We tried to see Orangutans in Malaysia but they were all off eating nuts in the Jungle. A few days left in Indonesia at the end of our 2018 diving trip gives us another opportunity. With all the terrible stories of the rare creatures being wiped out by forest clearance we wanted a chance to see them before it was too late. Friends had told us that one of the best places to do this was the Tanjung Puting reserve in Southern Borneo. We get there by a rather ancient 737 that flies us at an early hour to Pangkalan Bun. The flight is just over one hour and the airport very small. However the town is actually quite smart - it was a centre for (illegal?) logging and is now a centre for the palm oil business.
Our friendly young guide, Herman, meets us at the airport and we take a taxi to Kumai where we meet our boat. The boat is moored at the back of a small family restaurant (the owners?) and here we meet the other three crew members, our captain Pandi, his mate, Ari and the cook Tuti. These boats (klotoks) have been built by local or Sulawesi boatbuilders over the last 20 or so years to carry the tourists up the Sekonyer river. The design is rather basic. Local boats with a covered roof with table, chairs and mattress and a loo stuck on the back. Our local tour operator tells us how these evolved over the years - "the tourists wanted to sit on the roof with chairs and a proper toilet bowl" he told us.
As we cross the the estuary we watch a river dolphin hunting for fish - good to see that somethings live in this murky water! Sadly we don't see any dugongs who are said to live close to the river mouths. After 20 minutes we get to the mouth of the Sekonyer River marked by an orangutan statue on a welcome plinth. The water is brown with silt from gold mining further upstream and the banks are lined with thick rushes. The water is still tidal here - as we get further up the river the trees come right to the riverbank. The Sekonyer is the western boundary of the Tanjung Puting national park. To the left, as we head north, we see villages and oil palm plantations while to the right are the rehabilitation and research stations.
We are hungry by 11.30 as we have been awake since just after 3 and so welcome the early lunch served by the crew. A tasty combination of chicken curry with vegetables, rice and tempeh followed by fruit. As we finish lunch we arrive at the Rimba Ecolodge where we check in and drop our bags. Wooden cabins and walkways are surrounded by thick forest. A green pit viper sits on a branch behind reception and butterflys flit about as we walk to our room.
A short distance back downriver is the entrance to the ex-rehabilitation centre, Tanjung Harapan. Here we walk for 20 minutes to get to the feeding station in the forest. Rough benches are roped off from a platform 20 metres away surrounded by trees. We see the great apes in the tree tops waiting for the rangers to arrive with their baskets of bananas. These are mostly mothers with babies or younger males and females. Already lounging in a tree (top, above) is Gundul, the alpha male of the group. While the national park is home to around 6000 orangutan, the ones here are either orphans, ex-captives or their children. The feeding platform and other tourists doesn't detract from the experience of watching these rare beasts swinging in the trees, carrying their young and jostling for bananas. It's lucky that the Borneo forests grow such strong hardwood trees as the young adults give them a tremendous strain as they leap between the upper branches.
After leaving Tanjung Harapan we motor down the river as the light fades looking for monkeys. Macaques jump around in the trees and after 10 minutes or so we find a family of proboscis monkeys settling down for the night. A big males with younger monkeys and mothers and their babies are clambering around in the treetops looking for comfortable spots to spend the night. Their only predators are leopards, pythons and crocodiles so they should be safe high in their roosts. Like the Orangutan, which is only found on Borneo and Sumatra, the proboscis monkey is a Borneo endemic species. Their almost human faces and the pendulous noses of the mature males make them extraordinary to look at.
After a rather basic but comfortable night in Rimba lodge we head off up the misty river in the early morning. Monkeys are waking up in the trees and fantails and swifts dart above the river along with the ocassional kingfisher and dove. We are heading for two more centres, Pondok Tanguy and Camp Leakey. At Pondok Tanguy we watch another big male along with younger orangutan eating and swinging in the trees. We also have an interesting walk through the forest. Camp Leakey has fewer orangutan as most are off in the forest eating caterpillars. We do however see a wonderful old female, "Queen Siswi" digging for worms with a stick by the path, a gibbon (above), posing in the fork of a tree, and Teri, an alpha male (header above) having the bananas to himself.
Heading back to Kumai in the late afternoon we see many birds on the river including hornbills, kingfishers, and cuckuls. As it gets dark the palms are sparkling with fireflies - "like christmas trees" says Herman. Monkeys are everywhere, again settling into the trees for the night. For the last two hours our captain, Pandi, expertly negotiates the river bends in the dark with a small spotlight to help him. As we leave the rivermouth the lights of Kumai gleam on the other side of the estuary and the sound of swallow recordings in the birds' nest farms carry over the water. A very enjoyable little trip and a good way to end our two weeks on the water in Indonesia. More pictures of the great apes below.