Something that was always at the top of my bucket list was to visit Borneo and see orangutans up close. There is something about them that absolutely fascinates me, and with factors such as palm oil and deforestation becoming increasingly problematic and threatening the already critically endangered species, I decided to make my dream a reality in 2013.
I compared a few different programs and decided to go with Project Orangutan’s Great Orangutan Project at Matang Wildlife Centre in Sarawak for 2 weeks.
After a 9 hour flight to Kuching via Kuala Lumpar, I was greeted at the airport and taken to a lovely hotel called Basaga where all the volunteers spent their first night. We had the entire first day to rest, bond and get any last minute things before we headed into the jungle, and we also had an official welcome dinner, where we met the park owner who told us about what we’d be doing.
The next morning, we drove ‘about 40 minutes’ (this quickly became a funny joke between us, as everyone in Borneo will tell you that everything is 40 minutes away) to Matang Wildlife Centre, our home for the next 2 weeks, and were assigned our lodges, which contained 4 people each. The lodges were cool – though they weren’t flashy, I felt like I had truly escaped my life in Sydney, Australia, and had gone back to basics. It was exactly what I’d hoped for.
We quickly settled into our rooms and unpacked, and were then driven out to the local markets to do our first weekly grocery shop. The markets were interesting – full of fresh produce which included fruits I’d never seen before such as durian and rambutan.
After our grocery shop, we were given a tour of the park to see all the animals. Although Matang is a rehabilitation centre, it operates similarly to a zoo in that it houses many creatures—sun bears, macacques, bintarong, owls, gibbons and of course, orangutans! The park also has a quarantine area, which houses animals who are in particularly bad shape and need to be monitored in isolation, which became my favourite place to work. Most of the animals had come from pretty horrific entertainment backgrounds where they were exploited, and Matang’s aim was to rehabilitate them and naturally get them back out in the wild.
After our tour, we then settled into our rooms and unpacked our luggage – we’d been told to bring old clothes (that we wouldn’t mind getting ruined), gum boots, heavy duty socks, Hydrolite, cameras, hats, sun block and mosquito repellent, with lots of DEET. In addition to all this, I’d also recommend a backpack, and some trainers for weekend trips.
From there on, our days were filled with various tasks. In the mornings, we always started with cleaning and feeding. This was either working with the orangutans, the sun bears or the animals in the quarantine area, and involved cleaning their cages, and then feeding them. Cleaning the dens in the quarantine area proved to be quite challenging at times, particularly with the gibbons, who liked pulling my hair as I walked past!
Feeding was a fun task; this usually involved walking into the animal enclosures and placing the food around the area for them to find. For the orang-utans and the sun bears, we would strategically place the food in places where they had to work or climb to get them, to keep them moving. We’d then take our places on viewing platforms to watch them get released and try to find food, which was always hilarious.
Over lunch, we’d get a two hour break, so that we weren’t working in the heat. We’d use this time to take photos, hang out by the nearby river, and often, take a quick nap.
Our afternoon duties varied each day. There were days when we were painting, building and hand mixing cement, but then there were also days where we worked on enrichment; activities to help stimulate the animals’ minds, which was a fun and creative way to end the day!
Our days would finish at 5pm, where we’d go back to our lodges to call it a day. Our nights were pretty mellow; there was no TV or wifi, so we’d cook dinner and would then have the other volunteers over on our balcony to play cards, bond and drink beer. By 9pm, we were crashed out, as we were physically (and mentally!) exhausted. We would fall asleep to the soothing sounds of the jungle, which quickly became very comforting.
Matang is quite close to a few places in the Sarawak region, so on weekends, we had the luxury of being able to explore the area. As part of our program, we were taken on a day trip to Semmengoh Wildlife Centre, Padang Beach, and the Fairy Caves, by our local guide Richard, who also took us to his longhouse (a traditional Malaysian house). The Fairy Caves were a highlight for me; they looked like something out of a Disney movie!
In addition to this, we took a few side trips. On the first weekend, we went to Bako National Park to explore the beautiful walking and hiking trails and try our luck at spotting a proboscis monkey, which the park is known for being home to. Sadly, we didn’t see one, but we did catch a glimpse of a silverleaf monkey, which is even rarer.
We also took a day trip to a beautiful beach town called Damai, and explored Kuching, the capital.
One thing that I can honestly say I learnt during my time at Matang was that I never realised my physical and mental capability and how far I can really push myself if I put my mind to it.
I think any type of volunteering is great life experience to have; it gives you perspective above all, which is invaluable in both your personal and professional life. For me, volunteering with animals was something I was particularly interested in. I would definitely recommend Project Orangutan for anyone interested in animal welfare and conservation. In addition, through my own research, I was pleased to find that Project Orangutan donated more money back to the park than other volunteer programs I considered, which was really important to me. Project Orangutan is a great, alternative way to see Borneo—a place that is facing massive environmental problems—and actively contribute to the solution at the same time.