Quite simply one of the best days of my life.
I awake to the sound of our captain whispering ‘up, up’ and Isy calling my name from a distance. Disorientated I scramble out of the covers, get lost in the mosquito net and finally push back the plastic covering the bow of the boat. Then I stop, my heart in my mouth – in a rare moment of complete bewilderment and awe.
On the jetty, to which we have tied the boat, sits Isy. Beside him, an orangutan, watching me quietly. There are no other people around, no barriers, no other guides, and I am five metres away. It's a silent summer morning. It is just us, in the forest, by the river, with a beautiful animal who wants to spend some time with us.
The next hour we sit in our pyjamas on the jetty, playing and posing for pictures with Sweet Hope. He will become my lasting memory of the trip, and probably my most prized moment of the time I spent in Asia.
Orangutans are just like people. They each have a personality, distinguishing features, and eyes that seem to communicate in the same way a human would. They are so intelligent and perceptive – but wild, in a world of their own.
We go back in to the camp from which we started our night walk. We become friends with the ranger here eventually, who lives here with his family. They have no neighbours except wild animals and insects. In his ‘garden’ sits a large male. We take old bananas from his shed and feed them to him. More truthfully we try to feed them to him, but he ends up taking the whole pack. Difficult to argue with an orangutan the size of a body builder, one metre away.
Cruising further upriver I am euphoriously happy. The river again has changed; it’s narrower, lined with tall trees. I have a great moment, perched on the bow roof with music playing from the captain’s station beneath me, singing along to Sweet Child of Mine and spotting crocodiles. Isy spots a tiny little baby one on a branch in the water.
We arrive at Camp Leakey, the main camp set up by a Canadian woman. As we approach we see Siswi, a large middle-aged female, in the middle of her afternoon bath. She is leisurely perched in the water, just as if sitting in a bath tub, watching the boats go by. We tie up the boat just next to her and have a lovely few hours eating lunch not three metres away while macaque monkeys run around her trying to steal the snacks. Isy tells the story of when he recently caught her in a bad mood and she bit him hard on the leg. It almost looks like she is still angry at him, and we become certain that she's feeling mischievous when she suddenly, with a smirk, reaches out and finds the boat rope on the ground (amongst around 20 other roots and branches ). There is nothing we can do – the captain tries to pull it from her but she holds on with a grin, proving that she's in complete control of our vessel. We learn from Isy that orangutans can reach the same age as humans, and the same weight, but that the females are eitgh times stronger than humans, and males 10 times.
Leakey was packed with orangutans, about 15-20 of them during the feeding, strolling along on the pathways, hanging out in the trees or walking up through the people to the feeding platform. While leaving we came across Tom, the largest dominant male the guides know. He is imposing, impressive and much like a big time mafia boss – not to be messed with. Standing up he is taller than the men here, and at least twice the width. His arms are as long as his legs.
Despite coming out here all the time, the guides are surprisingly gentle and enthusiastic about each animal individually. They mimic their calls during the feeding and bring them closer. They respect them and look after them while keeping a watchful eye to ensure their visitors are safe.
While taking a detour through the forest and run into a gibbon! Or rather he very swiftly Tarzan-swings his way to us from about 100 metres away in the quest for food. I get a great pic in the second he is with us (above), then he leaves at the speed of lighting.
We cruise downriver and found a good place to stop for the night. We fall asleep, knowing that there are crocodiles and snakes in the water around us. We’re now used to the rudimentary conditions, except I still squeal when a cockroach lands on my head.
We've had a great time today, Isy is a funny guy and we have all bonded. In the group we speak French almost all the time. Still cannot believe the quality and variety of food that comes out of the little cubicle downstairs. They look after us well.
Good night, from Borneo.