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#7 Tanjung National Park, Borneo

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

I’ve been wanting to go back to Borneo since our last visit there 2 years ago. It was on that trip that I got to see my first organutan at Sepilok rehabilitation centre, where we spent one day., Plenty enough to leave me wanting more. This time however I planned to visit Borneo for a week, with the sole purpose being to photograph these great apes. This time heading to the south of the island and spend my time on a river boat in Tanjung Puting National Park. Spending a week on a slow boat in the middle of the Bornean rainforest, far away from crowds of people and virtually no contact to the outside world (there was maybe a couple of 3G spots I found over the week) was just what was required after the first race of the year in Australia. A proper escape.

With it just being me on this trip, I had this giant river boat all to myself, apart from the family and my guide that worked on it. The father was the captain, the mother was the cook and the son, of no more than 10, was the co captain. He took great joy in reminding me, always with a big smile on his face. I then had my wildlife guide who was local to the area and knows everything there is about orangutans and their habitat. He would come with me every time we disembarked the boat in search of the orangutans. The area where we were based has a number of feeding platforms where park rangers would, twice daily, leave food out for the orangutans.. Tanjung Puting National Park has both wild and semi-wild orangutans living there, as some have been rehabilitated and then released into the park.

As you are probably aware orangutans are under threat because of human activity. Deforestation for palm oil is destroying the habitat they live in, and as you go up and down the river you can see fields of it on the other side of the parks boundaries. Navigating the river can also be tricky as there is an upstream mine that is constantly chucking out a a steady stream of debris. All this junk creates an obstacle course to work your way through. It’s a stark reminder of what we are doing to not only this amazing rainforest, but the rest of the world as well.

Arriving late in the day meant there was no light left to see orangutans, so we got our heads down ready for the next day. Already excited about the rest of the week, and praying that is throws up some great opportunities. Before this trip I made the decision to swap from Fuji over to Canon. With my interests well and truly moving towards wildlife it made sense to swap to a system that has a range of lenses that suit my needs. I was using a Canon EOS R for this trip, I had also purchased a 1DX as well, but due to time, I hadn’t actually had much chance to use them before arriving, so this was to be my introduction to it. In hindsight not the most sensible option, but I’m a firm believer that going straight in at the deep ends makes you learn quicker and I was confident that I would pick it up. What I hadn’t accounted for however, was that my first encounter with an orangutan was to be one of my best. Annoyingly I didn't get the shots that I could have because of trying to get to grips to the new system. I was too slow and spent too long fiddling with buttons. A lesson learnt!

A few hundred meters after stepping off the boat for the first time we came across an extremely large male in a tree, after only a handful of shots he decided to up and leave. Fortunately we managed to get in front of him and were lucky enough to have this huge male orangutan follow us through the dense forest for some 20 minutes. Literally running ahead, turning and taking a couple of photos before having to sprint off again. Orangutans move surprisingly fast whilst on the floor, and with us always trying to keep a respectful and safe distance meant we had to move quickly. My guide new the route he would take, as he was headed to the feeding station, so we were always able to stay ahead and never got in his way. By the time we had arrived at the feeding station I was wet through from running in such humidity, the weather isn't designed for such activities! Getting to catch you breath whilst watching these majestic animals helps though.

We spent a couple of hours at the feeding station before heading back to the boat to head to a different one for the afternoon. With it being rainy season it meant that the orangutan activity is not at it’s peak, but thankfully we were never short of them. The most that I had in my line of sight at once was 7!

We spent the next 3 days doing the same, up and down the river to try and locate them, the beauty of being on the slow boat is getting to take in all your surroundings and spot other wildlife whilst on the move. We were constantly seeing kingfishers, hornbills and other river birds. Hearing the rustling of a tree and looking up to see a large group of proboscis monkeys is always a nice sight as well! On one of the afternoons visited the famous Camp Leakey,, ironically this was the only place where we didn’t actually spot an orangutan!

We did however get to see a gibbon, which they hadn’t seen at Camp Leakey for 3 months - a fair trade? Gibbons move extremely fast through the trees and was in and out in not much longer than a minute, so I didn’t manage to get much in the way of photos, unfortunately.

On the last day, I was privileged enough to go to a more remote part of the park. It's so remote we had to take a speed boat across the sea, it would have taken 20 hours on our river boat otherwise. Not many people are allowed to visit this area so it was a real privilege to do so. It was here we spent an hour with a young male who unlike most other orangutans is fond of water. It's a particularly rare sight to see and was fortunate to get a few unusual shots. The sun was extremely bright and being in the open on the river meant conditions were particularly hard. There is lots of foliage and clutter along the floor which would often reflect the sun causing hideous highlight blowouts.

Regardless of the tricky conditions it is something that I won’t forget for the rest of my life that’s for sure. Due to an incoming storm we couldn’t stay for too long as we had shoot back across the sea before the waves picked up too much. In just a small speed boat it wouldn't have been wise to tackle bad conditions in it!. Certainly a memorable experience, and one that was worthy of finishing off the trip. This is defiantly one of those places that I want to go back to in the near future, I feel like there is so much more to explore and see down here. There is so many more ideas for photographing these majestic creatures. I want to see if they are possible or not so I can't see myself not returning one day.


March 2019


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