Lime Parfait, Peppermint Fresh, Applegate — the colours flashing past as we speed towards Semenggoh Nature Reserve are straight out of the Dulux swatch chart. But today I’ll be looking for another colour among the green — a Golden Orange perhaps, a Cinnamon Sand or Hot Ginger. Today, I’m searching for orangutans.
Borneo’s landscape is fulfilling my wildest dreams. Carnivorous pitcher plants wait patiently for their prey, lianas snake their way up the impossibly straight trunks of honey bee trees, and the long leaves of white orchids form a protective fan around the flower in their midst.
Surrounded by dense jungle, Semenggoh Nature Reserve has been teaching orphaned and rescued orangutans how to survive in the wild for over 20 years. For most of the time they live alone and unaided in the 1,613-acre jungle. But twice a day, if they want a free meal, it’s there for them, left on a platform deep among the trees.
I’ve come during fruiting season, when boughs sag under the weight of wild water apples, durians and bananas — in other words, at a time when the chances of seeing orangutans in the wild is pretty remote.
“If they don’t come to feed, we must see it as a good sign as to their survival capabilities,” my guide, Kajan, reassures me. I nod, knowing I should wholeheartedly agree — yet my conscience is wrestling with a burning desire to lay eyes on these incredible creatures in their natural habitat.
Visitors are given just a one-hour time slot at the feeding platform. The minutes tick by; everyone craning their heads in different directions, seeing nothing but an impenetrable wall of green. Ten minutes. Twenty. I begin to panic. Twenty-five. Where are they?! At the half-hour point, I’ve resigned myself to an orangutan-empty existence.
But then, he swings into view. Forget King Louie, this guy is the Henry VIII of the jungle. He takes his place on his tree stump throne, his bottom drooping over either side. Saggy folds of skin hang from his chest; his body hair is more than half a metre long. He’s gigantic, grotesque, and utterly magnificent.
“My ideal man,” I hear one woman joke behind me. “Man boobs and a hairy back.” And a few minutes later, a squeal from a little boy perched on his father’s shoulders. “Look daddy, he’s doing a wee!”
But then the group falls silent, the orangutan’s mere presence commanding our complete attention. He eats slowly, delicately, peeling his bananas one by one — a king who knows he need not hurry; his subjects will wait. Occasionally, he deigns to glance over at us, his expression a wonderful combination of contempt and disinterest.
He cracks a coconut against a log with an almighty thwack, making us jump. And then, as boldly as he’d arrived, he leaves, walking away without so much as a backward glance — trembling trees the only sign he’s still nearby.
Published in National Geographic Traveller — Islands Collection 2018