Orangutans in Tanjung Puting

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May 22nd 2018
Published: May 25th 2018
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We arrive at Gatwick in good time for lunch in the lounge. And champagne of course. Boarding the Emerates A380 and settling in to our “suite” is always a pleasure. All passes smoothly, we follow James' example of watching films all the way and being asked to stopping loudly by a passenger who wants to sleep.

Four hours transit in Dubai however is not such fun. It is the middle of the night, it is now our bed time, but we join all the other passengers in the lounge who are sitting, eating and wandering around like zombies as we all want to be in bed. Meanwhile the airport is full of Japanese tour group following their flag bearer in closed up ranks, transiting to who knows where but suitably hatted and scarved against the burning Arabian sun even though it is 0300hrs. You cannot be too careful....they contrast with the white robed Hajjis on their way to Mecca (it is Ramadan), also being shepherded around in their groups.

Anyway the Jakarta flight eventually departs at 0500 and we arrive nine hours later in Jakarta. Taking only 20 minutes to clear the airport (the “visa on arrival” is just a stamp from passport control) and get our Rupiah, we then take an hour for the 20 minute transfer to the airport hotel, a surprisingly attractive one.

Back to the airport at 0700 for the 1hr 10 flight to Pankalanbun in southern Kalimantan (Borneo). We are picked up from the rustic little airport by our guide Susi and taken for a 15 minute ride in an ant infested taxi to Kumai “city”, a tiny place where we board our klotok. It is only a few months old, and constructed of ironwood. It is two decked, the lower having the toilet and shower, galley and crew's living quarters, and the upper being our, a covered area with table and chairs, bed and armchairs up on the prow. We set off up to the mouth of the Sekonyak river and head inland. The whole coastal region in this part of southern Borneo is swampy, with the water having high acidity which restricts the height of the trees. The banks in this early stage of the river are dominated by nipa palms and mangrove swamps. It is impossible to tell how far back the solid ground is from the treeline at the water's edge. The river is generally about 30 to 40 yards wide. As we progress the vegetation changes to a variety of taller trees beset with creepers and lianas and other parasitic plants. But still the bank is invisible. The whole of this part of southern Borneo is described as “coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest”. It is all low lying and the rivers flow into the Java Sea.

We enjoy an excellent lunch, freshly cooked on the boat – stir fried vegetables, corn fritters, chicken and rice and then relax and settle into the relaxing pace of the boat as it chugs along the river. Our first stop is at the Tanjung Harapan feeding station. These feeding stations are not where the orphan orangutans are raised – the orangutans that visit were raised in captivity then released into the wild. They live independently but still associate the feeding stations with food so come when they’re called if there is not abundant food elsewhere. We walk for 15 minutes through light jungle until we reach the raised feeding platform. The rangers tip out two bags full of cane and bananas and make orangutan calls. We watch and wait. The first to arrive is a huge male called Gundu, who happens by good fortune to be the “king” male in this part of the forest. He first poses for photographs in the nearby trees and then settles onto the platform and starts eating steadily, while all the time facing determinedly away from the two dozen tourists who are willing him to turn round. Little by little, others join the party until there are eight in all plus two babies. They are every bit as enchanting as they seem on the nature programmes. There is a dangling liana just in front of the platform, and several of them take it in turns to swing back and forth before settling down to eat. Orangutans usually live separately, so it’s unusual to see a male in the company of so many females. He tolerates them, but swipes out if they get too close. One mother with a baby is highly cautious. She swings down towards the platform, pauses just above it to collect some more bark, then moves back to the safety of higher branches to eat. She allows her baby of maybe six months to venture out on his own, but never lets him go too far away, and certainly not towards Gundu. We take far too many photos then just sit and watch them, entranced, for over an hour. Eventually, one by one, they leave the platform, and we walk back to our boat for a welcome iced flannel with a cup of tea and some delicious banana fritters. We feel momentarily guilty about eating and drinking when our guide and the crew, all Muslims, are fasting for Ramadan. But it doesn’t stop us!

As evening starts to fall, the proboscis monkeys come to the riverbank. We stop to watch them in the trees, swinging from branch to branch, and admire the massive noses of the males that give them their name. We’re even fortunate enough to see a pair of hornbills with their massive yellow and black beaks. We are now fully relaxed, and thinking that this may just be the best day of the holiday. Fate comes before a fall – literally!

To disembark at the ecolodge where we we are spending the first night, we are required to clamber from the top of the boat onto a movable set of very steep steps. Sara goes first. She is laden down with a rucksack and her camera. The latter makes it impossible to descend the steps backwards, and on the way down, in the darkness, her right foot slips between two steps and she somersaults down about 4 steps, eventually landing on her back. Terror assails us all, wondering how much damage she has suffered. After a shaky check, we are relieved to discover that although she has a massive bruise on her shin, with a long graze, she seems to have escaped more serious injury, and the rucksack cushioned her landing. The hotel bring betadine and antiseptic wipes and our guide, who is every bit as shaken as us, wipes the wound and applies copious quantities of stinging betadine.

After a short rest, it’s back to the boat for dinner. Sara is understandably traumatised at the idea of having to negotiate the steps again, but the boatman has moved round so she can clamber up a different and much easier way. As we eat, we are disturbed by an appalling racket that sounds like dogs fighting or, possibly, dismembering something. We enquire nervously about this, and are told it’s a group of macaque monkeys. Apparently one male tried to get into another male's tree. Then a proboscis monkey decides it would be fun to jump on and off the roof the klotok moored next to us, causing further excitement to the family dining onboard.

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