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Saturday, 07 February 2009

Camp Leakey Orangutan Preserve: Kalimantan, Borneo

Written by Pat Drinkwater
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Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, is known for two main attractions that draw curious travelers to its shores. One, Kalimantan is Joseph Conrad country -- The land of rivers where his romantic stories of Lord Jim and Tom Lingard, Kaspar Almayer and Axel Heist, took place.  It was a much different Borneo in those days but there are still plaques everywhere telling visitors that they were standing where Lord Jim once stood.  The second appeal to visitors is that Kalimantan is also home to the only red-haired primates in the world. My interest in Kalimantan? Nothing against Joseph Conrad, but I went for the Orangutans.

Camp Leakey Orangutan Preserve: Kalimantan, Borneo, Orangutans Borneo, volunteer with Orangutans, Camp Leakey Preserve, orphaned orangutans, Tanjung Puting National Park, Sekonyer River, Kumai River, Joseph Conrad country, Pat DrinkwaterOrangutans have always fascinated me. Their expressive faces and early human mannerisms are truly a wonder.  And I was finally on my way to their sanctuary. We sailed into the Kumai River and anchored out, all the while I wondered how long it would take to get to the Tanjung Puting National Park, the park which housed the Camp Leaky Orangutan Preserve where they were protected. As it turned out I didn’t have to wait very long. Ambo, our guide, came motoring up and asked us when we would want to see the monkeys.  Our group had two choices. We could either go with the slower boat and stay overnight -- food, water, showers and shade all included -- or we could press on and opt for the extended day tour. The hunger, thirst, sweat and exhaustion had already gotten to us – the choice was not a difficult one.

As we slowly made our relaxing trip to the rest site, we heard Mary, another traveler, over the short-wave radio telling us a female orangutan, Princess, had been so infatuated with her purse that there was no stopping the primate from taking it.  The Orangutans arms were so long the guide could do nothing to retrieve the shoplifted bag. After tasting the sunscreen, lipstick and mints in Mary’s bag, Princess knew that lipstick went on the lips and sunscreen on the arms. The group laughed so loud I could barely hear mary over the short-wave radio.

After a restless night of sleep, Ambo arrived bright and early the following morning and we were off.  The Kumai River was muddy brown and the banks of the river were lined with palm bushes. From Kumai, we shot off into the much smaller Sekonyer River. This small river was named after a Dutch schooner that once sunk into the river.  As we continued our journey towards the preserve, the water slowly darkened to a cocoa black and the bank’s vegetation began to change to grasses and trees.  Ambo informed us that the rain forest itself was to blame for this strange occurrence – when the rain forest leaves dropped into the water, the tannin chemicals from the foliage turned the river crystal black.

We passed several of the slower boats and heard that they had seen swimming monkeys and water snakes up ahead.  The crocodiles that teemed throughout the river were timid around the sounds of our boat engines – this gave other animals of the rain forest a chance to take advantage of the Kumai’s black waters, free from attacks of these ferocious predators.


Camp Leakey Orangutan Preserve: Kalimantan, Borneo, Orangutans Borneo, volunteer with Orangutans, Camp Leakey Preserve, orphaned orangutans, Tanjung Puting National Park, Sekonyer River, Kumai River, Joseph Conrad country, Pat DrinkwaterAfter a quick lunch, we began our hike into the forest.  We started our trek through fields that had been reclaimed as farmland.  This scenery quickly changed as we made our way through the tunnel-like rainforest canopy.  The air became damp and was scented with a fresh, earthy smell.  Keeping a sharp lookout for the tangled roots in the path, we happened upon a clearing with a platform that seemed sharply out of place.  We came to learn that tour guides often put bananas on the platform to attract any orangutans nearby. At times they show up and the bolder ones prove their self-worth by hogging up all of the fruit – a worthwhile benefit to any alpha male. These bolder and more aggressive alpha males are often characterized by a calloused face skin resulting from high levels of testosterone. These marks are a warning to all others that he is a force to be reckoned with.


Camp Leakey Orangutan Preserve: Kalimantan, Borneo, Orangutans Borneo, volunteer with Orangutans, Camp Leakey Preserve, orphaned orangutans, Tanjung Puting National Park, Sekonyer River, Kumai River, Joseph Conrad country, Pat DrinkwaterOne male in particular, dubbed Tom by the park staff, was the King of Camp Leaky.  A female showed up with her offspring and, very cautiously, reached over Tom’s massive body to snag a few bananas.  With an elegant speed, she hastily ran up a tree to her patiently waiting youngsters and distributed the stolen bananas amongst them.  Tom would only share with a few females and the younger males would never dare attempt such a feat.  Generally, the large males, like Tom, are too heavy to climb trees. Instead Tom left the clearing with barely a rustle of leaves and instantly, he disappeared into the underbrush.  After he had left, the other orangutans clamored to the platform for any leftovers but there were only scraps.  The babies started roughhousing with each other until their mothers were ready to leave.  Then each one of them climbed up onto her back and they shimmied up the trees into the canopy above us. It was a beautiful sight to witness and it’s no wonder that orangutans were known to the natives of Kalimantan as the spirits of the forest.

Soon enough we continued on our trek and ventured to another site. Here we watched while park staff administered a daily portion of milk amongst the babies and young orangutans. My personal opinion had always been that wild animals were better off not being fed. This instance was the exception to the case -- Camp Leakey Preserve provided a haven for orphaned orangutans.  These orphaned orangutans need a mother for the first 6 years of life to maintain survival.  The preserve fills this need. It was interesting to see how the orangutans would not pick up the buckets of milk but instead, leaned over them and drank without getting too much on themselves. Their appropriate behavior fascinated me.

Overall, Camp Leaky boasts two famous orangutans and we had already met both of them. Of course there was Tom, the robust alpha male. We ‘met’ the other, Princess, on our boat ride into Kalimantan (the one who had stolen Mary’s purse.)  Princess has learned lots of signs and ‘speaks’ to the staff often; she loves hanging out at the preserve and views humans as amusement.

Camp Leakey Orangutan Preserve: Kalimantan, Borneo, Orangutans Borneo, volunteer with Orangutans, Camp Leakey Preserve, orphaned orangutans, Tanjung Puting National Park, Sekonyer River, Kumai River, Joseph Conrad country, Pat DrinkwaterSo far, the trip had been a complete success. We got to see plenty of orangutans and were surrounded by the beauty of a tropical rain forest. Things were going smoothly, but no trip is without problem. On our way back to Camp Leaky headquarters, a mother orangutan with a baby clinging to her back started walking ahead of our group. Occasionally, she would turn around and look back to see how close we were to her.  Of course we enjoyed this up close and personal experience so much that everyone would halt in their tracks and wait for her to begin walking again before continuing on. Unfortunately, one of the group members, John, was taking video shots and wasn’t paying attention to where he was stepping.  The mother orangutan took this as a threat. Without disturbing the baby on her back, she lunged at John and tackled him to the ground.  For a few seconds everyone was stunned but before anyone could move, she continued on her journey down the path.


The same day it started raining and we watched several babies gathering up leaves to cover themselves and their mothers.  Tom, the alpha male, was under the gazebo with a female taking a nap.  About ten visitors were huddled under the roof staying dry and watching Tom. Everything was peaceful at the preserve until Tom began showing off. Without reason, he got up and started throwing around the very heavy wood table and chairs.  The staff noticed that another male had made itself visible -- Tom’s behavior was getting out of control and he had to be subdued.  A member of the staff took a large stick and started beating it on the ground in front of Tom.  Tom noticed the stick, reacted a little, but did not stop his ranting.  The staff member yelled to someone in the house behind us and another Camp Leaky park official came running out with the heavy artillery…a slingshot.  Immediately, Tom stopped and ran into the underbrush.  We were so amused that no one noticed the female had come up and was standing with us under the roof staying dry from the rain.


Soon enough the rain stopped and it was time to head back to the river and continue back to our sailboat in the harbor.  In the soft light of the sinking sun we could see the trees full of proboscis monkeys (called Dutch monkeys by the locals because of their large, curved, impressive noses.)

Since my trip, I have told many of my friends that Bob had always wanted to hold an orangutan.  When we returned to our boat he confided in me that after seeing these powerful, wild creatures he was happy he didn’t. It is best to look and admire from afar.

For information about volunteering with orangutans:

If you see a caged orangutan go to the website and post a complaint.

©Pat Drinkwater is on the cruise of her lifetime.  She is traveling around the world on a 35’ sailboat and has memorable experiences every day.  This is not a vacation it is an adventure.

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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