Visit to the Orangutans

The story of the Kumai River with its possibility of visiting an Orangutan Center first came to us from our Aussie friends on Flashdance in Curacao in 2002. From that day it was at the top of our wish-list of things to do during our trip through SE Asia. By the time we were ready to leave Bali, we still had no information about where to go other than the Kumai River in southern Borneo. The Indonesian section of Borneo is now called Kalimantan, but seems to be referred to as Borneo more often than not. We had decided that it would be foolish to make the stop in Borneo without better knowledge of exactly where we were going.

As luck would have it, we heard from Ron and Heather of Flashdance during our first day out from Bali, so it was back to the navigational maps with a renewed hope. We also sent feelers out to some friends participating in a rally of some 70 cruising boats headed northward from Darwin, Australia to Indonesia. Perhaps they had some friends who would have some waypoints and some additional information.

As we headed further north in our 300-mile crossing, the emails started to arrive. Perhaps we really could visit Kumai after all. Located 2/3 of the way to the west on the south side of Borneo and stretching some 40 miles south into the Java Sea is the peninsula known as Tanjung Puting. Its territory is home to the National Park of the same name founded in 1982. In 1971 a young woman from America named Birute Galdikas set the focus of the park in her work with the Orangutans. Perhaps you have read some of the articles in National Geographic about her work? There have been several written. There has also been a recent documentary done by Hallmark with Julia Roberts about the Wild Orangutans of Borneo. Most of this film was done in Tanjung Puting.

We arrived outside the river about 10:30 at night and put down the anchor for some sleep before the 12 mile trip upriver to find the village of Kumai. By early afternoon the next day we had located Herry (recommended by other cruisers) and had made all the arrangements for a two day trip up the Sekonyu River. The next morning at 8 AM our transportation arrived at Satori bringing a fellow named Jahmal to stay aboard Satori the whole time we were gone. Herry was our guide, his brother Jenny was the pilot, his sister Ati was the cook and his cousin was the boatboy. Five people for two whole days to take care of the two of us and our boat We immediately felt like royalty. This was definitely something we could get used to quickly!

See Photo #1 The Sekonyu is a tributary of the Kumai. To add to the usual silting of the rivers during the rainy season, the Sekonyu supports gold mining at its headwaters. Chocolate is the word to describe the main Sekonyu. The beginning of the river is quite wide and lined with Nipa Palms. The river then narrows appreciably and is skirted with Pandanus. We did see one crocodile on the way but are quite convinced that there were lots more we did not see. The park houses three centers for the care and rehabilitation of the orang. The first visit was to a ranger station to get our entry tickets. Here they are treating several orangutans in quarantine who have tuberculosis and hepatitis. After this visit we had our first meal aboard “The Spirit of the Forest”. There was the traditional rice and several dishes with veggies and meats in lovely sauces. Sander was smitten! He offered Ati a full time job aboard Satori and a trip to the USA in the process!

The afternoon found us 4 hours upriver at Camp Leakey. This is the research camp established by Dr. Galdikas in 1971 with the financial support of the Leakeys of Africa. Dr. Galdikas is now 59 and still going out every day to research her orang population. As we enjoyed the raised walkways through the jungle and the brand new visitors’ center, we could just begin to imagine the privations that Dr. Galdikas suffered to make it all happen.

Beneath the visitors’ center we saw our first Orang, Siswi. Herry pointed her out and explained that the red sarong that covered her had been stolen from one of the volunteers. Since a female orang has the strength of four human men, nobody has even contemplated trying to return the sarong to its original owner. Orangutans, whose name means “person of the forest” in Malay, are found only in Borneo and eastern Sumatra. There are four areas with centers for the study and rehabiltation of the Orang, two in the Malaysian States of Saba and Sarawak in NW Borneo. The Orangutan can live for close to 60 years. The female becomes sexually mature by age 15 and reproduces every 7-8 years. This is because the mother suckles the baby until about age 5 keeping the baby close all the time. At age 7 the offspring is ready to go out on its own.

The Orang lives a semi-solitary existence eating fruits mainly and sometimes some insects such as termites. Because they must range far to find enough to eat, they cannot afford the luxury of a living in a group. It is thought that the long childcare period is due to the mother’s need to teach baby Orang so many lessons for self-sufficiency. There are probably no more than 20,000 surviving in the wild with their numbers declining daily. Large-scale mining and mechanized logging pose considerable threats to the habitat; however, the escalation in illegal logging and the conversion of land into palm oil plantations are, by far, the most serious threats.

After learning of the habits and life styles of the orangs in the visitors center, we were privileged to meet the old dominant male of the area, Kosaswi. He wanders the camp as if he owns it now, but will still sit with his back to the humans facing out to the forest to “watch” for the presence of any dangerous stronger male. At 2:30 PM each day the camp workers carry bananas and milk out to a feeding station about 1 kilometer into the forest. The workers call out to the Orang along the way to let them know it is feeding time. We arrived at the feeding station before the rest of the tourist group. Actually, we were surprised to find a large group (about 35) of Americans there. They contribute heavily to the Orangutan Foundation and some visit the park every year. There was a mother and baby (about 7 years of age) at the feeding station when we arrived. They enjoyed some of the bounty until one of the workers called “Look out! Here comes Wyn!” He is the current dominant male and is a gorgeous specimen of male Orangutan. Notice the heavy cheek pads and the beard that identify the males. It felt like quite a privilege to see Wyn, but the downside was that it frightened all the other Orangutans from the feeding station. See Photo #2

Once back on the boat we were treated to a slow ride down and then back up the river to watch for animals in the wild. We saw the silver lipped macaque and the long-tail macaque. More exciting was the spotting of several groups of Proboscis Monkeys. The locals call them “Dutch” monkeys due to their extremely large noses. Where the Orangutans swing from tree to tree never losing contact with their supports, the Proboscis jumps. Because they are a large primate, their crashing around can get rather dramatic! We saw the beautiful local kingfisher with a light blue body, yellow head and red beak.

Even Herry was delighted when we spotted a Storm Stork in flight. There are only 100-150 of them remaining in Borneo – a very endangered species! That evening we slept on the side of the river in the jungle so that we could be present at another feeding at the Lokasi station at 9 AM. Here we were treated to the local dominant male, Gelombang, and also met Rosemary and her two offspring. Hers is a special story of adopting two orphaned babies as she had been barren to that time. Later she gave birth to two of her own, Rica (aged 5 or 6) and baby girl, Rotney (aged 1 yr 2 mo). Since Gelombang had taken over the feeding platform; Rosemary, with baby Rotney clinging to her fur fulltime, chose to sit with us on the visitors’ bench.

Photo #3 This was the greatest thrill of all – to see the relationship of mother to baby so close. It was quite clear that Rosemary considered Rica to be “on her own” as they scrapped over some of the bananas offered.

The whole trip was almost too much to absorb in such a short time period. To say that it was thrilling sounds too trite. It was such a privilege to witness this magnificent species of animal and gives us the chills to think that in a few years they may no longer even be in existence. What are we doing to our world? As you can probably imagine, we have taken lots of photos and short video clips beyond those that we are sending with this message. We hope that you will go to the “” to see them later and that you will check into the website if you are interested in learning more about the Orangutans and what you could do to help with their efforts to champion their cause.

We will be arriving at our destination within a few days…the Sebana Cove Marina. Satori will be allowed a good rest for about six months while we go traipsing about China and the rest of SE Asia.

We will continue to monitor our ***** email address even while traveling by land. Please let us hear from you when the spirit moves you. We miss you all!

Jane and Sander