Gaze into the eyes of an orang-utan, and you’ll be hooked

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL THE SPEC­TA­TOR

‘‘WHEN an orang-utan looks you di­rectly in the eyes, it seems like you can see their soul and they can see yours. It is un­nerv­ing, ex­hil­a­rat­ing and per­sonal,’’ says Cana­dian pho­tog­ra­pher and ce­ram­i­cist El­iz­a­beth Men­zies, who has spent the past decade guid­ing tourists to see these lop­ing, orange-haired pri­mates in Kal­i­man­tan, Bor­neo.

It is an in­ti­mate ex­change from which all but a lucky few are ex­empt. Even with im­proved ac­ces­si­bil­ity to their habi­tat in a re­mote pocket of South­east Asia, these an­i­mals face in­creased risk ram­parts of the Palais des Papes can be seen from afar. Soar­ing out of the rock, they sug­gest power and para­noia. Over a pe­riod of 100 years, seven popes and two an­tipopes lived here, and it has since been known as the City of the Popes. In 1309 the first of these, Cle­ment V, a French­man, aban­doned an­ar­chic, feud­ing Rome and moved the cen­tre of the Chris­tian world to the pros­per­ous town at the cross­roads of Flan­ders and the Mediter­ranean, and Spain and Italy.

His suc­ces­sors ex­panded the epis­co­pal palace with court­yards, grand au­di­ence cham­bers, pri­vate apart­ments and chapels, all built in less than 20 years. The mod­ern visi­tor wan­ders through empty, cav­ernous halls full of ex­posed ma­sonry and mas­sive fire­places, scrubbed clean, where roar­ing fires must have bat­tled to warm the premises dur­ing win­ters that could freeze the Rhone.

One can only imag­ine the lux­ury of the in­te­rior. There is no trace of the ta­pes­tries and silks that hung from the walls, the vel­vet car­pets or beds cov­ered in crim­son and gold. All that re­mains are the fres­coes in the popes’ pri­vate apart­ments, painted by of ex­tinc­tion through de­for­esta­tion and cap­ture.

‘‘Il­le­gal log­ging be­came very ac­tive in this area about eight years ago,’’ Men­zies says. ‘‘The log­gers moved into the prime forests of Tan­jung Put­ing Na­tional Park, and it was not un­com­mon to pass boats pulling up to 200 logs bound for ex­port. Stand­ing on the dock in the early morn­ing, I could hear chain­saws buzzing away in the dis­tance. It was very dis­turb­ing.’’

This trauma has been ex­ac­er­bated by the burn­ing off of mil­lions of hectares of rain­for­est to make way for palm-oil plan­ta­tions, with fires alone ac­count­ing for the deaths of thou­sands of orang­utans. And these gen­tle crea­tures, Sienese artists, de­pict­ing the kingly pur­suits of hunt­ing and fish­ing. With pa­pal ex­pen­di­ture at 10 times that of the royal court in Paris, the popes lived in splen­dour; pity the sous-chefs at Cle­ment VI’s corona­tion ban­quet, where 10,000 guests were served with 1023 sheep, 118 cat­tle, 101 calves, 914 kids, 60 pigs, 10,471 hens, 1440 geese, 300 pike, 46,856 cheeses and 50,000 tarts.

Such lux­ury brought decadence. Pe­trarch de­scribed the court as ‘‘a sewer where all the filth of the uni­verse has gath­ered’’, and Cle­ment VI ad­mit­ted to hav­ing lived as ‘‘a sinner among sin­ners’’. Even­tu­ally, un­able to re­sist si­mony and nepo­tism, or con­trol sybaritic car­di­nals, the pa­pacy re­turned to Rome in 1403, since when no pope has vis­ited Avi­gnon.

Other sites of Avi­gnon in­clude the Pe­tit Palais, a must for devo­tees of Ital­ian panel paint­ing. Here are found nearly 1000 frag­ments of large al­tar­pieces and Madonna and Childs galore, with one sweet Bot­ti­celli in the crowd. The Musee Calvert, the city’s finest mu­seum, has a broad col­lec­tion, beau­ti­fully dis­played, in a grace­ful 18th-cen­tury palace.

Its arche­o­log­i­cal and sculp­ture whose name in Malay means men of the for­est, are prized as pets, but are cap­tured only once their moth­ers have been killed.

Change of an­other kind is also sweep­ing over this ham­let, and it could prove to be the orang-utans’ saviour. Tourists who glide up the Sekonyer River carry with them both a cu­rios­ity and a cur­rency that may yet di­vert the species from the road to ex­tinc­tion.

‘‘When I first vis­ited Kal­i­man­tan [in 1994], there were only three boats op­er­at­ing on the river to trans­port tourists. On my visit last year, I saw that there were more than 30 boats,’’ Men­zies says.

Acutely aware of the in­her­ent con­flict be­tween tourism and con- col­lec­tion is found at the Musee Lap­idaire in a re­stored Je­suit church where the side chapels make ideal show­cases.

Sev­eral gothic churches re­flect ser­va­tion, Men­zies tries to strike a re­spect­ful bal­ance while work­ing as a guide with the Aus­tralian­based tour group Icon Ad­ven­tures.

‘‘The more peo­ple know about orang-utans, the more likely they are to be­come a fi­nan­cial sup­porter of their cause; pro­vid­ing in­ter­ested tourists with a per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence is ex­tremely pow­er­ful.

‘‘But ul­ti­mately, it is the orang­utans that are the pri­or­ity and must re­main so,’’ she says.

Trav­el­ling in small boats, Men­zies and her team visit three re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion camps, in­clud­ing the fa­mous Camp Leaky on the fringe of Tan­jung Put­ing Na­tional Park. Here, world-renowned con­ser­va­tion­ist and the founder of the pa­pal pres­ence. Some are bleak and grey, over­laid with baroque dec­o­ra­tion, but at Sain­tPierre later ar­chi­tec­tural fash­ions sit in har­mony with the old. Orang-utan Foun­da­tion In­ter­na­tional, Birute Galdikas, runs a care cen­tre for hun­dreds of dis­placed and or­phaned orang-utans.

‘‘Many of these are ba­bies or two or three-year-olds. Some of the older orang-utans are kept in cages as they have nowhere to go, nowhere they can be­come dom­i­nant males or roam freely in the de­pleted for­est,’’ Men­zies says.

The an­i­mals can be ob­served as they re­learn the ways of the wild in the hope of be­ing re­leased into a newly des­ig­nated pro­tec­tion zone. But while the ba­bies may in­spire ma­ter­nal af­fec­tion, Men­zies cau­tions against han­dling orang­utans be­cause of the risk of disease trans­fer, and as­sures vis­i­tors they

Avi­gnon is lovely to walk through. The Rue de la Republique, the main street run­ning north to south, di­vides the city in two. At the top is the Place de will be deeply moved even with­out phys­i­cal con­tact.

‘‘They are a re­flec­tion of all the good things about our­selves. They are kind, gen­tle, re­spect­ful and in­tel­li­gent. I feel awed to just be in the pres­ence of an orang-utan. How can we not be moved to help them when they look at you with those dark, deep eyes?’’ l’Hor­loge, orig­i­nally the fo­rum, and a re­minder that the area was a ‘ ‘ prov­ince’’ of Rome. Cafes and restau­rants fill the square; in­deed, through­out the city there is no short­age of places to eat, what­ever your bud­get — in the shady Place Cril­lon, for ex­am­ple, or along the pretty Rue des Tein­turi­ers, which runs be­side the river Sorgue, where cloth was washed and which turned the now dor­mant wa­ter wheels.

Ei­ther side of the Rue de la Republique are many sur­prises: the im­pres­sive palaces of car­di­nals, the mar­ket in the Place Pie, and the Chapelle Sainte-Claire where, in 1327, Pe­trarch spied Laura, to be for­ever his muse.

Be­cause of the walls, Avi­gnon is a small, in­ti­mate city that quickly feels fa­mil­iar. It is also an ideal base for other places of in­ter­est nearby: Ar­les, for ex­am­ple, or a vine­yard. Cle­ment V planted vines on slopes to the north of the city. His suc­ces­sor built a cas­tle among them, and the pa­pal in­signia is still em­bossed on bot­tles of Chateauneuf-du-Pape: a fine legacy for he­do­nists who also made his­tory.


Al fresco fine din­ing out­side the Palais des Papes, to which no pope has ven­tured since 1403

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