Since I was a teenager I’ve wanted to spend time with gorillas and orangutans in the wild. I’ve always craved a Jane Goodall moment. Thanks to a side trip to Borneo during our time in Malaysia, I’ve now had that moment, or at least a close brush with it when visiting the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, a Borneo orangutan sanctuary.
It was another early morning start for us as we made our way to the local bus terminal, just outside the Kuching city centre. Locals were waking with the help of a bowl of rich Sarawak Laksa, many with a strong cigarette in hand. The rain was spitting. The Hubby, went in search of a couple of takeaway coffee or kopi for the ride out to the wildlife sanctuary. He emerged a couple of minutes later holding two plastic bags, tied at the top, straws poking out and a dark blackish liquid swimming around inside. His grin was ear-to-ear. “Take away coffee!” he said. Clearly a different way of serving the universal morning heart starter.
The 3RM ($AUD1) bus took us out to the reserve. It was a Sunday morning but far from the sleepy scene you’d expect on the weekly day of rest. We passed churches packed with devotees at prayer, and sat patiently in traffic jams caused by the carloads of families making their weekend visit to the graves of relatives passed. The masses of people visiting every cemetery we passed was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
About an hour later we pulled up at the Semenggoh Nature Reserve. The reserve has been operating as a rescue and rehabilitation centre for the endangered orangutan, as well as other species since 1975.
A driveway guided us along the 1.3 km walk to the orangutan feeding trails. It was about 8:15am when we arrived to get a good vantage point for the morning feed. The park does two feeds per day; at 9am and 3pm.
As the crowd began to mill around one of the rangers quickly warned, “The big guy is on his way”. It was Ritchie, the alpha male. Ritchie is the boss of the 26 orangutans living in the reserve. He’s 34 years old and weighs a whopping 140 kilos. We scampered to catch a glimpse of Ritchie, worried we might miss him. But there was no real risk of that – Ritchie is a very big boy! He emerged from the thick greenery and strolled down the path towards us. I’d be lying if I said having an alpha orangutan just metres away didn’t make my heart flutter a little. Then, the guide reminded us it’s mating season and old Ritchie can be “a bit unpredictable”. Ritchie made a sharp turn down towards a small wooden bridge bound for the feeding area. A feast of fruit awaited and that was clearly more interesting than us. Soon we heard the trees rustle and saw the treetops shake. Orangutans began to swing on in from all directions.
Reminded to keep camera flashes off and not to get too close (especially with young children – Ritchie’s not a fan), we watched with smiles and eyes wide. The younger orangutans played, climbed and swung on vines whilst inhaling fistfuls of banana and flinging the skins to the ground. Ritchie took up prime position with a pile of breakfast and began to work his way through it. After about half an hour, he jumped down from his post. Breakfast was over. Ritchie carefully walked his way back towards the viewing deck, pausing to check in on the others as he made his way back up the path. The rest of the group soon started to follow. But then we got an incredible surprise…
A mother and her baby started walking towards the crowd. As they stepped over the barrier, we scurried back to let them pass, in awe and disbelief at having these amazing creatures within a few arms reach.
The keeper told us she likes to hang out with the crowd sometimes. Her toddler clinging to her back they made their way to the middle of the viewing deck where the crowd was gathered. They stood, they tried to tear a small sign off a post, they lay down for a minute, scratched their bellies and generally looked to be having a little fun with us. Another move and they climbed up into the rafters of the shelter’s roof. There they stayed, leaning against the beams, only moving to grab a fresh bunch of bananas.
This was really one of those travel experiences that I will always treasure. It wasn’t a safari or a deep jungle trek but it may be the closest I get to orangutans in my lifetime. From the outside looking in, the 26 orangutans at the Semenggoh Nature Reserve appear to be well cared for and happy, the way nature intended.
Semenggoh Nature Reserve and Borneo Orangutan Sanctuary
- Take the K6 bus from Kuching bus terminal 2. For the morning feeding you need to make the 7.15am bus. Allow yourself a good 1.5 hours to get to the reserve and walk to the feeding pen.
- You can also take a taxi out and it will drop you right at the feeding pen.
- The cost is about 10 RM (just over $3AUD) to enter the park / 3RM each way for the bus
- Pack an umbrella and/or raincoat and good walking shoes.
- Make sure you don’t miss the bus back to Kuching at 11am for the morning or 4pm for the afternoon visit. It can be difficult for the staff to find you transport and an expensive trip for you.