Between paying too much for happy hour drinks at our hotel and wandering out into the city looking for dinner, we stopped by the concierge and asked him about the different tours the hotel offered, where the local tour companies were located, and which of the 6+ different "must see" items he listed for us he really believed to be the important items to see. He said that he had a taxi driver friend that could take us to and from Semenggoh, the Orang Utan sanctuary that is just 20 km out of the city center. With the pricing of the taxi ride agreed upon and the understanding that the driver spoke some English, we booked the trip from him and planned to get up at 8am so that we could get out there first thing in the morning.
The Semenggoh center is a rehabilitation center, so it isn't a zoo, but the orangutans there aren't 100% wild, they are working to re-introduce them into the jungle. With that they tell you the chances of seeing any while you are there can not be predicted - they feed them twice a day, at 0900 an 1500, and if there is enough food in the jungle they don't show up at all. That is why the morning viewing is better - the ticket is for a full day, if you don't see anything in the morning you can come back for the afternoon chance. Arranging that return with your taxi driver is another issue. Still, all said it seemed our best chance since we were not going to sign up for a 1 week hiking and jungle camping trek.
So we are up early, making and drinking that bad instant coffee that we are now finally starting to become numb to, and when we meet our diver it turns out that he speaks more then 'a little English', no he wants to talk and talk and laugh and tell stories. It's early in the morning, I want to close my eyes in the back of a cab for an hour, but that's not happening.
Luckily traffic is light, he's telling us how that's because it's a school holiday in Malaysia (we know because Declan has the week off), and we end up out at the sanctuary pretty quickly. We pay the entry fee - the way we booked out trip was $120 MYR for the taxi to/from, and the entry was $20 per person, much cheaper then the package deals you see online and through tour agencies - and head down to a small group of maybe about 15-20 other people milling around waiting for the 9am feeding. We wander around, they've got a crocodile in a caged in area, some items for sale, a few small displays - the family tree of the orangutans in the facility is an interesting read - and not much else. As the feeding hour approaches masses of people are heading down the road from the parking lot to the park entrance.
Minutes before 9 a park ranger gives everyone a run down of what's happening - "We may see nothing, we've been lucky the last 3 days so we feel good. Stay silent, pack your water bottles away as we feed the babies with bottles and they'll take yours thinking it's for them. No selfie sticks - they my think it's a gun and not come down, oh, and be silent." As we head down the trail I look back up the road and see another 40+ people heading down - these are families with kids.... That's right - school holiday - that's not something one would think to plan around.
After a 10 minute hike into the jungle we are at an area where they have a platform for feeding, and a built up standing observation area. People just keep piling in as we stand there, one of the guide is making noises into the jungle - orangutan calls - and we all just look around, staring into the jungle looking for anything.
We've got one hour before the guides call it a loss and we all walk back sad that we didn't see anything. The late arriving masses of people are all talking amongst themselves, kids are running around screaming and playing - these are the ones who missed the "stay silent" message, and the minutes tick by without a sign of anything. Thirty minutes in I've got a lot of photos of green and trees, I walk over to Tina and whisper "I think we're out of luck..", she just nods in agreement and then the skies decide to open and drop rain on us.
The rain quiets the crowds as everyone moves to be under the one covered areas or pops open an umbrella, "Close your umbrellas.." shouts the park ranger, "It'll keep them away.", and as some people listen and put their umbrellas away the crowd tries to get the rest of the people not listening to follow suit and put their umbrellas down as well. This works with marginal success, as some decide staying dry is more important than maybe seeing the animal they paid a cover charge to view. We were luckily standing under a tree that provided some good shelter from the rain, so we stood our ground as most people moved for cover under the one roofed area of the clearing.
After a few minutes the rain subsides, and it does seem to have quieted the crowd somewhat, and as I look at my watch to see that almost 45 minutes have gone by there is some stirring up in one of the trees. The ranger points and motions for people to be quiet, people look in the direction and, ignoring the rangers request, make a lot of noise in general excitedness. Apparently these orangutans are used to idiot tourists enough that they ignore the gasps and chatter and come down anyway to get a free hand out of food.
The one that came down was a mother who had her baby clinging tightly to her side - it was amazing to watch her swing through the trees and over to the ropes the facility had set up coming down to the platform where the rangers would hand out food.
She did stop at one point as she started to come and and back away, it did seem like this was in direct response to people making noise as she started to get better into view, but eventually she came down to get a bunch of bananas and some other items that were offered up to her.
Once loaded up with food she shimmied back up the ropes and hunkered down in the top of the tree to eat.
Her baby took this time to climb up to the top of the tree and move around, we could watch and it was neat to see how they would flex the branches, breaking quite a few of them off the tree, in testing if they would hold their weight before grabbing hold and using the branch to swing over to another one.
Neat to watch, but with the height and the sun, beyond impossible for us to get a nice clear photo. Even when the mother was moving down for food the speed made it really hard to get great photos, the movies help a little, but in reality you just need to come out to see them live to get a real understanding of how impressive these animals are.
Eventually we put our cameras down and just watched as she came back down a second time to restock on food supplies, and then in another 5-10 minutes the show was over, she grabbed her child, back into the jungle they went and we trundled back through the now slick and muddy path to the main road and then back up the hill to our waiting cab.