Thursday, May 16, 2013

Orangutan - King of the swingers

It’s a peculiar feeling the first time you look into the eyes of an Orangutan. Mostly because you know they’re probably thinking the same as you – “Well he’s an odd looking chap” – is the immediate thought – “odd, but I can definitely see something of myself in those roguish good looks“.

The likeness is perhaps more prevalent in some, ginger hairy people in particular, but it’s definitely there in us all. The human like emotion in their eyes is no facade; nor is the the tenderness and loving, the spitefulness and squabbles or the way they pick their nose and talk with mouths full.

It’s a well known fact that we share around 97% of our genetic make up with Orangutans, but unfortunately it’s not that which links us the most. First and foremost is the ruthless clearance by humans of South East Asian rainforest which has all but decimated their habitat and almost wiped them from existence, with only neighbouring Sumatra and Borneo surviving as the remaining refuge for wild Orangutans.

Secondly, and more encouragingly, is the ongoing conservation work to restore and rehabilitate their numbers, and it was this which we had eagerly come to see.

Tanjung Puting National Park sits in the central southern seat of Borneo, an island split into two between Malaysia and Indonesia, and getting here was laborious as expected. Three flights in one day before a 16 hour bus ride got us to the nearby town of Pangkalan Bun, from where we set about organising a boat to take us into the park.

Not easy when you turn up on a friday, the Muslim religious day, to find everything shut. Nonetheless, we eventually found a decidedly untrustworthy local businessman to help, and being our only viable option, booked ourselves two berths aboard a klotok – an Indonesian riverboat – for the next day.

It’s the klotok which makes the trip as magical as it is. Within minutes of leaving the grubby port of Kumai, close to the Java Sea, we had swung onto Sungai Sekonyer and into the national park. Immediately our surroundings changed. Reed filled marshes became low lying mangrove swamps and then before we knew it, we were in the jungle.

The densely packed beds of leaves that serve as Orangutan nests were spotted straight away in the tree tops, and then to much excitement came our first actual sighting, albeit barely visible through thick foliage. We pressed on.

The slow put-put of the boat became increasingly inaudible below the rising noise of the forest around us, and before long the banks of the river exploded into life.

Proboscis monkeys perched on each side of us, their bulbous noses instantly recognisable, while macaques chattered excitedly, gibbons whooped and occasional grey longurs sat solemnly alone.

There was a cacophony of noise and colour, and it was to be this way for the next few days. Shimmering dragonflies buzzed in and out of the boat, while butterflies, some as big as your hand, fluttered on the river breeze.

We saw numerous kingfishers, hornbills and storks, while monitor lizards and a baby python fulfilled our reptilian quota.

At night mattresses and mosquito nets were pulled onto the deck, and after the lights had gone out and the locusts, stick insects and mammoth moths had dispersed, we would fall asleep to a rainforest symphony.

Despite the relative ease in which the river here can be accessed, our surroundings fell straight from the pages of The Heart of Darkness – the river blackened, the trees closed in over us, and the sense of entering the unknown increased.

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