Expedition to Borneo: Where the Wild Orangutans Live

If you had told me one year ago that I would go to Indonesia and explore the jungles of Borneo, to the place where the wild orangutans live, I would have called you a dreamer. In my third year of college, nearing my graduation, I had no idea where I was going, but I decided not knowing where to go was a good place to be at. All I knew for sure is that I wanted to explore the world and I was never going to give up on my dream.

Over the past few months, I’ve discovered that a dreamer is exactly what you need to be. If you work hard enough, you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. Whatever happens next, I feel like I have stayed true to myself by seeing a childhood dream become a reality: meeting wild orangutans in Borneo.

Traditional Dancers in Tangung Puting

Where the Wild Orangutans Live: Arriving in Central Kalimantan

I will start from our arrival in Central Kalimantan. As we exit the tiny airplane that brought us from Jakarta to Pangkalan Bun, the sweltering heat and pressing humidity immediately enveloped my body: I had arrived in Borneo. Most of us gather near the air conditioner, tucked into a corner of the arrival’s hall. After reshuffling some items and stuffing my valuables in a waterproof bag, we walk to our bus. The bus takes us from the airport to Port Kumai, passing shops, mosques, karaoke centres, and the only shopping mall in the city. At Port Kumai we will board traditional wooden klotok boats that will take us into the jungle.

Before we enter Tanjung Puting National Park by boat, we are welcomed at the dock by local traditional dance group Sanggar Sa’Haluan. They showcase their vocal skills and smoothly coordinated choreography. Their feathered headdress, colourful costumes, and charming smiles add the final touch to their captivating performance. Afterwards, we chat, take photos, and follow each other on Instagram. Then, it was finally time to board our boats and leave for the jungle.

Day 1: Cruising the Sekonyer River to Tanjung Harupan

We are split into several groups and board the klotoks by using the other boats as stepping stones to get to our own boat. We leave Port Kumai and head to Sekonyer River, the main river in Tanjung Puting. The boats move slowly but steadily, giving you every chance to admire the jungle at both sides of the river. Mickey, our guide, tells us about the river. The Sekonyer river has always been a lifeline for both humans and animals living in Tanjung Puting. It’s not just the forest that’s full of life. The river is teeming with hidden fauna, including crocodiles, though the pitch-black water makes it especially hard to find them.

The river narrows and my phone disconnects from the network. No internet, just the jungle. Mickey continues to tell us about how he showed former US president Clinton around the national park. He remembers meeting members of the CIA and how the klotok boat was surrounded by a dozen other boats full of security offers. We finish our conversations over a lavish home-cooked lunch before stopping at our first camp: Tanjung Harapan.

Indonesian Lunch

Tanjung Harapan

We get off our boats and pass the huts of Sekonyer village. As we head deeper into the jungle, I notice the remains of a busier town, including a cemetery. The village used to be much larger, but the locals relocated to make way for the rehabilitation of orangutans. We follow a path covered in thick tree roots and I look around me while trying not to trip. I see nothing but trees, twigs, and leaves. Mickey explains how the forested area of the national park used to be much larger. A fire that occurred in 2015, which was caused by a palm oil company, obliterated about a quarter of the national park’s vegetation.

We walk quietly, keeping our eyes and ears peeled for any rustling in the canopy. Suddenly, we see people gathered around a tree, deeply concentrated and pointing their eyes and cameras up the tree. I look up: an orangutan mother and baby are calmly sitting in the top of a tree.

Wild Orangutans in Borneo

Wild Orangutans in Borneo

Everyone watches them quietly as they gracefully glide from tree to tree. The snap of a twig suddenly sounds unbearably loud. I vaguely realise how unreal this moment feels as I try to snap a few good shots. Two more orangutans later join the mother and child near the same spot, as game rangers regularly call the animals to lure them to the feeding place. We stay a while, but I can’t remember how long. It must have been at least 45 minutes.

Sleeping under the Stars

As the orangutans move further back into the jungle, we slowly make our way back to our boats. Before we return to the same dock at Sekonyer village, we move a bit further down the river. The sun starts to set when we spot Proboscis monkeys in the tree tops along the river bank.

After dinner, we all find a mattress on the top deck of the boat, draped in mosquito netting. After hours of fidgeting and reflecting on an eventful day, I finally fall asleep listening to the nightly tunes of the forest.

Proboscis Monkeys in Tanjung Puting National Park

The Tropical Rainforest of Borneo

Borneo is the third-largest island in the world. About three quarters of the island belongs to an Indonesian region called Kalimantan. Borneo is an exceptionally valuable natural habitat, known for its diverse species of plants and animals. The jungle of Borneo is one of the oldest rainforests in the world; the variety of creatures developed over a period of 140 million years. Borneo is also one of the wettest places on Earth with an average 4 metres of rainfall every year. The residents of the rainforest are orangutans, carnivorous pitcher plants, crocodiles, proboscis monkeys, mudskippers, tarantulas, and crabs. Other species include soft shell turtles, king cobra snakes, pygmy elephants (the smallest elephants in the world), as well as the largest butterflies in the world.

Day 2: The Legendary Camp Leakey

It’s the start of day 2 and I awaken to the delicate rays of the morning sun. The night was chilly, but the jungle is already heating up. After a quick splash of river water and a clean pair of underwear, the engine starts and we have breakfast on the boat. Hours pass, the river turns darker, and we reach far into the jungle to make our way to the final location: Camp Leakey.

Sekonyer River in Borneo.

When I was younger, I read Biruté Galdikas’ biography. The Canadian researcher decided to start a life in uncharted territory to realise her dream of establishing the first Orangutan research center in the world. She set up Camp Leakey in the jungle of Borneo in 1971. My fascination with primates and admiration for Dr. Galdikas have only grown over the years. Never did I think that I would visit the same exact camp.

Meeting Wild Orangutans in Borneo

As I wonder whether we will be able to see any orangutans at the camp, we see a cluster of docked boats in the distance: Camp Leakey. While drifting closer to the camp, I can feel my excitement boil over as the fuzzy orange speckles slowly materialise into multiple orangutans. We are greeted by a furry welcoming committee of a mother, infant, and adolescent sibling. They climb the boardwalk and slowly pass the visitors.

Wild orangutans in Borneo

Camp Leakey in Borneo

Rain Forest Trekking with Orangutans and Gibbons

I hold my breath as I walk past one of the orangutans on the boardwalk. I keep my distance as we are not allowed to touch them. Our group continues down the boardwalk and we head further into the forest, led by our guide Nina. We follow a trekking route to the feeding area. On our way there, we visit the old welcoming centre, which looks like it hasn’t been touched since the late nineties. The dusty family portraits of the first lines of rehabilitated orangutans attest to the camp’s unique history. It genuinly feels like I’ve stepped into one of the pages of Dr. Galdikas’ biography.

Gibbon at Camp Leakey

As we trek thought the forest, we spot a wild pig hiding in the bushes and a gibbon perched in a tree top. We gather near the feeding area, wait for the orangutans to arrive and notice them when the trees start to rustle. A female orangutan with child calmly climbs down a branch and passes right in front of us. She joins the banana festivities on the feeding deck and a cheeky gibbon cautiously appears in the shadows to steal a banana when nobody’s looking.

Orangutans in Borneo: mothr and child are eating fruit on a feeding deck.

Rainforest in Borneo (Kalimantan)

The End of the Expedition

The sun starts setting and the end of the expedition looms near. As we leave Camp Leakey and head back to Port Kumai from a 2-day trip filled with sunshine, heavy raindrops splatter on the wooden surface of roof of the boat. The rainforest finally shows its true colours. Soon, the sporadic raindrops turn into a tropical rain storm. The kind of rainstorm that will drench you a thousand times over.

Traditional klotok boat in Borneo by sunset.

This blog post was made possible by the Trip of Wonders 2016 in #WonderfulIndonesia. An enormous thank you to Indonesia.Travel for inviting me on this incredible journey and making this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.


8 thoughts on “Expedition to Borneo: Where the Wild Orangutans Live

  1. This sounds amazing!! Good for you not never giving up on your dreams; and you are right….you do need to remain somewhat of a dreamer to be able to do that. I do not know much about primates since I have always focused myself on marine mammals, but I bet they are amazing :). Hopefully you will get another experience like this!! Thank you for sharing!

  2. We almost planned a trip to Indonesia — this September. We missed so much! Great photos and I can’t even imagine what a fantastic experience it must have been. 🙂

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