Camp Leakey – The Heart of the Jungle

The final chapter of David McGonigal’s epic Borneo adventure.

The essence of any journey – even a relaxed cruising holiday – is a quest for new experiences. Too often the heart of the trip is encapsulated in a day at the start or near the middle. But, with perfect dramatic timing, the last landing day of our Orion Expeditions’ Borneo voyage was the one we’d all come for. And we could relish every minute of it, knowing that tomorrow was a sea day on the way to Bali and disembarkation.

We had to be up before dawn but excitement had me sleeping fitfully throughout the night anyway. By the time there was some light in the sky my cameras were packed and I was finding some extra space for the Goretex rain jacket that heavy clouds intimated would be essential. Orion II was tied up at the dock in the Indonesian Borneo town of Kumai but we departed down the gangway on the other side and straight into the Zodiacs. Soon we turned out of the main river into the Sungai Sekonyer and threaded our way upstream towards Camp Leakey. The river grew narrower and proboscis monkeys chattered in the trees that formed a canopy overhead.

Camp Leakey is so named because it was set up in 1971 by Dr. Biruté Galdikas as one of Louis Leakey’s three great ape projects – the other two were founded by Dian Fossey (mountain gorillas) and Jane Goodall (chimpanzees). Leakey himself is best known as the archeologist who discovered that humans came out of Africa and he wanted his researchers to delve into human evolution and our common ape ancestry. Camp Leakey is the world’s longest running mammalian study. Chimps share 99 per cent of our DNA and orang-utans are less than a percentage point behind them.

It was a huge privilege to not only meet Dr Galdikas but to have her travel with us on Orion II for a few days. We met her up at Camp Leakey after a journey that was definitely reminiscent of “Apocalypse Now”. About an hour after our Zodiacs left the ship we arrived at a rickety riverside dock where an orang-utan was sitting, largely ignoring the many cousins who had come to visit. A walk into the forest took us to a feeding platform where several orang-utans had come to supplement their jungle diet. We watched and photographed until it started to rain.

Back at the dock we boarded klotoks (traditional Borneo narrow river boats) and the river narrowed even more as we approached Camp Leakey. We were told that the ubiquitous – and insidious – palm oil plantations for which much of Borneo’s forests have been cleared started only a hundred metres from the riverbank but the rich riverside vegetation hid the damage. Monkeys, hornbills, kingfishers and even crocodiles observed our passage.

At Camp Leakey there was another orang-utan sentinel as we arrived and others were wandering around the volunteer-staffed camp. As we watched, Siswi, a senior orang female with a sense of occasion, walked into one of the buildings and returned with a red carpet. Over the next hour she wrapped herself in it, peeked out of it regularly to check that we were still watching and finally rolled in it down the path in front of us for about 50 metres. It was quite a performance. Dr Birute told us that Siswi can’t have children anymore and has become an avid attention-seeker to compensate. She sometimes has a companionable cup of tea on the doctor’s verandah.

The main feeding station at Camp Leakey was busy with lots of orang-utans (the females with babies waited until the visiting male had finished) plus a very bright Ratufa bicoloured squirrel and a gibbon that looked set for a ballet role, such was her dignity and grace. Under the whole elevated show bush pigs snuffled around for the discards. We watched in awe.

On the walk back to the camp we met up with Siswi again – she had been too lazy to walk all the way to the platform. She immediately grabbed a backpack from one of the women in our party and scampered up a tree where she proceeded to unzip every pocket and throw out everything that was not edible (and that was everything). The rangers showed great skill in catching the discards while a brave one climbed up the tree and bribed Siswi to give back the now-depleted pack.

Finally it was time to leave the camp and we reboarded our klotoks for the two-hour journey into the gathering darkness as we headed downstream back to the ship. Of course, being Orion, there was wine and cheese to bring civilization even to the jungle. We were all congratulating each other on a spectacular day that couldn’t have been any better when the jungle came to life. The monkeys had gone to bed but outside the boats’ driving lights every bush started to look like a Christmas tree. Fireflies. It was a magical scene that held us enthralled in its serene beauty. A few fireflies even landed on the boat and on our clothes and pulsed with light as we watched in childlike awe.

We rounded a bend and found we’d come back into the main river and could see the lights of Orion II. Back on board we were greeted by chilled cocktails and there was just time to toast our river companions before dropping into bed, exhausted and satiated. It had been one of the best days of my life – and that’s not a bad way to end a voyage of many highlights.

When I asked Dr. Biruté Galdikas what I should put in this post to aid orang-utans she said I should direct you to her website of the Orang-utan Foundation International (OFI): www.orangutan.org that can be missed among all the orang sites. She also asked that we try to reduce our reliance on palm oil as that’s what’s leading to the forest clearing across Borneo. Sadly, it’s almost ubiquitous in manufactured foods – and in Australia it’s often listed as “vegetable oil”.

What happens when you tickle a young orang-utan? I’d discovered the answer the day before: he or she lies helplessly on his/her back, squirming with a face screwed up by soundless laughter. When you stop they may grab your hand to get you to start again. It’s hard not to relate to our young cousins completely.

Words and photos: David McGonigal