The Man of the Forest - at Borneo Rainforest Lodge, Danum Valley, Sabah, Malaysia
It is our last day in the jungles of Borneo…
We have been lucky with our orangutan sightings on this adventure – in the village of Sepilok, we saw semi-wild orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Conservation Centre, while along the Kinabatangan River and here in the Danum Valley, we have encountered female orangutans with their babies and a number of large adolescent males.
But we are yet to see a true “man of the forest” – the archetypical mature male orangutan. With dark auburn fur and flanged faces, adult male orangutans can reach 150cm tall and 100kg, with an arm span of more than 2 metres. Solitary and highly elusive, we know such a sighting is a big ask, even in the orangutan-rich jungle of the Danum Valley. But our charismatic guide Rudi, ever keen to please, has been doing his best during our stay at Borneo Rainforest Lodge to help us capture that prize shot.
Our final day begins with a highly enjoyable, but somewhat uneventful, dawn journey to the treetop canopy walkway – the walk is lovely and the view delightful, but the animals are in hiding. On our return from the canopy, Rudi asks us what we would like to do after our breakfast. Already drenched in sweat from the steaming heat and humidity even at 0800, the most logical and appealing option is another leisurely tube ride down the Danum River. But, after a small moment of indecision, we remember why we here – to see orangutans. Another jungle trek it is then.
After an obligatory cooling dip in our plunge pool, and another exquisite breakfast at the lodge restaurant, we don our still wet trekking attire again (complete with oh-so-stylish leech-socks) and re-unite with our guide. Today we head north of the lodge along the well marked forest trails, eyes and ears always attuned for the wildlife around us. But it is a very man-made sound that soon catches our attention – Rudi’s walkie-talkie has crackled into life, with news that a research team were tracking a large male orangutan in the next valley and they have invited us to join them. Rudi turns to us with a smile – shall we? This is not an opportunity we are ever going to turn down, and with that, we are off.
There is no path between us and the researchers, and so we soon leave the forest trail and begin thrashing through the jungle. We push through vines and scramble through tangled undergrowth, wend our way over gnarled tree roots and thick leaf litter, slide through streams and squelch through mud. We brush through cobwebs and thwacking branches, thoroughly aware of the number of poisonous pit vipers we had seen on similar leaves in recent days, and hoping our leech socks are doing their jobs on the leech-front. We are filthy, sweltering and sodden with sweat, but determined to reach the researchers in time.
Eventually Rudi utters a soft hoot into the jungle air – somehow he knows where we are, and knows the researchers must be close. A response is heard from the scientists, off to our right. We stumble and batter our way towards them, trying hard not to make too much noise, and soon come across them hiding in the undergrowth. We are relieved to see that they are similarly drenched in sweat (although perhaps a little less out of breath). They smile to welcome us, and point to the branches overhead.
We have previously written about the difficulties associated with photographing tigers in the thick undergrowth of Indian tiger reserves. But we now recognise that this is a cake walk in comparison to the challenge of photographing orangutans in Borneo. The rainforest here is so lush, the growth so extensive, the leaves and vines and ferns so dense, that light barely penetrates, and a clear glimpse of an animal is almost inconceivable.
Nevertheless we have found Gotenz, one of the largest males in this area of the Danum Valley. Estimated to be 31 years old, he is recognisable by a funny triangular depression in the centre of his forehead. He is in the branches overhead, feeding on the fruits.
While we maintain a respectful distance, he certainly knows we are here, occasionally glancing down at us, but seemingly unperturbed by our presence.
Slowly he makes his way from tree to tree. We all follow, slowly, softly, deferentially, squishing through the slippery undergrowth, dodging leeches, avoiding the most tick-infested thickets. We pause when he pauses, and take abundant photos of beautiful branches with just a hint of orangutan ;)
Finally Gotenz stops – we have come to a road, and he seems unwilling to cross this man-made scar in his habitat. Instead he ascends an overhanging tree to its pinnacle, and settles in for a snack of fresh leaves.
We are torn – do we continue our morning hike, or wait for the possibility of Gotenz descending, fully aware that he may stay perched in the tree for hours, even the rest of the day?
But fortunately his chosen tree is a little less leafy than average, and we actually have intermittent glimpses of him as he snuffles and munches, so we decide to stay and watch. The researchers busily take notes in their clipboards, and occasionally one of them (we suspect the most junior member of the team) is sent in to collect the samples that Gotenz delivers from above.
A hot humid hour passes, assailed by ants, wasps, bees and bugs (but fortunately no more leeches). And ultimately our patience is rewarded.
Gotenz descends, and after a few false starts, languidly saunters across the road, revealing his muscular body, long arms and fabulous flanged face.
On the far side of the road he pauses – something in his foot is bothering him, and we watch as he sits to meticulously extract the offending thorn, before entering a low thicket of palm fronds.
Here it is time for another snack, and we are treated to a close-up view of this magnificent orangutan in his prime, as he strips the leaves from the branches and snaps the thick stems with ease. It is a spine-tingling encounter and we are awed and humbled to be in his presence.
Eventually Gotenz begins to move a little deeper into the thicket and we sneak ever so closer to get a better view, until suddenly…
Gotenz pushes back the fronds, stares directly at us and with a short gesture of his arm utters a short, sharp, deep-throated, reverberating grunt – it is as clear a message as if he spoke: “you’ve had your time with me, you’ve got your photos, now off with you”!
We happily took the none too subtle hint, leaving him to his lunch and us to reflect on an incredible wildlife experience, one we will never forget.