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borneo – a lifelong dream

February 24, 2013

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Before I tell you the tale of Borneo, I must preface by sharing with you the invaluable lesson I learned about slide film on this trip. And that is this – slide film is extremely unforgiving and unless you get the exposure just right, you end up with photos that look like the ones above. Shooting slide film is very humbling and a reminder that I still have a lot to learn when it comes to photography. So please excuse the underexposed shots and imagine, if you will, how vivid and amazing these events were in reality. For this, I give you words.

Last night, we celebrated our one-year anniversary. We did so by sleeping in a cheap hotel in Jakarta and eating the most unusual dinner in a restaurant that looked like a community center where they served 25 different bowls of food to your table and you only paid for what you ate. We sat there, with locals smoking at every table and a young boy who looked like he’d time travelled strait from the 70’s and what appeared to be the Muslim version of Desperate Housewives playing on an old tele in the corner. We sipped warm beer out of a straw and sampled strange Indonesian concoctions under fluorescent lighting and then paid for what we ate. Compounded by the long day’s travels, it felt like we’d entered the Twilight Zone and in a strange way, it was the perfect anniversary dinner to mark the end of a crazy year because, let’s face it, marriage is a bit like a Twilight Zone sometimes.

5 hours later, 5 am, comes the wake up call, shortly after the rooster crows. Cock-a-doodle-do and we’re off to Borneo. I think part of me was hoping for a small Indiana Jones de Havilland plane but I suppose it is 2013 and there are very few remote areas left in the world that require such small aircrafts.

Joe is sat in a chair at the front of a turquoise klotok, keeping a vigilant eye out for wildlife and orangutans in particular. I am sprawled on my stomach on the carpet, reading a book that never seems to end. I’ve already sweated about 2 pounds of water and it’s not even midday yet.

The klotok cruises down the brown river at a slow pace, snaking and chugging its way up the estuary into the Borneo rain forest. There is hardly a breeze. The air is thick with humidity like coming out of a hot shower in a small unventilated room – it’s hard to breathe. We pass the occasional fisherman on the river’s bed and a few other boats but for the most part, it’s just us and the jungle.

At the first feeding camp, just a little ways after the village cemetery with wooden pegs for headstones, the guides whoop out feeding calls and pour a mixture of milk, flour, bananas and sugar in a container on a platform and very slowly, one at a time, orangutans come to drink, dipping their hands in the sweet mixture or dunking their entire heads in the container. One eye on the prize. One eye on the spectators.

The first is a mother with her 1-yr old baby, a mess of auburn fur fluff, like an orange ozone layer orbiting around its skull, and eyes the size of marbles. They drink for awhile, then climb up the vine, leaning from one tree to the next with such grace until all that is left of them are trees trembling after their passing.

I feel a mixture of awe and sadness. Awe because I’ve always wanted to see this creature in the wild and sadness because this is the only way I can see them – with “bait” made of sugar and milk and bananas and I can’t help but wonder if it is right? And if we didn’t feed them, what would happen to them? And then I went down the rabbit hole of asking why? Why, as humans, do we feel we have the right to encroach on their habitat, burn it down and plant palm plantations so that we can make cosmetics and cheap processed food? Why? The line, when it comes to endangered species, is always blurred. We destroy their habitat and then we spend years making up ways to protect them from us. I know ecotourism is a good thing and I am so incredibly grateful for the experience and for all the conservation efforts, but I can’t help feeling a bit guilty.

We hear thunder and our guide says “When the dog bark, it bite” so we run to the boat and make it back just in time for Joe to have a quick go at their traditional hunting tool – a long blowpipe and tiny wooden darts with tips dipped in poison. On his second try, he shoots the plastic bottle clear off the railing 10 feet away. And then the rain starts falling and it falls hard. We sit on the boat and eat fried bananas covered in chocolate sauce and grated cheese and sip coffee – hot and earthy with a thick sludge stuck to the bottom of the cup. They don’t call coffee java for nothing. The Indonesians know their beans.

As the sun sets, we catch our first glimpse of Proboscis Monkeys in the trees by the river. The females with their upturned noses look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, while the male with his massive proboscis and round belly is much more Muppet like. They all sit, huddled on branches readying for a good night’s sleep after a group of rowdy grey Macaques chased them from their original roosting spot. We cruise into the night, fireflies twinkling in the forest and then dock at Camp 2 for a dinner of fish, corn, curry, rice and fried egg. And then the captain and his first mate make our nest for the night. Since we are orang (man) and we are in utan (the forest), it seems only apt that we should have our very own (mosquito net covered) nest for the night.

And so it is that we fall asleep to the sounds of the jungle. The electric saw of the cicada starts the show soon followed by the cricket and frog orchestra, which plays for us the whole night through until the birds and monkeys take over at dawn. We wake naturally at 6:30 and watch the Proboscis Monkeys play in the canopy while sipping coffee and eating banana pancakes. An hour later, we hear a rustling in the trees and dash to the walkway. Soon, an orangutan appears. Slowly, she comes over and sits beside me and holds my hand. Hers is soft and cool and tender and leathery. She then wraps her fingers around my arm (for what reason, I still don’t know) and eventually saunters away, leaving me in complete awe. I cannot explain to you how it feels to be so close to an orangutan. To look into their eyes and see such kindness. I watched a documentary once that said it’s no wonder humans feel at peace in the forest. It’s because it’s where we come from. It’s a return to innocence. It’s a remembering.


We have just veered down a fork in the river, where the coffee coloured water changes to red tea. Exotic butterflies flutter in and out of the boat. This morning’s mission is to remove a very stubborn splinter from the cook’s son’s little toe. We succeed (he is very brave) and he has since warmed to us – playing marbles at our feet, occasionally losing one to the river as it rolls through the cracks.

I’ve taken the habit of having a snooze after lunch. The humidity is heavy and one can’t help but fall under its sleepy charm – particularly after a good old southern lunch of fried chicken and corn fritters. This is my second nap of the day. There is no bigger luxury. The captain and his first mate have stripped down to their knickers and are washing the boat in what is meant to be crocodile infested waters. The locals call out to each other from one boat to another in a native speech of soft rolling r’s. Turu turu. Come come, they call to infants. And turu dat (come down) to the orangutans in the trees above.

On arrival at Camp Leaky, Tuk, one of the elder mothers, is lounging on the deck with her baby. The baby is stretching and somersaulting and crawling all over the mother, trying its best to get her attention but she is too hot to be bothered. Still, she keeps an eye on her baby at all times. Orangutans raise their young for 6-7 years, therefore the bond between mom and baby is very strong and they rarely ever leave each other’s side.

At the info centre, we learn all sorts of fascinating orangutan facts and devastating deforestation stats that have made them an endangered species. Experts estimate orangutans could be extinct in the wild in less than 25 years. A frame on the wall asks “What is the biggest danger to orangutans?” The answer behind the frame is a single mirror with our reflection in it.

The sky goes from elephant grey to deep slate as we walk toward the last feeding spot. By the time we turn the corner where the wild boar with the long snout feeds on forest floor debris, it starts to rain. Gently at first and then, without warming, torrentially. The sky is a river. We are soaked within minutes. The drops are fat and heavy and incessant. The ground can’t drink fast enough and within 20 minutes there is a river in the forest where once a path stood. Jafar warns us that leaches will soon come out of the soil. I have visions of Stand by Me. We walk, wetter than the rain itself, every single leaf in every single tree in the forest quivering. My hands are pruned. There is a lake in my shoes and… I am blissed out.

Back at the boat, we wring our clothes out and are treated to more fried bananas and hot coffee and then we set off, heading back the way we came. Dinner is by candle and fire fly light. Rain tap dances against tarpaulin. Sleep is as intermittent as the sound of a pack of dogs howling in the nearby village and a cat meowing in the rain. I find said cat at 5am, curled up in a chair on the boat and then licking leftover rice from the pots down below.

This morning, last day of 2012, is overcast with a lovely breeze. Joe has expertly hung our clothes to billow in the wind. They slowly dry out, though nothing ever really feels dry in the rainforest. I am drawing with the little boy, Kiki, who has hazelnut skin and brown piranha like teeth, which he flashes when he smiles. The effect is both terrifying and endearing.

After banana pancakes (Yes. More bananas. We really are turning into orangutans!), we walk to the village where women stand in the river to do their wash. Today is evidently laundry day. We stop at the local shop where a young girl holding a baby has a lump the size of a small orange in her neck. And the cows stand in wet fields and chickens run down the side of the path with their chicks in tow and we hear in the distance, the long deep call of a king orangutan, surely saying farewell.

There are only 5 days left on this honeymoon and a new year is about to begin and I feel it is going to be a good one. A very good one.

P.S. I’ll be choosing a winner tomorrow morning for the giveaway so there’s still time to leave a comment if you fancy it 🙂

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Alison permalink
    February 24, 2013 4:59 pm

    To be touched with kindness by an orangutan must rank right near the top of glorious adventures that you’ve lived. Stunning.

  2. February 24, 2013 10:31 pm

    What a blessing, to have an orangutan choose YOU. I cannot fathom the gratitude you must have felt. What a spectacular way to end the year. And I think your photos are wonderful (as usual)! Wow. I am still stuck by this unbelievable experience… just wow.

  3. Michelle permalink
    February 25, 2013 1:16 pm

    I think the orangutan simply wanted to thank you for having such a big heart.

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