As our boat nears Camp Leakey we can’t believe our eyes when we see two orangutans on the jetty. They are orange blobs in the distance, but we excitedly take many photos. Fardi our guide tells us they are Peta and her baby Petra and they often wait at the jetty to meet the visitors.
Camp Leakey is situated at the branch of the Sekonyer River in Tanjung Puting National Park in Borneo, Indonesia. It’s home to the last of the orangutans that were rehabilitated here. A passionate Birute Galdikas set up Camp Leakey in 1971 with a few huts in the jungle accessible only by dugout canoe. She began documenting the ecology and behavior of wild orangutans for the first time. Birute brought the attention of the orangutans to the rest of the world and is the foremost authority on them.
Camp staff supplements the diet of the free-roaming orangutans with bananas. This discourages competition between the ex-captive orangutans and the wild population. The orangutans approach the feeding platforms from the tree canopies in the forest. This provides a great opportunity to observe them up close in their natural environment.
When we arrive at Pangkalan Bun airport, Fardi our guide meets us. We transport to Kumai where we board our traditional river boat called a klotok. This takes us on the 4-hour journey upriver to Camp Leakey. The rest of the local crew greet us; our captain Sabri, our cook Imbran and deckhand Udin. They serve us a welcome drink and over the next few days we experience first-class service and Indonesian hospitality.
We love our basic but comfortable klotok. Downstairs is the crew’s quarters and the kitchen. The top deck is all ours and from here we watch hornbills fly overhead, orangutans build their nests in trees on the riverbank and Proboscis monkeys swing from the trees at dusk. At times we share the deck with an orangutan, and a gibbon called Boy drops in while we have lunch. At night we dine by candlelight and sleep on a soft mattress on the deck in the open air. The clear night sky overflows with stars above us. We go to sleep listening to the gentle waves and the river breeze cooling us.
Imbran serves up amazing culinary delights with only a small gas burner and a few pots and pans in the little area below. He prepares scrumptious and authentic Indonesian meals served three times a day with plenty of snacks in between.
Over the next few days, we not only experience the friendliness and warmth of the locals but we encounter the most heartwarming moments with primates that we will treasure for the rest of our life. Our days are spent with the orangutans and other wildlife in the rainforest. We meet the macaques, gibbons and orangutans including the notorious Unyuk and her baby Ulexa. We get to know the individual orangutans, and their intelligence and human-like sense of humour never cease to amaze us.
Unyuk & Ulexa
On our first day when returning from a trek in the jungle Unyuk stops me on the walking track and feels my body all over like a security check. She pats my pockets to see if I have a treat for her. My uncertainty turns to excitement when I feel her gentleness. Her ginger fur sticks up all over the place like a bad hair day, and I notice her ginger eyelashes. I look into her brown treacle eyes and see crafty shrewdness, but I also see eyes that are passive and gentle. “We nickname her Trouble,” says Fardi. Unyuk is an ex-captive mistreated orangutan who has been at Camp Leakey for 37 years.
Peta & Petra
One afternoon while relaxing on the deck the klotok starts rocking as Peta makes a mad rush on the deck and grabs a packet of chocolate chip biscuits, dropping most of them in her haste. Back on the jetty, Peta and Petra greedily lick the empty packet and the crumbs off their lips. Later in the afternoon, we are ecstatic when Peta makes a nest in a tree across from our boat. The next couple of nights they cheekily watch over us.
A 27-year-old ex-captive orangutan called Doyak is the dominant male and rules the platform close to Camp Leakey. With his distinctive cheek pads and stature, he looks like Chewbacca the Wookiee from Star Wars. Some orangutans are allowed on the platform and some are not. They nervously check to make sure it’s safe and that he’s not looking before descending from the trees, grabbing a bunch of bananas and making a run for it. Some are not fast enough to avoid a thump over the head from him.
During a storm, an orangutan called Siswe picks ferns, leaves and branches and arranges them on her head like an umbrella. Her eyes are crinkled and full of laughter as we get drenched. She loves the attention of photographers and plonks herself right in front of us. She is often seen lying around on the jetty with her legs waving in the air. From grooming herself to eating a banana, everything Siswe does is done in a theatrical way. Siswe is the only female orangutan at camp with no baby. An infection which nearly killed her years ago made her infertile. Born in 1978, she was the first baby born to a rehabilitated orangutan at Camp Leakey. Her mum Siswoyo was kept in a tiny cage and barely able to walk when she was brought to Camp Leakey in 1975.
Akhmad & Atlas
One morning we have the camp to ourselves. Akhmad and her 7-year-old son Atlas follow us back to the boat. Akhmad is also an ex-captive orangutan and has lived at Camp Leakey since 1975. She is very friendly and eight months pregnant, and I hope she will give birth during our visit. The morning is spent with them on the jetty and we get so close to them, that they lay down beside us while we read. The highlight is when Akhmad hesitantly holds her hand out for me and I offer her my hand and she holds it firmly.
Tut & Tor
Tut and her baby girl Tor wait in the camp and they are the first orangutans we see every morning when we leave our klotok. One morning Tut snatches our water bottle and guzzles the water as quickly as she can with most of the water dribbling down her chin and her ginger beard. They are a beautiful pair and Tut dotes on Tor; always playing with her, grooming and giving her lots of cuddles and attention, sometimes with ruthless thoroughness.
Gina & Gam
Usually swinging in the trees together, Gina and Gam are two of the quietest orangutans at Camp Leakey. Being quiet though doesn’t make them any less curious and cheeky. They reach out to grab us once we walk past and when we turn around they both look innocent and pretend to have not done anything. Their eyes sparkle with the familiar mischievousness that we have come to know.
Our morning of departure arrives too quickly. We won’t forget our time here with these gentle red furballs full of personality and we will visit again. As our klotok moves away from Camp Leakey I look back and see Peta on the jetty watching us depart. The sun highlights her fur marmalade orange. I watch until she is nothing but a dark shadow in the distance.
Camp Leakey gives these ex-captive orangutans a chance to reproduce and be truly wild. Baby orangutans are in the arms of their mothers where they belong. Only some of the rehabilitated orangutans hang around the camp. Most went wild and were never seen again. Though capable of living in the jungle independently, some love hanging around to interact with staff and visitors.
Information on the Orangutans and Camp Leakey
We travelled via Denpasar as it’s the perfect trip to finish with a stopover in Bali.
Flights from Denpasar (Bali) via Surabaya to Pangkalan Bun.
There are direct flights from Jakarta to Pangkalan Bun.
Based on two people, our 4 day/3 night package with the Orangutans at Camp Leakey $353 USD per person includes:
Return transfers from and to Pangkalan Bun Airport
All transfers and travel to Camp Leakey
Accommodation and scrumptious meals on the klotok
Three days of rainforest trekking to orangutans
Shorter and longer packages are available.
This trip is suitable for the young and elderly. The treks into the jungle are not strenuous or uphill and are only about 20-30 minutes long.
We covered up and wore long pants and long-sleeved shirts between dusk and dawn and used insect repellent to protect us from mosquito bites.
Some health professionals recommend malaria medication.
Mosquito nets are supplied on the klotok at night.
Dietary requirements are catered for if advised at the time of booking.
Cakes and decorations can be arranged for special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries if advised at time of booking.
Buy snacks or soft drinks before departure, as once on the klotok there is no chance of buying anything.
Best time to visit Camp Leakey
Hot and humid all year-round with temperatures ranging from 23°C to 35°C and humidity sometimes over 90%.
The wet season is from November to April.
The dry season is from May to October.
The busiest time in the park is June to October.
The best weather and less chance of rain are in June, July and August.
During the wet season, there are fewer orangutans hanging around as there is more fruit in the rainforest for them.
November and December are perfect times to visit as it is just the beginning of the wet season and the rain is often at night. There are still plenty of orangutans and without the crowds.
All throughout the year, there is a chance of showers, so pack a light rain jacket and protection for camera equipment.
Our guide was Fardi from Orangutan HouseBoat Tours, a local company owned by Fardi himself. He was a guide with the orangutans for ten years until he set up his own company. He is fantastic to deal with from the very first communication to the end. He answers all queries promptly and nothing is too much trouble. If you want to see orangutans in their natural habitat we recommend booking with Fardi. He is special and has so much passion, knowledge and respect for the orangutans. He and the crew go out of their way to make it a trip of a lifetime for their guests.
Estimates put the current population of orangutans at about 60000 with an average of 3000 killed each year. At this rate orangutans could be extinct within 50 years. The main threat is the destruction of their rainforest home for the production of palm oil. They are also an easy target for hunters who kill them for food or in retaliation for them being on agricultural land. With the females giving birth to a baby about once every 5 years their reproductive rate is low, which makes it almost impossible to recover from population decline. Their numbers continue to fall and if we don’t act now and demand more action they will be lost forever.