There’s a place in Borneo to see Orangutans, and it’s not a zoo. It’s Semenggoh Nature Reserve, just outside of Kuching, where the animals are gradually re-introduced to the wild.
The apes are rescued, orphaned, or injured, and despite needing human assistance for feeding, they have free reign over the jungle that the centre is located in.
I took the bus from Kuching, a green-and-gold antique that rattled and shambled down the well-worn Bornean road. Next to me, a smiling Malaysian lady of about fifty sat down and immediately launched into a chat about Kuching, about Borneo, and about who I was.
I explained where I was from and where I was going. She was friendly (as many Malaysians are) and offered me some sort of tiny apple from her grocery bag. When she got off at her stop, a couple from behind me tapped me on the shoulder.
They were Canadians, Julian and Kayla, who joked that they now knew everything about me from overhearing my chat. They too were going to see the orangutans and we buddied up for the day. It was hot in the jungle, humid too, and the walk from the road to the Centre was a over a kilometer.
Even in the shady darkness beneath the trees, sweat collected and rolled down my face. There was a calmness about the jungle, and aside from the rolling chirping of insect song, a comfortable silence too.
Down the long path from the main road appeared the visitor’s centre, a small hut with bathrooms and information posters. Food was prohibited from this point, as the orangutans have been known to snatch food, and not always gently. Theres a feeding at 9-10am, and one at 3-3:30pm, and these are best times to spot them.
The day’s special – pineapple halves and banana bunches! Staff in khakis placed the fruit on a raised wooden platform, and there was a commotion in the canopy above as apes materialised out of the leaves.
Hungry orangutans cartwheeled clumsily down ropes and tree branches. Hand, hand, foot, foot, hand, hand, foot, foot. Down they went, slowly, one by one, lanky, fluffy, orange acrobats.
Babies clung to their mothers’ backs with wide-eyed expressions, bunches of orange fur clutched in each fist. Youngsters played and wrestled and the biggest ones chased and fought and intimidated for extra bananas. The orangs scooped up fruit with both hands and both feet, and climbed upwards to eat lunch high in the treetops, carelessly discarding banana peels and pineapple tops with a crash of foliage.
It’s a special privilege to see such an endangered species in the wild, and reassuring to see them living in such a secluded and (relatively) tourist-free place. I admired the absence of cages, fences and other restrictive devices, and I loved hearing stories of other orangutans re-integrate into the wild.
Bus 6, 6A, 6B and 6C all go to Semenggoh Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, from Sarawak Transport Company near Jalan Mosque.