Our adventure in Indonesia started with an encounter with the wild orangutans in Borneo, the highlight of this trip. From the window seat of our small propeller plane we had a first glimpse of the dense rainforest of the Tanjung Puting National Park in the Kalimantan region. In the small basic airport Boh – our smiling Indonesian guide – was waiting for us. This is the beginning of one of the most remarkable experiences we had in Indonesia.
Wandering downriver along the tea-coloured Sungai Sekonyer on board of a klotok, the traditional two-storey boat, we left the modern world behind us and we discovered a new deep connection with mother nature. The hours were moving slowly, surveying the jungle with binoculars, plunging into the forest ravished by the magnificence and dignity of the gentle orangutans and lounging on the deck of the boat spotting proboscis monkeys’ silhouettes with a crimson sunset in the background. Once the sun sets, the sky filled up with a million stars and the calls of frogs, cicadas, monkeys and wonderful birds replaced the silence.
MEETING THE ORANGUTANS
Sitting on a bunch of palm leaves, the huge red-furred creature stared at us. Holding our breath, we stared back. Moving calmly she sat in front of us. Her big brown eyes filled with kindness and wisdom. With her right arm she was holding her baby tight. I sat on a trunck and she sat in front of me. There we were, eye-to-eye with the orangutans in Borneo, the largest tree-dwelling animal on the planet!
Her name is Gara and she is one of the many orangutan rescued, rehabilitated and released near Camp Leakey – research and conservation center named after anthropologist Louis Leakey – by the Orangutan Foundation International.
We were fortunate to see this special creature during a 3 day-cruise trip that took us through the dense Borneo jungle of Tanjung Puting National Park. The park is now home to 5.000 orangutans and making our way towards the feeding stations we met several orangutan each one with their own story and their own character. The baby holding tight to the mother’s fur as she moves through the forest canopy, totally dependent on her until up to 7 – 8 years of age. The big males, with their large cheek pads, clinging to branches that seemed too flimsy to support their enormous bodies. Their calls can last up to five minutes and be heard more than a mile away. And the youth, with their messy red fur shining like copper in the afternoon sun. They grasp branches with ease and move around gracefully, but never seem to be in a hurry.
Orangutans belong to the order of great apes, as do gorillas and chimpanzees. These gentle creatures live in the dense jungles of Borneo and Sumatra, two of the largest islands in Southeast Asia.
In Bahasa Indonesia – Indonesian language – orang means person and hutan means forest. Over time these beautiful primates became known as orang-utan, man of the forest, and no better name could have been chosen. They are one of the closest living relatives to the modern human, sharing 96.4% of DNA.
As incredible as it may sound orangutans can communicate with humans through body language using up to 30 words as well as use tools, build nests, pillows and blankets, use leafy branches to shelter themselves from rain and sun and sometimes even drape large leaves over themselves like a poncho.
↓ WATCH THE VIDEO OF OUR ENCOUNTER WITH THE WILD ORANGUTANS IN BORNEO ↓
NIGHT WALK IN THE TANJUNG PUTING NATIONAL PARK
On our second evening in the Tanjung Puting National Park we went for an night walk in the forest. Just us, our guide Boh and a park ranger. Surprisingly we discovered that every meter or so there was the home of a giant tarantula, that plants and leaves can glow in the dark and that the park is home to Tarsiers Nocturnal – a monkey no bigger than your hand – pythons, scorpions, gibbons, slow loris, clouded leopards, civets, hornbills, Malaysian sun bears, mouse deer, barking deer, sambar deer and red leaf-eating monkeys.
WHY ORANGUTANS ARE ENDANGERED?
Tanjung Puting is the largest and most diverse protected example of extensive coastal tropical forest which used to cover much of southern Borneo. The area was originally declared as a game reserve in 1935 and a National Park in 1982. Nevertheless orangutans are slipping into extinction. Consider three main threats. Logging: about 80% of the orangutan habitat has been lost over the past 20 years. Indonesia loses an average of 51 sq km of forest a day, in favour of palm oil plantations. Poaching: as the forests disappear, orangutans become more vulnerable to hunters. Pet trade: on the black market, about a thousand baby orangutans are sold each year.
How can we help to save the orangutan?
Palm oil is the leading cause of the extinction of orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra. It’s used in shampoo, toothpaste, detergent, frozen microwave dinners, cookies, peanut butter, Nutella, lotion, makeup and more. But it’s not too late! The palm oil industry only thrives as long as consumers keep buying products that contain palm oil. First step: say NO to palm oil. Choose Palm Oil Free products or use the app to detect palm oil in products. Second step: raise awareness. As more and more people become aware of the negative effects of palm oil, pressure on producers to switch to sustainable sources will increase. Lastly: donate or volunteer. Orangutan conservation work is vital for the survival of the species. You can ensure this work continues by either donating to one of the many organisations such as Orangutan Foundation International, or by volunteering to work with orangutan conservation or rehabilitation.
HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT COMPANY FOR YOUR BORNEO JUNGLE TOUR
During high season booking in advance is a must. When choosing our boat we looked for eco and responsible companies and an open air cabin – no air conditioning. To provide cabin with air-con the companies have to keep the generator on all night. The noise will not only keep awake all the fellow travellers but – most importantly – scare the animals and disturb their rest. When we were first told we’d be sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a wooden boat with a mosquito net protecting us, we weren’t sure what to expect. Yes, the boat was pretty basic, but we were there for the Borneo orangutan experience and Local Guides. Their enthusiastic guides are born and raised in Kalimantan aaaaaaand they offer an amazing service for solo travellers. Private boat tours for solo travellers are costly and the shared tours are big and noisy. Local Guides created the Solo Travelers Forum to help you meeting other solo travellers interested in sharing a private tour.
Another great company that we recommend is the Orangutan House Boat Tours, managed by young Fardi. All meals are served on the boat and the staff is incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about both their homeland and orangutans. Fearless of the deadly crocodiles lurked in the still, black water the staff collects with bare hands every plastic bottle found in the river.
HOW TO REACH THE TANJUNG PUTING NATIONAL PARK & BUDGET
The easiest way to get to Tanjung Puting National Park is to fly to Pangkalanbuun. We started our trip to Indonesia in Jakarta, where we hopped on a 1-hour direct flight to Pangkalanbuun with Trigana Air (sometimes Indonesian airlines accapet only local credit card. To avoid this issue we booked our flight on NusaTrip.com) and then boarded a klotok – traditional boat – for a 3-day tour with Local Guides in Tanjung Puting National Park. Prices for an orangutan tour vary based on the number of people in your group. We booked a private boat for a 3 days/2 nights for € 500. This includes 3 meals a day, airport transfers, local tour guide, entrance fees, conservation fee, no hidden fees. Our flight to Pangkalanbuun from Jakarta was €54 one way each.
WHAT TO PACK FOR A JUNGLE SAFARI IN BORNEO
At any time of the year, bring rain protection and insect repellant as there is a low malaria risk in the area. The climate is warm/hot and can get humid when walking in the jungle. Pack a hat, sunscreen and trainers/hikinhg shoes. The nights get a little cooler, but we were more than comfortable with light long sleeve shirts.
BEST TIME TO VISIT TANJUNG PUTING NATIONAL PARK AND SEE THE ORANGUTANS IN BORNEO
High season in Tanjung Puting National Park goes from June to September. During these months of dry weather it’s easier to spot orangutans in Borneo as they are more likely to visit the park’s feeding stations as food in the forest is scarcer. Despite the amount of people visiting the park at this time of the year we had amazing encounters with the local wildlife and a great experience.