In November, 2023 I went to Borneo for a short but spirited trip to see orangutans in the wild. The trip was the first part of a longer one to Indonesia which I will write up separately, as the orangutans deserve their own blog. I took an early morning flight from Jakarta to Pangkalan Bun on the southern end of island of Kalimantan, or Borneo. The standard way to see the orangutans is to cruise the Sekonyer River by houseboat, called klotok for the sound of the engines (“klok tok tok tok”). There are 4 feeding stations where they provide fruit and vegetables once a day, thereby luring the apes out of the forest.

I was initially skeptical about viewing the apes at an unnatural feeding station rather then tracking them in the jungle as I had in Africa when viewing gorillas and chimpanzees. However, the artificial nature of the feeding platforms was more than compensated by the natural behavior of the orangutans who proved to be more interesting than either the gorillas or chimpanzees simply because they were more active.

Map of Tanjung Puting National Park in southern Borneo

I signed up for a tour with Jenie Subaru who was recommended by Lonely Planet. His operation is family-run (most of the people seem to be related to him) and he is also active in giving back to help the apes. His guide pointed out a section of the jungle that Jenie purchased in order to keep the land from the palm oil companies that are systematically cutting down the jungle needed as orangutan habitat.

I was the only guest on a klotok with a crew of four: an English-speaking guide, driver, cook and general handyman. I was on the boat for 3 days and 2 nights and never met the cook until the very last day when we returned home. The boat has two stories: the crew is downstairs while the guests stay upstairs. The boat I was on looked like it was designed for a couple as there was just a single queen sized mattress though the table could sit a family of 4. We also saw larger and more ornate boats. Sitting on the houseboat watching the jungle pass by with the putt-putt sound of the motor made me imagine Humphrey Bogart might climb up from the lower deck.

A typical lunch. The food was excellent and freshly cooked in the lower deck.

Top deck of my klotok

Turn sound on to get the full African Queen effect

For much of the ride the national park is on one side of the river and private land is on the other side. In many places the jungle has been replaced with palm tree plantations, which represent a loss of habitat that is the greatest threat to the orangutans.

View from the boat with palm tree plantations on both sides

Tanjung Puting National Park

The most impressive aspect of the orangutans is to watch them make their way through forest by  swinging their way through the tree tops. Their name derives from their similarity to humans: oran for human and gutan for jungle. Unlike humans, however, they have 4 hands that can grasp tree branches. Watching them negotiate through the trees gives the term “jungle gym” new meaning.

They are also well versed in physics. A commonly used tactic is to make use of the swaying movement from their weight while hanging at the top of a tee in order to get close enough to grasp a neighboring tree branch.  They are also aware of the tensile strength of the small branches when stressed by their weight out on the end because a miscalculation resulting from a breaking branch would be fatal. Since they are moving through the trees, they are often obscured by the leaves and branches but it was often possible to track their movements by watching to see which tree tops swayed back and forth. The balletic movement at the top of tall trees reminded me of the battle scenes in the bamboo forest in the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Or watch the video on Youtube here

Or view the video on Youtube here

Orangutan babies stay with their mothers until they are about 5 or 6 years old so it was common to see babies and juveniles with their mothers. When they are young, they will cling to the mom as she is swinging through the trees. Even at the feeding station, the young will keep a grasp of the mother while using the other hand to get food.

How many foodstuffs can we hold?

Or view the video on Youtube here

Or view the video on Youtube here

Sometimes it helps to have Mom along for a hand

Bantamweight wrestling on the feeding platform

Usually the orangutans ignored the tourists though they clearly kept an eye out for anything amiss. Sometimes, though, they seemed like they were performing acrobatics for us. One young fellow wandered outside of the rope that marked where tourists could go. The ranger came over to keep the tourists back and tried to lead the ape back behind the rope but he pushed the ranger’s hand away.

Other denizens of the jungle

Of course orangutans are not the only wildlife in the jungle. We saw many proboscis monkeys, so named for their unusually large nose. The proboscis monkeys were very active in jumping from branch to branch, though usually not at the tree tops.

Striated heron

Stork billed kingfisher

Long tailed macaque monkey

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