A four day escape to Borneo in search of Orangutans

June 27 – July 1, 2022

While in Bali, I was researching things to do in Indonesia and came across something that immediately caught my attention: A visit to a National Park in Borneo to see Orangutans.

Just the mention of the name Borneo sounds adventurous, add Orangutan to the mix and I’m sold!

After many many online searches and reading reviews, I found a tour that looked perfect for us with a company called Orangutan Applause.

Before we start, here’s a little background information:

Borneo

Called Kalimantan in Indonesian, Borneo is located in Southeast Asia, it is the third largest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea.

It is divided among three countries: Malaysia and Brunei in the north and Indonesia in the south.

Since our Indonesian visa doesn’t allow multiple entries, we only visited the Indonesian part.

  • 73% of the island is Indonesian territory
  • 26% Malaysian
  • 1% is occupied by the sultanate of Brunei.

Orangutans

The Great Apes, closely related to humans, include these three primates:

  • gorillas
  • chimpanzees
  • orangutans

Humans and orangutans share approximately 97% of their DNA

Our first encounter with the orangutans at one of the three feeding stations in the park. What a thrill that was!

While gorillas and chimpanzees can still be found in several African countries, there is only 2 places left in the world where you can observe orangutans in the wild: the tropical rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra.

They can live 45-50 years in the wild.

Unlike other primate, they are solitary most of their lives after they leave their mother.

They are generally non aggressive toward humans and each other except for the dominant male towards other males.

A male orangutan is 8 times stronger than a man and a female 4 times stronger.

According to Earth.Org, orangutans are 3rd on the list of the world’s most endangered animals in 2022 due to habitat loss from deforestation for palm oil plantations. #saveorangutan

Tanjung Puting National Park

While Borneo has an estimated orangutans population of about 60,000 the best place to see orangutans in the wild is Tanjung Puting National Park. A vast and dense rainforest that spans over 4,000 square kilometers (1,544 sq.miles) with an estimated population of 6,000 orangutans.

To add to the experience the only way to reach the National Park is by traveling down the Sekonyer River on a Klotok (also spelled Kelotok), a traditional wooden river houseboat. How cool is that!

How we got there

From Bali we took 2 domestic flights: first from Denpasar (Bali) DPS to Surabaya (Java) SUB and second from Surabaya SUB to Pangkalan Bun (Kalimantan) PKN. We flew Lion Air and Wings Air booked on the Traveloka app because Lion Air wouldn’t accept online payment with my foreign credit card.

The flights are just about an hour each. Both flights were full so it’s good to book in advance specially during the high season, July and August.

Where we stayed

Since we like traveling slowly, we decided to spend the night before and after the tour in a local hotel. We stayed at the Arsela Hotel in Pangkalan Bun. Nothing spectacular but for $30 a night, it was very comfortable and had an on-site restaurant with decent food.

Except for the island of Bali which is predominately Hindu, Indonesia is a Muslim country but it’s pretty lax about alcohol sales and consumption specially in the more touristy areas. In this region of Kalimantan however you can’t buy alcohol so something to consider if you’re used to your adult beverages!

Orangutan Applause

After some research and a few whatsApp messages with Orangutan Applause, we booked a 3 day/2 night tour which seems to be the most popular option but they also offer customized tours. The tour company is owned and operated by a young and dynamic Indonesian couple.

Dessy the tour Manager has a background in Tourism, she runs all the logistics and reservation process, she can also help with flights and accommodation bookings. She is fantastic and really saved us some major aggravation when we missed our return flight.

Dessy’s partner and husband Arif is a biologist and eco tour guide with an incredible passion and extreme knowledge of the area. Before starting their tour agency almost ten years ago, he was involved in a macaque study inside the park with a professor from the US. Arif was our guide for our 3 day expedition. He is super friendly and extremely patient, he answered the million questions we had about pretty much everything from the animals, the birds, the river, the people who live there, the park, the Indonesian culture etc.

Arif our guide extraordinaire and Joe in front of our Klotok named Borneo Alase 3

3 Day / 2 Night tour

After a good night sleep at hotel Arsela, Arif picked us up at 9am and we were on our way to the Tanjung Puting National Park pier in the port town of Kumai, where all the boats depart.

We were so excited to board our Klotok but not before taking a few pictures with the locals.

The lady in red approached me showing me her phone, I went to grab it but then I realized she wanted to take pictures with us, it would be rude to refuse besides we’re always happy to pose for the camera
Meeting our Captain Basis and his son and deck hand Aco at the pier

As we’re leaving Kumai, Arif points out a bunch of drab concrete buildings with small wholes and asked if we knew what they were. After a few tries we gave up.

Have you ever heard of bird nest soup? me neither.

Well, apparently it’s a delicacy in high-end restaurants in Singapore and China, it can cost up to $100 a bowl!!!

The bird nests come from these nest factories. They attract the swiftlets by playing some chirping music on loud speakers, birds build their nests in these buildings built to simulate caves, the swiftlets natural habitat.

The nests are made entirely of bird saliva!!!

These Drab concrete buildings with small wholes are Bird nest factories in Kumai, Kalimantan.

These nests have been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years, traditionally the nests were harvested from remote caves where men on flimsy bamboo scaffolding more than 60 meters high would risk their lives to collect the prized delicacy.

In the last twenty years with the new production methods and an increasing Chinese middle class, the industry hast’n stopped booming.

Apparently tasteless the nests are in high demand in China for their medicinal benefits . A kilo (about 120 nests) can fetch between $3,000 and $10,000 depending on the quality. How crazy is that???

Klotok our home for 3 days

As soon as we set foot on the Klotok, we felt comfortable. I wouldn’t call it luxurious but it was very clean and had everything we needed for a short stay. Comfy chairs, bean bags, twin beds that they stacked during the day, dining room table with 2 chairs and a bathroom in the back with a toilet and cold shower.

Getting comfortable, Joe having coffee
The Sekonyer River is the only way to reach the park. We cruised down the river about 55 kilometers and back up on the third day.

The meals prepared by Ratna were incredible, everything made from scratch in the tiny kitchen below deck. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks after we came back from our visits. We had tea, coffee and water available at all times.

But the best part besides the animal sighting was just cruising down the river slowly with the warm breeze, looking at nature, wild life, occasional small boats carrying locals or other klotoks, it was truly a magical feeling.

Bigger Klotok for a little more space and comfort
Ours look tiny next to the other ones
Aco the deck hand was always there to help and make us feel comfortable.

Feeding Stations

The park has 3 feeding stations where visitors are allowed to sit and observe the Orangutans while they eat bananas brought by the park rangers.

Each station is located in a different area of the park and the feedings take place at specific times during the day.

On our 3 day tour we visited a different station every day. We also visited a local village and did a night walk to look for creatures like tarantulas and scorpions.

All the feeding stations were orangutan rehabilitation and release sites for formerly captive orangutans. They now have 2nd and 3rd generation of offsprings.

While orangutans are no longer released at these sites, daily feedings for ex-captive orangutans and their offsprings are provided as a nutritional supplement to their diet. Occasionally wild orangutans will visit as well. They primarily eat fruits but can also eat bark strips, leaves and termites.

A juvenile waiting its turn at the feeding station

They are not reliant on the food provided at these sites and are less likely to come when fruits are plentiful in the forest.

Nice walk through the rainforest to reach the feeding station
Coming face to face with this guy was a bit out of my comfort zone

Most memorable moment

My most memorable moment was on our second day just before arriving at the famous Camp Leakey, Joe was napping, Arif, our guide, was taking a shower, the rest of the crew was bellow deck, I was just sitting, looking around when all of a sudden I spotted a reddish clump of hair high up in a tree, I couldn’t believe it! I started running and calling for Arif and Joe, it took a few minutes before I could get anyones attention so I bent down to where the Captain is located and screamed: ORANGUTAN!

That part of the river is quite narrow so Basis, our Captain, could’t just turn around, he had to back up the whole way until we reached the spot. I was praying for it to still be there but I thought na it’s been too long.

To my surprise she was still there and at that very moment her baby stock out his head from behind her, she was looking right at me! I don’t know why but my reaction was to start crying and I still do as I write these lines.

This is what I saw, a totally wild orangutan female with her baby:

Sometimes life has a funny way of teaching us . It will create a deep sadness so we know to truly understand these special moments of happiness

The bond between a mother and her baby is very strong as they stay together until the baby reaches between 5 and 8 years old.

The female are pregnant for 8 months and may wait 5 to 10 years between births.

Camp Leakey

The furthest feeding station we visited, 55 km up river, was at Camp Leakey an active research facility where the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) is based.

They are committed to the welfare of all orangutans, wether captive, ex-captive, or wild. The foundation also runs another facility just outside the city which is home to 300 displaced orangutans.

Establish in 1971 by Canadian Dr. Biruté Galdikas, Camp Leakey was named after legendary paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey who was both a mentor and an inspiration to Biruté Galdikas as well as Jane Goodall known for her interaction with wild chimpanzees and the late Dian Fossey known for her extensive study of mountain gorillas.

The trio was affectionaly named the trimates!

Just like her colleagues, Dr. Galdikas has dedicated her life to the study of orangutans by logging more than 100,000 hours of observation in the field.

She is today the world’s foremost authority on the orangutan. She had just visited the center, 2 weeks ago, it would have been quite a privilege to meet her.

Over the years Camp Leakey has supported the research efforts of dozen of scientists and students from Indonesia and the United States.

It really restores your faith in humanity when you come across such individuals who are willing to put a cause before their own needs and dedicate their lives to research for the advancement of humankind.

Other sightings

We also saw these guys, the Gibbon and Proboscis (big nose) monkeys but could never get a decent picture, these are from the interpretation panels in the park.

Life on the river

Conclusion

I’m sure if you made it this far, you know how much we’ve enjoyed our time in the Tanjung Puting National Park so if you ever find yourself in this part of the world, do yourself a favor, contact Dessy at Orangutan Applause and let her plan an experience you will never forget!

Dessy and Arif met us at the airport when we missed our return flight. Dessy took control of the situation, found us new flights through her contacts at Wings Air while Arif brought us a bag full of Indonesian snacks since we had a tight connection and they didn’t want us to go hungry. That is what you call 5 tsar service. THANK YOU GUYS xxxx

STAY TUNED for more travels …

For current updates on our travels you can follow our stories on Instagram @joeandjosee and Facebook Joe and Josée’s Journey

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www.joeandjoseesjourney.com

In 2014 we decided to sell everything we owned to embark on a Journey to discover the world. After five years of overland travel through the Americas driving from Alaska to Argentina, we traded our expedition vehicle for two backpacks …

Let’s see where the wind takes us this time!

The more you travel the more you realize how little you have seen” 🌎 🌍 🗺 a quote from Gunter Holtorf who inspired us to travel

8 thoughts on “A four day escape to Borneo in search of Orangutans

  1. Do you ever get tired of meeting interesting people, eating delicious foods, drinking refreshing beverages and napping?

    1. Hi Bill,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on our blog post, to answer your question that would be a positive NO 😂🤣 we still pinch ourselves even after 7 years and we just can’t figure out why aren’t more people doing it? It certainly isn’t a cost issue, specially for retired folks because this lifestyle is cheaper then a conventional life in either Canada or the US. But hey to each his own! 😊

      All the best
      J&J

  2. Hi again🙏
    It is so exiting to read about your travels. What an amazing trip you made in Borneo ☺️
    The birds nest houses the Chinese has made in Phuket also. I have seen them.
    I wish you all the best. Love from Norway ❤️

    1. Hello Vigdis,

      It’s always a pleasure reading your comments. I had never heard about the bird nests and couldn’t believe it. Our guide said there is now many places in southeast Asia where they have them so I’m not surprise that Phuket has them, it seems like a lucrative business.
      Big hug xxx
      J&J

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