We anchor down in the Kumai river after a crazy overnight passage (that’s for another Blog). Almost immediately a small speed boat pulls up to greet us – its Arif and Dessy from Orangutan Applause. Orangutan Applause is the company we have chosen to do our 2-night 3-day river cruise with. Our friends on Escape Velocity – Marce and Jack strongly recommended them to us and we were delighted with the outcome.
Arif and Dessy confirmed that they would pick us up at 10am the following day with the big boat a KLOTOK! Klotoks are converted river boats that were originally used for transporting wood and cargo up and down the Kumai River. They are strange looking boats, taller than they should be and much narrower than you would expect. Despite this they are very sea (river) worthy and quite stable. Well suited for westerners and the river trips that they do.
We head off up the river into a variety of ever decreasing river systems to see the orang-utans. Arif is the tour guide for the four of us (we have the boat to ourselves) and is the MOST enthusiastic guide I have ever had. He sits on the lower deck on the front of the boat, while we are on the upper deck, nestled into our hugely comfortable bean bags taking in the river as we slowly drift along. From time to time his head pops up to point out an ever-increasing stream of animals, birds, snakes, lizards and more. All while not impinging on our personal space!
First sighted is the charismatic Proboscis Monkey – these guys travel in groups (communities) and the largest nose wins the competition for leader. And these noses are HUGE. They are gorgeous looking monkeys with really long thick tails and conveniently for us, hang out in groups near the river edge so are easy to observe.
Next spotted was a large male orangutan - "Orangutan" literally translates to "forrest people", mostly hidden from view as he pulled large bulbs out of the river edge to eat. We soon get better at spotting these primates and monkeys – yes they are different. It’s easy, you don’t look for the animals you look for the trees moving. It’s a bit like watching Jurasic Park, where you see the trees rustle and then a Velociraptor comes charging out. The same rustle, just a different animal!
Eventually we get to the first feeding station, where we clamber across a multitude of similar boats and trek into the jungle for about 1km. Along the way we come across a group of orangutans swinging lazily through the tree tops. Amazingly, once they hear the call for feeding time they move quite quickly. The large male descends to the jungle floor and walks alongside us (about 2m away). The dominant male for the tribe develops thick cheek pads and chest plates and is significantly bigger than the other males. He makes a deep booming noise (that we didn’t hear) that signifies to the females that he is in the area and the sound produces a hormone in the other males preventing the development of cheek and chest pads in the other males. Other than this noise and the cry of a baby orangutan, this is really the only noise they make.They are very solitary animals, and for this reason have no need to communicate verbally. Females tend to have 1 baby every 6-7 years, and the babies stay with the mother for at least 7 years. We saw females with a tiny baby and also an older child. Mothers will also adopt other babies if they are abandoned. Babies are born without teeth like us and are completely breast fed until about 6 months when their teeth come in and they start eating. They are adorable looking, cheeky and very fluffy.
Orangutans are apes - not monkeys, the significant difference being no tail. Apes include humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and gibbons. Unlike monkeys, orangutans do not "swing" from tree to tree, they use their weight to bend the tree top over and then reach with their impressively long arms to pull the other tree closer.
These orangutans have graduated from “orangutan school” a 7-year program which teaches them to live in the wild again. They are currently in a transition period where the rangers co-feed them to support their transition. All the adults have been taken from captivity and hence need the support, all the babies have been born in the wild. Many of these orangutans will always need to have supplemental feeding, however many just happily disappear into the vastness that is the Tanging Puting (Peninsula Nipple) National Park.
There is clearly a pecking order on the feeding platform, with the dominant male sitting front and centre until he has had his fill. A few females with babies sit on the periphery, and a few smaller (but confident) males sneak onto the edges take a few handfuls and then scamper up a tree to eat. Once the big male has lumbered of lazily, the next few males come in. These are not overtly aggressive mammals, yet you can clearly see there is a protocol followed.
Later that day we stop at a second feeding station, much further up river and see that these orangutans also are fed cows milk. This is something that this group were used to as babies, and the rangers still use the milk to transfer worming and other medication. The babies stick their whole heads into the buckets to drink, however the larger adults scoop handfuls of milk, tilt their heads back and pour the milk in. It dribbles all down their chins and it is this and their lumbering walks that make them look most human.
The floor of this feeding station is populated with wild boar that the orangutans are cautious of, but not scared off. They are there to feast on whatever drops to the floor. They don’t go hungry as these orangutans are a messy bunch, there is food spraying everywhere. We were clearly instructed not to get too close, and on more than one occasion are forcefully advised to move back, as an orangutan approaches the viewing area. They may look kind and peaceful; however they do not appreciate humans being too close to them, or getting between either a male and female or a female and her baby.
We retire back to the house boat and the boat staff push off as we meander down the river to find a place to tie up for the night. As a group we retire to our bean bags, have a few refreshing beverages and watch the world glide by. Food appears in abundance and we marvel at the variety and freshness that a tiny kitchen with very limited supplies manages to produce. Chicken curries, rice, spicy eggs, fried tofu, stir fried veggies and more. And that was just dinner!!!
While we are eating alfresco on the back deck, they convert our living space to bedrooms, comfy mattresses on the floor with huge mosquito nets. We fall asleep early and quickly listening to the sounds of the jungle in the back ground. We wake to the sound of a local boat heading out to fish, these small canoe shaped boats have small but incredibly noisy outboards and it sounds like a Harley Davidson going past.
Today’s outings include a third feeding station in Camp Leaky. Professor Leaky was a famous anthropologist and his 3 ‘angels’ or TRIMATES as they are called – Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall and Birutė Galdika were chosen by him to study hominoids in their natural habitat. Each female anthropologist is famous in their own right Dian Fossey for her amazing work with Gorillas (in Rwanda), Jane Goodall for her work with chimpanzees (in Tanzania and Kenya) and Biruté Galdika for her study of Orangutans in Borneo. Camp Leaky that we visited is the site of the longest continuous study of Orangutans worldwide. Our guide spent 2 years at this camp observing the orangutans as part of his study. His job every day was to find the orangutan he had been watching yesterday and follow it around for the whole day until it made its nest – yes nest, to sleep in at night. They make a new fresh nest every day to sleep in high up in the canopy. I asked Arif if it was hard to keep up with the orangutans? Not really, he says, they’re pretty lazy. He says it was important but incredibly boring work documenting what the animal was doing every 5 minutes. Sitting, resting, climbing and eating gets pretty repetitive.
As a plus for us Arif knows some back tracks to get back to the boat, so we see much deeper into the jungle than most, and his enthusiasm for pointing out the smallest ant is both cute (and then after the 10th ant) a little repetitive!! But I’d rather passionate than disinterested.
Arif is very keen to take us on a night insect hike to show us the creatures that can only be seen at night. Primarily Tarantulas! I’d previously been pretty adamant that I was NOT going to do this, but decide that it’s a great oppourtunity to see everything else at night, and I can suck up seeing a Tarantula. I had yet another Harry Potter moment as we walked through the jungle searching for huge spiders. Holy Shit those things are big, I instantly regretted my decision, however thankfully they live in holes and weren’t just strolling around. But it is fair to say I lost my shit and got pretty high pitched while backing up at speed!!! After that though we spotted all manner of sleeping birds (so colourful), small snakes, scorpions and many more spiders. Arif taught us that any glittering ‘diamonds’ in the forest were actually spider eyes. I can report that there are a LOT of spiders in the jungle.
The following morning, we trekked out to a reforestation station where a delightful older man explained that he had lived alone in the jungle at this station for 9 years. He forages through the jungle for seeds from a wide variety of plants, plants the seeds into small seed bags that he nurtures to about 50cm in height and then people like us come in and plant them for him. We planted 4 different types of trees (one for each of us), and put a stake and sign in the ground next to them with the date, our name, the species and which country we are from.
We spend the rest of the day floating back towards Lukim Yu, relaxed, full, and happy that we have had such a unique experience.