Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Monkeying around in Borneo: a voluntourism trip with a difference

I’ve got a hammer in my hand when the cry goes up: “Orangutan in the camp.” Nine people down tools and grab their cameras and a chance to snap one of the critically endangered primates that we are here to help on our three-week stay in Indonesian Borneo.

Rimba, a 17-year-old male orangutan, doesn’t disappoint: he circles the camp, going from tree to tree just a few metres above our heads for almost 30 minutes, hooting gruffly if anyone comes too close.

It’s a well-earned reward for our group, which has spent a week sawing, hammering, chiselling, drilling and painting in the 32C heat and almost 100% humidity of the jungle.

The Pondok Ambung research post, operated by the UK-based Orangutan Foundation, is little more than a handful of single-storey wooden and concrete buildings.

We got here by driving from the regional capital, Pangkalan Bun, then taking a four-hour boat ride from the port of Kumai, along the Buluh Kecil river in central Kalimantan (the Indonesian name for Borneo).

We’re surrounded by towering ironwood trees, which form a canopy 50 metres above our heads, blocking out sunshine but trapping moisture and heat.

Below it the thick tropical rainforest is alive with small things that crawl and fly.

There’s no mobile signal, let alone broadband. Our luxuries are packets of sweets and biscuits rationed to last the duration of our trip; a plate of sliced watermelon or oranges is greeted with delight.

As Kalimantan is a dry state, the detox is physical as well as digital, and by the end of the first week we each feel we’ve sweated out more toxins than in a year of hot yoga.

The Orangutan Foundation runs its volunteer programme every summer, attracting adventurers who fly at their own expense and pay £800 to spend three weeks sleeping in basic accommodation and building infrastructure for the full-time Indonesian research staff, forest wardens and visiting students.

Over the past 15 years, volunteers have built facilities including guard posts and boardwalks in Tanjung Puting national park, further south in Borneo, and the Lamandau wildlife reserve, a few hundred kilometres to the east.