When I was a small child, you wouldn’t find me playing house, but instead running high and low with a raggedy brown duffel bag in tow — I was playing Explorer. I would stuff my trusty brown bag with a few pairs of underwear and some essential travel gadgets. This meant, of course, my plastic red hammer, a skipping rope (to help me climb!), a tiny compass, and a few other items that would change as the situation did. And then I would wander around the house pretending I was journeying through a harsh mountain range or across vast ice fields or deep in the heart of a remote jungle.
You can imagine how excited I was then when, a few weeks ago, I visited Indonesia for the first time and I found myself exploring the far-flung places of my childhood imagination. One of the first adventurous activities I partook in when I arrived was orangutan trekking deep in the Borneo jungles of Tanjung Puting National Park — and it was incredible.
We are walking single file along the jungle trails, deeper into the Borneo rainforest. As I pause and gaze around at my surroundings, the silence of the forest is broken by the snapping of a branch. I whirl around and gasp. Just a few meters behind us, high in the trees, I spot my first wild orangutan. He gazes back at us with a thoughtful, inquisitive expression on his face. As we whisper among ourselves, I wonder what thoughts are going through this gentle giant’s mind. And then, just as suddenly as he had come, we watch as this auburn-haired creature grabs another branch and swings away through the treetops.
I had so many new experiences and amazing adventures in Tanjung Puting (and Indonesia as a whole!) and I’m finding it hard deciding what to start writing about. I mean, how do I even begin to convey my thoughts and express my feelings about a trip that has changed my life? I’ve learned so much more about the world and I’ve learned so much more about myself and what I’m capable of — I have no words.
But I’m a blogger and somehow I have to find the words, so here goes nothing!
While wild orangutans are the main draw of Tanjung Puting National Park, also a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and, don’t get me wrong, that was an indescribably great experience, I experienced so much more than that in Tanjung Puting. From meeting friendly locals to trying delicious Indonesian cuisine, from being surrounded by such beautiful and different jungle vegetation (as compared to my home country of Canada) to seeing wildlife such as proboscis monkeys, gibbons, bush pigs, and fireflies, from getting to know people from around the world to learning more about Indonesia — it was all so amazing.
After a one-hour flight from Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, I found myself on Borneo in the city of Pangkalan Bun. From the airport, I took a bus to the Port of Kumai and, along with four other people from around the world, we set out on a two-day-one-night adventure in a klotok, a traditional Indonesian riverboat. With our guide and boat crew, we cruised down the Sekonyer River and headed into Tanjung Puting National Park where our goal was to encounter wild orangutans in their natural habitat.
A traditional Indonesian lunch was cooked for us on board and served shortly after we left the port. As we cruised away from the city, away from people, and away from service (a blogger’s worst nightmare!), our guide, Nina, tells us stories about the orangutans and the jungle wildlife. She tells us how she now recognizes each of the orangutans in the camps and, that like humans, she tells them apart by their face structure, the length of their hair, and their demeanour. From the boat, Nina points out the proboscis monkeys with their distinctive long noses swinging through the trees beside the river. She also warns us of crocodiles in the waters, which we tried in earnest to spot during the cruise but no luck this time.
The riverboat tour included a visit to three orangutan camps in Tanjung Puting: Tanjung Harapan, Pondok Tanggui, and Camp Leakey. These camps are dedicated to rehabilitating ex-captive wild orangutans and the conservation of wild orangutans and, while the term camp is used, orangutans are free to roam in and out as they please. Camp Leakey is also a famed research facility and studies the orangutans in the area, with projects ranging from studying orangutan behaviour to ecology. The goal of these centers is to fully rehabilitate the once-captive orangutans so that they can fend for themselves and live in the wild again. However, it is a sad fact that even the orangutans who can now fully fend for themselves still come back for food. As the rainforest is cut down, orangutans are being forced into smaller and smaller habitats and there is simply not enough food in the Borneo jungles.
The natural habitat of the orangutan is rapidly disappearing due to deforestation from palm oil plantations and mining. They became extinct on the mainland decades ago and are now only found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The World Wildlife Fund estimated that a century ago there were likely more than 230 000 orangutans in the wild; however, now there are only around 7 500 orangutans in Sumatra and 41 000 remaining in Borneo.
I highly recommend visiting Tanjung Puting National Park as it is a site that promotes solutions for uniting the conversation of biodiversity, the local communities, and its sustainable use. While some may think that by visiting the orangutans in their natural habitat we may disturb them and pose a threat, loggers destroying their habitat pose a far greater danger. By visiting the habitats of wild orangutans, we are supporting conservation efforts: tour packages include a conservation fee and there are opportunities to donate to the cause. We can raise awareness and interest in wild orangutans and their continued preservation. It is my hope that Tanjung Puting National Park, the local people and businesses and the animals that inhabit the area, can reap the benefits of ecotourism and for the government of Indonesia to put a stop to commercial forestry.
Here are some additional fun facts about orangutans so you know more about them. Orangutans are the largest tree-dwelling mammal in the world and spend most of their time in the trees. Although males can weight up to 300 pounds, they move through the jungle canopy with ease using their long arms. Their diet consists mainly of fruit although they eat leaves, seeds, tree bark, and flowers as well. The word orangutan comes from the Malay and Indonesian words orang and hutan meaning person of the forest. They are very intelligent and are close relatives of humans. Below is a heart-warming clip from a BBC documentary of just how similar orangutan behaviour can be to our own.
How to Get There
Tanjung Puting National Park is located on Borneo in the province of Central Kalimantan. The closest major city is Pangkalan Bun. There are daily flights into Iskandar Airport (PKN) from Jakarta (CGK) for 45-80 USD one way. Price varies depending on airlines. Current airlines flying this route are Garuda Indonesia, Trigana Air, Batik Air, and Kalstar Aviation. You can also fly in from Surabaya, East Java.
Click on the pin for the full address of Tanjung Puting National Park.
Tour Package Options
You can explore Tanjung Puting with Local Guides. Our guide was really fun and knowledge, the company is eco-friendly, and I would definitely recommend them. Tour lengths can range from day tours to 7D6N to a tailor-made tour. Costs vary with tour length and number of people on the tour but to give you a rough idea, a 2D1N tour like the one I went on would cost between 200-550 USD. This includes transfers from and back to the airport, the riverboat, a local tour guide on board, a cook that provides three hot meals and snacks, park entrance permits, ranger fees, and conservation fees. The guide I had was Nina and you can find out more about her here.
Things to Keep in Mind
- Be prepared to disconnect with the digital world. You will lose service shortly after leaving the port.
- Boats have generators you can use to charge any cameras or electronic equipment you have. Just let the captain know and he will turn it on for you.
- You will be going into the jungle and there will be mosquitos and other bugs. Bring repellent — one with deet is strongly recommended.
- Be prepared to do some walking when orangutan trekking. On the tour I went on, heavy duty hiking boots weren’t needed and a pair of running shoes were good enough. Just make sure you watch where you are walking as there are sometimes roots jutting out from the jungle floor in crazy directions — you don’t want to twist your ankle! Also, there are trails for different fitness levels in the park and you can discuss your fitness abilities with your guide beforehand so they can customize the tour for you.
- High season is between June and October. If you go during this time, be prepared for crowded feeding stations at the camps. If you want to get a seat on one of the two rows of wooden benches, get there earlier than the designated feeding times.
- There are no hotels inside the park and you should be prepared to sleep overnight on the boats. The crew will provide you with mattresses, pillows, and mosquito nets.
- Bring earplugs. The sounds from cicadas, monkeys, birds, and more are not as relaxing as you might think.
- If you get motion sickness easily, make sure you bring some medication. And even if you don’t, it would be a good idea to pack some anyways. I don’t normally get motion sickness but I woke up in the middle of the night with terrible nausea from the swaying of the boat. Luckily for me, once the boat started moving forward again in morning, I was fine.
Want to read more about orangutan trekking in Borneo? Find out what my friend, Annika, has to say!
Are you going to Indonesia and looking for more places to visit? Check out 4 amazing places you have to visit in Indonesia!
Have you ventured into the jungle before? What did you see and do there? Share your adventures in the comments below!
I want to give a big, BIG thank you to our guide, the crew, and the organizers for making this trip into Tanjung Puting National Park so wonderful! Lots of love to every single person I met along the way — you each made this journey unforgettable! A special thank you to the Indonesia Tourism Board for inviting me on such an amazing trip to Wonderful Indonesia!