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 tells us they are Peta and her baby Petra, and they often wait at the jetty to meet the visitors.
Our first night at camp, Peta makes a nest in a tree across from our boat. I am pleased and hope this means she will stay close.
Camp Leakey is situated at the branch of the Sekonyer River in Tanjung Puting National Park in Borneo and is 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 behaviour of wild orangutans for the first time. Birute brought the attention of the orangutans to the rest of the world and is the world’s foremost authority on them.
Camp staff supplement the diet of the free roaming orangutans with bananas to discourage 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.
We fly into Pangkalan Bun and are met by our guide Fardi from VisitOrangutan. We transfer to Kumai and board a traditional river boat called a klotok that takes us 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.
During the four-hour trip up the river, endangered black hornbills fly overhead and endemic Proboscis monkeys swing from the trees at dusk.
Nights are spent on the klotok and days visiting the orangutans. The klotok is basic but comfortable. Downstairs is the crew’s quarters and the kitchen. The top deck is all ours. We sleep on a soft mattress on the deck in the open air with the clear night sky overflowing with stars. 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 meet the macaques, gibbons and orangutans, including the notorious Unyuk and her baby Ulexa. Upon returning from a trek in the jungle, she 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.
One afternoon, as we relax on the boat, it starts to gently rock. Peta makes a mad rush 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 of crumbs.
A dominant male rules each platform. With their distinctive cheek pads and stature, they remind me of Chewbacca the Wookiee from Star Wars. Some orangutans are allowed on the platform and some are not. They nervously check to make sure it is safe before descending from the trees. Some grab a bunch of bananas and make a run for it. Some are not fast enough to avoid a thump over the head.
During a storm, an orangutan called Siswe picks ferns, leaves and branches and arranges them on her head like an umbrella. Her eyes are 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. Siswe is the only female orangutan at camp with no baby. An infection which nearly killed her a few 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.
One morning we have the camp to ourselves. Akhmad and her seven-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. We take many photos and try and get as close as possible. The highlight is when Akhmad hesitantly holds her hand out for me, and I offer her my hand and she holds it firmly.
Our morning of departure comes too quick. We won’t forget our time here with these gentle red furballs full of personality and we will visit again. I look back and see Peta on the jetty watching the klotok leave. 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. It should be noted 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. Most of the offspring live independent lives. Unyuk has given birth to six babies in total: Uranus, Udik, Untang, Uning, Ursula and currently Ulexa. Akhmad has given birth to five: Arnold (who mysteriously vanished at four years old), Arthax, Aria, Aldona and Atlas.
In a perfect world these orangutans would live in the wild with no close human contact, but unfortunately, it’s not a perfect world. The park gives the government some financial incentive and pressure to protect them and makes people more aware of their plight. Without Birute Galdikas and Camp Leakey, there would be a lot fewer orangutans today. Birute is as passionate today as she was 43 years ago. If anything, she needs more passion than ever before.
Orangutans are disappearing at a rate of 10 percent a year. If this rate of decline continues, breeding populations in the wild will be extinct within ten years. The jungle is disappearing at an alarming rate and without it, they cannot survive. It is a fight against time for survival.
Information on the Orangutans and Camp Leakey
Flights from Denpasar (Bali) to Pangkalan Bun per person /return ($260-$400 USD).
Flights are also available via Jakarta. We flew via Denpasar as it’s the perfect trip to finish with a stopover in Bali.
Another option from Australia and other countries is fly to Singapore to Pangkalan Bun.
Singapore to Surabaya with Garuda Indonesia $300 USD /person/return.
Surabaya to Pangkalan Bun with Trigana $185 USD /person/return
Some local tour operators will arrange and book the domestic flights.
We travel with VisitOrangutan Tours, a local company owned by Nanang who was a guide with the orangutans for ten years until he set up his own company based in Pangkalan Bun. They are fantastic to deal with from the very first email to the end. Ms Ute answers all email queries promptly, and nothing is too much trouble. They are one of the few companies that will arrange domestic flights to and from Pangkalan Bun for you. They arrange everything. Ask for Fardi. He is an outstanding guide!
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 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.
There are plenty of mosquitos at times. We covered up between dusk and dawn and used repellent though malaria medication is recommended. Mosquito nets are supplied on the klotok at night.
Tanjung Puting National Park is suitable to visit any time of the year. The best weather is in June, July and August, but this is also the busiest time.
Special dietary requirements are catered for. Special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, cakes and decorations can also be catered for 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.
Fardi now has his own Orangutan House Boat Tours
We recommend booking and travelling with Fardi. He has so much love, knowledge and respect for the orangutans and the environment. He and his crew go out of their way to make it a trip of a lifetime for their guests.
Email Fardi direct: firstname.lastname@example.org
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