Trekking For Orangutans in Borneo

Klo…Tock…Klo…Tock… Klo...Tock.

The engine of our small river boat clunks its way down the Sekonyer River, a river that splits the Borneo jungle, keeping a rhythmic time with our progress deep into heart of one of the world’s least visited places. The boat we are on is called a Klotoc, and I begin to hypothesize that its name came from the clunking noises that it makes while it cruises down the river.

My eyes closed, I listen to the cacophony that assaults the ears and senses at every juncture, but my reverie is soon interrupted by the voice of a fellow traveler. 

“Open your eyes… what do you see?” 

I try to take it all in. To my left and right are the jungles of Borneo, filled with orangutans hollering in the distance and small monkeys playfully scrapping with each other in the treetops. A colorful bird flies by; it’s a Kingfisher.

I break the silence and whisper, “I can’t believe that we are here!”

Here is Borneo. A place most people will never make the effort to visit. We are completely off the grid in every sense. I am in the middle of the jungle, with no cell reception and the wind at my back. I am Jungle Jane.

Photo by Mike Dewey

Photo by Mike Dewey

When I travel, there are often places that I will re-visit again and again; Borneo, however, is not one of those places. This vast island in Indonesia is a place that a traveler will probably only visit just once, if they are lucky enough to make it there at all. Even so, once is enough. Thus I try my best to soak up every moment as much as possible, knowing I may likely never make it back here again. As it stands, the memories of the Borneo jungles and the Sekonyer River with its hairy auburn inhabitants are seared into my memory forever. With just the slightest drift of my mind, I am immediately taken back to that moment at the bow of the boat, feet dangling and eyes once again shut, trying my best to remember every detail.

It’s monsoon season here in this part of the world, and the rain has already started to come down. The rest of my fellow travel writers and photographers have bunkered down under the shelter of the boat’s roof on the upper deck, calling for us to come in. “I’m already wet from the humidity!” I shout back, not wanting this moment to be disturbed.

One of my fellow travel writers, Nikki, is the only one by my side. This shared moment feels good, since I generally travel alone and have to keep memories to myself. “Now, what do you smell?” Nikki asks, not expecting a response from me. We both breathe deep and take in the smells of the jungles and the Sekonyer river. 

And just like that, we’ve landed. 

Flash forward. I have been sweating all day, and have slept under mosquito nets on a boat the night before. I am beyond sticky, and I haven’t been entirely dry in almost 2 days. I don’t really mind; this is what I live for- a unique experience. Our first afternoon was spent spotting multiple orangutans, holding their children, and swinging from trees. It was the exact scene you imagine happening when you look at a photo from National Geographic. Borneo is one of those places you dream of visiting but aren’t sure you will ever get there. It is a part of the world’s third-largest island, bordering Malaysia, and is the world capital for spotting orangutans.

As I watch one orangutan swing from tree to tree while holding it’s child, I have another one of those “I can’t believe I’m here” moments. I think of all of the people that visit this country and miss the mark by spending all of their time in Bali, thinking that is a true Indonesian experience. 

They are wrong. This is the true Indonesia.

Bali represents Indonesia in part - it’s the diamond, and the locomotive that drives Indonesian tourism. But it’s also the place where you will have the least authentic experience. All tourists visit Bali, but not everyone comes here to the inky black waters of the Sekonyer. The humidity, the mosquitos, and the long trek to get to this part of the country keep away the obnoxious tourists that I constantly try to escape on my travels. It keeps away the luxury travelers and leaves just us, the ones who want to feel a connection to the country, the island, the people and nature. Travelers looking for something authentic. Something to tell our grandchildren about.

Despite the unavoidable humidity and stickiness throughout the night we spent on the boat, I am thrilled to wake up and start day two’s trek to see more of these incredible and rare creatures. As our boat forges on towards another day filled with the possibilities of adventure, I realize I haven’t felt this excited about an adventure in a long time. In recent years, I have been fortunate enough to have seen it all. I have been all over the world, but this one feels different and more exciting than the other places I have been. 

Our boat makes its last stop at Camp Leakey Orangutan Research Center. Camp Leakey is iconic in this part of the world for preserving the population of orangutans since 1971. Orangutans only call this one little part of the world home, and they are often considered a parasite to palm oil plantations. As a result, mother orangutans are illegally slaughtered, and babies are given away to zoos. Camp Leakey offers these auburn creatures safety and conservation, without taking away their freedom.

male orangutan borneo

As I hop from boat to boat to reach a dilapidated dock, I am greeted by an orangutan mother and child in a tree. They climb down to the dock and we make eye contact. As they walk down the dock, I follow. As the closest relative to humans, their mannerisms are extremely familiar. They lead me in the walk down this long dock, as if they are welcoming me to their home. Eventually we part ways before the long dock comes to an end, and the orangutans climb into a tree. 

I start the long trek through the Borneo jungle towards the feeding center with my guide, Mickey, from Orangutan Journey. On our walk over twisted tree roots and fallen trees, Mickey tells me of President Bill Clinton’s visit to Camp Leakey in 2014. As it turns out, Mickey just happened to be his guide. Impressive. On the hike to the feeding area, I try to imagine President Clinton and his secret service team trekking through the same path. Although I am sure he dressed in sneakers and more appropriate attire, my imagination only allows myself to envision him hiking in a suit and fancy leather shoes. 

borneo indonesia

Once we reach the feeding area a young man drops off a large bunch of bananas and hollers into the distance. Apparently that man speaks fluent orangutan because just minutes later curious orangutans swing through the trees. It’s as if I had just stepped into my favorite childhood movie, The Jungle Book. A wild boar hovers below relying on the dropped bananas from the reckless orangutans. I see human-like mannerisms in each of them, as baby orangutans cling to their mothers, mothers care for the children. A large male swoops in carefully, and he skillfully piles his arms with as many bananas as he can and he slinks off into the distance. Everyone watching starts to laugh at the banana thief sneaking off. They are mostly more agile hairier versions of all of us. We look at them. They look back. 

orangutan banana thief borneo indonesia

Later that day as our boat makes its way through the darkness, I have time to reflect. Where else on this planet could I have an experience like that? No place. Borneo is it. I constantly try to convey to my readers of the benefits of getting off the beaten path of tourism, how the experiences are richer and more meaningful. I don’t think I could ever convey the uniqueness of Borneo. There will be no way to do it justice.

From the moment my legs were dangling over the water off the bow of the boat, I knew this experience would be one to remember; I wasn’t prepared for just how special. Indonesia has so many beautiful places for travelers to visit, many of which are not often highlighted in the tourist guides. However, if you visit Indonesia and don’t make the effort to get to Borneo, you are truly missing one of the gems this country has to offer. One visit will undoubtedly leave memories for a lifetime. No place has left such vivid images ingrained in my mind as the Sekonyer river, the jungles of Borneo, and the hairy creatures that call this mysterious place home.

camp leaky borneo

Disclaimer: I was invited on this trip by Wonderful Indonesia. As always, all opinions are my own.