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Wild orangutans can only be found in two places in the world - on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Sadly, the habitat (and population) of these great apes is dwindling, due to palm farming, deforestration and mining.

In northern Sumatra, orangutans can be seen at Bukit Lawang, near the scenic Bohorok River. Visitors stay in small hotels or ecolodges and trek to feeding platforms that have been erected in the jungle.

In Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), there are several options for viewing orangutans. The one that I love best is Camp Leakey in Central Kalimantan. This adventure is more than just viewing orangutans, though the orangutans are certainly the main reason for the the trip. The Camp Leakey adventure is also about traveling into the jungle on a private klotok river boat, complete with guide, boatman and a personal cook who prepares meals on board.

On a recent trip to Central Kalimantan, I boarded my klotok boat at Kumai, a port located not far from the town of Pangkalan Bun. In addition to small boats that are headed into the jungle, Kumai handles cargo ships and huge ferry boats that the locals use to travel to other islands. Situated along the shore are a series of large buildings with hundreds of small holes in the outer walls. The sole purpose of these buildings is to provide nesting areas for swallows. My first thought was that this was a very nice gesture towards preserving wildlife. In fact, once the hatchings have grown and left their nests, the nests are harvested for export to China and other areas where bird's nest soup is considered a delicacy.

After leaving Kumai we headed up the Sekonyer River, traveling at a leisurely pace. The river narrows as the boat travels deeper into the jungle. Along the shore you might see a variety of birds, proboscis monkeys, macaques and possibly gibbons. I was lucky enough to see a good-sized crocodile, which followed alongside our boat for awhile. When we stopped, so that the boatman could go into the river to untangle some vegetation from the boat's propeller, the crocodile was quite interested in the proceedings. Needless to say, the boatman moved quickly to finish his task, while my guide kept him posted on the crocodile's whereabouts.

On the first day, we stopped at Pondok Tanguy, a small orangutan rehabilitation center. We saw a few orangutans, but the best part of the adventure was saved for the next day, at Camp Leakey.

I chose to stay at Rimba Lodge, an ecolodge situated along the river, roughly halfway between Kumai and Camp Leakey. The accommodations are fairly basic, but it's a true jungle lodge and I enjoyed my rustic cabin. Most of the rooms have hot water. Electricity is provided from 5:00pm to 10:00am. Breakfasts at Rimba Lodge are somewhat meager, but the lunches and dinners prepared on the boat were delicious and there was more food than I could possibly eat. (If you prefer to sleep on your boat, instead of at Rimba Lodge, a mattress, pillow and blanket will be provided. You'll sleep on the boat's upper deck, while the crew sleeps on the bottom deck.)

The next day we set out for Camp Leakey, in the Tanjung Puting Reserve. We continued on the Sekonyer River until we reach a narrow side creek that my guide called Black River. (There are a number of rivers in Kalimantan that are called Black River.)

Camp Leakey was established in 1971, by Professor Birute Galdikas, a protege of famed paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey, who also mentored Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. Camp Leakey is an active research center. Countless orangutan lives have been saved by the research, rehabilitation efforts and education provided by the center. The small tourism industry that brings visitors to Camp Leakey has provided jobs to the locals and helped to protect the forest. The center has a small museum, which I found to be quite informative and worthwhile.

Feeding platforms have been set up in the forest, not far from the center. As a final step in their rehabilitation process, orangutans can come to the feeding stations if they're unable to find enough food on their own - or if they simply want to load up on bananas without having to search for them. At certain times of the year fewer orangutans come to the feeding stations because fruit is abundant in the jungle. At other times, more orangutans show up because the fruit is harder to find.

After walking about a half hour into the rainforest (an easy walk), my guide and I had to stop to let three orangutans pass by. They had been walking along a small path that crossed our path and we all met at the intersection. If was a bit startling, but an exciting experience, to meet up with wild orangutans just like that. We continued to one of the feeding platforms where a group of about 20 guides and tourists had gathered. After huge bunches of bananas were placed on the platform by Camp Leakey staff members, we waited a little while and slowly orangutans came swinging through the trees or walking out of the forest.

I expected that they would all come rushing to get food, but orangutans never seem to be in a hurry. They take their time, observing the scene and eventually sauntering over to the platform. There were single orangutans, mothers with babies and a couple large males - one of whom quickly devoured a large number of bananas and then stuffed his mouth and hands with a lot more, before ambling off into the forest.

As time went on, it started to rain. The orangutans climbed back into the trees, but several of them came off the platform and walked right through the group of people who were watching them. Some people scattered and others just stepped aside, but the orangutans were very cool and unconcerned as they parted the crowd. It was great fun. As the rain started in earnest, the group of tourists dispersed. I stayed until all the orangutans had gone and though I ended up completely drenched by the downpour, it was well worth it.

After returning to Rimba Lodge to change into dry clothes, we once again set out on the river. It was nighttime and the only lights were those on the boats. After about 30 minutes we anchored next to the firefly tree. For some unknown reason, this particular tree attracts hundreds of fireflies every night. We cut the lights on the boat so that everything was black, except the fireflies flashing like lights on a Christmas tree. I ate dinner on the boat, while watching the fireflies. It was a magical and unexpected experience.

The next day, after stopping to see a local village along the river, it was back to Kumai and Pangklan Bun, and then on to Bali. I was very sorry to leave Central Kalimantan and I would have liked to have spent more time. For visitors who have an extra day or two to spend, longer treks into the deep jungle can be arranged.

Central Kalimantan is a great adventure for most people. However, it's not for everyone. Because you'll spend most of your time on the river, on a slow-moving boat, you have to be able to enjoy just sitting and watching the scenery. If you think you might get a little antsy spending so much time on the river, you might be better off going to Sumatra to see orangutans. And, though klotok boats are a great way to explore the river, be forewarned that the chairs on board aren't very comfortable. Also, there's no internet whatsoever in the area, so if you can't live without email, this isn't your trip. But, if a true river rainforest adventure appeals to you, it's hard to beat Central Kalimantan. Personally, I love it!

Diane Embree
February 8, 2014

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