Doyok is uncomfortably human. He reaches for bananas and we watch as he sucks out the flesh, then we listen as he sucks his fingers, one by one. I glance at my kids to be sure they’re not taking notes.
A smaller female appears, with a baby on board. The infant cheekily grabs choice pieces of banana from Doyok. We all watch in silence.
Established in 1971, Camp Leakey is the heart of Tanjung Puting’s orangutan program; the park is home to one of the world’s largest wild orangutan populations (some 30,000 to 40,000). Visited by klotok (a traditional river boat), feeding centres allow tourists to witness orangutans in the semi-wild. The concept is not without detractors, but tourists bring badly needed revenue. Our klotok is managed by Ambo, who began working as a guide in 2001, then bought a secondhand boat, and today runs four klotoks.
As with most Indonesian national parks, Tanjung Puting faces challenges, including encroachment by palm oil plantations, illegal logging and gold mining. Plans announced earlier this week to move the Indonesian capital from Jakarta to a newly constructed city near Balikpapan in East Kalimantan province, some 1000 kilometres away by road from the park, could forever change the scene, though perhaps less than if a closer location had been chosen. Tourism though, if managed, shows promise.
Klotoks come in many varieties, and we’ve gone mid-range. With just our family of four on board, the boat, which can fit 12, has oodles of space. We sleep on the deck, jungle night air flowing over us, with mattresses shrouded in mosquito nets. Beanbags provide lounging and a dining area is comfortable. Luxury additions, including aircon, are available on other klotoks, though aircon needs a generator, which masks the jungle hubbub.
Our trip starts at the port town of Kumai, from where we cruise south on the Kumai River, then tack east on the Sekonyer River. As we progress, the river narrows. To our right lies national park: towering forest rich with wildlife. To the left, riverbank palms interspersed with the occasional village form a buffer zone to vast palm oil plantations running north. The difference is stark.
Ambo’s assistant guide, Heri, spots our first proboscis monkey. They’re endemic in the area, and by our third day a sighting won’t even have my kids lift their eyes. On day one, though, they’re captivated as dozens in each tree catapult themselves across the canopy.
At Camp One, an information centre explains the history of the park and its inhabitants. It’s at that feeding platform that we see our first orangutan.
With the klotok tied up for the night, the proboscis monkey show entertains as light fades. The longer we watch, the more we realise they don’t always pull off their acts. They crash into the undergrowth, and sometimes splash into the river. Or maybe they’re just monkeying around.
The next morning we arrive at Camp Two’s feeding platform, further into the forest. More orangutans, including Doyok, appear for breakfast. It isn’t until mid-afternoon on day two of our trip that we turn down a narrow waterway for the final leg to Camp Leakey. The park is now on both banks, river water a reflective black, forest soaring above, birds and monkeys everywhere. We see our first orangutan nest, a thrown-together platform of twigs, leaves and branches in a tree.
A torrential monsoon hits and we glide atop rain-dappled water, hypnotised. Twice we spy evil-looking false gharial crocodiles. They vanish into the depths, enhancing their wicked demeanour. On arrival at Camp Leakey, signs proclaim Don’t swim in the river, as if we need to be told.
Camp Leakey underwhelms. While we do see orangutans at the feeding centre, forest cover is limited, and the more organised seating makes it feel a bit contrived.
The last morning, I wake early. In near-total darkness, I listen as the jungle wakes. Insects screech and gibbons hoot as the sun’s first rays pierce the gloom. It is other-worldly and magical.
It’s a jungle out there
WHEN TO GO
July and August are peak season, with crowds of European holidaymakers. The shoulder season between March and June, and in September, are much better times to go. If you visit during the Christmas/New Year break, be sure to pack a raincoat.
The guide, Ambo, does not have a website, but he can be contacted via WhatsApp on +62 813 4900 9616 or via his email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rimba Orangutan Ecolodge offers more upmarket aircon boats and accommodation by the park. ecolodgesindonesia.com
Kalimantan is a malaria risk area; check with your travel doctor before visiting. Dengue fever is also a problem. Always use a mosquito net.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Prices vary depending on the boat and agent. For two people, expect to pay seven million rupiah ($725) for a two-night trip. This should include full board, park admission, park tips and airport transfers. Four people costs about 9.5 million rupiah ($985).
Because of past communal violence in this province, alcohol is banned. Some captains can arrange a black-market supply, but prices are high.