The silence is deafening. With eyes fixed firmly on the dense jungle canopy above us, nobody dares move a muscle. We sit, we watch and we wait, cameras at the ready, for what feels like an eternity.
Then, a crack. The sound of snapping branches pierces the air like a starter gun at an athletics carnival, announcing the imminent arrival of a visitor. There’s a sharp, collective intake of breath and everyone’s frame straightens in anticipation. Eyes are turned skywards, desperately scanning the trees for that telltale flash of orange.
Suddenly, a gibbon crashes clumsily onto the feeding platform in front of us, scrawny arms quickly grabbing at a pile of bananas like there’s never going to be more. It’s a cheeky reminder to expect the unexpected out here in a remote corner of Indonesia, and enough to send a quiet ripple of laughter through the small crowd that has assembled. With an awkward hop, skip and a jump the furry gatecrasher is gone, disappearing back into the trees with its prized fruit bounty.
And just like that, the leaves stop rustling, a silence descends on the tropics once more and people shift back into their holding positions. The long, hopeful wait for an orangutan sighting recommences.
My journey to Tanjung Puting National Park in search of endangered orangutans actually began back in the Northern Territory, on a 16-night Darwin to Bali cruise with Silversea. The voyage kicked off, as all good adventures do, with a hint of drama and impending doom thanks to a magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck in the Banda Sea. Although no tsunami alerts were issued, buildings in the Darwin CBD were evacuated and departure was delayed until the following morning.
Not that any extra time spent on board the mighty Silver Discoverer, which is on its final tour for Silversea, is a bad thing. This 103-metre-long vessel is home to a gym, pool, beauty and massage centre, multiple lounge areas and a 24-hour personal butler service. Then there are the staff members, including an insanely knowledgeable and dedicated team of expedition leaders, who outnumber the guests.
To say myself and the other passengers are well looked after would be an enormous understatement. After all, this is the type of cruise where the crew behind the bar knows my drink order by day two (soda with lime in the afternoon, Aperol spritz come evening), high tea is served daily at 4pm sharp and dinner is a five-course feast.
Joining us for the entirety of the trip is Dr Birute Mary Galdikas, widely considered the world’s leading authority on orangutans. She founded the non-profit Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), which manages Camp Leakey, a base for researchers, scientists and students to study these majestic animals in Tanjung Puting National Park, the largest protected area of swamp forest in Southeast Asia.
The gateway to Tanjung Puting is the port of Kumai, in the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan, which is where the Silver Discoverer docks upon our arrival in the region. Rather than head straight into the jungle we first travel to the nearby village of Pasir Panjang, where the Orangutan Care Centre and Quarantine Facility is located. Established in 1998 by the OFI, this wonderful centre looks after injured, orphaned, ex-captive and rescued orangutans, raising and rehabilitating them in the hope they can be released back into the wild.
Normally closed to the public, with Dr Birute as our guide we are granted special access to the centre. After a briefing and thorough scrub-down (everyone is required to wear surgical masks so as not to pass any germs to the infants) we are lead to the enrichment area, which resembles a children’s playground complete with tyre swings, monkey bars and rope bridges. Dr Birute offers a final piece of advice: “Hold on to your hats.”
A troop of young orangutans aged between one and three years old soon emerges. Each ape is holding the hand of its carer. Expecting a docile, gentle experience with these orphaned cuties (yes, my lack of time spent with actual toddlers meant I had no idea what I was in for), I was instead immediately set upon by two handsy youngsters determined to climb me like their favourite tree. I look around for support with a half-nervous, half-thrilled grin plastered to my face, only to realise that everyone else is in exactly the same predicament.
Arms are being yanked, t-shirts tugged and all those not holding on to their hats have them promptly stolen. It is half an hour of total chaos and hilarity, and yet it is completely impossible not to fall in love with these innocent creatures, who are like humans in so many ways but still so vulnerable. Thanks to one particularly brazen orangutan, who swiped my surgical mask in one fell Tarzan-esque swoop leaving behind a pretty decent scar, there’s no chance I’ll be forgetting the special encounter any time soon.
Later that evening, back on the ship, I get the chance to have a chat with Dr Birute about her lifelong dedication to these great apes, which she says stems from her early childhood.
“Ever since I was a child I was very interested in where humans came from,” she explains. “As I grew into adolescence that curiosity developed into a fascination with orangutans, because they were the most mysterious of the great apes, and very little was known about them.
“There’s just something about their eyes – it’s a very human gaze. When they look at you, it’s like looking at another person.”
Her studies in zoology and psychology would lead her to an encounter with renowned paleoanthropologist, archaeologist and future mentor, Louis Leakey (after whom Camp Leakey is named), and later Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. Their groundbreaking research of primates in a field traditionally dominated by men would see the trio dubbed the Trimates.
On journeying to Indonesia and setting up Camp Leakey in 1971, she admits there was an “unknown element” to Borneo that was both terrifying and exciting. Despite leech bites that never healed, tropical diseases, warnings from loggers and poachers and one sole orangutan bite (which Dr Birute says “was completely my fault”), she would stay for the next 48 years, making remarkable breakthrough discoveries and observations about the orangutans that would eventually earn her worldwide acclaim among the scientific community.
For now though, her focus is on securing the future of the orangutan. Deforestation remains the number one threat to their existence, with land (often illegally) being cleared for palm oil plantations, timber mills and mining. And while donations and money raised through the OFI go towards buying back as much of this land as possible, it’s a hugely expensive process. Which is why, Dr Birut explains, there’s been a recent shift towards encouraging more tourism opportunities, like the cruise I’m on, within the region.
“You don’t want it to be the case that wildlife has to pay for itself, but I think tourism is one way the orangutan population can be helped,” she says.
“And the most important thing people can do to help the great apes – and not just orangutans, but all apes – is to visit the habitat.”
I ponder this as I sit huddled in the depths of hot and humid Tanjung Puting, insects landing lazily on my sticky limbs and sweat dripping down my already drenched back. Since my conversation with Dr Birute the trip with Silversea has taken on a whole new, far more significant meaning. While it would be easy to let the fatigue of a 5am wake-up call, almost five-hour expedition up the Sekonery River in both a Zodiac and an ageing, swaying klotok (Indonesian river boat) set in, I can’t help but think how vital it is to support places like Camp Leakey, especially if we want to guarantee the existence of creatures like the orangutan long after our current generation is gone.
I’m lost deep in thought, but a muffled gasp and the sudden thrashing of trees snaps me back to reality. A towering, shaggy-haired ginger figure emerges into the clearing. It’s a male orangutan with long, powerful arms and large cheek pads that indicate maturity and give off pretty smug king-of-the-jungle vibes.
Amid a hushed chorus of “oh my god” and plenty of wide-eyed pointing and gesturing from everyone watching on (myself included), he slowly but surely makes his way to the feeding platform, one eye on the fruit, the other on us.
All of a sudden, it’s as if his approval of the feast is the green light for other orangutans to approach. A mother and her adorable baby promptly materialise from the treetops and tentatively make their way from vine to vine to the podium, while another female also emerges looking for a snack. A smaller male isn’t far behind. We’re suddenly witness to some kind of primates-only dinner party, and although I’m completely entranced, I divert my eyes for a second to chance a sneaky look at Dr Birute, who is smiling as if she knew this is exactly what was going to happen all along.
I couldn’t tell you how long we sat there in the jungle, simply watching the wild orangutans go about their business, so close to where Dr Birute set up her base all those years ago.
But I do know that if witnessing something this magical doesn’t stir some kind of emotion, or some desire to live better, do better and make better choices in relation to the world we live in, then I’m not really sure what else would
Qantas flies return daily to Darwin from all major Australian cities.
For more information on the Orangutan Foundation International and the work it does, or to make a donation, adopt an orangutan or visit Tanjung National Park and Camp Leakey, visit the OFI website.