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