Meet the fam­ily

Cruise with a cast of orang-utans, mon­keys and dragons

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - STAN­LEY STE­WART

In the jun­gles of Borneo, the pro­boscis mon­keys are long­nosed, pot-bel­lied and sad-faced. They look like age­ing clowns. Of an evening, they sit in the mer­anti trees, legs splayed, hands on knees, chew­ing with an air of res­ig­na­tion through the never-end­ing leaf salad that sur­rounds them. The males sport white ruffs that make them look as if they’re in py­ja­mas.

The pro­boscis of­fer a re­minder of the ba­sic in­stincts we share, the self­ish gene and the bi­o­log­i­cal im­per­a­tive, stripped of all ar­ti­fice. Per­haps they are too easy to an­thro­po­mor­phise as they frown, chew their lips and scratch their be­hinds. But if we recog­nise kin­ship, or feel any sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity, we should be con­cerned about the fate of our cute, love­able, randy (the males’ harems are con­sid­er­able affairs) cousins. Be­cause they may not be around much longer. The pro­boscis is one of nine species of mon­keys and apes whose ex­tinc­tion may well oc­cur in our life­time.

Which is why I am aboard a swanky ship in the In­done­sian ar­chi­pel­ago. My fel­low pas­sen­gers are sup­port­ers of the Dur­rell Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust, which was founded by the late nat­u­ral­ist and au­thor Ger­ald Dur­rell and is com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing en­dan­gered species.

Our part in the cru­sade is not ar­du­ous. We sun­bathe, snorkel, eat too much, and make a se­ri­ous dent in a wine cel­lar. Oc­ca­sion­ally we lis­ten to a few agree­able lec­tures, but our ship does the leg work, fer­ry­ing us in style from trop­i­cal is­lands to jun­gle rivers in or­der to visit three of the crea­tures the trust is hop­ing to sus­tain — the Bornean orang-utan, the Ko­modo dragon and the Bali star­ling. Part of our fares for this sybaritic ex­pe­di­tion is go­ing to­wards sus­tain­ing the trust.

I join at Ku­mai, a dusty river town on the south­ern shore in Kal­i­man­tan. I wait on a rick­ety dock un­til, be­fore mid­night, a clus­ter of dis­tant lights ap­pears in the dark­ness. As they draw nearer, they form them­selves into a small cruise ship, Na­tional Geo­graphic Orion.

Early next morn­ing, we have an ap­point­ment with the orang-utans. Leav­ing our ship at an­chor, we head up the Sun­gai Sekonyer river in klo­toks, the dou­ble-decker lo­cal boats of th­ese wa­ter­ways. Smoke from slash-and-burn agri­cul­ture hangs over the river like early mist. The clear­ance of the great forests for palm oil plan­ta­tions is the scan­dal of Kal­i­man­tan, with half the orang-utan habi­tat lost over the past 20 years.

We are trav­el­ling into the depths of the Tan­jung Put­ing Na­tional Park, more than 3880 square kilo­me­tres of dry trop­i­cal for­est, wetlands and man­grove swamps. There may be fewer than 50,000 orang-utans left in Kal­i­man­tan, and most live within the bound­aries of this park, which is home to Camp Leakey, the world’s most fa­mous orang-utan sanc­tu­ary.

From the land­ing stage at Camp Leakey, we fol­low sand paths through the dap­pled light of the for­est. In a tree adorned with sev­eral of Borneo’s 3000 or so species of or­chids, a moon­faced gib­bon looks down on us. Gib­bons are heart-throbs. Form­ing pair bonds for life, the males sing to the fe­males ev­ery morn­ing.

Orang-utans, like the pro­boscis, are less ro­man­tic. They are Asia’s only great apes. Their in­tel­li­gence is the stuff of leg­end and now, in­creas­ingly, sci­ence. In a zoo in At­lanta in the US they are play­ing touch­screen com­puter games. But, like many in­tel­li­gent crea­tures, they come with emo­tional bag­gage. Un­like chimps and go­ril­las, they are soli­tary. The only gen­uine bond­ing is be­tween a mother and her child, who keeps hold of the apron strings for four or five years. Fa­thers take no part in car­ing for the young. Stud­ies have shown that sec­ondary males, the ones the al­phas boss about, suf­fer high lev­els of stress.

Af­ter about 1km we come to the feed­ing sta­tion and wait. The ar­range­ment has the cu­ri­ous air of a film pre­miere — a rope, a pha­lanx of long-lens cam­eras, a hand­ful of guides to keep us in line, an air of hushed ex­pec­ta­tion. The raised feed­ing plat­form takes the place of the red car­pet.

For the celebri­ties in Tan­jung Put­ing, the lure is not fame but two enor­mous bas­kets of very ripe-look­ing ba­nanas. Sud­denly, the first orang-utan — a mother with a young­ster cling­ing to her tummy — ma­te­ri­alises on the edge of the clear­ing, her fea­tures fa­mil­iar from a dozen wildlife films. She is joined by sev­eral oth­ers. They tuck into the ba­nanas with an air of en­ti­tle­ment, ig­nor­ing the as­sem­bled fans. Their ears are cocked to a much more im­por­tant world — the jun­gle be­hind. And then it seems they have heard some­thing. Quite sud­denly they rise from their haunches, va­cate the plat­form and melt into the for­est. “Tom,” whis­pers a guide. “Big Tom is com­ing.”

Big Tom is the star turn. He swings down out of a tree in an el­e­gant slow-mo­tion arc, then crosses the feed­ing plat­form with a John Wayne swag­ger. His enor­mous cheek flanges and long coat — the kind of shaggy or­ange afghan that al­pha males wore to 1970s pop fes­ti­vals — an­nounce his sta­tus. Weigh­ing as much as 115kg and not a long way short of 180cm, Tom gazes at the black ba­nanas, unim­pressed.

We al­ready know so much about Tom and his li­bido. A sign along the path has is­sued a warn­ing: “Never stand be­tween the al­pha male and a fe­male.’’ No fear of that as his ar­rival has cleared the for­est. The fe­males have van­ished; the sec­ondary males are nowhere to be seen.

Tom an­nounces his pres­ence with a Tarzan-like cry, which tells re­cep­tive fe­males he is on the pull and warns lesser males to make them­selves scarce. But Tom can­not be ev­ery­where. Sec­ondary males cop­u­late with his fe­males when his back is turned. Per­haps it is this that con­trib­utes to their high stress lev­els.

On the walk back to the river, I en­counter a fe­male orang-utan perched in a tree. It is a mo­ment of re­flec­tion. We stand look­ing at one an­other, as close as if we are across a din­ner ta­ble. Orang-utans are one of our near­est re­la­tions; along with chimps and go­ril­las we are mem­bers of the same elite tax­o­nomic fam­ily: the Ho­minidae.

With an orang-utan, the sim­i­lar­i­ties of move­ment and ex­pres­sion are star­tling. But it is her eyes that are most strik­ing. We gaze at one an­other al­most like old friends. She tilts her head, her eyes search­ing mine. What we both see is an ex­pres­sion of thought­ful cu­rios­ity, the eyes of a be­ing that has a life be­yond mere bi­o­log­i­cal im­per­a­tive.

The next morn­ing we set course across the Java Sea to the scat­ter­ing of is­lands that stretch east­wards to Pa­pua New Guinea. Our evenings are a float­ing house party. Our days be­come a round of de­light­ful shore ex­cur­sions.

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