Orangutans are arboreal apes, only existing in the wild in Borneo and Sumatra. They are now an endangered species thanks to the destruction of their rainforest habitat as a result of sometimes illegal logging for furniture, and palm oil plantations. It has also been discovered that they have an eight year birth cycle and live for about thirty years, making them even more at risk.
We sailed from Java to Kumai in Kalimantan, Borneo, which is 14 nm up the river from the coast specifically to pay a call on our cousins, the ‘people of the forest’. ‘Orang’ in Indonesian means ‘person’ and ‘hutan’ means ‘forest’.
Kumai is a busy port, handling imports and exports. Massive barges towed by tugs carry oil and timber to other ports. The town also does a big trade in birds’ nests. There are a number of large silo-like buildings dedicated to providing a home to swiftlets that build their nests there. The nests fetch phenomenal prices (about $2,500 per kg) and are used in traditional Chinese remedies and of course cuisine, the most famous dish being ‘Bird’s nest Soup’ a delicacy in China for over 400 years.
Having provisioned Pipistrelle for the onward passage post Kumai, 9 of us from 4 yachts joined two river boats or ‘klotok’ for an ‘African Queen’ adventure up the Sekonyer River into the Tanjung Putin National Park.
Jenie Subaru was our host who had previously worked in the National Park and so had a wealth of knowledge, not only about orangutans but also other wild life especially tropical birds, many of which are rare, but are to be seen in the forest. He has a blog at www.jeniesubaru.blogspot.com
We were collected from Pipistrelle complete with luggage and copious supplies of mozzie repellent, and initially set off down river, before entering the Sekonyer River, which winds its way into the National Park. It was about two hours before we arrived at the first camp, Tanjung Harapan, where feeding of fruit and vegetables takes place each day at jungle platforms. Most of the orangutans in the park are orphaned or former captives and have been rehabilitated into the wild. Quite often there is insufficient natural food to support the numbers of orangutans, hence the reason that feeding takes place. Generally orangutans are solitary animals, and move through the forest picking fruit or digging for vegetables, or eating insects. At night they will build a new nest high up in the forest canopy, away from predators. There is therefore some debate as to whether rehabilitation is the way forward, as it makes these orangutans dependant on humans.
On the way up the river we saw many macaque monkeys swinging between the trees, or simply sitting and watching. Brightly coloured kingfishers flew from one bank to the other, far too fast to photograph. Once at the camp we walked some way into the forest to the orangutan feeding platform where rangers arrived with two sacks of food. Soon orangutans appeared swinging from tree to tree, and then down to the platform. They would collect a mouthful of bananas and yams, and then climb back and sit munching away. Younger orangutans would often collect the food and climb back to the father or mother, and pass it to them. It was great initial photo opportunity, as can be seen.
We then returned to our boat and moved up stream, stopping at an information centre and a walk to Jenie’s original village. In the afternoon we watched a troop of proboscis monkeys, which again are unique to Indonesia and Borneo. Unique is also their appearance – long bulbous noses, potbellies, long tails and white and tan colouring. There is only one male in the troop and he and his entourage were practised in turning their backs to us!
That evening as dusk fell, we stopped on the riverside to watch hundreds of fireflies, a first for us. These insects use a light at night to attract mates, the female emitting the brighter light. The male chases her, they mate, and then the female kills the male…..! Whilst we did try to capture the moment on camera, all that can be seen are dots of light – hardly an interesting photo!
A delicious dinner was prepared on board by the resident chef, Norma in very cramped conditions. We enjoyed the candlelit meal at tables and chairs on the dockside. The open decks of both boats were then used as sleeping quarters, with mattresses under mosquito nets (we had a double), while we listened to the sounds of the forest.
The next day we made our way up to Camp Leakey, and eventually the muddy brown water turned clear, and Jenie spotted two crocodiles. Borneo is rich in minerals, and gold is mined in Kalimantan. In the extraction process there is a considerable run off of waste water which enters the river, turning it muddy. In the clear water we watched a water snake crossing the river, safe in the knowledge that the boat engine would scare away the crocodiles. Feeding at this camp starts at 1400. We were amused by the arrival of the up market small cruise and adventure ship Orion in Kumai. For them 10 separate boats had been booked to take their passengers for a day trip. We avoided their breakfast meeting that caused a bottleneck on the river, but could not avoid their lunchtime gathering. They all piled ashore for the long walk along duckboards to the feeding platform. The ship’s crew had set up their video camera on rails, chairs had been set out especially for the pax and then the heavens opened, rain always making orangutans hungry. Rather than wait patiently for some action, they all left before the show, and walked back without seeing one orangutan! So we more or less had the area to ourselves. Then the orangutans arrived, and put on a magnificent display for us. Moral = stay away from cruise ships! We observed fascinating orangutan behaviour here, and spent some of the time keeping out of their way, as they are immensely powerful. Wild boar made an appearance, and we also watched a dominant female attacking another female with a baby, until it was chased away by the watching rangers.
Mothers look after their offspring for the first 5 years of their life, and we saw many of different ages clinging to their fronts, backs or sitting on their shoulders…
In the evening before supper on board, we went for a short night walk through the jungle. Herewith some of the photos.
For our final day we visited the midway camp at Pondok Tangui, where feeding takes place at 0900. This was obviously far too early for orangutans. There was only one in evidence who sat on the platform with his back to us, gorging on the food and milk he was given to drink. He was however joined by a very colourful squirrel, not unlike a chipmonk, which was obviously very adept at selecting morsels to eat. As there was little else to see, we were taken on a two hour walk through the forest, and Jenie’s trained eye picked out many birds, plants and insects we would not have noticed otherwise.
We were shown a pitcher plant. Thanks to our friend Oliver Straub, we have since discovered that this plant belongs to the epiphytic genus Nepenthes of which there are over 100 species. A leaf has evolved to form a pitcher with an interesting rim that attracts insects and an extremely slippery internal surface – the insect will slide down into a pool of digestive enzymes!
On the way back downriver we all saw a large salt water crocodile, and a white hornbill, an impressive bird.
After another superb lunch we returned to Pipistrelle and the other yachts. It was another unforgettable Indonesian experience, and well worth the two day passage to get there.