We didn’t meet any Orang-utans on our first night in Borneo. We did, however, sleep under a swarm of glittering stars, the sweeping rim of the Milky Way spanning over our heads, curving along the skyline and beyond the pitch-black horizon. The banks of the Bornean black water river were close on either side, the sounds of the sleepless jungle welcoming our minds and our imaginations to ponder its contents. A Romanticist would feel at home in his musings here.
A mattress, blankets, and mosquito net were set up for us above the deck of the klotok. The warm, humid air was enough to keep our body temperatures at a comfortable level. As Teresa and I lay in the dark, I opened up an app on my old iPhone 4 to help me identify some of the stars and constellations we were gazing at. Despite flying north into Borneo from Jakarta, we were still in Earth’s southern hemisphere; the layout of the sky above was still new and unfamiliar. We had a great sleep that night.
Awaking at the crack of dawn, our breakfast was prepared for us. One thing that’s for certain is that we were kept well fed throughout the entirety of our stay. We got cleaned up afterwards in the makeshift washroom at the back of the klotok. The shower was simply a pump that channelled the river’s black water through the nozzle of the faucet.
After breakfast, our klotok glided further down the river, deeper into Tanjung Puting to an area known as Camp Leakey. To provide a bit of background, the Orangutan Foundation International was founded by a Canadian scholar named Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas who studied great apes under Dr. Louis Leakey who died in the early 1970s. Camp Leakey is where research on Orang-utans is conducted to this day in southwestern-central Borneo and where rehabilitated Orang-utans are released back into the wild. Dr. Galdikas, who’s continued her work at Simon Frasier University in Western Canada, named the camp after Dr. Leakey. Most of our day was spent hiking through Camp Leakey, meeting semi-wild Orang-utans if they chose to interact with us in any way, and learning about the history of the area as well as the conservation efforts to keep the Orang-utan population healthy and abundant.
Within every territorial grouping of Orang-utans, an alpha-male dominates. In these parts, that alpha-male is named Tom. The alpha-males are the only Orang-utans who grow these large facial flaps that are indicative of their status. Quite naturally, these specimen are massive in girth and stature. We were told Tom weighs upwards of 280 lbs. At a little under 5’ tall, that makes him very beastly indeed. When we first crossed his path, he was laying lazily about on a boardwalk overtop a swampy area. A swimming hole not far away was the sight of a crocodile attack that left one unfortunate traveller dead a few years earlier.
Tom was a bit lethargic when we first met him, but later on, when we attended a feeding, he came barrelling in like it was no one’s business. At the docking port of Camp Leakey, several other klotoks anchored and we came across many more travellers who were also there to witness the feeding. This mass of about 40 people ran in every direction when Tom approached, including the guides who knew to stay out of the alpha-male’s way. Tom lifted up a thick fallen tree with one arm and it came rolling in our direction as people scattered. It looked as effortless as flicking a toothpick.
Before Tom had arrived, male and female Orang-utans were snacking on hundreds of bananas at the feeding site. They had come from deep within the forests, from miles around for this feeding. The moment that a guide had announced Tom’s approach, the males were gone out the back door in the blink of an eye. All of the females remained. When an alpha-male has decided to feed and interact with the females, the only males crazy enough to stay are the ones who are also crazy enough to challenge the alpha’s authority and status. A gruesome battle would ensue in that situation.
After the feeding, which consisted of Tom and a bevy of female Orang-utans, some with children, coming and going, walking all around us, we hiked through sparse forest back to the klotok. Along the way were more Orang-utans, walking along the path next to us, sitting on the side, some females with infants clinging to their underbelly. I generally steered a bit clear of the wanderers. While their behaviour was generally good, they are still wild animals with animal instincts. I didn’t want to do anything to upset or offend any of them.
I did, however, make eye contact with an older female who was gazing in my direction. I stooped down and tried to look as passive as I could. Orang-utans are our genetic brethren. While we’re at a completely different level in regards to intelligence, a very similar spirit exists within them. Looking into that female’s eyes, this was evident. I don’t really know how to explain it, but there was a connection. I’m sure the individuals who dedicate their lives to preserving the environment and the culture of Orang-utans could attest to this far better than I could. But it was a special feeling I got in the brief moments that I silently interacted with this older female. The Orang-utan’s Bornean habitat is being destroyed by fires and agricultural encroachment as I write this, a heart-wrenching topic I’ll delve into in the very near future. I wonder with no small degree of sadness what ever happened to her.
Teresa and I relaxed on the klotok as our dinner was prepared. Docked right next to the Orang-utan’s habitat meant risking our food on board. A brilliant and smooth-moving male managed to swing onboard an adjacent klotok, raiding the kitchen for bunches of carrots. While it frustrated and angered the cook onboard, the rest of us, guides included, clapped and applauded his efforts. He literally swooped from the trees onto a water craft and hauled his score ashore in under a minute, making a noisy metallic clanging through pots and pans on his way out. It was quite a unique thing to witness.
That night, Teresa and I convinced our gracious guide to take us on a night trek through Borneo’s jungles with two other guides. We docked further down the river after dark and set off. Here, we were treated to witnessing a variety of wild species emerging from their dens or places of hiding to hunt, spin intricate webs, hang from trees, you name it. We came across an interesting fungal species that, when approached, emitted a sporous gas into the air to ward of predators. I’d never seen a plant react in such an intentionally defensive manner. Not far away, a group of pitcher plants waited, ominously still, for small insects to be lured to its sweet excretions, only to slip to a slow, decomposing death. A tarantula was coaxed from its lair with a waggling stick. Apparently, only the younger, inexperienced ones will fall for this trick. From moment to moment, we were experiencing something strange and wonderful. I’m sure many of those experiences were once in a lifetime. We had our fingers crossed for a leopard (or jaguar?) sighting, but it didn’t happen this time around.
The following morning, the adventure was already coming to a close. We chugged back up the black water river and back into the dirty brown one. The pollution from that brown river really reached out to the black water, like the latter was trying to ward off a crawling infestation from the former.
We stopped at a little village and were given some background history on the area and its rural inhabitants. So much of the land is being cleared away for palm plantations, the same agricultural plots of land whose maintenance of which is destroying the habitat of the Orang-utans. It’s not always easy to make a buck in Southeast Asia. Palm products are a highly exportable and profitable commodity. It’s sad that it comes with so many negative consequences for places like Borneo. It isn’t sustainable and something needs to be done about it.
We left behind a Bornean sanctuary that I know I will one day return to. That sanctuary is shrinking. People like me don’t need refuge, really. I feel at home in so many places, so long as there’s another in sight and my love close by, and generally speaking I need not worry about having my necessities looked after. Others, however, are far more vulnerable. The Orang-utans of Borneo and Sumatra are vulnerable. Next time around, I’ll discuss the problem, and what can be done to address it. Stay tuned for the Bornean Salvation.