When we went on an orangutan tour in Borneo, we had no idea that we were going to have a close encounter with one of the queens. And I do mean CLOSE.
It was all Tim’s fault.
It was the last day of our three day adventure in Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan, also known as Indonesian Borneo. We were hiking out of Camp Leakey when…
Wait, actually, let me start at the beginning.
Orangutan Boat Tour in Borneo – An Adventure We Couldn’t Afford To Miss
We’d been in Indonesia for a month before we contacted Fardi at Orangutan Houseboat Tours. I’d read about his organization in Lonely Planet, and I liked his website. The river houseboats, or klotoks, are private and can take 2-4 people, plus cook and crew.
I’ll mention here that Tim and I are budget travelers, so anything that resembles a splurge price-wise gets heavily debated. We were in Indonesia, and didn’t know if, or when, we would be back again. Plus, we’re talking about an awesome adventure, probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Still, we’re cautious with money.
Orangutan habitats only exist on two islands on the entire planet, both in Indonesia, Sumatra and Borneo, the famous island that is split between Malaysia and Indonesia.
The orangutans in Sumatra are completely wild, but the trek is far more challenging and less suited to someone who’s partially blind, like Tim. Also, you can hike for days with no guarantee of ever seeing an orangutan, though I do believe they have a reasonable amount of success.
Kalimantan, however, is one of the best places to see orangutans. Many of the orangutans are rehabilitated at sanctuaries within Tanjung Puting National Park and while they’re released to be fully wild, there are still feeding stations where the centers supplement their jungle diet and provide viewing opportunities for visitors.
With the Kalimantan option, I could guarantee that Tim would be able to see the great apes, and not just claim to hear a vague rustling in the trees, which might happen on any of the orangutan tours on Sumatra.
So we decided to go on the 3D/2N houseboat tour. It was an opportunity we decided we shouldn’t miss. In retrospect, I can say that it really was not all that expensive and the accommodations and services provided were exceptional. Our time with Orangutan Houseboat Tours was wonderful. I’ll also tell you that we’re not being compensated for this post. We paid for our tour and this is simply our honest opinion.
This is how it went.
Arriving in Kalimantan
We had been island-hopping our way through Indonesia and had just finished a fascinating tour of the Tana Toraja region of Central Sulawesi. Still, to get to Pangkalan Bun airport, we had to change planes in Denpasar, Bali so it was two flights instead of one. This transition was uneventful except for the fact that we had an awesome lunch during the layover and it still holds as the best food we’ve ever had in an airport.
The flight from Bali to Kalimantan (on the island of Borneo) was in a top wing propeller plane with a smooth ride and a tarmac landing. We hiked our way to the terminal and were met by a member of the tour staff who made sure we got to the proper transport. We chose to stay in Fardi’s guesthouse, which is part of his home, and were quickly made to feel welcome.
Orangutan Tour in Kalimantan – The Boat
Boat crew are notoriously lithe and sure-footed as they scurry across thin beams of wood between the dock and the klotok. So when a large, blind man shows up to board, special care must be taken. Wider planks were found, and assistance given. We had to cross through several boats to get to ours, but the crew handled it well. They watched how I was guiding and warning Tim of obstacles and then applied the same techniques when they were helping him. They learned quick.
Once settled in, it wasn’t long before we were heading up the river into Tanjung Puting National Park where the big orangutan statue greeted us on our Borneo tour.
Have I mentioned that Tim and I love boating? I mean, it’s not like we own one, or have any expertise, but we love being on a boat. So whenever an activity, or tour, includes a boat, we’re pretty darn happy. This time was no exception.
Before you ask, yes, these two LA kids spent a goodly amount of time quoting boat movies like African Queen.
The upper deck of the boat was all ours, the lower cabin belonged to the crew. Though the head and stern deck were easily available to us, too. Up top we had a dining table and chairs that we could set up for any viewing angles. At dinner they would light a mosquito coil and at bedtime, they expertly unfurled the mosquito nets and tucked them under the deck mattresses.
We loved sleeping on the boat.
The sound, the feel. The jungle the orangutans live in is not remotely quiet, but that was part of the fun. Oh, and I have to say that the cook that kept us fed was top notch. To be honest, we never expected this much comfort. We’re used to more rugged travel and accommodations.
To be so well taken care of, on a boat in the middle of a jungle river, was an unexpected surprise. It wasn’t so luxurious that we felt disconnected from the jungle, but the comfort touches were nice.
We should also note that throughout the river cruise, the crew was on the lookout for wild orangutans, proboscis monkeys and howler monkeys, crocodiles and other interesting wildlife. We saw all of them, except the crocodiles who were being shy.
Pondok Tanguy – A Rehabilitation Center for New Ex-Captive Orangutans
Our first stop was at Pondok Tanguy. This orangutan rehab center is for those apes recently freed from captivity. It was our first venture into the jungle, and of the three feeding stations we stopped at, this ended up being the most challenging. Though I will mention that this is significantly due to Tim’s vision issues. I’ll explain as we go.
I saw the terrain and thought, cool, we get to do some jungle tromping. Not thick, cut-through-with-a-machete style tromping, but wooded with gnarly, moss-covered roots and interesting terrain. I especially liked the plank bridge over the pond of brackish water that started our hike. Picture perfect terrain for a jungle trek.
This bridge was a little more difficult for the blind guy.
Tim had to take the bridge slowly, and fortunately our guide didn’t mind getting his feet wet. He was an immense help with Tim throughout our orangutan-questing adventures in Kalimantan.
Further on, as the sunlight struggled to break through the canopy, our progress continued to be slow. All of those wonderful, gnarly roots were obstacles to Tim, some big, some small, but all had to be identified and navigated.
Then there was this patch of terrain that was somewhat flat, but loaded with mosquitos. A recent rain might have brought them out in force, but it might have just been a bad area for skeeters. Even wearing DEET, we were getting bitten through our clothes. I used my hat to constantly swat them away, while the guide did the same for Tim.
Most people would just hurry through…but Tim couldn’t hurry, not much, anyway.
Besides that, the feeding time for the orangutans was quickly approaching and we were still a little distance from the feeding platform.
This is one of the problems we have when doing any tour. We’re slow. In many cases it’s hard for us to keep up with a group. In this case, the group was a handful of people from other tours, but it was more about the time allowed for getting to the platform.
Once again, our guide to the rescue. Tim valiantly suggested that I go on ahead and he would catch up as he could – the guide staying with him, of course.
I was torn. I didn’t want to leave him behind, but I was getting eaten alive by mozzies and I didn’t want to miss the orangutan feeding. Also, our guide was the one helping him through the jungle, so my staying really wasn’t helpful. I went forward.
It was a strange feeling, suddenly being sent ahead alone, in a jungle. I knew they wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t safe, and easy to find the route, but I’m a city kid, so I had a moment of, wow, I’m all alone out here. Crap. Hope I don’t get lost.
After another ten minutes of solo tromping, I found the place. The feeding started shortly thereafter and I took a bunch of pictures.
The slight drawback to this feeding station, as opposed to the others we visited, was the distance. Visitors are kept further away at this one so as not to spook the recently rehabilitated apes. When Tim did arrive – not too much later, he couldn’t see the orangutans very well.
On the way back to the boat, I stayed within sight of Tim and the guide, happily snapping pictures of the jungle. However, once again at the treacherous mosquito point, I scurried ahead.
Usually I stick pretty close to Tim, but I really appreciate his, and the guide’s, willingness to let me run off and do what was best for me in this situation.
We got back to the boat, hot, sweaty and itchy, but still happy. Our first stop, despite the drawbacks, was a good adventure. We didn’t know it at the time, but the next two outings were going to be very eventful, and even better (with fewer mosquitos).
Tanjung Harapan – Rehabilitation Center
After a fun night on the boat, we headed out early to Tanjung Harapan Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. This location had a wonderful rustic, wooden walkway for part of the trek. That, and a section that passed through a grove of trees newly replanted trees was much smoother for Tim.
Though, of course, the end of the hike still had to have some wicked tree roots to challenge the blind man. After the first day, our guide arranged for us to be allowed to go ashore early so we could make the feeding on time.
We paused at a ranger station to have a drink and as we sat, I noticed something crawling on the tree branches. I don’t mean up close, I mean I saw these things from ten feet away. I almost thought they were mice, but that didn’t make sense in the jungles of Indonesia.
Upon closer examination, and asking our guide, I discovered they were ANTS. Giant forest ants. Seriously, a good two inches long and with body bulk to match. Our guide caught one and helped us get the picture. He said that the big ones weren’t dangerous (obviously he’d never seen Them!) and were actually quite docile. It was the little red ants in the forest that you really had to watch out for.
Side Note: We love Indonesia, but you should know it has bugs. Big bugs, colorful bugs, fascinating bugs, wicked looking bugs. We have a whole host of amusing bug stories from our travels, and 90% of them come from Indonesia. So just know, when you go to Indonesia – and you should – they’ve got some monster-size bugs.
We get to the feeding station with plenty of time. Amongst the other groups there, one young woman was sitting on the ground and I had the pleasure of pointing out the giant ant that was walking past her. She jumped up with a yelp, and then a laugh, and found a seat on the bleachers.
One orangutan, a youngish male, showed up before the feeding officially started. Completely ignoring the crowd, he crossed in front of the platform, walked diagonally toward us and right under the blue rope that kept us at a safe distance (for their protection). He was just passing through, on his way to somewhere, and he kept going.
Later, we learned what to do if an orangutan initiated contact.
We had much closer seats for this feeding station, and Tim could see more. Being this close was great because the orangutans would come in from all angles, so sometimes we’d hear them in the trees and they’d be swinging in right above us.
This is where you learn to appreciate the strength and scale of the orangutans. Their long, powerful limbs allow them to move through the trees with purpose and intent. They are not small and it is pure, lean muscle that propels them.
There definitely seemed to be a hierarchy to the feeding, but the intricacies weren’t something we could decipher in a single visit. The females, usually with children, seemed to be very aware of which males were around and chose their eating partners carefully; sometimes retreating to the trees with a handful of bananas when certain males came around.
We had a surprise appearance when there was a lull in the arrival of orangutans. A gibbon showed up. Swinging with acrobatic skill and seeming weightlessness, it made its way through the trees with ease to the platform. It had only a few moment to steal a portion of bananas before one of the large male orangutans showed up and the gibbon quickly swung out of there.
The parade of orangutans continued until everyone had their fill, and we made the walk back to the klotok.
After lunch, we would be going to Camp Leakey. We had no idea that it would include a close encounter with a queen orangutan.
Camp Leakey and the Tale of Tim’s Close Encounter with the Queen Orangutan
Once again they allowed us to start a little early on the trek to Camp Leakey. After a long walk over an elevated, wooden pathway, we had to sign in at the headquarters. I broke off to do that while Tim and our guide went on ahead. The beginning of this walk had a very obvious path.
While I was getting us signed in, Tim had his first close wildlife encounter that afternoon. A wild boar came up behind him and our guide. The guide was very nonchalant about it, but when he told Tim the boar was back there, Tim had to look.
Even with his bad eyes, the large boar was close enough for Tim to see – like 5-10 yards away. It followed them for a couple of minutes and then wandered off. By the time I got there, it was following the people in front of us and only making occasional appearances.
An arrow-shaped sign signaled our required diversion from the straight and smooth dirt track.
If the first trek was ‘stereotypical jungle’, and the second one was ‘easy jungle’, then the hike to this feeding station would have to be ‘serious jungle’.
We dove down the path through the trees. The dappled sunlight diminished to almost dusk as clouds appeared, blocking what little light that was making its way through. Even with the deeper, darker feel of this trek, Tim says the first one was harder for him. While densely forested, this path didn’t have as many strange obstacles.
Still, it was slow going, but the staff at Camp Leakey have a policy of not starting the feeding until all visitors have arrived. Since this is the main research and educational center, this approach makes sense.
If you’re not familiar, Camp Leakey was established in central Borneo by Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas in 1971. It’s named in honor of her mentor, paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey, who also inspired Dr. Diane Fossey (who studied gorillas in Rwanda) and Dr. Jane Goodall (who studied chimpanzees in Tanzania).
By this time, the feedings had become familiar but it was still interesting to watch the orangutans’ interactions. The interesting poses, how they handled their young and who were allies and rivals – maybe, if we were interpreting correctly. Also, of course plenty of photographic opportunities.
As usual, we were the last ones out, lagging behind as Tim picked his way through the jungle. But that’s the nice part about this tour, we only had to get back to our own boat. No group was waiting. The only downside – it started to rain. So we gave all our electronics, including phone and camera, to our guide who had a dry bag. Nothing was going to happen on this little walk back to the boat. Right?
You see, Tim, with all of his difficulties, tends to attract a bit of an entourage when we’re doing certain activities – like hiking and handling difficult terrain.
Well, as we neared the research headquarters, this caught the attention of one of the old orangutan queens. Someone was getting a lot of attention and it wasn’t her.
Admittedly, she was a retired queen, but maybe that made this human stealing the show even more intriguing.
She started following us from within the tree line along the path. The guides and rangers noticed and closed loosely around Tim while trying to keep her at a distance. They told Tim that if she grabbed him, to simply stop and let her hold him.
For my part, I helped seal the space around Tim, and I had my hiking stick at the ready. I would never have hit her. That would have been wrong and foolish on many levels. But I was ready to place it between her and Tim as a deterrent. I also tried to make it clear to her with my body language that I was protecting him. (I have no idea if that did any good.)
But the queen had her own agenda, and in her own way, she seemed to want to prove that she was still important, too.
As we watched, she walked out of the tree line and right up alongside of Tim. He could have reached out and touched her. Then she sped up, cut across his path to make him stop short, and continued on.
She wasn’t one of the largest orangutans, and Tim didn’t even realize it was the queen that had come up next to him. He thought she was a large dog. Yes, his eyes are that bad.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The queen hadn’t grabbed him, or done anything aggressive – other than let him know he wasn’t all that.
Our guide shared stories with us of times when various orangutans got up to mischief and would hold someone’s legs for up to an hour until they finally got bored. Fortunately, these are rehabilitated orangutans and they know how to interact with humans without hurting them.
We made it back to the boat with no further incidents, and a great story.
Wrapping It Up
The last day on the klotok was relaxed and a little sad. We’d had a lot of fun and regretted that our experience seeing the Borneo orangutans was coming to an end.
However, it was a great day to get more photos of the river. The crew took us searching for crocodile, while still in the boat, but we were unsuccessful.
We did get one more surprise, though. A large, wild, male orangutan appeared near the river bank. The captain guided the klotok close gently, so as not to startle him. I was able to get a few pictures before he retreated into the dense jungle foliage.
If you’ve ever wanted to go jungle trekking and searching for wildlife, Kalimantan, Indonesia is a great place to do it. The houseboat river cruise is great, the hikes are reasonable and you’re guaranteed to see orangutans. This is easily one of the best travel experiences we’ve ever had.
Trust us – put this trip on your bucket list.
What to Bring on Your Orangutan Tour in Borneo
Most of this is pretty straightforward, but we definitely have a few recommendations based on our experience.
- Comfortable, lightweight hiking clothes. These shirts from Columbia Sportswear are awesome for this.
- Good hiking shoes that have been broken in for at least a month before this adventure.
- Mosquito repellent – preferably with high DEET content.
- Permethrin spray for clothing – apply it before you come to Indonesia to block mosquitos. It lasts several washings.
- Sun hat that’s well-ventilated.
- Hiking stick – a collapsible one is pretty easy to pack.
- Small backpack – for change of clothes and other essentials.
- Compact backpack or tote – they will keep you well-fed on the boat, but it still may be good to bring a few of your favorite snacks and drinks. Or for other sundry items.
- Darn Tough socks – they’re smart wool, but don’t think they’ll make your feet toasty. They’re very sturdy and keep the moisture away from your skin. Perfect for hiking.
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