Traveller Tales: Catching up with old friends at Camp Leakey, Borneo

Walking with an orangutan
Easter saw us heading off again to Borneo on our Camp Leakey orangutan tour. I was excited about our trip but most of all excited by another chance to see our old friend Siswe who was the one who inspired us to start our tours to Borneo in the first place… 

Four years ago when we first visited Camp Leakey we had this amazing moment with one of the orangutans. We jumped off our boat and started walking down the boardwalk towards Camp Leakey, only to find an orange person having a nap, flat out, arms and legs sprawled in all directions right in front of us. After a quick moment observing one another she made us sit, and talk to her. She held our hands, she tried to unzip all of our pockets and she showed us how she can blow out a candle if you sing her Happy Birthday. This was our introduction to Siswe – and we were instantly hooked.


On our way back to our boat Siswe appeared again and decided she would like to come to the river with us, but she didn’t want to walk on her own. She positioned herself between andy and I and gripped our hands with her long black fingers. Walking, holding hands with an 100kg+ orangutan who doesn’t want to carry any of her own weight is quite a task, but a task we would never forget. After a long and slightly teary goodbye, we vowed we’d be back again to see her.

We kept our promise and we’ve been back every year since. Each visit, our guide Bain gets more and more nervous that Siswe may not be around to see us (even the hand-reared orangutans like Siswe go out into the forest and look after themselves most of the time). He smiles and laughs but you can see a little panice behind his eyes – he doesn’t want to have me cry on him if she doesn’t get the message and show up in camp. But, every year when we have returned Siswe has been there to say hello.

This year we were so happy to introduce John, Bron, Nicky and Craig to Siswe. Although she was much more interested in eating the little nuts on the path, she took time to sit with us and have a chat. We think she knew that john was most excited to see her as she sat next to him and gave him a little pat on the knee. It was just fabulous to see her again.

Every year we go back and are still blown away. Orangutans are just like us, like our brothers and sisters, our mums and dads (but with much more flexible hamstrings…). They say only a small percentage of communication is language and this is brought to the forefront of your mind when you sit face to face with someone like Siswe and can understand exactly what she is saying:

“Nice to see you. I came down from the forest ‘cos I heard you were in town. Now, what do you have that I can eat!”

If you’d like the opportunity to have an experience like ours, check out our Camp Leakey Orangutan Tour.

John and Siswe making acquaintance


Siswe entertaining our group: Andy, Craig, Bron, John, Zoe and Nicky.