Last week, I walked aboard a klotok to go see some orangutans. A klotok is a riverboat, and there are several companies that carry passengers through Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. It’s a live-in situation: sleeping and eating on the boat. I chose Siti’s boat because she was recommended by a friend, and because hers is the only woman-owned tour company in the port of Kumai. Originally, I was supposed to join another traveller on their way from Hong Kong. But something happened with the flights, so they would arrive days late. It would just be me and the orangutans—like a private tour.
I hopped on board with four crew members: Andi the guide, Jimmy the cook, and Jeka and Bani, the two deckhands. Bani told me no fewer than four times that Jeka was belum menika—still single; Jeka promised me he would catch me a bird (I asked him not to); and Jimmy arrived in a T shirt that said “Wingman.” Orangutans or not, I knew I was in for a trip.
As it turns out, early June is the time to visit because rainy season is coming to an end. Trees bloom along the riverbank in June, and the orangutans swing from the trees to eat the flowers and fruit. So you can see them from the boat, before you even enter the jungle.
In dry season, when nothing’s blooming, orangutans eat only tree bark and leaves. Lots of the bark has poisonous plants growing on it, so they eat mud from the forest floor to counteract the poison. They sip water from leaves and the Liana vine, a thick, winding vine that holds fresh water.
I was lucky to have a fantastic guide named Andi, who answered my every orangutan question. He knows it all.
Tanjung Puting was made a national park in 1982, but Andi first started exploring this jungle in 1971, around the time that Dr. Biruté Galdikas established Camp Leakey, an orangutan research center. Before 1982, many Malay people lived in the area that is now the national park. So in an effort to protect endangered species, a large group of native people were displaced—they were forced to move out.
Today, the park consists of semi-wild and wild orangutans. The semi-wild orangutans are ex-captives, meaning they were rescued from captivity as babies, raised at Camp Leakey, and released. Ex-captive orangutans are not afraid of humans, and will take food from a person’s hand. But the wild orangutans tend to stay higher in the trees—they’re hesitant to approach people.
Andi has worked with Dr. Galdikas to rescue captive orangutans from locals’ homes. Farming families will clear land and plant crops that orangutans will try to eat. Usually what happens is the locals kill the mother to protect their crops, and then take the baby karena lucu—because it’s cute. But when word gets around, Andi and researchers will confront the family, pay a small fee to take the baby orangutan, and educate the locals. Orangutans are endangered, so if someone kills or captures them again, they’ll go to the police.
Andi is Dayak, a member of a tribe that is native to Borneo. He says he learned most of his jungle survival skills from his uncle. In 1998, Andi was lost with a tourist named Betina. There was a forest fire in another part of the park, and the smoke was so thick that they couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of them. Three days later, after they’d both survived, they’d learn that a search team looked for them the first day that they went missing. But after one day, the team gave up because of the intensity of the fire. Everyone assumed they were dead.
Andi and Betina drank water from Liana vines. By the third day, they found a small stream and followed it eight hours back to the river, where they built a raft and got out. Since that day, Siti says that Andi has been respected among all the guides because he proved his jungle survival skills. Andi later trained Siti and taught her English so that she could work for a tour company as a guide. But now that Siti is the boss and runs her own business, Andi freelances and works for her when he can.
Andi says there are about 4,000 orangutans in Tanjung Puting, but there are even more on the opposite side of the river, beyond the national park. Andi says that the smallest baby we saw was about 1 year old; the medium-sized big sister, about 9 or 10 years old. And the males are often alone. There are feeding stations in the park, where semi-wild orangutans can find food every afternoon. So if you go to a feeding station and only see one orangutan, it’s probably a male. If he’s too macho, everyone else avoids him. And he eats all the bananas himself.
At night, and when it’s about to rain, mothers and children build nests high in the trees. The moms place the baby alone at the highest point in a smaller nest, and then sleep below the baby, among stronger branches. The baby orangutans will stay with their mom until after age 10. Females start mating around age 12. They’ll still live with their mom, but they’ll make their own separate nests. Male orangutans will start mating later, around age 15, and they’ll live on their own. The males are the true loners here—isolated high in the trees, like this one. They’ve got it easy: no childcare obligations whatsoever.
At night, Andi, Jimmy, and I went into the jungle to look for a wild mango tree. This is not a joke. We had one flashlight. I couldn’t remember if this was on the itinerary, but I try not to ask too many questions. With some snoozing orangutans above us (maybe, I mean who knows for sure), we wound through a few trails, decided it would be too far of a hike, looked at glow-in-the-dark mushrooms instead (I asked—Andi said they weren’t psychedelic, and no, we couldn’t eat them), and drank water from a Liana vine. Then, through back-and-forth descriptions in Indonesian and English, we tried to agree on the English term for a small primate with big eyes that moves fast. I thought he was talking about a bushbaby, but since we weren’t in sub-Sahara Africa, it was probably a tarsier. Of course, this is an animal Andi recognizes from two separate sightings during night hikes in the jungle, whereas my only point of reference is having watched Madagascar.
Eventually, Jeka and Bani came looking for us. Jeka said he brought me a present. It was a catfish, in the palm of his hand. He’d scooped it up from the dark water. I said I didn’t want it. So then he caught me another fish with his bare hands. I said no thank you. We returned to the boat and headed back to a spot along the river to dock for the night.
Back on board, I noticed something grey and slimy on my feet. Leeches. We had bottled water on the boat, and I brought baby wipes and hand sanitizer. I mean, I was a girl scout. Totally prepared for this. In defense of these few lil leeches, though: you can’t feel them; they’re totally painless, they slip off pretty easily, and the residual blood is fairly minimal. For comparison: dealing with you period across four modes of transportation? Much worse. Sorry, this life is messy. Also, remember when this was a food blog? Haaaaa.
But anyway. The next morning, we cruised by the palm fronds again and looked for orangutans up in the trees. It was hot, and by late-afternoon we headed back to the harbor. On the drive back to the airport with Siti, she told me all about the goings-on of Borneo: the ecological conflict over palm oil plantations, the militarized area around Pangkalan Bun, the middle-income housing developments, and her expanding tour company—she was headed back to Surabaya with me on the same quick one-hour flight. The next day, she’d fly to Sumatra to visit a brand new national park, where she’d adopted a baby elephant and was helping to bring in more tourists.
There’s so much to see here in Indonesia, and Tanjung Puting is just a tiny piece of it. This national park is one of a few ethical options to see wild orangutans—after all, the species is only found on two islands on this planet: Borneo and Sumatra. And it’s only an hour flight from Surabaya to Pangkalan Bun. Terima kasih: Andi, Siti, Jimmy, Jeka, and Bani for a wild experience. And here’s Siti’s site if you’re interested. Happy Father’s Day!