Day 36-40: Boat trip to see orangutans in Borneo

I spent my birthday flying from my birthplace (Jakarta) to Borneo in Central Kalimantan. Borneo is an island shared by Malaysia and Indonesia and one of two places to see orang-utans.

Paul really wanted to see the orang-utans via a boat trip. The launching-off point for the trip is a dry town (no alcohol available) called Pangkalanbuun. Poor Paul was looking forward to enjoying some beers in the evenings while cruising down the river, but alas it wasn’t to be. We spent 3 days and 2 nights on the boat.

The deck of the boat was our living room, dining room and bedroom. The toilet/shower was downstairs. Toilets and showers on boats like this are far from comfortable and there’s no hot water but I made do. I say “I” because Paul didn’t mind it one bit.
These drab grey buildings actually house swiftlets who build nests with their saliva, which are then harvested and exported to China. It’s the main ingredient in bird’s nest soup and are worth a lot of money. Our guide Andreas says the buildings are owned by Chinese investors.
Welcome to Tanjung Puting National Park.
Our first meal onboard. The cook made the best meals! She even baked brownies. They also used coconut oil to cook wth instead of the palm oil that is destroying orang-utan habitat. Unfortunately for Elina, she got sick of the taste of coconut flavouring every dish.
Paul’s favourite perch.
Elina’s favourite place.
I want to hug a baby orang-utan!
We saw a few other boats doing the trip, but luckily it was low season. Apparently it gets really crowded during peak tourist season and the noise of many boat engines would probably have prevented us from seeing as many animals as we saw.

Camp Leakey

Although we had already spotted a number of orang-utans, there are a couple of official places to see the orang-utans in the National Park. They give them bananas, but “not too many” so they don’t get lazy and depend on people for food. One of the places you can view orang-utans at a feeding is at Camp Leakey.

“Camp Leakey was established in 1971 by Dr. Biruté Galdikas and former spouse Rod Brindamour. It was named after the legendary paleo-anthropologist, Louis Leakey, who was both mentor and an inspiration to Dr. Galdikas as well as Drs. Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.” From the Orangutan Foundation International website.

Boardwalk to Camp Leakey.
Elina is ready with a pair of binoculars.


In Bahasa, the word “orang” means person, and the word “utan” means forest. So, yes orang-utans translates to ‘forest person’. Orang-utans are endangered. They are only found on the island of Borneo and Sumatra.

Watch this short video from National Geographic about how they build their nests every day. Yep, that’s right a new nest every single day.

What’s hard to comprehend though is the devastating effects of the palm oil industry. No wonder orang-utans and other animals are endangered. Read this in-depth Guardian article about the environmental consequences.

The following photos of orang-utans are from various camps during feeding time. We spotted a few while chugging along on the boat too.

After waiting a while, Big Mama (not her real name) finally deems it safe enough to come down.
The adolescent female to the left is the daughter of Big Mama.
Big mama shoos her away …

Proboscis monkeys

Proboscis monkeys are also endangered animals and endemic to Borneo. They are great swimmers and their webbed feet helps them to escape the crocodiles hiding in the mangroves. We were told by our guide NEVER to jump into the river as it’s just too dangerous. One tourist was killed by a croc in 2002 at Camp Leakey.

This is the male – he of the very big nose – and he has a harem of about 2 to 7 females and their kidlets.
A mum and bub.
Looking at the monkeys from the roof of the boat.

Birds of Borneo

Birds are really hard to photograph. They can be small, hard to spot, move quickly, or fly off as you approach. So although we saw many birds – including herons, egrets, mynas and owls – here are the ones I managed to capture on camera.

An Oriental Pied Hornbill, I think.
I think this is a Crested Serpent Eagle.
The endangered Storm’s stork.

Other animals

Long-tailed macaques are really common and are not endangered. These guys are the same kind as the ones we saw in Bali.
These are two Bearded Pig piglets, they were running after their mum. They’re not endangered but are classified as “vulnerable”.

River life

These two people work in the National Park and they were paddling from the local village to work. They were using their flip-flops (thongs) as their paddles.
Our guide said this was a temporary village and the inhabitants are fisherman who sell fish to the people who work at the palm oil planation.

A tree fell in the forest

So two big trees had fallen and our captain got out and started chopping the trees. A few minutes later other boats arrived and they all worked together to chop up the tree.
As you can see it’s hard work.
While they were at work clearing the obstruction, we were served our lunch. So delicious!
An hour later the trees were cleared.

Pondok Kerja: Pesalat Reforestation Project

I have a fear of slipping. And these slippery, sometimes flimsy boards were ramping up my anxiety. I think it developed as a child having to walk to school on icy sidewalks during winters in Canada.
Paul spots a macaque mother and baby and is pointing it out to Elina.
We visited the reforestation project here. There’s been a lot of land cleared for palm oil farming. They guy who lives here has a quota to plant a certain number of trees. He also gets seedlings ready to plant and asked if we wanted to plant one each.
Paul loves durian so that’s what he planted. Elina and I planted Ubar, which bears a fruit that orang-utans eat.
This is a Durian Isu, a type of durian that grows in Borneo and a fruit that orang-utans like to eat. Paul had some and loved it.

Although I had to sleep on an uncomfortable mattress and use a very basic toilet and shower, I’m glad we did this boat trip. We all enjoyed it immensely, and if Paul had his way, he’d have stayed on the boat for a week (but would have made sure he bought a case of Bintang with him on the flight from Jakarta).

Words from Paul about the boat trip

I was quite pleased with the whole boat trip experience. Our tour operator/guide Andreas had worked in the national park for 12 years and was a real authority on the wildlife. He spent a lot of time at the bow looking out for animals; the boat captain was also pretty eagle-eyed and this paid off as we got to see quite a few wild orangutans, besides the rehabilitated ones who came to the feeding stations.

They were all on the west side of the river, because this is the side where all the palm oil plantations are, with only a two-km wide jungle corridor between the farms and the river, so orangutans don’t have much room to manoeuvre. The east side is the 400,000ha Tanjang Puting NP, so on that side they have plenty of space in which to wander.

Orangutans can’t swim: arms and legs are way too long for their torsos and they don’t have a tail, like monkeys, to stabilise them. The hour or so we spent watching the probiscus monkeys the first evening at sunset was the highlight for me, watching them brachiate so elegantly and the social interaction between the dominant male (big floppy nose), his females (smaller pointy nose) and the adolescent and baby monkeys.

Saw lots of birds (including an owl during the day!) and got to know a fair bit about them as Andreas had a book on Borneo birds on board. Even saw a water snake (interesting fact: freshwater river snakes non-venomous; saltwater sea snakes highly venomous).

The river seems remarkably free of pollution, at least of the plastic rubbish that is so common on riverbanks and beaches throughout Indonesia, but Andreas pointed out that the murkiness (it’s very brown) in the lower reaches is the result of channels that run into it from palm oil farms carrying waste water runoff.

We saw a number of these as we travelled upstream and the confluence was quite marked, with light brown water coming out of the channels, mixing with the darker brown of the river.

As you get further upstream, past most of channels where runoff from the palm oil farms flows into the river, the water gets less and less murky and darkens more. The final stretch of the river up to the last feeding station is bound by national park on each side, so no runoff at all from farms and the water is pure and jet black.