Camp Leakey

It was great to see the crew again, even though it was 5 am at the Melbourne airport. We arrived near Tanjung Puting National Park about two days after setting off. The travel was pretty seamless and again, miraculously, our 57 cases made it too!

Already, I’m amazed at how wonderful Indonesia is! I mean, I knew that this trip would be fun, and I was excited to see wild orangutans for the first time, but it’s as if I didn’t know just HOW cool it would be.  The people here are so friendly, always smiling, helpful and they treat you very casually as if you are an old friend.  To get to Rimba Lodge, which is outside the park we took a two-hour boat ride in one of the common Klotok boats which are essentially double-decker live-aboard river boats that pleasantly chug up the river.  The lodge lies on the Sekonyer River, built on stilts with boardwalks connecting the buildings, right in the middle of essentially a swamp forest. It’s beautiful and had me in love right away because as we unloaded our gear I heard the distinct rustle of monkeys in the trees and a belch-like call- it was a group of proboscis monkeys just a few feet from me! These monkeys are pretty funny, the females have snooty little noses but the male has pretty much a phallus hanging from his face, but their fur looked soft as a rabbit’s, in colors of beautiful contrasting white, peachy orange and soft grey.

The next day we headed another two hours upriver to Camp Leakey. I was so excited to meet Dr. Birute Galdikas. What a unique lady! She’s one of the world’s most well-known primatologists because of her pioneering research on Bornean orangutans and her rehabilitation of hundreds of wild-born ex-captive individuals, many of whom now live free in Tanjung Puting National Park.  She started this place over 40 years ago.  Camp Leakey is named after Louis Leakey the paleoanthropologist who had the foresight to send three ‘untrained’ women to remote parts of the world to study our living cousins. He felt that being female and having a ‘fresh’ take on observations of these animals could lead us to a better understanding of not only the great apes, but ourselves, and he was so right! They’ve been called “Leakey’s angels”- Birute, Jane Goodall, and Dian Fossey, and each of them has left an indelible mark on primatology, anthropology and great ape conservation.

Dr. Birute (as she likes to be called) was a soft-spoken woman, had a very calm and peaceful demeanor, and invited us into the dining room and immediately began chatting with Jeremy and I.  We talked about everything from filmmaking to politics, to Louis Leakey and her Baltic roots, and of course the sad state of affairs with palm oil plantations and how global demand is causing the demise of her precious apes! I wanted to hear every word she said, but right outside Siswe, a wild-born ex- captive female orangutan of surprising size and stature, and self-appointed camp ambassador, strolled up and wanted to greet us, or better yet- join us for lunch.  When she didn’t get the attention she wanted, she climbed the fenced windows and looked in!  I was so torn, having never seen a wild orangutan! I knew we’d get to see them here, but I didn’t know it would be this closely and within 10 minutes of walking into camp! As if to steal the limelight from Dr. Birute, she sat outside and started building a hat of leaves and throwing it on top of her head to shade her from the sun. (It is oppressively hot and humid here, the sweat drips down your face so much that your eyes burn from all the salt as if you’ve been swimming in the ocean- we’ve all been walking around red-eyed…)

As if a rotund red ape wasn’t fabulous enough, right outside the building, huge wild bush pigs with their piglets walked around camp as if they owned the place.  Then an Asian civet strolled through the yard, just as a wild gibbon came to the kitchen and hung by his impossibly long arms, staring in at our lunch!  I asked if he was a rehabilitant also, and Dr. Birute explained that Boswell was a wild-born gibbon, but his mother had been an ex-captive release that mated with a wild gibbon but then kept returning to Camp Leaky and bringing her son with her. So here was Boswell, a wild black-handed gibbon, just a few feet from my face, a gift to see one these guys so close because they’d usually be brachiating across the tree canopy in a blur of black. I hadn’t been there an hour, and it felt like being in the world’s most special zoo where the animals wander around freely and you get dizzy from swinging around trying to photograph them all.

Dr. Birute had a few special guests from Lithuania there visiting so we all went to her veranda and of course Siswe followed and managed to steal a few mangoes from inside her house (she’s very smart and hard to keep out of the buildings, and also I think she doesn’t have to try that hard to get Dr. Birute or the rangers to give her the fruit, as she’s clearly a camp favorite).  As she lay outside eating her mangoes, you could see many of the other orangutans approaching in the trees but keeping a safe distance from her as she’s absolutely the alpha female at Camp Leakey.  A cheeky juvenile walked right up onto the deck and took a mango she’d set down and she didn’t even bat an eye. Dr. Birute explained that Siswe’s incredibly tolerant of juveniles, despite the fact that the other adult females were clearly afraid of her and gave her a wide berth.

We were snapping photos and filming orangutans in trees and the wild bush piglets trying to steal mangoes from Siswe, and having a ball, totally distracted by the cool animal life all around us, but we’d foolishly set some of our stuff down. Siswe grabbed an umbrella before we realized it.  Immediately one of the rangers tried to take it away from her but she was having none of it- she tried to beat him with it and then when he got hold of it, she played tug-of-war with him and won. (Duh, they have the strength of five men!)  Then she proceeded to gently open it and hold it over her head as she ate her mango. Then she’d close it, and open it, close it and open it, all to the delight of the Lithuanians and our film crew! She was so funny, full of personality, and a whole lot of attitude (but with the slow, calm, calculating orangutan- sort of way). But then the head ranger strolled up and went to take the umbrella from her, and she instantly handed it over, and seemed almost penitent, as if she’d been a ‘bad girl’ and knew it. It was amazing how differently she responded to this man, who was clearly the alpha among the human rangers!

A pleasant boat ride to Camp Leakey, Borneo. (Photo by Craig Carter)

A pleasant boat ride, even when it rained

Dr. Birute and Mr. Jeremy (Photo by Holly Carroll)

Dr. Birute and Mr. Jeremy

Siswe the self-appointed ambassador of Camp Leakey (Photo by Holly Carroll

Siswe the Camp Leakey ambassador

Sisw builds a leaf hat (Photo by Holly Carroll)

Siswe builds a leaf hat

…proud of her sun hat (Photo by Holly Carroll)

Proud of her sun hat

No one likes to get wet while eating their mango. (Photo by Holly Carroll)

No one likes to get wet while eating mango

Orangutan foot and cutest big toe I’ve ever seen (Photo by Holly Carroll)

Orangutan foot

 …not so different from ours (Photo by Holly Carroll).

Orangutan hand

the handsome and anatomically correct black-handed gibbon (Photo by Holly Carroll)

The handsome black-handed gibbon

Am I the only one that thinks bush piglets are adorable? (Photo by Holly Carroll)

Bush piglet

Orangutan mother and infant (Photo by Holly Carroll)

Orangutan mother and infant

“I got the mango! I got the mango!” (Photo by Holly Carroll)

Triumphant bushpiglet steals a mango Photo by Holly Carroll

I see you up there (Photo by Holly Carroll)

I see you up there Photo by Holly Carroll