This post is a part 2 of a 4-part guest series by Sherri Harvey.
After a twenty-minute boat ride down the Sangatta River, we followed our jungle-trekking guides up a steep river embankment to a sign that read “Welcome to the Jungle.” Since Axel Rose from Guns and Roses is from my home state of Indiana, I couldn’t help but hear the song in my head, but soon enough, the sounds of the jungle took over. As we made our way in, I was serenaded by a concert of humming, buzzing, and chirping by frogs, cicadas, monkeys, and birds. The combination of decaying vegetation, soil, wood, leaves, mushrooms and orchids filled my nose and provided a saturated buffet for the pollinators like moths, bats, butterflies, bees, and ants. As I walked, I let my fingertips feel the leaves as though I might be able to learn jungle secrets by touch alone. We headed along a wooden boardwalk through old national park buildings, and eventually, out into the thick lowland tropical rainforest. This was my first rainforest jungle trek, and I was happily drenched and soggy without having to run three miles for the sweat.
We were trekking through the Kutai National Park looking for wild orangutans. The trip required some effort to get here and a commitment to the cause. Located on the east coast of Borneo Island, in the East Kalimantan province of Indonesia, hiking in Kutai took six hours on a bus driving from Samarinda to Sangata. Our presence here also demanded both a permit and knowledgeable local guides. This trip was a possibility for our group only because of Orangutan Odysseys. Garry Sundin and his team of environmentalists, locals, and experts had provided his guests, my fellow trekkers, with this jungle tour that also required a target fundraising goal. The money then supported The Orangutan Project that aims to fight rainforest destruction as a proposed solution to climate change, habitat loss, illegal wildlife trade, and cultural preservation. The founder, Leif Cocks, primatology expert and trip host, and our co-host, Hardi Baktiantoro, Founder of the Center for Orangutan Protection joined us as well. Collectively, their mission is to protect the orangutan habit through environmental sustainability and responsible tourism, and we were all here to figure out how we could contribute to the cause as we search for orangutans, from the Malay origin of orang (person) and hutan (forest). It takes a team of people like this working around the clock to look for sustainable solutions for orangutan habitat and forest protection, and this extraordinary team was showing us what it looks like on the front line of the fight.
As we started into the heart of the forest, Hardi picked up a roly-poly, or wood shrimp and introduced me to him. Although people refer to the roly-polys as bugs, they are not insects. They are wingless, oval crustaceans — land-dwelling relatives of lobsters and crabs. Hardi told me a story about how the local Dayak had been rumored to watch orangutans eat them when they had a toothache. Supposedly, as the Dayak watched the orangutans, they learned about homeopathic medicinal purposes of the crustacean by studying orangutan behavior.
As we continued on, I was in awe of how well our guides knew the forest. Ozzy veered off our hidden trail and walked on the sides of it looking for orangutan signs. Ivend held ginormous red ants and worms in his hands to show us their intricate markings. Hardi picked up a half-eaten berry and announced that the orangutans had recently been here.
As we walked, our expert guides pointed out the things a life within this forest had taught them. Orangutan nests sat in clumps of leaves high above. We learned that these arboreal mammals bend smaller, leafy branches onto a foundation that serves as a nest and then braid the tips of branches into the heap to increase stability since they spend most of their time in trees. As I scanned the tops in earnest desperation for a sighting, I saw only clumps of thick green that sunlight could not penetrate, and I would not have known it was an orangutan nest if I were out here by myself. Without the careful eyes of the natives, I would have missed this detail. Additionally, the verdant growth was so thick that if I were to get lost, there was no way I would have found my way out.
About an hour in, we heard, by radio that there was an orangutan high in the trees. We walked slowly, heads pointed toward the sky. We were advised that the orangutans knew we were there, even if we couldn’t see them. We saw the evidence.
As we hiked, we stopped to photograph things we wouldn’t see at home…different mushrooms, a lantern moth, twisty vines with growth that looked like potatoes, insects the size of our fists, and all of us were filled with the wonder of childhood delight. Seeing with new eyes and open hearts, and an empathetic nature, was essential for the trip and since we were all here for the common goal of orangutan trekking. Even though we were strangers, we were united by a love for the great outdoors, a desire to do something for our planet, and a commitment to travel halfway across the world to explore options for making a difference in saving not only orangutans, but also the forest, the native land, and really, the world.
After a few hours, we neared the Ranger Station where Orangutan Odysseys had arranged lunch to be served by the locals for us, and we were hot, sweaty, tired, hungry and muddy. I was so happy to see our lunch spot to rest for a bit. As we all sang a cheer to be back, we were immediately informed that some of the locals had seen the orangutans pass through. So even though we could smell the delicious food, we had to walk straight through the temptation and keep going. On we went in search of orangutans.
After another hour, we called it time to head back to eat. At lunch, Leif told us what tracking orangutans entailed: lying on the ground for hours on end and looking up to the trees, sometimes without a citing. We also learned that in Kutai, the estimated number of orangutans was about 600. After a leisurely information session from Leif, we were rested and fueled, ready for more searching and we slipped back into our muddy boots and headed back out in the humid air and cacophonous harmony of the jungle.
Placing our feet carefully in wet mud, up and down steep hills and ravines, through and over river crossings, holding on to branches for stability and pushing each other up from behind, we got to know each other pretty well. We were committed to the mission to see more. And when I was filthy and worn out and I thought that I couldn’t possibly take one more step, someone called out a sighting.
Leif had spotted the grand old lady high above us. He could tell she was about a fifty-year-old female. Since my orangutan-spotting skills were not yet honed, picking her out from the foliage proved challenging. Even the Aussie environmentalists had a hard time. They ranged in age from twenty-five to mid-sixties, and we all craned our necks and squinted, searching high up to the treetops to spot her. Although we heard her long, powerful arms swinging her and her vice-like hands propelling her from tree to tree, the sun made it hard to see her body distinctly. We watched her dark mass moving above us for a good half an hour as our guides continued to point, but she didn’t make it easy on us untrained orangutan-watchers.
As we sat under the soft blanket of jungle canopy to watch her before making our way back into the canoes, then onto the bus, to finally the hotel to take a well-earned shower, we all shared a quiet celebration for bearing witness to her. I didn’t want to leave her—I could have sat all day watching her sit still high above me, sharing the same air and same love of the trees that serve humanity so well. But we had a few hours of trekking to make it out of the jungle before dark.
As we left her, I could feel that all of us had been touched by her. I could see from my new friends’ smiles that we were all tickled to have spotted her. For me, the sum of the experience, orangutans, butterflies, mushrooms, even the mosquitoes, had deepened my connection to the wild heart of life. Seeing this old magical girl in her habitat, roaming freely in the place she called home represented hope for the future of her species. She got me thinking about what I can do from my home in California to help not only save her, but also to save her habitat from the destructive forces working to profit from the commodification of the rainforest.
After all, we are all in this great big world together, and if we want nature to continue serving us, we need to find a way to serve it better.
Sher Harvey/The Accidental Advocate