Journeying into rich tropical rainforest to glimpse wild Orangutans

There are just two places left on earth where Orangutans can be found in the wild: Sumatra, in Northern Indonesia, and throughout the island of Borneo. Having seen wild and semi-wild Sumatran and Bornean Orangutans in these stunning parts of world, I’ve come away with incredible memories (and an impressive number of mosquito bites), and a great appreciation for the people who care for and rehabilitate rescued Orangutans, and for those campaigning tirelessly to protect remaining natural habitats.

If you want to immerse yourself in nature, whilst hoping to see wild Orangutans, a jungle trek will provide you with an experience like no other. My trekking adventure took me deep into Gunung Leuser National Park, one of the richest tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia and part of the 2.5 million hectare Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra. Trekking in the rainforest is only possible with an entrance permit and an official guide, and I chose to take an overnight jungle trek with Sumatra Eco-Travel, whose environmental credentials stood out to me.

The trek began in the small and picturesque river-side village of Bukit Lawang. Soon into the trek, myself and my trekking group (six adults and two guides) were climbing up steep inclines underneath thick jungle canopy with sweat pouring off us; even a month in Southeast Asia beforehand couldn’t prepare us for the sheer humidity of the rainforest – it’s like trying to hike inside a sauna.
Our guides were extremely knowledgeable about the flora and fauna in the jungle and within minutes they were pointing out long tail macaques, pig tail macaques and thomas leaf monkeys, raising the excitement levels within the group each time we encountered more wildlife.

Despite the excitement, the trek was tough going. With each step we took further into the jungle we were conscious of everything around us, double checking before wildly grabbing out for support – making sure that we weren’t in-fact reaching for a snake, a trunk covered in termites or a branch harbouring enormous spikes. We stumbled, we slipped, we were soaked through, but we embraced it with big smiles.

A couple of hours into the trek, we spotted our first Orangutans of the day, a mother and youngster eating high up in the canopy. Silence fell on the group as we all craned our necks to glimpse the pair as the youngster stayed close to mum while she kept a wary eye on us and our excited whispering. If this was our only sighting of the day we all decided we would be more than happy… but we had more to come.
A little while later, another mother and youngster swung right over our heads, looked at us intriguingly for a moment, and then disappeared into the depths of the jungle. Lunch was served high up in the jungle. While watching gibbons swinging in the treetops, we ate fresh fruit and the most delicious homemade Nasi Goreng I’ve ever had. (Lunch was carried by our guides and wrapped in banana leaf to keep it warm.)

As we trekked into the afternoon, the sightings kept on coming, each as overwhelming as the last. We watched fascinated as a young Orangutan hung lazily stripping bark from a branch and eating it, whilst its mother dozed nearby. Then came two semi-wild Orangutans who were known to the guides and had come down from the treetops in search of easy fruit. The guides emphasised that we should not get too close, not only because these are powerful wild animals, but because we carry bacteria and germs which could be harmful to the species. Contact with the Orangutans is forbidden (as it should be) and this even applies to leaving fruit peelings behind – the mosquito repellent and sunscreen that we have slathered on easily makes it onto the food we eat (and discard).
When we thought we'd had the most luck in the world in spotting so many Orangutans, we had another sighting, which left us all in awe. In a slight jungle clearing we came across an enormous male Orangutan who sat majestically and quietly. None of us realised male Orangutans could get to that size!

The guides gave us strict instructions that if the male moved, we had to quickly make ourselves scarce. We were perched behind a fallen tree trunk watching him, and as if he had not a care in the world, he yawned – a giant yawn revealing giant teeth – and rested his head on his hand. His movements and facial expressions were so human-like we couldn’t take our eyes away. We were told that he was trying to woo the female in the tree above him, but with his eye rolls, yawning and general laid-back demeanour, he was clearly the playing-hard-to-get type.

I could have stayed there for the rest of the day just watching him, but we had to get to our camp for the night. We dragged our eyes away and completed our 8-hour trek on a high – 10 Orangutans – we couldn’t believe it.
Once at our camp, we shed our sweaty clothes and splashed in the powerful river as the guides cooked up some food over the camp fire. We were all shattered but thrilled. We ate, excitedly retold stories from the day and tried, but failed, to get to sleep in the humid tent. The next morning we bathed in the river before taking the easier way home: an inflatable tube which bounced over the fast-flowing river rapids all the way through the jungle!

Jungle tips
  • Mosquito repellent is mainly redundant – as soon as you’ve sprayed it on you’ll sweat it straight off. As mosquitos’ particularly love sweat you’ll most likely trek with a swarm of them hovering around your neck. Strong bite cream will be your friend.
  • Wear light clothes which dry quickly and wick sweat away from your body – you’ll be damp for the entire trek as the humidity levels within the rainforest are very high and as sweat pours from your face and fingers for 8 hours solid you’ll wonder where it’s all coming from.
  • Pick shoes that you know are sturdy and won’t rub, as they’re going to be put through their paces. Trainers are actually ok as long as they are supportive.
  • Don't worry about getting dirty, there is no escaping the slips, trips and falls – plus you might have river crossings in giant inflatable tyres and if nothing else you’ll get wet.
  • Forget sleep. Sleeping in a tent which could pass for a sauna steam room is interesting, throw in a storm, the recent eviction of a fist-sized spider, and the knowledge that giant monitor lizards and bugs of infinite numbers are just beyond that mesh tent door and it makes for an uncomfortable night.
Most of all, enjoy it to the maximum. To be in the heart of the rainforest and so out of your comfort zone is spectacular, so embrace it. It’s so rare for us to be in an environment where things are difficult and we’re at the mercy of nature and the environment – that is special in itself.
If the above sounds too intense, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Malaysian Borneo is a wonderful place to catch a sighting of Orangutans. You can observe the beautiful creatures as they roam freely in the wild without having to trek and sweat for hours in the rainforest. A feeding platform and feeding times might be the focus of the visit, which is less 'natural', but the sanctuary plays a crucial role, helping to sustain the species, rescuing and rehabilitating previously captive Orangutans and giving them a chance at a life in the wild.

The setting is also beautiful, with wooden paths that lead you through the jungle canopy and out onto viewing platforms. Here you can watch in wonder as the surroundings come alive with activity as the one meal per day is provided for the semi-wild and adjusting Orangutans.

Both species of Orangutan are sadly endangered: the Sumatran Orangutan is critically endangered with a remaining population of around 7,500, while Bornean Orangutans have an estimated population of 104,000, which still classes the species as endangered. Differing little in appearance, both the Sumatran and Bornean Orangutans have suffered at the hands of humans as their habitats have been destroyed or encroached on by industrial and agricultural development. Poachers have sought out the creatures to sell on the black market and in Indonesia owners of palm oil plantations are responsible for burning lush rainforest to the ground to plant palms.

For those with a passion for animals, nature and animal conservation, a trek into the jungle to glimpse wild Orangutans is up there amongst one of the best experiences you can ever have. Responsible encounters with Orangutans can help to protect the species with tour profits poured back into habitat conservation, research and education. Also how could you ever forget a giant Orangutan yawning in your face.