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.

orangutans at camp leakey
Peta and her baby Petra

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.

Birute Galdikas
Birute Galdikas on the cover of
National Geographic 1975

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.

Doyok the dominant orangutan
Doyok the dominant male relaxes in a tree after grabbing bunches of bananas.

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.

orangutans at camp leakey
Gina and her baby Gam

Camp Leakey

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.

Akhmad
Beautiful Akhmad

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.

Macaque Monkey
Macaque Monkey

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.

Unyuk and Ulexa
Unyuk and her baby Ulexa. Unyuk’s nickname is Trouble.

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.

doyok the lead orangutan
Doyok the lead orangutan has so much character.

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.

Ray and Atlas
Ray and Atlas

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.

Sue and Akhmad
Sue and Akhmad

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.

Dominant male - Doyok 27 year old ex-captive
Doyok greedily grabs a bunch of bananas.

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.

Gina and Gam
Tut and Tor

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.

Tor is one of twins
Baby Tor is one of twins.

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.

gibbon
Boy the Gibbon

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.

Gina and her baby Gam
Gina and Gam

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.

Akhmad and our klotok
Akhmad and our klotok

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

ticketindonesia.com

Some local tour operators will arrange and book the domestic flights.

Peta and Petra share a tender moment
Peta and Petra share a tender moment

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!

vegetarian meals
Our vegetarian meals are scrumptious!
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.

Tut and her baby Tor. Tut was the first female to have twins at Camp Leakey.
Tut and her baby Tor. Tut was the first female to have twins at Camp Leakey.

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.

Baby Ulexa
Camp Leakey gives these babies like Ulexa a chance to be truly wild.

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.

Sue and Atlas
Sue and Atlas. A dream comes true.

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: fardibornean@yahoo.com

More of our Indonesia Travel Stories

11 Responses to “Orangutans at Camp Leakey”

  1. Natasha Armstrong

    With such a beautiful gentle animal in such danger I thank you for telling us your amazing story and providing us with the most spectacular photos to accommodate your article. The one photo of Akhmad sitting on the jetty holding your hand is telling a story on it’s own,totally breathtaking. I am unable to travel to see these truly amazing animals so I thank you for taking me there through your photo’s and words. Please continue to do so.

    Reply
    • Ray & Sue

      Hi Natasha. Thanks so much for reading our blog and taking the time to comment. These sure are one of the most amazing animals and it was one of our most incredible experiences.

      Reply
  2. Marie Bell

    I would have to endorse the above comment. About the whole blog, but especially that photo of her holding hands. It’s an amazing thing to do! I mean, who has the guts to sit on a pier and hold hands with an enormous wild animal?!! And it doesn’t matter that it is ‘probably not savage’. It would scare the heck out of me! But this girl makes it a beautiful, natural thing to do. Such empathy! Dunno about ‘talk to the animals’ I think she has telepathy! This is so special. And what a beautiful place. Who knew such places existed? Thanks for sharing and safe travels!

    Reply
    • Ray & Sue

      Thanks so much for your comment Marie. It means a lot to us. Seeing the Orangutans at Camp Leakey really was one of those once in a lifetime experiences.

      Reply
  3. Dianne Bach

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. Your photography is magnificent. The Pictures bring them to life. I think we are all so lucky being able to share these special moments being that close to the Orangutans. Keep up the wonderful work so we can all feel we are a part of them. Thank you

    Reply
    • Ray & Sue

      Thanks for visiting our website and leaving a comment. We appreciate it very much Dianne.

      Reply
  4. Jeanette

    I have just come across your website and the photography is stunning you have captured the expressions of the orangutans so well. Also the clarity is excellent I have seen so many photos where their coat is very blurry I think because of the bright orange color. We have also chosen Fardi for our trip this July and are hoping for a similar experience If you had any advice you have our email and I would be thrilled to hear from you.
    Thanks articles like yours are scarce especially so well written.

    Reply
    • Jeanette thanks for your comments & compliments on our blog & images. Yes Orangutans can be hard to photograph especially in harsh light. Rest assured with Fardi you will have the best chance to photograph them. You will not want for anything; you will have the best opportunity for photos. Fardi is so knowledgeable, patient & one of the best guides ever. Not to mention you will have some of the best food ever!! Because it’s in the rainforest there is the possibility of rain anytime, so make sure to take some sort of protection for your camera. We would love to hear about your trip, so please get back to us.

      Reply
  5. Thomas

    Hi
    I’m Thomas Rosen a student from Germany and I’m actually in Thailand. After a trip with some nature photographers I totally fall in love with wildlife photography. I would love to go to Camp Leakey and photograph Orang Utans there.
    During my researches I found your fantastic blog with these beautiful pictures of orang utans in the internet.
    Do you have any hints (like a recommended guide, other fantastic places close by, best traveling route or how to save money) for me?
    I would be glad about every hint.
    Best regards

    Thomas

    Reply
    • Ray & Sue

      Hi Thomas. Thanks so much for visiting our website. The Orangutans are an incredible experience and a must do for every photographer interested in wildlife.
      Our guide during our visit was Fardi. He now has his own business and will custom a trip for you. (We have already told him to expect an email from you) Orangutan houseboat tour
      He also has a Facebook page facebook.com/OrangutanHouseBoatTour
      He will work with you to make a private trip as economical as possible. Fardi knows and loves all the Orangutans and you just can’t go wrong with him. We got so close and he took us into the jungle for early morning and late afternoon light. If you are flying from Bali, you will need to fly from Denpasar – Surabaya – Pangkalanbun. This can be done in one day if you take the early flight from Denpasar. Once you arrive in Pangkalanbun, Fardi will pick you up at the airport. He will also help you with the flights. In regards to other things in the area, there is the Dayak tribes if you are interested in them. Fardi can also arrange a tour to see them.
      Another option is the Tarsiers and Black Macaques at Tangkoko National Park in Sulawesi. It’s another exciting destination for someone interested in photography & wildlife. Ateng our guide was the best guide ever. If you get in touch with him he will arrange a really good deal for you, including accommodation in Tangkoko. It is a gorgeous place on the sea and you will be guaranteed on getting close to the Tarsiers and Black Macaques. It is a very inexpensive place to stay and we could have spent a lot longer here. About 40 minutes boat ride from Tangkoko there is also some great snorkelling, diving and sea turtles come to the beach to nest. To get to Tangkoko involves a flight to Manado in Sulawesi. You can get in touch with Ateng gyulisman@yahoo.com You can check out our Tarsier blog too. Hope this helps. Any more questions don’t hesitate to get back in touch.

      Reply

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