Orangutans are most commonly seen in the wild from May to June. Photo / Sarawak Tourism Board
In Malaysia, Brett Atkinson speculates that if orangutans want to “walk like him and talk like him,” they better find more suitable footwear first.
Just after passing the Big Durian, the command is given.
“You have to go shopping.”
Ninety minutes after an early start from Kuching, my orangutan search mission on Sarawak’s Red Ape Trail was apparently ambushed by the need to pick up a few quick items at Serian’s morning market.
My chatty guide, Bading, is equally definitive as to what I need to buy. I already have a waterproof torch, but he insists that I also get a rain poncho – despite the blue skies overhead – and a cheap pair of jungle shoes, locally known as ” Adidas Kampung” – a mix of Crocs and cut-out rubber boots that are apparently essential for anyone entering the forested river maze of Borneo’s Batang Ai National Park in Malaysia. The poncho is a simple purchase, but after visiting at least 10 stalls, there isn’t a single pair of size 11 jungle shoes to be found. As you explore the park’s rainforest and rivers, guess who will continually take off and put on their Timberland flash hikers for the next few days.
Fortified with breakfast noodles and kopi ais (iced coffee), it will take us another three hours on increasingly narrow roads before reaching a simple pier at the southern end of the Batang Ai Reservoir. From there, a narrow open-top boat sped us north on the water, and within 15 minutes the Bading-recommended purchase in the market proved its worth. A raging tropical downpour seemingly comes from nowhere, and battling near-horizontal rain, my bright blue poncho offers great value at just six Malaysian ringgits (about $2).
The sudden change in weather also makes it difficult for our boatmen to identify the wooded entrance to the network of rivers that leads to Borneo Adventure’s Nanga Sumpa Lodge, but eventually the rains clear up and we enter an opening to negotiate the Batang Ai rivers and Delok. for another 90 minutes, alternating between a brisk run through deeper water and a careful hand pole when the path gets too shallow. In a few places we all have to get out and push. Deprived of jungle shoes, I am the only one to stumble barefoot on the rocky bottom of the river.
Situated at a bend in the Delok River, the Nanga Sumpa Lodge is connected to an adjacent Iban longhouse by a wooden bridge, and after a full day of travel we are welcomed into the Iban community with a few hours of cross-legged walking. conversation on the floor and multiple shots of tuak, a fiery alcohol distilled in the village from fermented rice. It’s exhilarating, so I quietly retire to one of Nanga Sumpa’s simple, wood-lined rooms in preparation for an early start on the Red Ape Trail the next morning.
Bordering Indonesia’s Kalimantan a few miles to the south, Malaysia’s Batang Ai National Park is the only place in Sarawak where visitors can see orangutans in the wild, and it’s estimated that around 95% of the 1,600 orangutans -Sarawak utans live in or around the park. Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary.
The full experience of the Red Ape Trail takes three strenuous days, but Bading is confident there’s a good chance of encountering the primates on this morning’s more moderate three-hour hike. Climbing a spider-like ridge shortly after leaving the lodge, the trail continues through large stands of dipterocarp rainforest, and conversation is kept to an absolute minimum. Bading’s well-practiced hand signals indicate the cooling waters of the river below us, and various orangutan nests hang high in the forest canopy. Most of the nests are now empty, abandoned as nomadic orangutans roam the forest in search of food.
Even seeing the nests is a thrill, but after 90 minutes on the trail there is suddenly a subtle rustle just above us. Bading dampens our excitement with his hands and directs our eyes upward to see a shaggy, rust-colored orangutan in the canopy a few feet away. The interaction is brief, the teenage girl soon swaying effortlessly to continue her semi-solitary existence, but on the ground our little group of hikers all share the same delirious smile after witnessing one of the great experiences of the fauna of Southeast Asia. When Bading explains that only a handful of orangutans live in this area of the sanctuary, we know we were extremely lucky.
When should we go: The driest period from April to September is the best time to visit Sarawak, especially around the fruiting season from May to June when orangutans are more commonly seen in the wild.
Plan ahead: Borneo Adventure, based in Kuching, offers trips that combine hiking, cultural interactions and wildlife viewing throughout Sarawak, Sabah and neighboring Brunei (borneoadventure.com).
An easy day trip Sarawak’s state capital, Kuching, the Semenggoh Wildlife Center is home to semi-wild orangutans in their natural rainforest habitat. Up to 20 people often pass by at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily, queuing for food on bananas, coconuts and fresh fruit (semenggoh.my).