He was close, real close. I couldn’t see him yet, but I could feel him, as if the boat were being sucked upriver and the water was flowing back into the jungle.*
The steamy mid-morning sun blazed as we set off for three days in search of a wild orang-utan, Indonesia’s “man of the forest.” Our klotok, the wooden river boat Lazuardi, cut swiftly through thick brown water that was cloudy with run-off from neighboring palm plantations.
At this time of year it can be hard to spot any orangutans. There is so much wild fruit in season that the apes can afford to shy away from the reserve in favor of a smorgasbord of fruit ripening across the forest. Durian, mangosteen, rambutan, bananas, you name it. Although we knew our chances for seeing an orangutan were lower, it was impossible to ignore an overwhelming sense of hope and curiosity as we maneuvered slowly upstream. Our first wildlife sighting was a medium-sized monitor lizard, about 6 feet long. At first we thought it was a crocodile until we got a better look at it.
Aside from the occasional tour boat and local transport, we were alone traveling up the river. We stopped at the first camp and hiked 10 minutes into the forest to the scheduled afternoon feeding site. In the reserve, there are two scheduled feedings per day. Again, Ami and the rangers cautioned us not to get our hopes up given fruit season. The rangers deposited bananas from a couple of full backpacks on a platform and then we waited. We waited for over half an hour, and then finally some trees started shaking in the distance, then closer. It was even better than the wild sightings we had on the way in. This sweet mama and baby led the way:
Each kept his or her distance from the food until the more dominant ones finished and moved on. Then, one by one, each grabbed bananas and returned to the trees. The rangers brought one extremely large male his own stash of bananas and he sat quietly munching on the ground some distance from all the others. The largest orangutans like him live primarily on the ground.
In total, thirteen orangutans joined us. The rangers said they hadn’t seen this many together for quite a while. Ami told us there must be a special connection between the spirits of the people and the orangutans for so many to gather at one time. Whatever the reason, we felt honored to be part of such a special day.
What is the best way to top off such an incredible orangutan encounter? With rainbows, of course.
That evening we tied up at the side of the river near troops of long tailed macaques and proboscis monkeys swinging from the treetops.
The next morning, we made our way upriver into the native black water. My photos do a poor job of capturing the overwhelming natural beauty that surrounded us.
On our way to the next camp, we glimpsed another friend in the trees.
There were a few more tourist boats at the second camp, but not many people. Ami told us that in the high season boats will raft up across the entire river, carrying hundreds of tourists to each feeding. We were thankful for our much more low key experience.
We didn’t always see orangutans at the scheduled feedings, but we found plenty of other wildlife to entertain us. Butterflies were all around, plus ants, dragonflies and the occasional boar.
Camp Leakey, established in 1971, was our final destination of the tour. The reserve contains both wild and semi-wild orangutans (rescued orphans).
After almost two hours of waiting, thirty-two year old Tom, one of the largest males, made a quiet entrance from the forest. He moved slowly, methodically, carefully observing everyone and registering each of our faces as he climbed up for a snack.
Looking into his expressive eyes, I kept imagining what he might be thinking, the man of the forest. Watching this distant cousin of ours, it’s no wonder that human and orangutan genomes are 97 percent identical. He was wild, but seemed so very human.
As if he knew it was time for all of us to say goodbye, after fifteen minutes Tom stopped for one last look and retreated to the forest with the same quiet grace.
We spent a quiet day playing games and reading as we motored back to Kumai.
This experience with orangutans in Kalimantan ranks as one of the highlights of our entire journey on Sophie. Have I mentioned lately how lucky we are?
Kumai… we’re still only in Kumai… every time I think I’m gonna wake up in the jungle.*
* Adapted from Willard’s voice-overs in Apocalypse Now