The following is a guest post written by Gaynor Pugh who volunteered on The Great Orangutan Project
This trip came about from a party to celebrate my 60th Birthday. I had long had a dream of travelling to volunteer abroad at an animal sanctuary, and upon researching the idea, I decided instead of presents I would ask for a small donation to help with my trip. With maps and ideas around the party, everyone got excited about the adventure, so much so that from being on a trip alone, two of my friends Jackie and Glen decided to join me. I kept a diary for the trip which I called ‘Brymbo to Borneo’, as Jackie and I are both Brymbo girls and some of it you can read below.
Our flight out was the last bit of luxury we would have for quite some time, but before reaching Borneo, we decided to have an overnight stopover in Singapore, which gave us the chance to visit Raffles for their famous cocktail the ‘Singapore Sling’. The next morning, we then boarded a plane for our short flight to Borneo. It became very clear to us when we had reached Borneo, as we flew over hundreds of miles of flattened jungle for as far as we could see. All of this land was being, or would be used for palm oil plantations, which is the main threat to the survival of orangutan and elephant populations in Borneo, and causes the death of up to 5,000 orangutans every year.
After finally touching down at the airport we were transferred to the Singasanga Lodge in Kuching. It was here we stayed overnight until very early the next morning when we were picked up and driven into the heart of the Borneo jungle. Our volunteers were a mixed group consisting of mostly gap year students, some having finished education and wanting something different before settling down to work, and also those like me, who were retiring and wanting to experience some time to do ‘my own thing’, leaving kids, dogs, family and commitments behind for a month!
Our accommodation was better than we expected, a hut built on stilts over a river with two bedrooms, a cold shower, (which we thought we would hate, but after working in the humidity we had a few cold showers a day), toilet and a large living space with a gas cooker. We met with all the other people on the project, and while most were students, we all got on well. We were also provided with food and were taken shopping to buy provisions every week.
Our first morning we had a tour of the sanctuary. Then some of the orangutans were taken out by rangers up into the jungle, as they were every day, to help rehabilitate them in the hope they could eventually be released back into the wild. Some were carried, some walked back but they were an amazing sight each day. At 4pm they were all weighed, put back in their cages and fed. We all thought, soon it will be our turn to make their meals and we couldn’t wait!
The next day we all got up at 7am to be ready for work at 8am after a quick breakfast usually of tea, boiled eggs and bread. It was a short walk through the jungle enjoying the beautiful sounds of the birds and giving the breakfast leftovers to a deer who would wait for us each morning. We all met up and were allocated jobs. On our first working day we worked together, but after that, we would all be mixed up on different jobs.
The first job of the morning was chopping all the fruit and vegetables and sorting out the food for the various animals. We fed macaques, sun bears, gibbons, binturongs, samba deer, crocodiles, porcupines, snakes, a lone parrot and other species of animals, it was not just orangutans. After that, one of our jobs was cleaning out orangutan enclosures, being warned not to get too close as they would grab anything including jewellery or phones. We had to watch our every move. They are so intelligent and would be locked off while we scrubbed the floor and walls but would always be watching. One of them would wait for me to get the hose out as he loved having the water squirted in his mouth.
During one particular afternoon, we went along to see a pool of crocodiles being moved from one pool to another newly built pool. Each one had to be caught using a rope to tie up their jaws and had a sack put over their heads to calm them. They were then all measured (with each being around 8 ft long), before being sexed and marked for future reference. When we were asked who would like to try sexing one, I was first to accept with my claim to fame being that out of them all….I found the only male! In the first few days, we were also taken on a trip to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre where the orangutans are in a semi-wild state. They came down from the trees to feed on platforms and it was just wonderful to watch them up close.
One of the best evenings we had was when we all took a minibus to a longhouse for a traditional meal cooked by the Rangers’ wives. We were welcomed into their homes and we took gifts for all the children; it was only pencils, bubbles etc. but if we had given them laptops they wouldn’t have been any more pleased. For dinner, we sat cross-legged on the floor as plates of food were set out before us in traditional fashion. We had a variety of food including chicken, noodles and even rice that was cooked in bamboo. When we finished, we went through to the front of longhouse joining men who were sitting on reed mats before being treated to local music and even an appearance from the chief who was dressed in national costume. We then danced, and I was given a round of applause for trying to teach him to waltz.
During the week we were all kept busy. First thing, before the sun bears went into their enclosure, we would go out with melon, honey, sunflower seeds and nuts. We would spread them over trees and foliage, even using ladders to climb trees to pour honey up high to make them forage for their food and keep them from getting bored. Eventually, they would be reintroduced into the jungle, but some would never be free as some sun bears, who had been kept as pets, had had all their teeth removed to stop them biting.
After the bears were let outside, we would scrub their enclosures (walls and floors) and one day we were asked to paint all the walls, which was hard work in the heat and humidity. Mix this with looking after the animals, feeding them, cleaning out cages, making enrichment toys, mixing and filling sacks and bottles with leaves, honey and jam there was never a dull moment.
The heat was a challenge, but also the rain, we had never seen rain like it. Now we know why they call it a rainforest. Thunderstorms were amazing, perhaps it was not having a television, but we could watch a storm and the rain for hours!
Having so many changes of clothes we were all very glad to have all our washing done for us, as the wife of one of the rangers washed dried and ironed all our clothes every week, all for about four pounds! I think one of the most unpleasant things was having to try and dry our bras overnight, as they were still damp when we put them on every morning!
At the end of our four weeks, we had worked very hard, sweated buckets, but laughed so much. If your idea of volunteering in an orangutan sanctuary is pushing wheelbarrows full of orangutans, and carrying and cuddling them, then this is not for you. You will work hard, sweat buckets, laugh a lot and come away having made wonderful memories.
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