Connor's Borneo Adventure - Apes, Adventures, And An Aversion To Papaya Leaf...

Connor's Borneo Adventure - Apes, Adventures, And An Aversion To Papaya Leaf...

Posted by Connor Whelan on 14th Jun 2017

Last month our resident marketing maestro, Connor, headed out to the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Volunteer Project to see what the volunteers had been getting up to. To help us understand a little more about life in Borneo, we asked him to write a diary about his travels. Here’s what he had to say!

Day 1 – Be prepared for Samboja to take your breath away

The moment I left a very drizzly London to begin my journey to Balikpapan (via Singapore) was when the excitement started to build. It’s very hard to get excited for a trip when you are sitting in traffic at 6.15am on your way to the airport, but once I was in the air I began to realise just how lucky I was. I was off to see the orangutans! After a brief stopover in Singapore Changi Airport (which I can thoroughly recommend as a transit hub) I arrived into Balikpapan airport, met my driver, and was on my way to Samboja Lestari.

Plane In Air

I would love to tell you I was dazzled by the sights and sounds of Balikpapan and the surrounding area on my drive to the sanctuary site…but, instead, I well and truly fell asleep. It had been a long day, okay….

Samboja Lestari Orangutan Sanctuary

Feeling fully refreshed, we arrived at the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Sanctuary where I was met by Kate (volunteer coordinator extraordinaire), who welcomed my slightly sweaty self with open arms. There was no time for a catch up though, as we were soon heading out on our first activity - after I had grabbed a much-needed bite to eat, of course!

I was lucky that my flight had given me recent experience of being thousands of feet up in the air, as little did I know this was where I was heading. With the instructions that we were going to climb the huge fire tower ringing in my ears, I gleefully (!) headed out with the rest of the volunteers to make our way up the huge 50-meter metal tower. Seeing a structure akin to a huge electricity pylon in the middle of the jungle is a little surprising, but the nervy climb to the top was well worth it and the views were incredible. You could see mile after mile of forest from the top of the tower and it really took my breath away. Well, that, and the countless stairs I had just climbed…my personal Everest.

Borneo Rainforest

The rest of the day consisted of an uplifting documentary about a recent release that had happened at the sanctuary and getting to know the other volunteers I would be spending my week with. Everyone was extremely welcoming, including our competition winner Jessie, and when we sat down to dinner it was like I had been there a month myself already. My only issue came when I ventured to the top of the lodge to take in the spectacular view and met a very uninvited guest on the way down the stairs…

Borneo Snake

A scream and the telling of a story about how I was almost eaten by a snake to Kate later, and she carefully explained to me that “he’s tiny. He couldn’t do you any harm if he tried.” With my masculinity officially dented, I concluded that it was now definitely time for bed.

Day 2 – Don’t eat papaya leaf

After a long day of flying and exploring a new country, the thing you need most is a good night’s rest and a lay in - and it is for that reason my brain decided to wake me up at around 6am the following day. Miraculously, though, jet-lag had eluded me and I think it had something to do with waking up to the sounds of cicadas and birds chirping rather than the noise cars make when they zoom past your bedroom window in the early hours of the morning. After a delicious breakfast of fried banana and an incredible chocolate/peanut butter spread (please note the jungle does not make you skinny) we were assigned our tasks for the day. I was to be working with Jessie, our competition winner, as we made a batch of her enrichment idea: the ‘Tastebud Tricka’. So, safe in the knowledge that I would be working with water and ice on this exceedingly hot day, I gladly trotted down to the enrichment area, carefully watching out for any sneaky snakes that may have crossed my path.

We arrived at the enrichment area to the noise of a blender whirring and soon discovered that Wik Wik, a member of staff who works with the volunteers at Samboja, was blending some papaya leaves up to create a green liquid for Jessie’s enrichment idea. She welcomed Jessie and I in and explained what was going on before very generously offering us a taste of the liquid leaves she had created. If it’s good enough for the orangutans, it’s good enough for me!, I thought.

I can safely say I have never been more wrong about anything in my entire life.

How the orangutans can enjoy the all-around awful taste of this ghastly green gloop was beyond me, but the apes absolutely loved the bitter papaya leafs. After ten minutes of great amusement for the project staff (and several glasses of water for me), the taste had retreated enough for me to get stuck into the enrichment making. As you can see, it was very messy but fun work! After we had prepared the bottles we took them into the freezer and let it do its work. These bottles would be ready for the orangutans in a couple of weeks!

ORangutan Enrichment

The day wasn’t over yet, though, and we met up with the rest of the volunteers to head off into the forest and cut down some bamboo which would be used for enrichment for the orangutans. This was hard work, but it was very rewarding knowing what we had done would keep the orangutans busy for quite a while. After the bamboo, we headed back to watch Jessie give out some of her enrichment to the orangutans and we were extremely lucky to see them thoroughly enjoy it! By the end of the evening, dinner and a good night’s sleep were greatly appreciated!

Day 3 – Working with the sunbears doesn’t mean the sun will shine

It was another early start today and during breakfast we were told that today was going to be devoted to the sun bears. If you want to learn a little more about the sun bears at Samboja take a look here, but Samboja is home to 40 of these cute-yet-feisty animals, and they all need caring for. We headed down to the sunbear enclosure with the sun shining but the slightest hint of moisture in the air. No big deal, I thought, this is the rainforest after all. I should have learned from my prior (and eventually unfounded) optimism towards the papaya leaf, but my innocently naïve hopes that the drizzle would soon pass were ill-advised and the heavens then opened just as we began work.

Borneo Rainforest Rain

We were tasked with hiding fruit in the sun bear’s large outside enclosure to encourage them to think, search, and dig for it, and even though I was soaked through to the bone this was one of my favourite tasks I did whilst at the project. I was feeling particularly clever and a little smug when I managed to wedge a piece of fruit high up in one of the enclosure platforms, and after emptying my fruit bucket I gave myself a firm pat on the back. My pride was soon undone as the sunbears were released back into their enclosure and in just a few seconds my ultimately not-so-well-hidden piece of fruit was devoured by a hungry bear. Looking back, I was never very good at hide and seek when I was younger.

In the afternoon the sun finally made an appearance and with this my fellow volunteers and I headed off into the forest to collect leaves for the “Happy-Sack” enrichment for the bears. This form of enrichment involves stuffing hessian bags with leaves, fruit, jam and seeds, and then proceeding to watch the bears gleefully rip apart all of your hard work in just a few moments. All of our efforts were again worth it, however, as the chance to see these animals enjoying the sacks and figuring out how to get the treats inside is something that will remain with me for a long time to come.

Day 4 – Painting in the jungle isn’t as easy as it looks

Day 4 would prove to be a test of our artistic skills as today’s jobs were to use the long jungle leaves to create enrichment packages for the orangutans and to paint the platforms on Orangutan Island 5, the one recently used for Romeo’s release! We began the day by heading down to the enrichment area and using all of our creative skills to delicately wrap up peanuts and seeds in the leaves that had previously been collected from the jungle. For someone as usually as heavy handed as myself, this was not the easiest task in the world, but I persevered and managed to complete a few leaf bundles. (The fact that everyone else’s looked professionally made and well done, whereas mine looked like they had been made by an orangutan rather than for them was beyond the point…)

After making the enrichment, we were able to head up to the orangutan enclosures and share out the goodies between the apes. It was amazing to watch the orangutans using different techniques to get to the tasty treats inside. Some were delicately picking out the food seed by seed, but other orangs took the more straight forward approach and ripped the whole thing apart. If you’ve got muscles that big, you may as well use them!

Orangutan PLatform

In the afternoon we headed onto Island 5, which we found out was soon to be home to Romeo, one of the big male orangutans we had given enrichment to earlier in the day. We were all handed a paintbrush and set to work painting the large concrete platforms that are in place on the island to provide the orangutans with a place to practise their climbing skills and, of course, to sleep in. By now I was a dab hand at scaling heights and after hopping up onto one of the platforms I could really see how volunteering had brought everyone together. There was paint flying everywhere and for two days afterwards I was still doing a great hulk impression with my green hands, but seeing everyone pull together to get the job done on a sweltering hot day brought a tear to my eye. Mind you, it could have just been sweat…

Day 5 – All work and lots of play made Connor a tired boy

Friday is normally the day the working week begins to slow down a little as everyone prepares for the weekend, but not at Samboja! This was the busiest day by far but when you are in a location as beautiful as Borneo you don’t mind the long hours. Today I was up early as always to prepare to interview Jessie about her winning idea. Thankfully Jessie was a natural in front of the camera, and apart from some constantly moving orangutans in the background of the shot the filming went by without a hitch! Afterwards we joined the rest of the group and began to make enrichment using the bamboo we had cut down the other day. This was tiring work as although the bamboo was hollow it knew how to put up a fight and proved a better workout than any gym ever has. The bamboo was followed by another type of enrichment creation and this one came in the form of a giant hammock which would sit in one of the orangutan’s enclosures. Pretty soon there was a system in place and the volunteering team was working like a well-oiled machine. Two people removing the nails from the reclaimed rubber tyres, two people laying out the strips of rubber in the correct pattern, and two others were drilling in the screws to keep the whole thing together. This made the job fly by and there was a sense of achievement in the air when it was completed!

Bamboo Enrichment

Just when we thought the physical work was over for the day, Kate told us we were heading up to the newly-built baby playground to help the team implement a new rubber rope for the babies to climb across and place a new pole into the ground. Both of these tasks should have proved fairly trouble free, but with our old friend the rain making another appearance watching people try in vein to get up the slippery mud slope to attach the rope turned into something of a spectator sport. We may have been absolutely caked in mud when we were done, but the new rope spanning the length of the playground was testament to the fact that perseverance pays off. The fact that Jessie then tested it and promptly found out her upper body strength wasn’t as good as she thought made it all the better!

Baby Orangutan House Borneo

The day ended on a much calmer note as we headed to the local night market to peruse and purchase anything we needed. If I could make one non-orangutan related recommendation from my time in Borneo, it would be to try all of the food from the night market. The fact that my waistline expanded quickly after tucking into the pancakes, chicken satay and crisps I bought (not all at the same time may I add) only served as a reminder of how good the food was after it had all gone. The other highlight of the night market was the small game stall that is located at the back of the area. This game involves paying tiny amounts for a token which you then place on a colourful shape. If the ball that is rolled lands on your colourful shape you win a prize from the back row. Now, these prizes were not exactly the speedboats and supercars you see on gameshows, but that did not distract from the fact that I had to leave before I became bankrupt attempting to win some washing up powder and chocolado sticks. My advice is to go for the green triangle, but even I wouldn’t listen to me…

Borneo Market Game

Day 6 – I’ve almost stopped droning on

Saturday is the volunteer’s day off, but as I was here to bring back some amazing footage, I was off to see a man about a drone! The team at Samboja have access to a drone to help them get a clear understanding of how different projects are progressing and we were able to get some amazing shots from it to show you guys! With the drone you can really see how the islands are laid out and it helps to create a much clearer picture of how the project is run. The images from the drone also showed just how lush and verdant the forest is surrounding Samboja and it made me feel very small in the grand scheme of things!

Drone Over Borneo

After the drone had safely touched down I was lucky enough to pay a visit to the baby house to see how baby Josh was getting on! You may remember Josh’s awful story as he was orphaned at a very young age and had a horrific start in life. Thankfully, though, I can confirm that Josh has grown into a very confident and cheeky young orangutan, and as you can see from the images below he certainly knows how to work a camera. The other youngsters that were with Josh – Bagus and Chandra – were equally happy and cheerful and being able to witness these adorable apes was a privilege I will never forget.


The cherry on the cake for this amazing day was the trip the group took down the Black River. This boat ride got off to a shaky start when our boats engine did not want to work, but we were soon chugging our way through the murky waters. On our trip we were lucky enough to see a couple of troops of Proboscis Monkeys high up In the trees, but the monkeys were ever so slightly overshadowed by the incredibly cute children who welcomed us as we glided through the local fishing village.

Day 7 –Shopping and A Strange Pizza

Amazing Milkshakes

Today the group took a trip into Balikpapan to go and purchase a new freezer for the enrichment site and with this came a great chance to explore the sights and sounds of this amazing city. Everywhere you looked there were bursts of colour and people hustling and bustling from one place to the next. Shopping for the freezer didn’t take very long, and we were soon onto our next stop: the local Oceanside restaurant. Here I enjoyed a delicious vanilla milkshake and this was swiftly followed by a large beef pizza which had a very strange ingredient accompanying it. I had never tried beef and pineapple on a pizza before, but I did not dislike it in any way shape or form. After a relaxed day immersing myself in the local culture (if pineapple counts as culture) we returned back to the lodge to enjoy a game or two of pool on my final night. I would like to take this chance to publically congratulate Kate and Wik on their decisive victory.

Day 8 – Bye Bye Borneo

Borneo Group

With my week in Borneo having flown by, it was time for me to say my goodbyes and begin the journey back to the UK. Everybody lined up for a hug goodbye and (after briefly feeling like a minor celebrity) I waved my new friends off as I began the drive to the airport. I will never forget my time in Samboja, and I will almost certainly be heading back at some point. I thoroughly recommend this project for anyone who wants to get involved and hands on in helping the orangutans, but for now I’m off to tell everyone about the virtues of trying papaya leaves….


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