Monday, October 08, 2007

Orangutan River Trip, Kumai, Borneo

October 4 - 8, 2007
by KT (w/ much input from Chris)

There are some experiences in life that you really never expect.  During such times it's easy to be in a state of disbelief, and afterwards it's hard to believe it was real and impossible to describe to other people.  Traveling up the Sekonyer River in Kumai was one such experience.  Observing the orangutans of Borneo easily makes our top 5 list (of things done since we started cruising), and there is no doubt we will be talking about it well into our 80's!  But while the orangutans were the highlight, it was the trip as a whole that made our tour such a magical experience.

We boarded a small local boat with four other cruisers (Steve & Gayla from Ariel and John and M.J. from Island Sonata).  It was a narrow double-decker equipped with a small head (toilet), sleeping mattresses, galley (kitchen) and hand-cranked inboard (engine).  Guiding us was a driver, a cook (Eddie), and the guide/captain, Jeni.  In addition, a "boat boy" was left on our yachts for security while we were away ... it is an odd feeling to see a stranger hanging out in your cockpit as you drive away!

Navigating through the muddy brown river with multitudes of debris floating down it (sometimes what look liked entire islands), with green dense river palms, pandanus and other flora edging into the water, and a humidity level so high that your clothes stick and sweat beads upon ever surface of your body, really sets the mood for a wildlife jungle trip.

 In total it took us about 3-1/2 hours to journey up the river.  Along the way Jeni tried to point out some of the various trees, birds, and a crocodile or two!  We were also keeping a sharp lookout for monkeys, especially the long nose, proboscis monkey.  Jeni explained that they (Indonesians) often refer to the proboscis monkeys as Dutch monkeys because of their large noses and sometimes call them "Jimmy Durante" noses (hey he said it, not me ... I don't even know who Jimmy Durante is!).  When we first sighted them, we were amazed at just how large the nose is ... I was expected large, but not like this ... at least not on a monkey!  The females get off lucky though, as it is the males who grow the real honkers, with the females sporting much more petite noses.

As we traveled up the river Jeni pointed out that the saltwater palms we were seeing earlier were gone, a sign that we were now in fresh water.  About 8km from Camp Leakey (our first stop) we turned, heading into the cleaner part of the river (as it doesn't get the runoff from the gold mines), and a much more narrow part.  There were times when our long boat barely fit through the growth on the river's edge.  We were now fully into the Tanjung Putting National Park.  The park contains over 3,000 sq km of swampy terrain.  In addition to the well known orangutans and the bizarre proboscis monkeys, the park hosts seven other primate species (including one lesser ape, the gibbon, and five monkey species), over 220 species of birds, two species of crocodile, dozens of snakes and frogs, clouded leopards, sun bears, mouse deer, and on goes the list.  Needless to say, we were in for some good wildlife viewing!

We arrived at Camp Leakey for the afternoon orangutan feeding.  Camp Leakey is one of the camps and orphanages setup to study and protect the endangered orangutans as well as the national park.  By providing a supplemental feeding, they keep the orangutans away from the local farms, where the farmers kill any ape or monkey found feeding on their crops.

The first thing we are told as we make our way towards the camp is to not touch or feed the apes ... while some are more used to humans, they are still wild and should be treated as such.  This was a bit of a bummer, because Chris had high-hopes and dreams of holding hands with a orangutan, or perhaps teaching them a little high-five!  It was also duly pointed out that while female orangutans are a meager (ha!) 4 times stronger than humans, the males are a mighty 8 times stronger!  These are not animals you want to mess with!!!  With all this in mind you can imagine our shock, initial fright, and ultimate delight it what occurred next ...

First, there is something unique and wonderful about being around animals of any sort, in their element, in the wild.  You can't beat the authentic experience, or the wee-bit of adrenaline rush you get, knowing that this is their turf and if they felt like it they could take you!  So when Chris and I first turned the corner and there, in the middle of the path, we spotted our first wild orangutan we both nearly jumped up and down with excitement.  We followed the ape, at a safe distance, into the camp, where we were further delighted to spot another large female high up in the trees, and a cute juvenile swinging around the camp kitchen trying to find a way in.  We were enamored and probably could've stayed, watching just these three apes, for hours, but our guide led us on, encouraging us to come view the Gibbon apes (as the Gibbon's are less frequently seen).  The Gibbons are beautiful creatures, with thoughtful, mature faces.

While we were enjoying the Gibbon apes, a female orangutan approached from down the path.  Everyone got excited and cameras clicked away (we made the paparazzi seem tame).  We thought she would veer away as she neared, or perhaps stop, but she kept on coming. Nervously, people began to shuffle slowly backwards, just not sure what to do with this gal, or how close to let her get.  At this time I was sitting (better photograph angle), and I struggled to get up so I could make a run for it, but right about the time I was ready to flee, she flopped down, rolled over, and laid back ... mere feet from where I sat!  She looked over at me, and then up at everyone else, quite content to pose and accept her fame!  It turns out that this girl is Sweswi and she was raised by the orphanage, and therefore is very used to people and tends to be a bit of a ham.  Everyone took turns posing with her ... but beware because if you got to close she would try to unzip your bag or sneak a peak into your pocket!

 After she had her fill of fame, she ambled over to the 'banana shack'.  This is the building where the camp rangers keep the banana stores for feedings.  The rangers keep it locked tight so that the apes can't get in, but locking isn't enough.  They have had to fortify the building because the males have literally ripped the roof off to get at the food!  They have a special door lock;  two holes in the side of the building where you push in a stick and slide it over, in sequence, in order to trip the lock.  Originally they had a single hole / trip system, but it didn't take long before the orangutans figured it out.  As if to prove the point, Sweswi dug out a stick, stuck in the bottom hole, jiggled it around, then hopped up and gave the door a push.  She seemed to have such a sad face when it didn't open, and to further emphasize her disappointment she flopped back to the  ground and look at us all upside down.  Standing, I turned my head upside down in order to take her photo, and I swear she smiled at me as I imitated her!  A few minutes later the ranger made his way to the the shack and Sweswi's attention immediately went to carefully watching him as he triggered the locks and entered the building. The minute he was in, she hopped up and made a beeline for the door ... grabbing Chris' hand  and tugging him along the way!  Chris couldn't believe it!  He laughed and smiled as he (along with our guide Jeni, who she had snagged with her other hand) walked with her into the shack.  Moments later Sweswi ran from the shack carrying a full load of bananas; a bunch in each hand plus one in her mouth.  Chris followed her out beaming ... he had got his dream and held hands with an orangutan!  Sweswi had a bit of difficult handling so many bananas, and ended up dropping a bunch, which Chris was kind enough to bring over to her.  We enjoyed watching her eat them, one at a time she peeled them, then kind of scraped them lengthwise with her teeth -- very peculiar!

Back up the path another bunch of apes were hanging out; Princess and two of her children.  We left Sweswi to her eating and ventured along to watch the mother and her two children.  The youngest child was still of age where the mother carried it everywhere, the older child old enough to be about on its own, but still young enough that it followed its mother wherever she went.  The baby was a curious and hyper little guy.  He (or maybe she) would climb all over princess then drop to the ground and run around a bit, rolling and flopping like a child with ADD!  He was very interested in the cameras, coming up multiple times and reaching out to touch (or in some cases bite) the lens and lens caps.  It was quite a funny sight -- until Mama Princess felt a little protective and pulled the little fellow away from one of the tourists, waving her arms at the nervous human as she did so.

 At some point, Princess noticed a backpack sitting up by one of the cabins.  She every so casually sauntered towards the bag, but she wasn't sneaky enough because one of the rangers saw her and came running waving a stick and yelling.  Apparently it was a bag full of bananas for the feeding and she was just going to help herself!  She didn't much like the ranger not letting her have the bag and she imitated his movements, yelling back at him and waving her arms ... but she backed away.  Princess, by the way, is a very famous ape, having made the National Geographic magazine when she was just a wee baby (right photo)!

 All this action and we'd hadn't even been to the feeding yet!!!  The feeding took place 2 kilometers into the jungle.  A small platform had been setup and the rangers put out buckets of milk and piles of bananas, while calling "yoooowww" into the forest to let the orangutans know it was food time.  Then we just sat back and watched.  Man-o-man it was soooo cool!  We sat there for almost two hours, watching various apes come and go, and getting a feel for the variety of personalities;  from dominant-subservient interactions, to various eating and drinking styles, and some playful activity amongst the younger apes.  What really becomes apparent as well, is the intelligence of these primates.  We watched as one female decided she didn't want to share, and grabbed one of the buckets, carrying it up to the tops of the trees with her.  A bit later, tired of holding the bucket (and baby), she set it down in the V of a branch, but before letting it go completely, she kept one finger on it, gently testing it to see if it would balance, then repositioning the bucket, until at last she fully let it go and it balanced.  Another female decided there was too much competition on the platform and approached the ranger (and his jerry can full of milk) directly.  The ranger shouted her away multiple times.  Finally she threw her arms up in the air (as if in frustration) and stomped off into the jungle .... only to appear a few minutes later, stealthily trying to sneak in from behind the ranger!

We learned a few other things as well ... One, orangutans (at least the females) are afraid of the wild boars, and we witnessed more than one ape running as the boar chased it down.  Two, the "who-uh-who-uh" noise that I always thought apes made, is totally wrong (at least for orangutans).  First they make a kissing noise, "smoo-smoo", followed by a kind of deep grunting type noise, "unh-unh" ... I tried duplicating it, but failed miserably!  And the third thing I learned is that the majority of apes do NOT peel the bananas and eat them one by one.  Rather they cram as many as possible into their mouths (sometimes pushing out the insides from the peel, sometimes peeling them with their hands, and sometime sticking peel and all into their mouths), then they mush it around until they get this big 'ol ball of banana muck, that they sometimes spit back out into their hands and then proceed to nibble at.

As the apes thinned out we headed back to the camp to visit the information center and sign the guest book.  While sitting on the deck outside the information center, a female came by and sat in the grass in front of us (almost as if she was being social and joining us), and then proceeded to give her baby a very good nit-picking; flipping and flopping the baby all over the place!  As we were walking past her to leave, she reached out to Chris, grabbing his arm, and trying to pull him towards her!  Jeni came to the rescue getting her to release Chris and we continued back to the boat.  (That's TWO times Chris got to make contact!)

Chris and I were ahead on the boardwalk, talking excitedly about just how cool of a day we were having when we came around a tree and noticed a HUGE male lying on the boardwalk in front of us!  YIKES!  This guy was monstrous, and we would have to walk right past him, within his reach, in order to get back to our boat.  It ended up being a non-event as Jeni escorted us one-by-one past the big guy, but, WOW, what a moment to be so near.  We learned that this was the old king, just recently ousted by Tom (who we didn't get to see), the now new king.  Apparently this guy hadn't been around for awhile, most likely avoiding Tom.  Jeni and a few of the other guides commented on how much they missed this guy; almost near tears ... really showing the type of bond they develop spending so much time in the jungle.

None of the males that had shown up at the feeding had been this large nor had the huge faceplates, so we were thrilled to see him.  The faceplates only grow on the males, as they get older and with an increase in their hormones.  They serve to make the ape appear larger and more dominant, and help to attract females.

He wasn't hanging alone, just a few yards away, looking over the dock at the boats, was his girlfriend.  She curiously (and slyly) tried to go through anybody's pockets who got too close.  The next day we heard that the boat who stayed tied to the dock had their bags swiped from the boat (without hearing a peep) and found their contents strewed throughout the jungle ... everything opened in search of something good to eat!  Sneaky guys those Apes!

Back aboard the boat, we moved down the river just a bit, where we 'anchored' for the night.  Anchoring consisted of throwing a tire into the dense bushes at the edge of the river.  Ahhh, if things were so easy on Billabong!  We expected that spending the night up the river, on a local boat, would be a bit like camping ... that we would be roughing it.  Our time aboard "The Spirit of the Forest" was anything but rough.  The meals rate in the top two of all the meals eaten "out" in Indonesia and the drinks were cold!  We were continuously catered to by our boat crew, who were not only helpful but informative.  The atmosphere was serene, peaceful, and exotic, with monkeys chattering in the background.  We slept on a covered deck, with a mosquito net hanging down over us, and the sounds of the night engulfing us.  We even got to take full-blown showers ... really it doesn't get any better than this!

The next morning, after waking up to monkeys chattering in the trees overheard, and watching them nibble on berries  (all without getting out of bed), we attended another orangutan feeding, this one taking place back down the river, at Pondok Tangguy station.  Here the apes were a bit more hesitant around humans.  The first male ape to show up at the feeding area, stayed high up in the trees for an extended period, watching us and the forest to make sure it was safe.  Then he swung down, quickly getting to the platform, jammed as many as thirty bananas into his mouth, then swiftly retreated back to the trees where he suspended himself between branches while eating the bananas (he actually spit all the bananas he had stuffed into his mouth back out and then went on to peel and eat them).  Once he had devoured his score he would repeat the process. About the third or fourth time you could tell he was a bit less hesitant of us, as he would linger on the platform for longer.

An hour or so into the feeding a large, dominant male showed up.  All the other apes cleared away, hovering around the perimeter, while he played king of the mountain on the platform.  Only one other female dared come up with him.  Well, we found out why he let her share his stash, as when he was done eating, he flipped her over, gave her a quick smell, and then proceeded to 'get it on' with her!  As you can imagine, we were just a bit shocked, but what could you do but watch the ape porno!  We all tried to muffle our laughter (as to not disturb the moment) when the female, still during 'the act', grabbed a banana and continued right on eating!

We returned to our boats still laughing and thinking, "wow, ape sex, now there's something you don't see every day!".  We continued back down the river, stopping at the Pesalat reforestation center for a short hike.  It was wicked hot, with about 100% humidity, and we had just pigged out on another outstanding lunch, so we didn't make it very far, but we did get to see a bit of the forest, and work off some of the lunch.  We all got a good laugh too, when M.J. freaked out as a leech tried to attach itself to her ankle.  I was reaching down trying to get it before she noticed, but wasn't quite fast enough.  Next thing I know she is moving around yelling, "get it off get it off".  I replied, "I would if you would just stop moving!".  All ended well as Jeni swept in and removed the leech ... which, by the way, was barely 1/4 inch long!

The third orangutan feeding we attended was at the Tanjung Harapan rehabilitation center.  We spent another hour watching the apes, still in awe and not the least bit bored or tired of them.  A few bigger males showed up ... and not too quietly.  It was a bit eerie to hear branches breaking and see trees bending out in the jungle, and know that 'something' is coming (kind of like the jungle scense from the TV series LOST)!  And it's a bit nerve racking when a large male appears, running from the jungle, from BEHIND you!  Luckily he could care less about us and was only interested in the food on the platform!

 We didn't want to leave, but the sun was setting and we still had a fare trek back down the river to our boats.  As we made our way home, the setting sun turned the river red, rain fell around us, and the sky lit up as a lightning storm crackled to life above us.  As the sky darkened the trees around us twinkled and glowed with thousands of fire flies.  It was the perfect end to a perfect journey!

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