Orang-utan adventures in Sumatra, Indonesia

Gary King, The Daily Telegraph, August 24, 2012

I’d come to Bukit Lawang in northern Sumatra to achieve a lifelong ambition of taking a photograph of an orang-utan in its natural habitat. These glorious beasts, with their brightly coloured fur and benign faces, have always held a special fascination for me. The fact that they are critically endangered with about only 60,000 left on the planet strikes sorrow into my heart.

As soon as we entered Gunung Leuser National Park, the landscape became dense with undergrowth. Thick trunks reached forever upwards and waterfalls cascaded past twisting vines, while a cacophony of birdcall and cackles echoed all around.

I was with two guides: Obi; svelte and elfin with long flowing locks, and Herman; thick set and hairy with no front teeth. They couldn’t have looked more different but this habitat was their home and they navigated through its thick foliage as if strolling down a street.

They were searching for orang-utan – this was their only aim. Occasionally Herman would stop, put his hand to his mouth and whoop into the canopy. Something would rustle in the trees above and we’d then canter off, clambering up winding paths and skipping down vertiginous inclines while hardly taking a pause for breath.

Some six hours later, with my camera strung round my neck, my rucksack chaffing on my back and my body drenched in sweat, I was beginning to flag.

For the first time I felt a creeping doubt. Had I travelled thousands of miles for my hopes to be dashed by this illusive arboreal ape? Suddenly Obi pointed upwards and I saw a flash of orange, 50 feet up, zipping from branch to branch. We took off like gazelles, following the noise as it crashed above our heads.

The guides had stopped and again Obi pointed skywards. Light was flooding through the forest, making the leaves flicker and shimmer as they were caught by the breeze. There was the orang-utan, seemingly glowing, backlit by the midday sun.

As I brought my viewfinder up to my eye, I hit the button to focus. For one fabulous second, I could see the creature in all its magnificent glory. What’s more, it was a female with a baby clinging to her side. I lost what breath I had left in my chest.

She moved. The autofocus couldn’t keep up and I took a picture of a branch. I cursed. Then, incredibly, she began to come closer. Then closer still. But every time she advanced, the camera slipped in my damp hands and I missed the shot. I cursed again.

She then swept forward and stopped, powerful fingers and toes locking her on to a branch. I could feel my heart thumping. She came into view, the shutter clicked and I knew that I’d got the picture. Mother and child, within 10 feet.

I turned to walk away. Mission accomplished. Then, suddenly, a violent grip clamped on to my arm. I looked up to see Obi with a look of abject horror in his eyes.

“Run. She’s chasing you!”

I looked over my shoulder to see the orang-utan dashing up the path only a few feet behind, her dexterous arms and legs leaving imprints on the jungle floor. I took off like a sprinter following the guides. I turned my head just once. She was gaining, lolloping up the path. I didn’t look back again but ran and ran and ran.

Something grabbed at me. I lurched forward, nearly fell and turned to see Herman grinning his toothless smile and motioning me to stop.

“I think she liked you,” said Obi. “She was after your rucksack but, then again, maybe she thought you were the father.”

Then they both fell about laughing, bent double, tears streaming down their cheeks.

What an adventure. I’d spent half the day looking for an orang-utan and the other half running away from it. Now that’s one for the grandkids.