- Posted April 29, 2014 by
Hanging Out with Orang-utans in the Borneo Jungle is Easier Than You Think
Ruler: King in the jungle
It was a version of musical chairs, played deep in the Indonesian rainforest. The participants, 20 or so novice jungle explorers, were nervously anticipating one of the world’s great wildlife experiences.
The music was provided by our guides, who were screeching as they scanned the giant treetops for movement.
Suddenly their catcalls stopped and our chief guide Joe pointed excitedly as the special party guest swung into view before landing on the jungle floor as softly as Belarusian gymnast Olga Korbut used to on the mat.
Not bad for a ravenous 14st male orang-utan called King, who then bounded up to our group and scanned us carefully with his sad eyes.
And so the game began. Wherever King wanted to go, King went – leaving the rest of us scurrying around, trying to keep a safe but suitable distance from this fascinating creature.
The guidebook detailing advice for observing orang-utans helpfully suggests: “If a male charges at you... RUN.”
Problem was, I was the last man standing in our game and had no Plan B. Behind me, solid Borneo jungle, in front, a giant ape keen for lunch and a group of guides desperately shepherding him towards a feeding platform.
Going ape: Kevin gets up close and personal
As I steeled myself to unleash my inner Indiana Jones, or come over all David Attenborough and whisper gently in his ear, the lad with the bag of bananas arrived. Panic over.
The bananas were emptied out and King plonked himself among them like a Great Train Robber revelling in his pile of used fivers.
King is one of the semi-wild orang-utans brought to the sanctuary after being injured, orphaned or rescued from their natural habitat – rainforests being systemically destroyed by loggers clearing the way for palm oil plantations.
Standing toe-to-toe, even briefly, with such a majestic giant does rate as a truly magical travel experience. Sadly, it’s one which is becoming rarer by the day.
The project volunteers hope to rehabilitate animals such as King and place them back into the wild.
But, like other iconic species such as the gorilla and the giant panda, these marvellous animals are fighting for their survival in the wild and, in the very near future, children could be asking: “Daddy, what’s an orang-utan?”
The answer is... a lot like us. The word orang-utan literally translates as person of the forest and they are one of our closest relatives in the natural world, sharing 97% of our DNA.
Leisurely: A 'Klotok' boat
The bitter irony is that the biggest threat to these gentle, shy, highly intelligent primates is us.
Orang-utans are found only in Indonesia, in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, but they are being hunted down and hounded out with such ferocity that some observers fears wild orang-utans could disappear within a decade.
In the past, such an expedition would probably be seen by most Brits as too daunting, but tourist trips for those wanting to see orang-utans are now relatively straightforward, responsible and hugely rewarding.
Flights by Indonesia’s national carrier Garuda from Gatwick to the capital Jakarta – with an Amsterdam stop – are due to start in September, opening up a huge array of possibilities for tourists looking for breathtaking scenery, rare wildlife and real jungle adventure.
An internal one-hour flight later to the Indonesian part of Borneo, now known as Kalimantan, and you’re ready for some monkey business.
Close to nature: Jungle river in Borneo
Guides pick you up from the airport and within 20 minutes you’re aboard a klotok. It sounds like a Star Trek alien, but they are boats named after the klok tok tok noise they make as they chug along the narrow riverways that lead deep into the rainforest.
The boats also serve as floating restaurant and accommodation as the crew brings the wonders of the jungle to you in comfort and safety.
Wildlife spotting starts straight away as guides point out proboscis monkeys, gibbons, exotic birds, fireflies and, at certain times of the year, crocodiles.
But the jungle VIPs are, of course, the orang-utans. The crew will spot wild ones hanging in the trees and you will be very unlucky not to be treated to an acrobatic show as they usually like to show off their skills when a klotok comes into view.
Even when the sun goes down, the wildlife show doesn’t end. We saw stunning firefly displays – imagine little Tinkerbells dancing in the dark.
We may have been floating in a remote tropical rainforest, but the comforts and courtesies of Indonesia are never far away. Cold towels and bottled water are provided along the way but the highlight is the food.
During our four days aboard, one of the main mealtime talking points was how the crew laid on a sumptuous spread from a tiny galley time after time.
Curves: Borobudur’s bell-shaped sculptures
Indonesian cuisine reflects the country’s diverse cultures and traditions and has been influenced by India, China and even Europe.
But forget the myth that you cannot escape hot and spicy food. Their staple diet is based around plain white rice, fresh fish, prawns and either beef or goat with plenty of vegetables. Those with simpler tastes can happily avoid the chillies and enjoy plain beef satays with rice or noodles followed by fresh fruit.
But the joy of Indonesian food is daring to tantalise your tastebuds. The key ingredient at any table is the sambal, a chilli sauce made in various styles and ever-increasing spiciness.
Pass the sambal became the catchphrase at mealtimes as our group egged each other on to try the hotter sauces before washing them down with a crisp local beer, Bintang.
Some intrepid travellers sleep under the stars. The meal tables are cleared away and mattresses taken on deck then covered with mosquito nets for those seeking to stay super close to nature.
That’s fine for intimate friends or close families but our group was more suited to the relative luxury of the Rimba Orangutan Ecolodge, 32 huts connected by wooden walkways perched on the riverbank. No TV or internet, just the sounds of the jungle at night.
Our four-day orang-utan adventure had come to an end and it was time to swap the natural jungle for the urban one.
A 60-minute flight to Java, the world’s most populated island, swapped the peace of the rainforest for a city landscape with locals battling through traffic jams of cars and bikes.
Yogyakarta boasts two architectural masterpieces that could each vie to be the eighth wonder of the world. Why the Prambanan and Borobudur temples are not as a famous as the Taj Mahal is a mystery.
Pramabanan, a massive collection of Hindu symbols, is an awe-inspiring sight, jagged towers rising majestically into the skyline. A short drive away, Borobudur, the curvier Buddhist version, is best seen at first light as the sun rises over the bell-shaped sculptures.
Just one warning, gents. To enter you have to follow the dress code and wear a traditional sarong, which are free at the entrance.
But if it’s good enough for David Beckham...