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Journeys : RACT MNJ June July 2010
Destinations My companions aboard the vessel that locals call a klotok are Amber Partington, a primate keeper at Melbour ne Zoo and the Victorian State Representative of the Australian Orangutan Project; and Stephen Leonard, an environmental lawyer and legal adviser to the AOP. We're travelling to see orangutans in the Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan, a province of Indonesian Bor neo. Orangutans (the name means 'man of the forest') are Asia's only large primate and the biggest tree-dwelling creature on Earth. Their range once extended across easter n Asia but they are now restricted to small areas of Borneo and Sumatra, where their rainforest habitat is being ruthlessly destroyed by logging, mining and massive land-clearing for palm oil plantations. Listed as critically endangered, it's possible that wild populations of orangutans could face extinction within the next two decades, so places like Tanjung Puting National Park are essential refuges that need to be preser ved and extended, through active programs of reforestation and further protection of existing untouched areas of rainforest. We cr uise upriver at a stately three knots, reaching our base at Rimba Lodge after a two-hour journey. The lodge isn't fancy and we're not expecting five-star luxury; but it's perfectly comfortable and the rustic style suits the remoteness of the location. Each day we leave the lodge after breakfast and join other klotoks heading upriver to Camp Leakey, on a tributary of the Sekonyer. The camp was established in the 1970s by Biruté Galdikas, one of the three women whose long-term research projects on primates were originally mentored by the legendary archaeologist Dr Louis Leakey. (The others were Dian Fossey, tragically murdered in 1985 while studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda; and Jane Goodall, whose ground-breaking work on chimpanzees continues through the Jane Goodall In stitute.) At Camp Leakey, Dr Galdikas spent many years studying and working with young orangutans that had been orphaned by hunting, poaching or land-clearing, then releasing them back into the wild. Today, the rehabilitation work continues at the Orangutan Foundation International's Care Centre in the nearby city of Pangkalanbun, but the animals are now released in areas of Kalimantan with no existing wild orangutan populations. At Camp Leakey, research goes on and the descendants of the first orangutans released there are thriving in a semi-wild state in the surrounding rainforest, retur ning each day to feeding platforms, where rangers leave bunches of Borneo's tiny but delicious bananas. The platforms are the places where visitors experience close encounters with these beautiful and intriguing creatures. As we walk, the orangutans come quietly from the forest, following us along the track towards the platform and climbing down from the trees with a slow and graceful strength that is mesmerising to watch. They look at us steadily with intelligent eyes and expressions of curiosity; it's immediately clear that orangutans are very close to humans in many different ways. In fact, after chimpanzees and gorillas, orangutans are our closest primate relatives. Every day we spend an unforgettable couple of hours with the animals, visiting different feeding platforms, mar velling at the orangutans' almost incredible climbing skills, seeing how their huge fingers can so nimbly peel a banana, admiring the gentle way the mothers hold and carry their babies and even sharing the apprehension of the younger males when an adult male appears, his large size, wide cheek pads and powerful presence proclaiming his dominance. I prefer to watch the orangutans in silence and I find the noisy commentary of some of the visitors irritating, even disrespectful of the animals; although it's true that we obser ve things so ama zing that it's impossible not to laugh aloud or gasp in astonishment. A very young baby reaches out to its mother's nipple and suckles; as it does, the mother softly kisses it on the forehead. There's a sudden shower of rain; the orangutan s climb high into the trees, break off leafy branches and hold them over their heads to stay dry until the rain stops. Well, what can you say? It's simply a moment for shaking your head in awe and wonder. Then it's back to the river for lunch or a cold afternoon drink aboard under the shade of the klotok canopy, before beginning the cr uise back to Rimba Lodge. We rustle through close corridors of greenery, enjoying the cool breeze, spotting busy groups of macaques and proboscis monkeys playing and perching high in riverside trees, keeping an eye out for crocodiles sheltering next to logs in the water and watching for birds; kingfishers flashing their neon colours of electric blue and red; hor nbills gliding, their bizarre headgear and outstretched pinions giving them a pterodactyl air. After three memorable days, our klotok chugs back down the Sekonyer and crosses Kumai Harbour to its home port. There's still some travelling ahead of us before we reach home, but our thoughts aren't on the next airport; they're somewhere back up along that wilderness river, where our close cousins, the wonderful red apes of Bor neo, hang on to a precarious existence in their protected little island of rainforest. 19 June /July 2010 Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo is the best place in the world to see orangutans in their natural rainforest habitat. For details on Garuda Indonesia's 'Bali on ANY budget' Borneo Wilderness Tour, contact RACT Travelworld on 1300 368 111 or visit your local branch. To learn more about the work of the Australian Orangutan Project, visit www.orangutan.org.au Chris Viney travelled to Borneo with support from Garuda Indonesia.
April May 2010
Aug Sep 2010