I Rang-a-Tan, Orangutan

With increasing frequency I find myself in situations where I stop and think… what course of events led me to be exactly here – at exactly this moment. I had one of those moments yesterday right about the time I was sitting in a torrential downpour in the rainforest of Borneo surrounded by bending trees succumbing to the weight of orangutans, dozens of auburn red, impossibly-agile orangutans.
The sheets of rain gave added depth to the forest, outlining each layer of trees and erasing the world beyond the boundaries of Camp Leakey. I sat there, drenched to the bone wondering if perhaps those monkeys didn’t have something on me. They were fashioning rain shelters out of tree boughs as I sat completely unsheltered, neck pinched from craning upwards and cheeks sore from the Cheshire Cat grin I could no more remove from my face than my heart.

The course of events that led me to that place on that day began when I left Colorado and, via Europe, landed in Bali. They took on a fever-pace when my yoga teachers assigned Mary and me to share a room for three weeks, and the handwriting was definitely on the wall after the day sail we took a few weeks back.

Those events led me to a river choked by palms and mangroves, with water as black as ink from the decay and re-growth along its heavily vegetated banks. The tree-lined shores brimming with monkeys of grey, black, fawn and auburn, some small and comical, others bigger than a man and relegated to only the very small pieces of inhabitable land left for them in the world.

Mary, Ed and Jason are the professional crew for a private yacht. This yacht is sailing around the world at a devil-may-care pace. Stopping for months in one port, then sailing up to the next. This time around we are traveling from Bali to Singapore with a brief stop off to see the orangutans. This is a big bonus, as just getting to sail up to Singapore would have been a dream come true for me. But blessed as I am, I get to partake in another’s dream come true.
Upon pulling into the river port we were immediately greeted by Harry who would be our guide the following day. Harry as it turns out has a long family history with the orangutan preservationists in Borneo. His father built the original jetties that access Camp Leakey and Harry himself is a big conservationist. He was an absolute wealth of knowledge and his ability to spot even the smallest monkey from meters away, while traveling the river at break-neck speeds, was awe-inspiring.

The next morning two tiny little speedboats met us. They looked to me like the kind of boats amusement parks use in their Tunnel of Love rides. You know the ones that don’t float, but rather are held above water by steel tracks below the surface. These boats lacked the steel tracks and heart-adorned upholstery, but made up for those shortcomings by actually, miraculously, staying afloat and hauling tail up the river. Along the way we passed many of the tuk-tuk boats which those with more time than we had take up the same river. Those boats are decidedly more comfortable, with deck chairs, kitchens and bathrooms, but are slow and very noisy.
We stopped first at the national park. Twenty minutes into our tour we saw two orangutans way up in the trees, cruising about from one limb to another. They did this in a sort of time-warping slow motion and with amazing grace. It seems to defy physics that the trees can sustain their weight as they bend slowly over and down allowing the orangutans to easily grab onto the next tree by one hand, or one foot alone. Their movements mirror those of strong kids swinging on the monkey bars, but at harrowing heights and often while carrying their offspring in one hand.

We only saw them for a couple of minutes and then they blended into the forest and were gone. I was beaming! We left the park and headed further up river to Camp Leakey, which is well known among researchers and was introduced to the masses via various PBS specials and a documentary featuring Julia Roberts. If I was content seeing two orangutans 100’ above me and in the distance then I can only be described as jubilant when we pulled up to the dock and saw a mother and her baby sitting there greeting the arriving guests.
I must have taken 100 photos of her while we ate our lunch on the boats, I could not believe that I was close enough to this beautiful creature to actually capture her eyes with my small camera. Harry all but had to forcibly remove us from the dock and promise that we would see more inside the camp. True to his word about 300 meters away we stumbled into a mélange of orangutans, big and small, young and old.
Throughout the next several hours we stared at orangutans in trees, on the walking paths, climbing the communications tower. We saw gibbons chasing house cats and a wild boar strolling carelessly past the 15 or so of us who were there entranced by the scene. And finally our group of six plus Harry ended up in the rainforest, during that torrential downpour all just smiling, beaming, at each other, equal parts exhausted and exhilarated by the excitement of the day.
We had seen dozens of orangutans during by now, but there was one final encounter that would provide the final punctuation on what really was a top-ten day for me. Back at the main part of the camp we came upon an adult male. He is the orangutan that the Julia Roberts documentary covered, and likely he is the reason the camp has been able to secure funding all these years.

Rescued as an infant from captivity, he was brought to the camp to be placed with a surrogate mother. But the first night he was there he escaped, spelling certain death for a baby. Two years later he returned to the camp to the absolute astonishment of the staff. Over the following years he grew and became the alpha-male of the forest. His reign has passed now and he is getting quite old. His battle-scarred face tells the story of decades of hard living.
As we all sat and stared at the magnificent male you couldn’t help but draw parallels between his fate and that of the remaining few orangutans in the world. They are caught in a constant battle. Their homelands and forests scarred or decimated by deforestation and sprawl. And as they all crowd into the tiny fractions of land remaining for them, I wonder what will happen. These creatures who are so majestic, powerful and graceful, serve as a reminder that we are indeed stewards of the land.
As we were heading back to the speedboats which would deliver us to the bush lodge we were spending the night in, Bradshaw made a loud “Check!” sound, punctuated by a quick flick of his forefinger. It was his way of ticking orangutans off his bucket list. I hadn’t known to add them to mine before this day, but having experienced Camp Leakey, I feel like I have carved a notch onto my own must-do list.
If you would like to learn more or find out what you can do to help preserve orangutan habitat please visit the Australian Orangutan Project website. From here you can get tons of information and if you like, you can adopt a baby like I did by donating money to assist in the infants’ care. It’s very simple and inexpensive to do, but makes a difference. Having been there personally I can vouch for the good this foundation does.


You could also check out the work of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation which operates the largest primate rescue project in the world and is the only organisation actively rescuing wild orangutans from certain death as their forest is relentlessly cleared for oil palm plantations (also supported by the Australian Orangutan Project).
In USA, Orangutan Outreach is the partner at www.redapes.org, or try www.savetheorangutan.co.uk.
Anonymous said…
I am crying right now....I am so glad there are people like you who are able to do this and go places and make a difference and volunteer and explore and understand nature and the world. I have just found your blog. But I am intrigued. I am bawling. You are living one of my dreams. Be well wherever you are.

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