|Tanjung Puting National Park offers a safe and comfortable jungle river cruise, open to anyone, that brings you up close and personal with Borneo’s great ape, the orangutan. This winning combination, part African Queen and part National Geographic, has made it the most popular tourist destination in Kalimantan, with many people flying in and out on their way to Bali or Borobodur. Cruises go up Sungai Sekonyer, in one corner of the huge 4150-sq-km park, and past three orangutan feeding stations, where you come ashore and watch the ‘people of the forest’ emerge from hiding – an amazing moment.
Just as amazing, the park is largely the result of a single remarkable woman. Dr Biruté Galdikas is a member of Leakey’s Angels, a trio of young women trained by famous naturalist Louis Leakey to study the world’s great primates in the wild. For Diane Fossey it was the gorilla, for Jane Goodall the chimpanzee, and for Galdikas the orangutan. In 1971 the young primatologist arrived at Tanjung Puting by canoe and soon established Camp Leakey, where she still lives at certain times of year. Here she made such seminal discoveries as the orangutan’s eight-year birth cycle, which makes the species highly vulnerable to extinction. A very personal approach to ‘her’ orangutans has lost her some supporters in the academic establishment, but the fact remains that the 6000 wild orangutans living in Tanjung Puting today are the single largest population in the world.
The park serves as an orangutan rehabilitation centre, where orphaned or formerly captive individuals are trained to live in the wild. Part of that process is daily hour-long feedings at jungle platforms, open to visitors. Females arrive with their clinging young to feed on a pile of bananas, which they peel with their lips. If you’re lucky, they’ll scatter before a large male, with his enormous cheek pads and powerful body – a most impressive sight. The highlight is spotting the current alpha male, Tom, but since males range widely, this is hit or miss. Wild orangutans can also be seen along the river, particularly at low tide, when they come to eat palm fruit, and around Camp Leakey, where they like to sit on the boardwalk. While some may appear deceptively tame, do not attempt to touch or feed them, or to get between a mother and child, as certain apes are prone to bag-snatching and occasionally biting visitors.
The other significant reason for Tanjung Puting’s popularity, which should not to be underestimated, is the klotok. The Sekonyer is navigated on your own private riverboat, a romantic form of travel that leaves you feeling like a rajah. These two-storey, 8m to 10m wooden craft come with captain, mate and cook, and serve as both home and viewing platform. During the day you sit up top on an open deck, surveying the jungle with binoculars in one hand and a drink in the other, as the boat chugs along its narrow channel. Come twilight you moor on the edge of the jungle, listening to its primordial sounds as the cook makes a fine dinner. Later you retire to your own mattress and mosquito net, with stars twinkling overhead. Believe us when we say that you could get used to this life, particularly when its price is so reasonable. And that is why you won’t be alone, especially in July and August, when feeding stations get very crowded. But, apart from seeing other rajahs passing by, this is still an authentic experience, as our own research trip confirmed, when a rare clouded leopard swam right in front of the boat in broad daylight. More common sights include macaques, pot-bellied proboscis monkeys, darting kingfishers, majestic hornbills and – if you’re lucky – toothy gharials, a remarkable crocodile best seen at low tide, and the reason why you should avoid swimming (a visitor was eaten at Camp Leakey a decade ago).
Tanjung Puting is best visited during the dry season (May to September). The park’s 200 varieties of wild orchid bloom mainly from January to March, but the abundance of March fruit may lure orangutans away from feeding platforms. At any time, bring rain protection and insect repellent. For an even more luxurious jungle cruise, consider the Rahai’i Pangun in Palangka Raya.