The first thing you notice when you sail to Borneo is the smoke. The
rainforests are on fire, and the smoke is so thick offshore, it seems like
twilight at midday. Los Angeles smog look like pristine clean air by comparison. It's rare to see
smoke so thick that it blots out the sun. The last time I saw smoke of
that magnitude was in Gulf War One when Iraq set Kuwaiti oil wells on fire,
and a massive plume of dark smoke was visible all over the Middle East.
The smoke spread more than seven-hundred kilometers to the southwest where I
could see it in Riyadh.
In spite of the smoke, we sailed up a shallow river to visit the
endangered Orangutangs of Borneo. Going up the river was tricky.
The deep keeled yacht sailing with us ran aground, and it took nearly an hour
for them to get their keel out of the sticky mud with the help of some Indonesian
fishermen. The wide and meandering river shoals irregularly, and you
must pay close attention to the rudimentary navigational marks or follow a
larger vessel with local knowledge up the river to avoid running aground.
We spent the day working our way upriver and finally arrived at a moderate
size city where we could put our anchor down. It wasn't
long after our anchor hit the water that we had visitors. It wasn't
officials that wanted to make our acquaintance, it was the purveyors of
The only way to see the orangutangs was to travel twenty miles into the
jungle by flat-bottomed river boat. A sixteen hour orangutang tour
costs one-hundred and ten dollars for our crew of four. That included
tours, transportation, taxes, food, and a boat sitter who made sure Exit
Only wasn't robbed in our absence. We reckoned that sounded like a
good deal and enthusiastically signed on the dotted line.
The next morning, at six am, we climbed aboard our riverboat and headed off
for high adventure. This was one of those trips that could never happen
in America because there's too much risk involved.
You're traveling up river in uncertified boats without insurance to walk
among orangutangs that are nearly as large as you are. These human sized animals aren't in cages and move through the forest a few feet away
from you. If you did something they didn't like, they could rip you
apart limb from limb.
Riverboats are the only transportation available to get to the orangutangs. The riverboat ride is
fun in its own right, and on the way there are monkeys swinging in the trees along both
sides of the river. The distinctive feature of one species of monkey is
its giant nose. Local people call these primates Dutch
monkeys, in reference to the fact that this area used to be a Dutch colony,
and the locals apparently didn't think much of the Dutch putting their big nose
in Borneo's business.
The riverboat dropped us off at a research station, and we hiked into the
rainforest to see the orangutangs. Normally, these animals are high up
in the canopy, and it's difficult to get up close and personal with them.
Although the orangutangs aren't tame, they like bananas, and if you show up
at feeding time with a stalk of bananas, they will descend from the trees
to a feeding platform for food and water.
The orangutangs move effortlessly through the canopy. Whether they're
ascending, descending, or moving laterally, they make it look easy, and when
they come down to your level, you realize how large they are.
They are BIG.
We never felt threatened by the orangutangs when they were on the feeding
platform, but when they started moving though the jungle at ground level, they were intimidating. They could easily hurt you if they wanted to.
The mothers with their babies were more interested in food than they were
in us. Most of the time they kept their distance.
The dominant male orangutang was named Win, and he was was an orangutang with
He strutted his stuff at ground level letting us know who was boss.
Win had his hands full. He had a bevy of females in the canopy above
us, and one of the females was in the company of another male, and it was
driving him crazy. Win was agitated; he didn't know whether he should
be down on the ground impressing us with his style, or up in the tree
chasing away male suitors.
As if Win didn't have enough to deal with, there was a
suicidal Japanese photographer who kept trying to walk up to Win for close
ups. The photographer was out of control and was lucky that
Win didn't dismember him. We were all holding our breath to see
whether Win would take out his agitation on the photographer.
Fortunately, Picture Man survived, and Win faded back into the jungle.
The orangutangs are an endangered species. No one is killing them
outright; they do it indirectly by destroying their habit as they clear
the rainforest. Smoking rainforests are bad for an orangutang's
health, not because it gives them lung cancer, but because it destroys their
I feel sorry for the orangutangs, because it won't be long before none will
be left in the wild. They will all be imprisoned in zoos for a crime
they didn't commit. We are the criminals, because we are destroying
their home, and we are the ones who should be in jail.
We saw dozens of orangutangs at two different stops in the rainforest, and
the naturalists accompanying us did a good job keeping us out of trouble.
Because of them we had an unforgettable adventure, and we emerged from the