People of the Forest - Orang-utans



Day before our trip


We motored toward Kumai, the waters running below us turning from blue to brown the further upriver we went. Massive tugboats passed closely beside us pulling long barges filled with mountains of wood chips, a sign of the commercial logging industry that is claiming much of Borneo’s natural forests. During our nighttime sailing, a full moon offered just enough light to silhouette the towed barges, which were otherwise unlit.

Overnight, one such barge was anchored near us. I was sitting at the salon table, scrolling through Instagram and enjoying the connectivity, when I suddenly had this feeling that I was being watched. One look outside revealed a huge steel barge right beside us with men aboard, certainly taking a curious look into the windows of our fully lit salon. I immediately woke up Mark who had gone to bed early to catch up on sleep he’d lost during our passage.

Keeping an eye on the red steel hull, we raised anchor and motored through the lights of the other anchored freighters until we were well clear of any ships. Now, if the currents turned, we wouldn’t have any more unwelcomed eyeballs peeping in!

Orangutans and Smoking Engines

Day 1


I woke up at 6:30, same time as usual. I groggily wandered to the control panel and as switched on the LP gas so that I could heat water for my morning cup of coffee, when Mark sleepily called from the cabin, “You know it’s only 5:30, right?” I guess my body’s clock hadn’t gotten the update that my iphone did when we crossed over into yet another time zone, the third since arriving in Indonesia.

Oh well, might as well start this day early anyway! It was going to be an exciting one, for sure. Today we would board a “klotok”, a double-decker river boat, for a 3-day, 2-night trip to see the remarkable Bornean Orangutans. We booked the trip yesterday with Leisa, and it was arranged that a boat would come pick us up from Field Trip around 10:30 in the morning. Mark made a hearty breakfast of omelettes and potatoes while we packed up everything for the trip - headlamps, long pants & shirts, cameras, hats binoculars- we even packed a few silk sleepsacks just in case :)

By 10:30 we saw a small boat with a single light in the front zooming right to us. We piled ourselves and our bags in (2 of the three carrying camera equipment!), and sped over to the opposite shore where our klotok awaited. At first glance, I was a bit skeptical, but once aboard, I was pleasantly surprised. Three nice matresses with fresh, crisp sheets were lined up on the floor. There were no actual windows except those surrounding the helm station. The floors and ceiling were planked with dark wood, and there was an upper level, equally airy room where a dining table sat in the center.

We settled in and met the two other guests - Angelo from Spain and Dustin from Vancouver, Canada.  Our guide informed us that the captain was home packing his things and would arrive shortly.  After a bottle of cold water, he arrived and the boat rumbled to a start.  We were off.

Bird houses - Thanks Howarths for Photo
I noticed tall cement block buildings that lined the Kumai shore. Mark and I had made note of them the day before, wondering what they were for - storage? like silos? I decided to ask our guide, Ie. Her answer surprised me. Swallow’s nests. These cement high rises were built to attract swallows and provide a place to construct their sought-after nests of stringy saliva. Selling at 16,000,000 rupiah per kilo ($1, 143 USD), this was definitely a profitable industry. Bird’s nest soup is a delicacy in Asia. We had watched a documentary about the harvesting of these nests in the cliffside caves of Thailand. Brave men built bamboo scaffolding above huge crashing waves allowing them to climb down and swing into the caves where these birds reside. These cement nesting buildings in Borneo seemed a much more convenient, and certainly safer, option than the Thai version.

Up to 400,000 swallows can nest in these buildings, which must be guarded day and night to prevent theft of their valuable contents. Now, the chorus of bird calls I’d heard the previous night made a lot more sense. I secretly wondered how we could gain access inside to see the swallows and nest harvesting first-hand. I thanked Ie for the detailed explanation and joined Mark and the kids up on the bow to share the fascinating information. As I explained, the boat tilted to starboard. We were turning left up an estuary, where the statue of an immense male orangutan welcomed us into the national park.

After a half hour or so, our guide hurriedly ran to the helm to deliver what was obviously an urgent message. The usual exhaust from the engine had turned to a billowing cloud of smoke! The engine seized to a halt, allowing the captain just enough time to ease the boat into the palm fronds that lined the river. A crew member tied a line to one of the stalks as one fan-like leaf whipped into the open-aired sleeping area just above our bed. Suddenly, all was quiet and there we sat, and sat, and sat - the still, humid air stifling as it mingled with the engine exhaust. What is it they say? You get what you pay for? Well, whatever we paid, at this moment I’m thinking it was way too much.

I decided to take advantage of the quiet. I prepared a cup of hot tea, sweetened in the typical Indonesian way with sweetened condensed milk, until it was an exact match to the murky river water below. I opened my journal and started writing. There I still sat, a couple of hours later, having waved to the lunch-eating tourists on the nearly 10 boats that passed us by on their way to the orangutans. It was like having a flat tire on the way to a Jimmy Buffet concert.
Finally, our guide came upstairs, “Excuse me. The engine will not begin again. We will move to another boat that is coming. It will be smaller, but very nice still.”

“Will it have beds? Enough beds?”

“Yes, similar beds, but not the same. It will be good for you.”

I wasn’t so sure about “good for me” and I could see Mark already running the numbers in his head as he paced, nervous that we’d miss the first feeding time altogether. This was definitely not getting off to a great start. Oh well, not much we could do about it now! We adjusted our expectations and packed our things up again while Michael kept watch for our new boat downriver. With each boat that came, he excitedly exclaimed, “This must be it!” But one after another they’d lumber past with more guests seated at their deck table happily munching on fresh papaya and leaving us in their wake.
Eventually, one boat pulled up beside us, and when I saw the less-than-enthusiastic look on Michael’s face, I couldn’t bring myself to turn around. ‘It will be fine, ‘ I assured myself.
Our 'New' Boat

The cook carried pots and baskets of produce over to the new boat while we gathered our things and passed them across the boat rails. This new boat was much smaller, with a dining table on the same level as the beds and only 2 full mattresses and 2 twins. It would work, sure, but it was a downgrade. Hey, at least the engine would “begin”, right? Yes, in no time we were barreling upriver in an attempt to get to the first feeding station in time.

6:30 pm - First Feeding Station

We were the last boat to arrive, but we managed to tie up, slap some mosquito repellant on and hike the kilometer to the feeding area just in time to sit and wait.

Park rangers cupped their hands on their mouths and hollered ‘hoooh-ee’ into the jungle as a pseudo dinner bell. At least 50-100 visitors sat with cameras ready to snap a shot of one of the copper-colored great apes. Only a rope separated us from the feeding platform 30 meters away. What was it I had read about Orangutans being seven times stronger than a human?? I pulled the children a bit closer. Bananas had been strewn about to entice the them to come within view. Our guide told us these feedings aid in providing much-needed nutrition that this shrinking habitat can no longer offer, and I remembered the long barges piled with wood that we’d had to navigate around out at sea on the passage to Kumai.

Through the jungle, treetops began to sway, and soon a large orangutan came into view. Everyone lifted their cameras and clambered to get a photo. I watched, amazed at the sheer size of the creature and how swiftly and gracefully she moved. Each appendage grasping tree trunks and branches like a four-armed trapeze artist.


Later, a young ape came to enjoy the snackbar. On his way, he’d climb up higher in the tree until the trunk bent far enough to bring him within arm’s reach of the next limb. As he stepped over, the tree he’d been on would spring back and bounce back and forth like a car antenae. This juvenile was hilarious to watch as he would stuff as many bananas into his mouth, then hold more in one foot and one hand. He turned to me, a mouthful of protruding yellow fruits lining his lips, like rotten, mangled teeth all in a row. He was a greedly little guy, coming back down for another load after his first serving was quickly devoured.


The orangutans kept coming out of the jungle, sitting together in a circle facing each other. I half expected them to start singing Kumbaya! They expertly peeled bananas with their lips and popped them into their mouths, as casually as a circle of friends at a honky-tonk bar snacking on peanuts and throwing the shells onto the wood floor beneath them.

We noticed a mother with a baby, maybe 2 years old, clutching onto her back. Another mother, this one pregnant, came clambering through the treetops right over our heads to reach the food. I marveled at how their fur seemed to catch fire in the sunlight that streamed through the canopy. As they swung from branch to branch, long hair hung from their arms like Carolina moss. It was a color I’d never seen before, somewhere between the bright copper of a new penny and the deep sienna of a rusty tin can. We were transfixed by them as we sat in silence just taking it all in.


Night Trekking

8:00 pm

Long sleeves, pants, socks and shoes plus some more bug repellant to ward off mosquitoes as we stepped into the rainforest. Headlamps shone from each of our foreheads to light the path. We were an illuminated snake slithering through the darkness.

Our guide, a local man who lived in the area, led the way. First, he pointed out a tea-colored tree frog clinging to the side of a tree trunk with its long sticky toes. Next, he bent down and used a stiff length of grass to tempt a grey tarantula out of its webbed den. Hairy forelegs struggled to capture the wriggling intruder and the arachnid instantly retreated into its cavern when the prey proved to be a fake.

At times, the guide instructed us to walk quickly through areas riddled with ferocious fire ants, and we all hopped on tiptoes hoping to escape unbitten. With the headlamp on, the forest floor was full of tiny green glowing dots - the retinas of spiders lurking in the shadows. Strange creatures of the night peered out from everywhere and I had the same feeling I get on an amazing dive - that feeling that no matter how hard I look, there will be millions of critters I’ll never even realize are there, watching me.

Towards the end of the hike, we saw a sleeping Ruby Kingfisher the color of a grapefruit and seemingly made of plastic with such a vivid color among the grays and browns of night.

My favorite creature, though, was the Bornean Green Viper coiled up mere feet from the path on a waist-high branch. It kept its diamond-shaped head and large eyes constantly on us, detecting our every move. Its scaly skin was amazingly vibrant, the color of a crisp, Granny Smith apple. Elizabeth inched close to get a photo, and the guide quickly backed her up out of striking range. This, after all, was not a petting zoo or a reptile house, we were mere feet from a venomous viper in the wild forests of Borneo.

First Night Aboard:


In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle the Lion Does Not Sleep…

Returning from the hike, we found our beds made up, draped with lacy mosquito netting. It didn’t take long for us to crawl into bed, enveloped by the cool night air and the symphony of the rainforest. All night I felt like we were sleeping in the center of a lively dinner party, complete with a buzzing cicada band and even a few raucous guests (macaques monkeys) fighting in the trees right next to where we were tied up. I slept with one eye open the entire night, waiting for a bulbous-nosed monkey to be slung into our open-air sleeping room!
Needless to say, it was not a restful night, but it was fascinating. And with dawn, a new chorus of bird calls welcomed the light of day. I crawled up into the stern sleeping deck where the kids lay huddled close and shivering. The hot, sticky air of the daytime had turned damp and cold at night, and we hadn’t planned on needing long johns in the tropics!

Day 2


Breakfast consisted of omelettes folded into neat little rectangles, pancakes in perfect circles (some folded like tacos and filled with pineapple jelly), fresh fruit, toast, and orange juice. As we finished our meal, Inu, our captain, and Joko, his assistant, untied the mooring lines from the palm fronds and motored us to the second feeding station.

Second Feeding Station


Here, the wooden platform sat even closer to the crowd. A tall cell tower was held to the ground by steel cables, and another structure, covered with barbed wire to prevent climbing, held cameras and solar panels that were used to monitor the orangutans. These man-made steel structures seemed out of place among the tall trees and swinging apes.

Two rangers hauled woven baskets filled with bananas onto the platform and spread them out. Then they called out into the treetops, “ooo-oh! ooo-oh!” to call the apes in. Gradually, we would see treetops swaying in the distance. The apes were coming! One by one, they came - two with babies grasping onto their backs - peering out at all of the staring eyes apprehensively.

These apes did the same as the others - stuffing as many bananas into their mouths as possible and then retreating to the privacy of the trees to eat in peace. It had been said that the alpha male will sometimes make an appearance at this particular station. Elizabeth couldn’t wait. She was anxious to see the massive males with the charcoal-colored, half-moon cheek flaps distinguishing them from the others. For this reason, when many guests grew impatient and left during a lag in arboreal action, we stayed.


Ten or fifteen minutes passed and I glanced to our right at a nearby footpath. A shadow came out of the distance! Sure enough, walking erect on two legs, an enormous alpha male sauntered up to the edge of the crowd and stopped. He lifted both arms above his head and nonchalantly grasped a tree trunk behind him, posing for the slew of cameras that were a chorus of clicks and auto-focus beeps.

The guides and rangers instructed everyone to stay back and give him room as he ambled up to the platform to finish off the bananas that his troop had left behind. Just as our guide had warned us, he sat with his back to the crowd, enjoying his snack without an audience. Within moments, he filled his mouth and one hand with the sweet fruits, and then disappeared into the forest.


Wow - what a sight! Elizabeth’s appetite was only whet by this sighting and she left determined to see another male at the next stop, too. We reembarked our boat and ate lunch as Inu motored us to the third and final feeding station - Camp Leakey.

Third Feeding Station


Camp Leakey was the first station built within this area by a couple in 1971. The goal is to study the orangutans, track their numbers, and document findings. When a ranger sees an orangutan, he/she follows the animal for ten days, keeping records of what they eat, behaviors, defecation, nesting, and more.

At the ranger station, photos and captions line the walls to tell the history of Camp Leakey and share information about the genealogy of the male orangutans they had been tracking for years. Also, basic facts about the mammals reinforced the things we’d been learning in boat school as we read What the Orangutan Told Alice, an environmental fiction middle school book I’d chosen for this year’s literature curriculum.

A rehabilitation center had been established near Kumai as a place to offer medical help to sickly orangutans or those confiscated from people who kept them as pets or were caught trying to sell babies on the black market. On the wall in the station, a sign explicitly states that Camp Leakey was primarily an active research station, not a tourist attraction. This statement started a string of thoughts, unsettling in my mind. Where does all the money brought in by these klotok tours go? How vital are these banana feedings to the orangutans’ health? Was this all creating a dangerous dependence on humans? How much is this access actually raising awareness of the orangutans’ plight? I suppose if the tours weren’t bringing money into the country, the government would be less willing to preserve this land. Even now, logging companies are trying to encroach further into the reserve. Will the government hold out in the face of such tempting profits? I sure hope so, but it is all a tangled mess of profits vs. protection, awareness vs. exploitation, helping vs. hindering, with the survival of these unique apes wavering in the middle of it all. While writing this blog, I would find the answers to many of these questions through information on this website. I’d also later find an IMAX documentary entitled Born to be Wild, featuring these very orangutans we were so fortunate to be seeing.



While we walked along the 2 km path to our final viewing of these intelligent, majestic creatures, my mind attempted to process and categorize the information that had been presented in the displays at the ranger station. I asked our guide as many questions as I could think of about gestation, rehabilitation, troop dynamics and hierarchy, threats to the forest, and government involvement. We arrived at the feeding station before I ran out of wonderings.

This viewing area seemed like a sort of jungle amphitheater. Rows of benches with an aisle down the middle were filled with an audience of over-heated, fan-waving tourists. The stage was set with mounds of bananas and two buckets full of milk.

Again, the ranger did his Tarzan-like dinner call. The first to appear this time was the alpha male. He leaned his head into the bucket, slurping up the favored drink. Then he plowed through ten to twelve bananas - using his rubbery, dexterous lips to peel the fruits before plopping them into his mouth. I imagined he could easily defeat even the most skilled tie-a-cherry stem-in-a-knot-with-your-tongue champion.


Once he’d had his fill, he disappeared into the dense curtain of trees. The others must’ve been hiding in the shadows, waiting for his exit, because many quickly climbed up to the feasting table right after he left. The antics of two subadult orangutans offered endless entertainment. Like mischievous siblings, they both sat on opposite sides of a milk tub, sharing at first, then one decided he wanted it all to himself. He promptly plopped his foot into the bowl and shuffled away with it! After slurping his treasure, he accidentally shuffled too quickly and sent his creamy delight streaming down between the wooden slats of the platform, bringing an empathetic “aaaww” from the crowd. This must happen often, because waiting below, mouth agape, was a hairy wild hog who had obviously discovered the perfect spot to catch the liquid gold! I felt like I was watching the rehearsed choreography of a Three Stooges skit!

Amid the fumblings, a mother and her clinging baby appeared. This momma had some authority in the troop, as the young apes quickly gave way when she approached. She sidled up to the one remaining milk bucket, first scooping the milk with her fingers and letting it dribble into her mouth, then using a banana peel to scoop more efficiently. All the while, the sweet baby grappled for anything it could catch from its mother’s dripping chin and fingers. At one point, the baby ventured out on its own scrawny little fuzzy legs to grab a few bananas for itself.

Sensing that the mother was gathering some bananas to go, the ranger stood to escort her and her baby right along the edge of the seating area. They were SO close!! Everyone quiety rushed over to get a better look and I was grateful that the ranger was there offering a buffer between the mother and the camera-crazed crowd. She must exit this way often, because she didn’t seem too fazed by it all as she pulled herself up a thin tree trunk and hung above us all munching on her jungle take away.

In the end, as if perfectly on cue, the male returned to the platform to close out the show. He sat, facing the crowd with his fists spread out on either side of him, looking at all of us as if to say, “Okay, show’s over, people. A few more selfies and then move along.” We snapped a few more photos, and had to peel ourselves away.

That night we motored for a few hours back down the river, just a few miles from the mouth. Our captain tucked us right next to the palm branches once again - this time on purpose! It was dark by now, and one final show was about to begin. It was Elizabeth who first saw them - hundreds of twinkling lights hovering in the branches - fireflies. As a child growing up in Missouri, each night my siblings and I would see our backyard blinking with the bioluminescent glow of lightning bugs. These tropical versions glowed a warm white, though, rather than the neon green of their cousins in the Midwest US. It was nature’s version of the twinkling white Christmas lights, but these were draped among palm branches instead of pine boughs.

Looking along the shores, it was as if the stars had been dropped down just for us - a romantic backdrop to our final dinner aboard. Like all adventures, this trip upriver in Borneo had stretched us, challenged us, fascinated us, and changed us. We had walked among great apes and marveled at the similarities between ourselves and the fuzzy primates. We had lived among the sounds and smells only found in these tropical rainforests. We had learned about how humans can wreak havoc on an ecosystem or fight for positive change and protect those who can’t protect themselves. This world is ours to explore, but also ours to preserve. Let’s do something, anything, to make it a better place for all.

Everyone together before leaving
Tea with the crew of the Orangutan tour boat, lots of fun to have them aboard!

Here is a video of our adventures

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