In the early morning, I spotted my first orangutan high up in the trees. I heard him before I saw him.

I awoke to branches cracking and some pretty furious tree-breaking overhead. Luckily, I was on a boat, safe from the massive, hairy, reddish-orange male orangutan working himself into a thunderous vocal broadcast to the forest.

I was on the Sekonyer River in the Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan. My guide, Ari, assured me, “You are quite safe here on the boat. Orangutans can’t swim, so we can kick back and enjoy this show. We are fortunate to see this. He is the king, this guy. The big males fight for dominance and territory. They fight for the harem of females that come with the territory. That is the way it works.”

I was in total awe of this large male primate. He was swaying at the canopy’s top, which towered 30 metres into the sky. Ari’s words rang true as we soon spotted three more female orangutans who were considerably smaller in stature. They were camouflaged and difficult to spot, but Ari pointed out how they blended perfectly into their environment. Soon enough, we spotted them and could make out their limbs wrapped around their branches around the trees.

Within minutes of sighting the orangutans, a family of proboscis monkeys joined in this early morning spectacle. There were seven of them, and they swung with stunning precision and coordination through the trees, grabbing vines and thin branches on their way. They disappeared with a joyous shriek into the dense jungle, and I was left holding my morning coffee, which had gone cold, marvelling at what I had just witnessed.

Klotok, a Traditional Local Houseboat
Klotok, a Traditional Local Houseboat

To experience Tanjung Puting National Park, you need to take a boat. I chose to go on a klotok, a traditional local houseboat that cruises at three kilometres per hour. I loved the simple little wooden box on an extended deck at the back of the boat – the eco-shower. It turns out you are showering out in the open, with trees and nature all around, and at night, star gazing. On top of the shower was a huge multi-coloured umbrella to deflect any rain.

Our klotok’s main deck area transformed into our sleeping quarters at night, with mattresses spread around the large deck. Mosquito nets were rolled down, and I slipped into my humble little eco-capsule and nestled in for the night, wondering what the next day would bring. Going to bed early after an evening of wildlife spotting was just the ticket. I slept soundly on the river, accompanied by the soft cacophony of jungle sounds.

To reach the national park, you fly into the Central Kalimantan town of Pangkalan Bun. The name of this town ranks high on my list of cool-sounding places, along with others, such as Fakfak in West Papua. I love to keep boarding passes from strange-sounding airports of the lesser-known world. This one was way up there.

I took a direct one hour and 15 minute flight from Jakarta and, on arrival, was met by my guide and in 25 minutes, we arrived at Kumai Port. The captain and crew eagerly awaited, and I boarded my klotok, which would be my home for the next three nights.

Tanjung Puting National Park
Tanjung Puting National Park

Established in 1982, Tanjung Puting National Park is a forested national park known for its abundant wildlife, including orangutans. You can visit three camps: Tanjung Harapan Camp, Pondok Tanggui and Camp Leakey. Camp Leakey was my favourite, which is an orangutan rehabilitation centre which was set up in 1971. It is the world’s oldest orangutan research and conservation centre. The camp looks after beleaguered orangutans forced out of their natural habitat due to deforestation, forest burning, agriculture encroachment, and palm oil plantation expansion.

Many of the baby orangutans at the camp are bottle-fed, and some who arrive as orphans are in a very distressed state. The younger ones require physical handling and touch, just like a human baby, and the orangutan handlers rock these small infants for hours. Eventually, they are nurtured back to health and taught to survive in the wild. In this transition stage, they are fed at three feeding platforms in the forest. On these platforms, it’s a complete frenzy. Free food!

I was only ten minutes into my trek when I heard a crashing through the trees and glanced back to find myself sharing the forest trail with three orangutans. They simply ignored me as they brushed past. It was exhilarating and a little nerve-wracking at the same time. The park ranger accompanying our group assured us we were very safe. Suddenly, overhead, a great hairy mass of red and orange came swinging through the trees, and another two orangutans lumbered behind me, walking on all fours using their palms and fists to navigate the trail. As they trudged past me, they picked up speed, making a beeline for the platform piled high with bananas. Soon, more orangutans gathered to feed. They ate, tossed banana skins, scratched their body parts, looked around and socialised.

When we were back on the boat cruising up the river, looking for a place to anchor for the night, we were lucky to glimpse a few gibbons and hear their beautiful, haunting songs. Kicking back on the comfortable lounge chairs, we saw two magnificent hornbills cruise gracefully across the river on a steamy jungle air stream. Such a pleasant way to end a day.

Proboscis Monkeys at Tanjung Puting National Park
Proboscis Monkeys at Tanjung Puting National Park

Discovering the Tanjung Puting National Park on a slow boat is a peaceful and low-impact way to connect with nature and wildlife. Slow travel at its finest. Getting up close and personal with the orangutans, who share 97 percent of our DNA, left me feeling in awe of how close, in relative terms, we are to these rare and magnificent primates.

Fast Facts
  • Flights: Regular flights from Jakarta and several major cities to Iskandar Airport, Pangkalan Bun, Central Kalimantan.
  • Accommodation: Overnight on your houseboat (traditional Klotok) or stay at the Rimba
  • Orangutan Ecolodge (now over 90 percent solar-powered).
  • Tour Guide: Yun Pratiwi,
  • YouTube:
Orangutan Facts

Orangutans are endemic to Sumatra and Borneo. These large apes are found to be highly intelligent and follow a cultural and social pattern. The Borneo species are larger and more solitary compared to their Sumatran cousins. They have rounder faces and male adults develop broad cheek flanges as they age. In the wild, they live to around 45 years, but in captivity, they can age up to 60. Males can grow to 100 kg and 1.4 metres tall, while females can weigh up to 50 kg and reach a height of up to 1.2 metres. Borneo orangutans feed on fruits, including figs, durians, bananas, leaves, bird eggs, honey and insects. Borneo has the largest population of orangutans, yet today, their species is threatened due to a rapidly shrinking habitat caused by forest fires and expanding human settlement, palm oil plantation expansion, mining, and being hunted to be sold as pets.

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