Your first encounter with an orang-utan in the jungle is an unforgettable experience. Your attention is caught by a rustle of leaves or the movement of a branch, then a reddish shadow appears. Perhaps it's a mother with a baby clinging to her fur, maybe followed closely by another 'child' a few years older. Or perhaps it's a young male, just beginning to explore the jungle on his own. Or a solitary older female. It could even be the dominant male, the one the others make room for at mealtime, backing off to let him eat alone.
Twice a day in the Tanjung Puting National Park in the Indonesian part of Borneo, food is provided for the orang-utans, which ensures the possibility of a closer look at these great primates. This feeding by the wardens of the park is essential to maintain the population of orang-utans. Like humans, these animals have a long 'childhood' during which they are relatively defenseless. During this period they learn from their mothers the skills they need to get by in the jungle, from finding food to preparing a nest for the night. Unregulated logging has destroyed much of the orang-utan's habitat and some of the young lose their mothers, which leaves them helpless, like small children. Others have been raised illegally as pets and are unused to fending for themselves. The lucky ones are brought to the rehabilitation centre in Tanjung Puting Park, where the researchers help them to adapt before releasing them into the wild.
In recent years, there's been a lot interest in Jane Goodall's research on chimpanzees and Dianne Fossey's work with mountain gorillas. Both participated in projects inspired by Louis Leakey, a palaeontologist who spent his life searching for the key to the origin of mankind. A third study, also led by woman, is less well known. Established back in 1971 by Birute Galdikas, Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting Park is the centre of what has become the longest study ever undertaken of any wild animal. Over four decades, the centre has successfully rehabilitated nearly 300 oran-utans back into the wild, as well as lobbying for greater protection of the natural habitat. Other primates make their home in the park, too, including crab-eating macaques, proboscis monkeys and gibbons. Tanjung Puting is a special place, and the forest teems with life.
Visitors to the centre are instructed not to touch the animals, but many of the orang-utans are used to humans and it is they who come and grab you by the hand or cling to your legs, demanding attention. The wardens recognise that it's impossible to fight their spontaneity, and visitors face one of the most memorable experiences of their lives as they meet the great apes of the Bornean rainforest.
The visit to the park is regulated, with stops being made in set places in order to see the animals without disrupting the rehabilitation process. Visitors journey from Kumai by boat, and it's usually the captain who acts as guide on the visits and during the encounters with the orang-utans. The standard trip lasts for three days, the two intervening nights being spent outside the Park, on the other river bank.
Further information: Tanjung Puting National Park and the Orang-utans
Don't miss: While in Borneo, take time to visit Banjarmasin, known as the "Venice of Borneo" and famous for the waterways that cross the old city, with houses built on stilts, and the unique floating market that sets up early each morning. The town is located on the delta of the Barito and Martapura Rivers. There are several itineraries available to explore the island by travelling upstream, heading inland from the mouth of one of the rivers. These trips can last from one day to several days and three recommended rivers are the Barito, the Kapuas and the Mahakan. The town of Martapura, famous for its diamond trade, boasts an interesting market, and the herdsmen of the Negara River offer a unique sight as they travel by canoe among their water buffalo who graze in the wetlands.