Meet the family
Cruise with a cast of orang-utans, monkeys and dragons
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.