Dr. Courtney Howard, MD

Vivi with Binoculars

We wanted to spot some orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park before heading to Health in Harmony and ASRI’s hospital in Western Kalimantan, Borneo, so we carried life jackets for the kids with us all the way from Yellowknife.  (ER MD job hazard=safety police tendencies…yep– everyone loves to travel with me!) Mr Head-Packer sighed, but given that we once brought a collapsible baby bathtub with us all the way to Argentina, and he is an actual Pediatrician, with public responsibilities for safety of children, etc, he had both low expectations and a sense of responsibility, so restrained himself to the occasional muffled grunt of protest.

We arrived at the dock, lift-leap-frogged ourselves and our stuff over two other boats and onto the two-story live-on boat, called a Klotok, that would be our home for the next 2 nights, and cheerfully strapped our two rosy-cheeked kids into their lifejackets in the 30 deg heat.  Luckily, they were too busy delightedly exploring their new nest to protest.

Jenie Subaru

Jenie Subaru came highly-recommended, so we signed up with his Green Team of guides.

Jenie spent his early childhood in a fishing village within what is now Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan, Borneo. The area’s international reputation as an orangutan habitat was established through the work of Dr Biruté Galdikas, one of “Leakey’s Angels,” who started work at Camp Leakey in 1971.  With the coming of the park, Jenie’s village was moved to the other side of the river.

Orangutan-seeking tourists arrived, and Jenie worked his way up through roles as cook and captain before becoming a guide.  Since then he’s become a business owner, an English teacher, a conservationist, and an advocate for what we in Canada would call a just transition. Jenie notes, “if we want to save the forest without helping people–it is impossible. My people break the forest for two reasons: no jobs, and no education.”

Now the owner of 4 Klotoks, each of which he staffs with 4 people, where 2 used to be employed per boat, Jenie also runs English conversation courses out of his house at night, recruiting the occasional foreign teaching volunteer to help community-members gain the language skills they need to be guides.  He created a “Green Team” of tour operators which is now 25 members strong.  They use some of the proceeds from their tours to buy up land on the non-park side of the river, in order to protect it from encroaching palm oil plantations.  So far they’ve bought over 100 hectares despite increasing land prices as a result of the plantations.

Jenie is happy that guidebooks are increasingly recommending him and other local tour operators. “Why is all of this not run by local people?” he asks.  “I want to not only help them but change the opinion of my people that Nature is good for them.  As well as beautiful.”

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I was a mediocre competitive gymnast when I was little, danced through a university degree, have done a bit of rock climbing, and made it through a couple of cuts when I auditioned for the Cirque du Soleil.  I wouldn’t have thought this had anything to do with orangutans, but I turned out to be completely entranced by the way that they move.

Over our two days on board the Klotok we stopped at 3 feeding stations, where, at an appointed hour (that results in Klotok gridlock on the river), the rangers upend big buckets of bananas and sugar cane, and fill basins with milk, then send long hooting calls into the jungle to alert the population of ex-captive and semi-wild orangutans that lunch has been served.

We were almost at the first platform when we heard crashing in the trees.  I don’t know why I expected orangutans to be quiet and slick, but they are not. Orangutans announce themselves with a rustle of leaves and clonk of trunks. Perched in a first tree, they reach for the trunk of the next tree over, bend it like a bow, extend their legs in full split in between two trunks, then let go of tree #1 in the hopes of being sproinged forwards to tree #3, as though they’re doing a giant vertical version of the monkey bars at a playground.  If they miss #3 they rock the treetop back and forth a few times until they have enough momentum to grab for it.

And if they happen to be a mom with a babe…they do the whole thing in a kind of continuous site-specific high-wire improvisation duet.

They upclimb and downclimb, and dismount from the treetops with eyebrow-raising élan.  And sometimes they stop to scratch while in the most impossible position.

Sometimes they scratch for a while.  Just, y’know, dangling from one arm and one leg 40 feet up in the air.

And then they make themselves a nest in the trees for the night and sleep up there.

I couldn’t help but remember all the times I went rock climbing, ended up with completely pumped forearm muscles, and then could barely pick up a medical textbook the next days.

Orangutans… I am proud to share so much of your DNA.


A few days off-grid in Borneo

The view comes to you

I’m not great at disconnecting, or at sitting still. Spending two and a half days off-grid wending our way up and down the river was the most refreshing thing I’ve done in years.  Highly recommended.

One of the Green Team’s Plots!

It was great to have Andy point out one of the Green Team’s plots of land on the non-park side of the river as we floated past.

Camp Leakey

It was pretty neat to arrive at Camp Leakey and be able to say to my 2 little Canadian girls, “This is a place where a female Canadian scientist has been doing research on Orangutans for over 40 years.”

Water amidst the trees

In some parts of the river the water extended far into the forest, supporting an entirely different set of trees and plants.  Easy to see that falling water levels would impact biodiversity.

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Dawn on deck

You fall asleep to the lap of the waves, the blink of fireflies and the chatter of monkeys…and then wake up to dawn’s light and good breakfast smells.

Requisite yoga-at-sunrise-in-Indonesia picture

I was watching monkeys.  It really was glorious.

Orangutan-spotting with the Green Team in Tanjung Puting National Park

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