A special opportunity to visit the orangutans of Borneo with the woman who knows them best

By Dr. Evan Goldfischer
This article appears on page 28 of the December 2017 issue.

A special opportunity to visit the orangutans of Borneo with the woman who knows them best

While traveling in Rwanda, I met someone who had recently gone to the island of Borneo to see orangutans. She told me about Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, who is to orangutans what Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees and Dian Fossey was to mountain gorillas. Together, these three women were dubbed the “Trimates” by Dr. Louis Leakey. 

Dr. Biruté Galdikas might be the lesser known of the three, but she has been in the field in Borneo for 46 years studying these wonderful animals. 

Having been to see chimpanzees and mountain gorillas in Africa, I know how wonderful it is to spend time with the great apes in their natural habitats, so I began researching possible itineraries and outfitters to Borneo.

It soon became clear that there were many options, but only the Orangutan Foundation International, or OFI (310/820-4906, orangutan.org), a not-for-profit charity based in Los Angeles, California, offered the opportunity to spend time with Dr. Galdikas. Through the travel arranger for the foundation, Irene Spencer, I applied for one of their May 2017 trips at www.orangutan.travel and was accepted.

Getting there

On May 3rd I departed New York, and, after stopping in Tokyo and Singapore, I arrived in Yogyakarta on May 5th. I spent two nights at the regal Amanjiwo Resort (phone +62 293 788 333, aman.com), the only super-luxury option in the area. Though this hotel is very expensive (and very beautiful), there are other hotel options that offer more standard accommodations at more reasonable prices. 

I stayed in a beautiful villa ($700 per night, including  breakfast), with views of the rice fields, and had the opportunity to climb at sunrise to the top of Borobudur, a massive 9th-century Buddhist temple. The view from the top was truly majestic. 

I also visited Prambanan, a large Hindu temple complex that was being reconstructed. 

Both temples can be very crowded, so I’d suggest going either very early or very late in the day. 

I traveled to Jakarta for an overnight at the FM7 airport hotel (phone +62 215 591 1777, fm7hotel.com), a clean but very basic hotel, before my next morning’s Trigana Air flight to Pangkalanbun, located on the island of Borneo. I was told that this airline often has delays, something I can verify from my experience. 

Upon my arrival, Irene Spencer and her assistants from OFI greeted me and the 12 other tour members at the airport. The group members, nearly all from the US, were from all walks of life and of various ages. There were two couples, and the rest of us were solo travelers. 

Irene accompanied us throughout the trip. The cost for the main trip was $5,250 plus an $875 single supplement. Trip insurance was mandatory, and the cost was based on age. I paid $327. 

At the Grand Kecubung Hotel, where we met Dr. Galdikas, we enjoyed a nice Indonesian lunch while being briefed about our trip and the wildlife we would encounter. Then we continued to the harbor of Kumai and took a klotok, a typical riverboat, up the Kumai River. 

During our 3-hour journey upriver, we saw proboscis monkeys, with their large, pendulous noses, and were very fortunate to see our first wild orangutans along the river’s edge. 

At dusk, we arrived at Rimba Lodge, a small ecolodge. Unless you want to sleep on the klotok, this is the only accommodation in the area. 

The rooms were basic but comfortable, with, let me say, “modest” air-conditioning (a necessity), and the beds had mosquito netting. Boardwalks made out of the local ironwood connected the various buildings over the peat swamp. 

Our meals were eaten in a room in back of the dining room that was reserved for Orangutan Foundation International tours. The food was served family-style and consisted of Indonesian dishes. 

As this is a “dry” province in a Muslim nation, alcohol was not sold at the lodge or at any other hotel in the area.

Close encounters

Montana, a fully grown male with the characteristic cheek pads.

In the morning, we were given the option of waking up early to go out on the klotok to look for proboscis monkeys, and almost all of the travelers took advantage of this. It was very rewarding to see the monkeys swinging and playing in the early morning. 

Returning to the lodge for breakfast, we later boarded our klotok for a 2½-hour ride to Camp Leakey, located in Tanjung Puting National Park. 

We were allowed access to many of the areas at Camp Leakey that are off-limits to the general public, including the staff dining room, where we were provided with box lunches. Then our group walked into the woods to a feeding station to observe lunchtime for the orangutans before the general public was allowed in. 

OFI rangers put out milk, bananas and other fruits, and soon some of the orangutans that had previously been released back into the wild came to eat. We were fortunate to see full-grown males, with their large cheek pads, as well as some females, with their babies hanging on their backs. 

Though the feeding area was roped off, some of the orangutans didn’t observe the signs and walked right past us while we were watching them. Some of us were within one foot of these fantastic animals! 

Dr. Galdikas has released more than 600 orphaned orangutans after they were rehabilitated in her care center. While these animals are wild, they are habituated to humans. Unlike chimpanzees and gorillas, orangutans live a mostly solitary existence in the jungle. 

Unfortunately, palm-oil production and mining are destroying the primary rainforest there, threatening the existence of these wonderful animals. 

After taking our photos and observing the orangutans, we took the klotok back to Rimba Lodge for dinner. Everyone was exhausted from the heat and humidity, and we all went to sleep early. 

The next day, we took our klotok about an hour upriver to Pondok Tanggui to see the morning feeding. Again, we were privileged to have an hour to ourselves in the feeding station before the general public arrived. After a few minutes of orangutan calls from the rangers, a large male came for his breakfast. 

Continuing upriver for an hour and a half, we returned to Camp Leakey. This time, we observed the afternoon feeding with Dr. Galdikas during our private hour. The orangutans obviously knew her and ate directly out of her hands. 

Dr. Galdikas was a wealth of information, and by the end of the afternoon I started to really understand these animals. 

We had tea and coffee with her on the porch of her house at Camp Leakey, then spent the evening with her at our lodge, where she talked at length with us about orangutans and the palm-oil problem. 

Doctor visit

It is typical for juveniles to spend many years with their mothers and to be carried around by them.

The third day of our visit was a highlight, as we got to spend time at the Orangutan Care Center near Pangkalanbun. The care center is closed to the public, but participants of OFI tours are allowed to visit. 

This was the day we got to see Dr. Galdikas in all her glory as she showed us how the orphans were rehabilitated, from infancy through their juvenile stage all the way to subadulthood. At each developmental stage, it is necessary for the orphaned orangutans to learn certain skills in order to be able to survive in the wild when they are released. 

We were also able to meet the veterinarians and their assistants who perform surgery on the injured animals. 

In the evening, we had a farewell dinner at the Grand Kecubung Hotel with Dr. Galdikas. 

The next morning, we said good-bye to seven of the original 13 group members. Six of us had signed up for a special extension led entirely by Dr. Galdikas after the main trip, so our smaller group returned to the care center for a more in-depth view of the rehabilitation process. We were able to meet and help to prepare four teenage orangutans for their release the next day back into the wild. 

We also got to see several Borneo sun bears that were at the center as well as a cassowary bird that was housed there. Dr. Galdikas never turns away an animal, and this large bird was from a small zoo in Pangkalanbun that had closed down. 

A highlight of this extension was cruising downriver to the Java Sea and, by speedboat, into the jungle, where we met several representatives of the Indonesian wildlife service, who helped us release the four orphaned orangutans back into the jungle. 

After having a breakfast of bananas, the orangutans took to the trees and seemed very well prepared for their independence. 

On our final day, we took speedboats to some remote private release sites to check on previously released orangutans. They all seemed to remember Dr. Galdikas and were very friendly toward her and us. 

The orangutans seemed healthy and well adjusted to the wild, but Dr. Galdikas reminded us that every day, more orangutans are dying due to a lack of food from the decimation of the rainforest or are being killed if they venture into the palm-oil plantations. The foundation has over 60 infants in its center as a result of their mothers having been killed on the plantations. 

The hope is that the Indonesian government will understand the need to preserve the rainforest for the orangutans and curb the development of plantations. 

The special extension with Dr. Galdikas cost $2,950 per person, given as a taxable donation to the Orangutan Foundation International. You cannot participate on the extension without taking the main trip. 

The extension is not advertised; it is by invitation only and is limited to six people. I was lucky to have signed on early for the trip and was invited. 

These prices included domestic round-trip airfare from Jakarta to Borneo. It did not include international airfare or gratuities (the latter approximately the Indonesian equivalent of $125). I recommend Singapore as a good stopover, both before and after the trip.

At dinner on our last evening, everyone agreed that this trip had been more than eye-opening; it was life-changing.