We were up a bit earlier than usual this morning and were down in the Garden Inn restaurant for breakfast at about 7.15am. There we met Sinar, our guide for the day. Short, older, serious, Sinar was exactly what we had hoped for in a guide – we had heard some bad stories about the younger guides in the park, but Sinar has been guiding for 25 years and used to work in the orangutan rehabilitation programme, so he doesn't have any time for nonsense. But he was also cheerful and friendly, with a great sense of humour. At about 8am, we all set off downriver, crossing over on the same bridge we took to get to the Bat Cave. Today, we headed upriver, however, and soon reached a rough path heading quite steeply uphill into the forest. It took us past some rubber trees and then into the national park. By now we were all being followed by our own personal cloud of mosquitoes, and Kate and the girls were already being bitten. Sinar stopped to apply some repellent – a lotion he had just bought in sachet form from a shop by the river – which is when we realised that we had left ours behind. He kindly gave us a couple of sachets and soon we were repelling the little biters too.
We headed off, going deeper into the forest. In the trees we could see the abandoned nests of orangutans – they make a new one every night – and we also passed a small troop of macaques. We had been walking for about two hours – and were starting to wonder if we were going to see anything - when Sinar motioned for us to stop. He pointed up into the trees and said, 'Gibbons'. Of course, we couldn't see anything, but then there was a shaking of branches and a flash of brown and we saw our first white-handed gibbon. There were others around but we were having trouble seeing them, so Sinar took us crashing through the undergrowth until we found a spot where we had a clearer view. All upper-body strength and unfeasibly long arms, they looked incredibly graceful as they swung from branch to branch. As we followed them around, we came across another group of tourists, who were watching a female orangutan and baby. Their guide was feeding her, using pieces of fruit and sticks of sugar cane to lure her closer. She would come in, grab the fruit and then move back a bit to eat it. There was quite a crowd of people watching and I struggled to get a good position for photography. I was also finding the spectacle a bit distasteful, so I moved away a bit. The gibbons had begun their trademark hooting, and I quickly spotted a female and baby through a gap in the trees, sitting still and joining in the group hoot.
After a while, we left the group and moved off into the forest. It was clearly a busy day, as we passed several other guided groups, large and small, as we walked around the spiderweb of trails. The guides were obviously in contact with each other on their mobiles, passing on locations of orangutans and the like. We came across two more orangutans, both with babies, both with a posse of spectators, both being fed by young guides. As we watched one of the apes, Sarah called me over to where a small tortoise was making it way through the undergrowth. We also came across another group of white-handed gibbons, quite low down and quite exposed. I was following one through my camera viewfinder, trying to get a good shot, when it suddenly made a prodigious leap, falling down over our heads to a tree behind us. The others around me all moaned and made 'whoa' sounds, but all I got was a shot of two feet about to disappear out of the edge of the frame.
Crossing a creek, we spotted a lovely dragon, and then another, smaller one as we climb to the other side. On top of the ridge, we met another group with another orangutan, also with a baby, and waited until they had all moved away before settling down for a lovely lunch of nasi goreng followed by a wide selection of fresh fruit. After lunch, we walked a bit further and then the girls demanded a fruit break. When we had finished, Sinar sent us off along the ridgeline with his assistant to see a black gibbon – apparently quite a rarity. We walked for some time before encountering a group of guides and tourists looking off into the forest. There we saw a male black gibbon, quite close, and a female and baby a bit further off. One of the guides pulled out a banana and brought the male in closer – handing out a few more bananas to tourists to feed it. I went away to get some photos of the female and baby, looking back at one point to see the male walking on hind legs in the middle of a huddle of tourists, apparently chasing the guide, who had a banana in his back pocket. This was all beginning to look too much like a circus, so we grabbed the assistant and made out way back to Sinar.
We walked for a while more and then Sinar motioned for us to stop and move back along the path. He seemed nervous and explained quietly that there was an orangutan up ahead of us that had a well-deserved reputation for aggressive behaviour. Her name was Mina and only a few days ago she bit one of the guides on the arm – badly enough that he was hospitalised. Other groups began to arrive and some of the guides moved up to Mina and began to attempt to keep her calm using offerings of food. However, these, apparently, had to be handed to her, rather than simply left on the ground and it was clear that the guides were extremely nervous.
The truth is that the female orangutans we're seeing aren't truly wild – they are all rehabilitated animals that were once captives but have been released back into the jungle. There used to be a programme to move them - once they were comfortable being back in the forest and clearly able to fend for themselves – much deeper into the jungle using boats or a helicopter. Sinar used to work on the programme and he explained that many of them returned to the area around the national park office – perhaps because they still liked to visit the feeding tale occasionally, perhaps because they still craved human company. Unfortunately, there's a dark side to all of this. While in captivity, some of the orangutans were abused, and Sinar speculated that this was why Mina had begun attacking people. However, it's equally possible that she's just a greedy bully who has realised that humans are an easy source of food and that violence is an effective means of getting it from them.
Like the other orangutans we saw today, Mina had a small youngster with her, but she was also accompanied by an older animal and while she was being kept amused by the other guides, this older offspring moved some distance away and came down to the ground near us. Sinar asked if we wanted to pose for some photos with it, so Kate and the girls got in close and crouched down behind it. Then, with Mina a safe distance away and suitably distracted, we crept off and away.
Not long after, Sinar suddenly stopped and pointed into the thick jungle down the slope. 'Peacock.' All I could see where he was pointing was a tangle of vines and saplings and a large dark log. 'Peacock,' he said again and pointed again at the log. Only it wasn't a log, it was a very, very large bird. Not a peacock, we later discovered but a great argus – the world's largest pheasant. Males can reach a length of about two metres, with a 140-centimetre tail. Getting a photo in such a mess of vegetation was nigh on impossible, but the bird very kindly moved up the slope into a much more open area, periodically stopping, as if to pose for the next set of photos.
A bit later, Sinar gave us a choice of which way to go back – the quicker way, where we would head downslope, cross the river and walk back along the path, or the longer way back the way we came through the forest. We opted for the latter as it would give us a better chance of seeing more wildlife. And we did indeed see a few more orangutans on the way back – some we had seen earlier and a couple of new ones, taking our final tally for the day to 13.
When we finally made it back to the bungalow, we discovered that the macaques had been in our room again. They had managed to unzip my backpack and had had a good old rummage through the contents. With no more food on offer, they had resorted to taking a few bites out of a piece of soap.
Later in the afternoon we went for a swim, watching with amusement as a large group of macaques crossed the river on the ropes and wires used to haul the dinghy to and from the national park office. Those on the upper wire wobbled and swung their way across, while those on the lower rope got a thorough dunking in the river. As we sat on the river bank drying off, we noticed a group of guys coming back down the upriver path. One of them was carrying something heavy and when I looked through my camera, I discovered that it was a very large tortoise. They took it into the grounds of the Jungle Inn - the last hotel/restaurant on the path - and we all went over to check it out, the girls posing for photos with it for me and a collection of other tourists.
In the evening, we went to Sam's beer and chips and then dinner. Back in the room, Kate and I slept under the mosquito net – the extra layer of protection making her feel a bit less uncomfortable about the rodents with which we're sharing our accommodation.