his crew make our beds on board.As I said before, most of us are happy that we just stay for a night because the facilities are basically camping on a boat. To my surprise, I fall asleep at 9 pm and sleep like a log until 4 am when it is almost time to move into the sunrise. Off to our next camp we go…By midday, we are all orangutan-ed out and crave a shower. We pass our last hours on the boat by playing ‘I Spy’ in the hope of crocodiles and taking pictures of each other hanging out of the Klotok’s side door (trying not to fall in and becoming excellent at I Spy).Of course, it is my boat that has an exhaust problem, gets stuck in the palm trees on the river shore and has to be towed. At this point, the shower has become a secondary issue – this boat full of bloggers is craving wifi. Roll your eyes all you like but after all, if you see an orangutan and cannot post your picture on Instagram, did it really happen?!
The nitty gritty & practical of finding orangutans in Borneo:
*Flights from Jakarta take about an hour with Kalstar or Garuda to Pangkalan Bun, Kalimantan Tengah.
*You can book your boat cruise and orangutan visits with Orangutandays. Their trips run from 1N2D to 3N4D. I would recommend choosing one not only according to budget but also to your ability to rough it and patience for wildlife sightings.
*Take lots of mosquito repellant, some clothes that can get dirty and comfortable trekking shoes. You can refill your water bottle on the boat, mattresses, mosquito nets, pillows and blankets for sleeping are provided.
*If you are very precious, you can even take a shower on board, but honestly, none of us bothered. It didn’t seem worth the effort – hello bucket-shower over the toilet! – and we preferred to rough it for the night and use lots of wet wipes instead.
*Definitely bring a zoom lens; while the orangutans come close a lot of action happens high up in the trees. And as always, when wildlife spotting – use your indoor voices, kids!*Yes, yes, I know an orangutan is not a monkey but an ape!