Possibly my favorite photo of the trip, taken by Dad
To be completely honest, I've had a hard time writing this blog. It seems that the more awesome an event, the harder it is to convey. How does one describe the feeling of thrill evoked from holding hands with an orangutan? Or waking up to the silent beauty of the Kumai river deep in the jungle of Borneo? I don't want to leave anything out, but to report on all events and emotions would be impossible. I'll give it a go but try to stick to the highlights, or else this epic epic will end up a bit too Homer-esque.
We, along with five other boats, were picked up from our boats in the Kumai anchorage by a klotok on Monday morning. A klotok is a traditional Indonesian wooden boat with two decks, brightly painted and more like a houseboat than anything else I can think of. The upper deck is open but shaded, with chairs and a table like a living room. This is where we ate, drank, slept and watched the world go by (i.e. lived). The lower floor contained the galley (if you can call it that), sleeping quarters for the crew and a head with a western toilet (yes!). There were 16 of us yachties on the boat, although we split up at night and slept on other klotoks.
After we were collected from our boats we headed up an arm of the Kumai river, headed toward the orangutan reserves in Tanjung Puting national park (insert Heart of Darkness reference here). After a few hours of motoring up the river we stopped at Tanjung Harapan, where orangutans are rehabilitated and orphaned orangutans are raised. We walked for about twenty minutes -- the perfect length of a hike through sweltering, sauna-like jungle -- to a feeding platform where orangutans congregate at 3 PM every day for lunch.
As you probably know, an orangutan looks like a hairy, hunchbacked, red-head. Aside from this and the fact that their arms are as long as their legs, they look quite human-like. So to see one hang from a treetop is a bit strange -- until you see her lean out and grab another branch, swing gracefully onto the next tree which leans way over, allowing her to access the next tree, shimmy down the trunk using her hands and feet, only to land gracefully on the feeding platform and start gorging herself on bananas, all the while her baby clutching her long red hair for dear life. There is reason behind their name: orang-utan, meaning "man of the jungle".
At 3 PM a ranger dumps a backpack full of bananas, coconuts, cassava and other treats on the feeding platform. There is no mad dash for the food as one might expect, but rather a cautious mama and her baby approach from above, always keeping an eye out for trouble. Others watch on as she eats her fill, and once she leaves another descends from the trees to grab a few snacks before jetting off. Obviously there is a hierarchy and the most dominant eat first, leaving scraps for the others if they are lucky. At Tanjung Harapan feeding time is civil, interesting yet mellow. Things were not quite as civilized at Camp Leakey.
After a night of playing cards, an average dinner and sleeping on lumpy mattresses in mosquito nets in our living room, we awoke to the shrieking of proboscis monkeys and the roar of other klotoks heading toward Camp Leakey. Soon we were underway to our next destination where our guides said we were sure to have some exciting encounters with orangutans. They were right. Upon arrival at Camp Leakey we tied up to another klotok which was tied to the dock. Most people went for a walk but I decided not to, and kicked myself when they came back saying they had a close encounter with the orangutan Percy, who got annoyed when he couldn't find the peanuts in the guide's pocket and proceeded to rip his shirt. And I missed it. I wanted to go for another walk right then and there, but we had to eat lunch first.
As all 16 of us were eating lunch on our boat, we heard a commotion and yelling coming from the boat we were tied to. Apparently Percy -- who is a very cheeky orangutan -- snuck onto the other klotok and stole a can of sweetened condensed milk from the table, right behind the backs of the other guides. When they saw him they charged and Percy took off, scrambled up a tree and sat back, gleefully enjoying his can of sweet milk while we took pictures, laughed and made wily comments. But the coolest experience of the trip, and possibly one of the top five coolest experiences of my life, was yet to come.
After lunch we set out for the 2 PM feeding. As we walked down the long, wooden walkway (like a dock above the jungle floor) a large orangutan swung herself onto the path. We all stopped. Cameras clicked away as she did a walking somersault not 15 feet in front of us. Then she stopped in the middle of the path, effectively blocking us from crossing. "Just keep walking, just go around her calmly," our guide told us. Oh, right, stay calm while this 200 pound orangutan, who could tear your arms off without second thought, watches you pass within inches of her.
No glass! No walls! No fences!
Naturally our guide was right and after passing her she slunk away, uninterested. It is bizarre to see orangutans walking around freely after being separated by the thick glass of zoos in all other encounters I have experienced, but I guess this is why people come to Borneo. One orangutan in particular was walking in the direction of the feeding platform. "Just follow her, she knows where to go," our guide Febri told us. We walked along, being led by this hairy, short little thing with an awkward gait.
Kyle and I were in the front of our group as we were walking and our guide, Joe, walked up along side us. "Hey, you want to try something?" he asked. "Ummmm, OK?" we both said, not knowing what we were getting ourselves into. "Come here, just walk along side her," and he indicated toward the orangutan. Kyle walked up along side of her and I did on the other. She looked up at Kyle and, with her gorilla-like hand, grabbed onto his arm. Then she did the same to me. I can only describe holding hands with an orangutan as like holding hands with a cheeky, unpredictable, extremely hairy troll that has superhuman strength.
As Kyle and I walked hunched over, in the iron grasp of this creature, I was not sure whether to laugh or scream. She did not hurt me, but she did not seem keen to let go, either. While her leathery hand was wrapped around my arm I took the opportunity to feel her wiry orange hair. I was tempted to touch the baby that was clutching her, but refrained with better judgment. We walked along for a minute or two while people laughed and snapped photos, until she got tired of me and Kyle, let us go, and grabbed onto the next two closest people.
Except this time, not only did she grab them with her hands, but with her feet as well, making the two people carry her. She looked back at the rest of us with a cheeky grin on her face, well aware of the fact that we were carrying her to lunch. People took turns carrying her most of the way to the feeding platform. Of course everybody wanted to be able to say, "I carried/held hands with an orangutan", because aside from being a bit smelly afterward, it was pretty damn thrilling.
Feeding time at Camp Leakey was exciting. Once we arrived at the platform I stopped and looked up in the surrounding trees (hard to do when you are walking for fear of tripping or stepping in a swarm of fire ants) where I noticed no fewer than eight orangutans waiting for lunch, most of them females with babies. Once the rangers had unloaded food the first orangutans approached the platform. They came from all directions, often sneaking up behind tourists who were taking pictures of orangutans already at the platform and pushing them out of the way to get by.
In one incident one mother with her baby drank all the coconut milk out of a bucket, which pissed off another mother (with her baby as well). There was a bit of a confrontation on the platform before the first mama took off, running through the crowd of tourists who parted quickly to help her escape. She passed right by me and I could hear her baby whimpering as she bolted up a tree. The other mama followed her, charging up the same tree. We all held our breaths as we watched the action above us. It looked like a one-way tree -- there were none others close enough for the first mama to get to. As the second mama approached closer and closer, the first mama leaned way out. The tree top swayed and bended and leaned way over into the neighboring trees. The first mama gracefully grabbed onto the next tree and swung herself into it, sending the other tree with the pissed off mama flinging back into place. The crowd below cheered and then released a collective sigh of release that she made a safe escape.
Exciting times in Tanjung Puting, my friend. We went on to see a "king" or alpha male orangutan, complete with the big, flabby cheeks that alpha orangutans have; we saw tons more proboscis monkeys; had another fun night of drinking and card playing and so on and so forth. Ironically, one of the most entertaining aspects of the trip was little Braca, my two-year old buddy from the boat Atea, who kept everybody on the boat on their toes. He was nearly as entertaining to watch as the orangutans -- never knowing where he'd go or whose face he would thrust his toy crocodile in next. I obviously have a soft spot for animals and babies, so the trip was a pretty massive score in that sense.
Me and my buddy Braca rocking out
Alas, one journey over and another begun. We left Kumai yesterday and are now headed to Belitung (wherever that is). We have just over two weeks left on our Indonesian visas (time flies, right?!) and have about 400 miles left to sail (or motor) to Singapore. We are at 2 degrees south of the equator, there is 8 knots of wind, flat calm seas, we are cruising at about 4 knots with the spinnaker up and it is 91 degrees in the cabin. All is well.
P.S. I promise I will post pictures someday!!
At 10/11/2013 4:07 AM (utc) Rutea's position was 03°07.84'S 111°32.26'E
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