Orangutan Warfare in Borneo
By Marco Ferrarese, pictures by Kit Yeng Chan

When you walk into Sabah's most pristine rainforest, you better make sure that the king of the jungle is fine with that.

Orangutan leaping through the trees

There are only two reasons why you end up crouching on your haunches on the humid floor of Borneo's rainforest. One, you have found some strange, glowing mushrooms or maybe a three-headed insect and you want to take a better look. Two, something much bigger and meaner than you has seen you, and if you stand up, make noise or move, it may attack.

“I told you, he's getting pissed,” said Hatti, our jungle guide. Always smiling, this Kadazan-Dusun young man was bent on his knees, uncaring of the blood trickling from two holes that the local tiger leeches had drilled into his ankles.

“So, what are we supposed to do now?” I asked, whispering so close to his right ear that I could smell the acrid mix of coagulating blood, steaming jungle soil, and sweat, all rolled together. Hatti turned around to stare at me with the cold-blooded calm of the mad.

“We wait and see if it comes closer. And if it doesn't, then we are going to get him.”

I gulped down, because the verdict was official: our guide, still fiddling with the set of speakers connected to his iPhone, dangling in mid-air between his hands and the jungle floor, was full-on nuts. And we were obviously at his mercy, in the middle of Sabah's most dangerous rainforest.

Into the Wild (with a good set of speakers)

Chameleon in Borneo jungle

The Danum Valley Conservation Area is one of North Borneo's most pristine remaining patches of rainforest. A place untouched by centuries of logging for the sake of slow local development—and high multinational gain. Frequented by researchers and hard to access to travelers until recently, Danum Valley is like a Disneyland for the nature lover — one that, instead of Mickey and Donald, teems with wild cats, clouded leopards, deadly spiders, long snakes... and big apes.

“I want to see a wild orangutan,” my Malaysian wife had kept saying for days before we arrived on site. I wondered why, since she had already had a close encounter with one of those hairy guys in Sumatra. But for the sake of a perfect picture, she got too close, and the thing—a lonely, relatively small female—had grabbed her thigh for the twenty longest minutes in our lives.

I realized, however, that instead of fear, the accident had triggered some sort of wacky ape-perversion into my wife's mind. Indeed, this “orangutan fetish” of hers kept coming up in every conversation leading to our visit to Danum—so much so that I considered browsing Amazon for an orangutan costume to wear in the bedroom and make her stop, once and for all.

Young orangutan

Thus the first thing she told Hatti when we shook hands in the dining hall of Danum Valley's Field Center was: “do you think we can see a wild orangutan here?”. The eyes of the jungle-man shone with devilish delight.

“Of course, we have some here. You see those bushes over there?” Hatti pointed to a patch of ferns right behind the balcony we were eating on. “A couple months ago, a wounded orangutan stayed there for about three weeks. He had received a bad bite on his arm, and rested there, nursing his cuts using those leaves. They have healing powers,” he stopped to make his words sound more magical.

“No guarantees, but I can try to find you an orangutan with this,” Hatti pulled out his iPhone, fingered through his sound recorder's files and pressed play. A deep sound, like a loop of farts from the sinkhole of hell, started filling up the space between the heads of our group of six. To me, it sounded like the underwater orgasm of a deaf mute.

“It's a male orangutan sound I recorded last week. The alpha male,” explained Hatti.

These monkeys get so amped up on testosterone that even their facial features morph into a flat mug, their shoulders swell, and they get twice the size of other less aggressive males. I didn't know about Mr. Jungle and my wife, but I certainly could do without meeting one of those beasts in its natural habitat.

“I am going to snare your orangutan with this recording, miss.”

Intruders will be prosecuted

That same afternoon we entered the jungle for the first time. We spent the best part of two hours walking in circles, seeing nothing but macaques and birds, before Hatti, sniffing the air like a greyhound, pulled out his set of round portable speakers from his pack, connected it to his phone, and kneeled down on the jungle's floor. “Let's see if we can coy an orangutan to come closer and check us out.”

Hiking in Danum Velley Borneo

The underwater deaf mute orgasm started cracking through Danum's insect philharmonic. “Mooo-oooo-uushh... Mooo-oooo-uushh...” Amplified, the alpha male's call sounded even more ridiculous. We stood there behind Hatti for a while, waiting for nothing to happen.

“Come this way,” Hatti intimated to us all, zooming forward along a path that bent around a series of fallen trunks covered in beard-like, florescent green moss. When he had found the spot he liked, he kneeled down again, pressed play on his audio recorder, and filled the jungle again with the horny sounds of the animal kingdom.

I really thought that Hatti was joking, but when something cracked about twenty meters ahead of us up in the canopy, we all looked towards the direction of the sound. My heart started beating faster, and I kneeled down by instinct. Had this mad guide found what my wife was looking for?

“It's there,” Hatti said, pointing at the thicket. I couldn't see a thing, but the branches somewhere on top of us started cracking, louder and louder. Whatever it was, a big thing was getting closer.

“You guys stay here, I'll go check it out,” said Hatti. But before he could play guide and see if it was safe to stay, someone with a camera armed with zoom lens was already following him. “I'm coming with you, I want to take pictures,” my wife cried out. Before anyone could say a word, me included, the two were already running down a slope and behind a tall, lean tree I couldn't see the end of. Then I did: together with a blur of orange fur and a thick, black face, perched on top, just meters from us. We all looked up, opening our mouths in awe, standing paralyzed. I was so excited that I completely forgot that both Hatti and my wife had disappeared somewhere on the opposite side of the tree.

Continue to Page 2

Read this article online at: Orangutan Warfare in Borneo

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2017. All rights reserved.

Also in this issue:

Books from the Author:

Buy Nazi Goreng at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Buy The Travels of Marco Yolo at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US

Sign Up