The dawn brings a misty landscape; tendrils of fog wreathe the tree canopy and lie softly on the water. The klotoks emerge from the darkness as misty apparitions. The sun is making a watery appearance through the moisture, colouring the view with gentle hues of pink.
We set off for Camp Leakey, founded by Louis Leakey who trained Dianne Fossey in primate research. Louis chose women researchers because he had more faith in their observational abilities. He believed that women are more able to pick up subtle non-verbal cues.
The Camp is situated in Tanjung Puting National Park; the largest, most diverse and extensive example of the coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest which used to cover much of southern Borneo. The area was originally declared as a game reserve in 1935 and a National Park in 1982. While the Park has a chequered history of weak protection, nonetheless, it remains substantially wild and natural. It contains 3,040 km2 of low lying swampy terrain punctuated by blackwater rivers which flow into the Java Sea.
The best known animals in Tanjung Puting are the orangutans, who are the primary reason for our visit.. Tanjung Puting also boasts the bizarre looking proboscis monkey with its “Jimmy Durante” nose, (called longnose by the locals) as well as seven other primate species.
Clouded leopards, civets, and Malaysian sun bears cavort in the park, as do mouse deer, barking deer, sambar deer, and the wild cattle known as banteng. Tanjung Puting also has two species of crocodiles, the fresh water and the garigal, dozens of snakes and frogs, and numerous endangered species.
Excerpts from A Guidebook to Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan Tengah (Central Borneo), Indonesia, by Dr. Biruté M.F. Galdikas and Dr. Gary L. Shapiro, published by PT Gramedia Putaka Utama and the Orangutan Foundation International, 1994. © All Rights Reserved.
Our arrival at the Orang-Utan rehabilitation centre is rewarded by a welcoming representative. Terry, a juvenile male is waiting in a tree by the dock, and as we alight from the boat, he ambles down to check us out. He climbs up to sit beside us on the railing, discreetly observing with down- cast eyes and indirect gaze. Humans go into a frenzy with their cameras and iPhones morphing into papparrazi.
When Terry has posed long enough, a wet blanket, (of the blanket variety) catches his eye. He climbs off his pedestal, grabs the sodden prize, throws it over himself and ambles along the boardwalk. Sensible chap – it’s 32 degrees in the shade and evaporative cooling works for me too. From time to time he plays peek-a-boo from under his blanket. Soulful brown eyes peer at us and invite more photos.
We relinquish Terry and continue to the camp – hoping that Terry is not our only encounter. And indeed we are not disappointed. As soon as we arrive at the camp, Mut and Mario are waiting for us. Mut is mum, and Mario is her son, a cheeky chap who reminds me of Homer Simpson. Mum sits at the base of the water tower contemplating life, while Mario is busy trying to suck the water out of a down pipe. Mario pulls faces, sucks on the pipe, and generally clowns about until one of the rangers decides he’s being naughty and shouts. Mut rises gracefully, climbs up to her recalcitrant child, and drags him unceremoniously back to earth.
My thought is they are bright –preferring clean drinking water to that from river or stream. We are warned not to wave our plastic water bottles around – they are quickly appropriated by the orange locals who don’t even bother to take the lid off, but puncture the bottle top with an incisor and then suck out the contents. If the plastic lid comes off, it quickly disappears into a baby’s mouth and proves a choking hazard. I cannot understand the humans who can’t understand this basic rule, and are surprised when their bottle disappears up a tree in a hairy hand.
We are also treated to a visit from Boswell, a gibbon with a handsome black, grey and white face who swings elegantly from tree to roof to tree, looking like a super athlete. Boswell is a rescued monkey, who now has a wild wife and several children. His family is too shy to come visit, but Boswell regularly stops by for a chat and a feed.
One of my travelling companions has had bad experiences with the other species, the long tailed macaque. These ones have eyes that are altogether too close together, so they have a bit of a suspicious look about them, despite their feigned innocence. They have quick, expressive faces, eyebrows that twitch up and down, and look ready for a bit of biffo. Their brethren in Bali are hit and run thieves, responsible for bag snatching, and petty theft of designer sunglasses and cameras. These ones are more circumspect, though I do keep a watchful eye in case one of them is eyeing me up.
All the cottages are open air, but fortified by wire over all the windows. Marauding wild life poses a threat to any possessions, most especially edible ones.
After our time up close and personal with Mut and Mario it’s time to hike through the jungle to the feeding station, a platform where rangers put out highly aromatic fermenting bananas and some liquid drink. At any given afternoon there will be more or fewer Orangs arriving, conditional on the availability of food in their forest. We are blessed; about 15 Orangs arrive to partake of the feast.
They come in various ways. Some arrive early, scurrying in and grabbing everything they can, shoving bunches in their mouths and grabbing more in their hands, then racing off up the nearest tree where they can consume their booty in private. Others swing on to the platform and make themselves at home, slowly stuffing oozing fruit into their gobs until they look like they’ll burst. The containers with liquid are surrounded, and the younger Orangs do forward bends until their heads are invisible in the buckets. Someone else puts their hand in and licks the solution off their dripping fist. Boswell the gibbon swings by and takes a position at the edge of the platform until one of the much larger orangs claims his space, when Boswell takes a breathtaking leap into the nearest tree until it’s safe to swing in again.
The rather less glamorous creatures scrounge around underneath the platform – wild boars desperate to woof down any droppings left by the apes. But they are wary – if one of the larger Orangs takes umbrage, one smack from a fist is enough to kill.
Eventually the bananas are gone, and the Orangs retreat again, silently disappearing back into their jungle. They are so well camouflaged, the only evidence of their presence is the shaking of the trees as they move through.
It’s an awesome experience, only marred by humans. Princess mum continues to obliviously hog the space. Wherever you turn, there she is right where you’ve managed to get one of the locals in your view-finder. Between her and Princess, it’s difficult to get a photo without some part of one of them intruding, and sometimes the only thing you can see is the back of their heads as they crowd in with one of their digital devices. I reflect about their likely reception at a professional photo-safari: after their first outing with true photographers they would be banned from any further participation due to their unfathomable disregard for anyone else’s objectives.
Sigh – humans – what can you do? Even the Orangs seem to make more effort to share than these two humans.