Samboja Lestari

Giving a helping hand to some friends in Borneo

Those who know me well often groan when I subject them to my frequent ramblings about orangutans. As I’ve remarked on this blog before, I’ve long had a fascination with the human like tendencies of these great apes. Back in October 2019, I embarked on a two-week volunteering experience in Borneo. It was an action-packed trip, so brace yourself, this post is a long one.

My flight from Denpasar in Bali to the city of Balikpapan in south east Borneo was only a couple of hours but with a clearly noticeable change in climate: stepping out of the airport my first observation was of the incredible humidity and dominating clouds forming from the surrounding rainforests.

My driver was awaiting me and together we set off for our hour long drive out of the city into a remote reserve called Samboja Lestari. After turning off the main road, we joined a seemingly endless bumpy dirt track that took us deep into the forest.

Reaching Samboja Lestari after a very bumpy ride

Finally the landscape opened up and I spotted my fellow volunteers huddled under some trees. Just opposite, my smile immediately widened as I saw the giant alpha male orangutan called Rambo casually sitting across the water. Sensing my awe-struck face, the project co-ordinator Kate briefly introduced herself and then left us all to admire our surroundings before we headed back up to the lodge for dinner.

Rambo was checking out the new volunteers as we arrived

The already intense humidity had turned up another notch in the heart of the forest making the environment muggy and uncomfortable, with the other noticeable addition of an orchestra of insects making noise that genuinely required a loud voice to speak over.  A few of the gigantic insects scuttled along the floor, including an ant the size of my thumb, and I shuddered at the thought of inevitably stepping on them with my bare feet.

As I unpacked my bags in my shared room, I heard an unfamiliar howling noise echoing across from the forest, a strange sequence of calls unlike any I’d heard before. I learned that this was the long call of the orangutans from the forest,  a sound that travels up to 10 miles advertising themselves for a potential mate. I was in disbelief at the power of the call. For the remainder of my stay, I slept to the greatest chorus of nature.

At the centre of the project surrounded by jungle is a simple, rustic lodge where the volunteers and tourists reside.

About Samboja

I first heard about Samboja Lestari after watching a TED talk 10 years ago and it had been on my bucket list to visit ever since. I was fascinated about how Willie Smits, the project founder, had managed to restore a forest from degraded, barren land. Smits founded the world’s largest orangutan charity (Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation) that now runs the project.

As the forest regenerated over the last 18 years, the charity crafted out 10 or so islands in the centre of the 2000 hectare reserve to offer a free-roaming environment for the orangutans who are often rescued from villages that encroach on their rainforest habitat. Sadly a number of the orangutans who arrive at Samboja Lestari have suffered from horrific physical injuries, having been caged, shot or kept as pets. The road to full recovery for them is often long or not possible.

An Effort to Restore from Imperata Grassland to Secondary Forest in S…

A view of the degraded land before the replanting program began


A view of Samboja Lestari from the fire tower today

On the first morning, we had an introductory walk across the reserve. We greeted most of the 20 or so orangutans that are fortunate to live on the man-made islands. Many of these are release candidates to return back to the wild in the future. Several are in isolation due to having tuberculosis which means they’ll likely spend their lives without being released to avoid spreading it to others. The remaining group of adult orangutans are in cages, which was sad to see but the reasoning was understandable and the organisation is making important steps to phasing them out. The reality is that there are far too many orangutans in need of rescue and not enough resources to offer all of them a ‘natural’ habitat on the islands. I’m not allowed to share photos of the cages but I was comforted by their size and welfare of the orangutans who reside in them.

Young Marlon eyeing up some morning snacks from his mother

The forest school is where the young, orphaned orangutans are taught the important forest survival skills, like foraging for food, building a nest and identifying predators. The rehabilitation process can take years but the goal is to re-equip the young orangutans with the necessary skills so they can successfully be released back into the wild (I’d strongly recommend watching the brilliant Orangutan Jungle School documentaries to learn more about the work BOSF are doing here).  Watching the young orangutans from up close gave us an special insight into their bond with their affectionate keepers and entertainment with their playful antics. The keepers were like their mothers playing with them. If that’s not the most rewarding job in the world, I don’t know what is.

At the forest school

The young orangutans were certainly intrigued by our presence and came within a couple of metres of us


Typically our working day would start between 8 – 8:30 and stop for a couple of hours for lunch and to escape the midday heat.  Kate was the project co-ordinator assisted by two of the keepers Wik and Sam who have been at Samboja Lestari for many years, both of whom are very funny and chilled out, clearly enjoying their dream job and constantly teasing the volunteers. Despite the language barriers, the ten-plus other keepers were also jovial and passionate about their jobs.

The most important role for volunteers at the centre it to help prepare enrichment to the orangutans and sun bears. These animals are incredibly intelligent and, although they have a spacious and natural living environment, they need stimulation to quell boredom. Enrichment keeps the animals busy and takes many creative forms but largely involves them unpacking delicious treats from parcel puzzles.  The preparation of enrichment involved the group huddling around a bench mashing and pasting sweet potato, nuts and porridge in newspapers, wooden blocks or sacks.

Pasting porridge and treats inside bamboo tubes. Basically a Happy Meal, orangutan style!

The group weren’t permitted to get too close to the orangutans in cages for the first 5 days, as legislation mandates a quarantine period to reduce the risk of passing any human borne infections (I’m looking at you, coronavirus).  Instead, our enrichment tasks for the first few days were with the sun bears, another forest dweller suffering from deforestation. We would enter the sun bear enclosure (with the sun bears safely ushered away), hide the treats and paste jam and other sweet goodies on the trees.

Sun bears are the smallest bear species in the world and can be found across SE Asia. They feature a distinctive golden crescent on their chest, hence their name.

Preparing the enrichment was admittedly more enriching for the orangutans than it was for myself as it did feel a bit repetitive. The most enjoyable part of the experience was handing the enrichment to the orangutans at the end of each day and watch them tuck in to their treats. As we’d arrive, several of the big male orangutans could get fairly aggressive and would swing around in the cages, mainly to show off their strength! Being up close  – albeit still at a safe distance – let me admire their behaviours and the intricate details of their appearance.

For the island inhabitants, we’d feed leaves and snacks into plastic containers for the orangutans to fish out with their long fingers. I absolutely, definitely didn’t eat any of the snacks…

Several of the orangutans didn’t like the sight of men and would constantly spit at us as we walked past. I was a saliva victim of Bujang, who clearly picked his friends very carefully.  Perhaps my most fond memory was when Wik talked to Bujang in Indonesian asking him to touch various different parts of his body and dutifully did so. The mutual affection between Wik and Bujang was very special to witness.

Kate had the idea to prepare some halloween ‘happy sacks’ (i.e. snacks inside sacks shaped as ghosts) for the sun bears  and watermelons for the orangutans.  My Halloween watermelon masterpiece went to Ani who unsurprisingly glossed over the visual details and tucked right into the good stuff.  (Ani was later in the news for giving a helping hand to one of the staff in the moat, although there’s a bit of media-spin on this).

We’ve all been there.

Halloween At The Samboja Lestari Orangutan Volunteer Project!

Ani enjoying her watermelon treat

Those not preparing enrichment would venture into the forest with machetes to collect large ginger leaves and give them to the caged orangutans. Much like me, a good night’s sleep does wonders for their mood and they use the leaves to prepare a fresh nest each night.  Sam would take us deep into the forest to cut and gather the leaves, and in the heat, it was sweaty work dragging huge batches of them back.  The effort was worthwhile when we could pass them into the orangutans, some of whom would graciously accepted, some seem non-plussed and a couple of the females (AKA the ‘criminals’) saw it as an opportunity to play a tug-of-war with us.

Venturing into the forest to collect some rotting bark (with a few termites for good measure) for the sun bears to gnaw on

Drilling holes in bits of wood with Wik and Sam. The rest of the group would poke nuts inside and paste with sweet potato porridge.

Aside from providing enrichment and nesting material, we also had the chance to clean the orangutan cages and give the orangutans a bit of pampering. Trust me, it wasn’t as gross as it sounds! We were given hoses that we’d spray into each cage just beside the orangutans who would either put their mouth under it move beneath it to give themselves a shower. I found the latter particularly amazing how they’d bathe themselves like humans, twisting around and brushing their armpits.

On one of the mornings I had the chance to get even closer up with the orangutans from the boat that traverses the moats around the island. I was just the passenger as Sam paddled us along and dropped off the fruit on each of the islands. The big male orangutans were too proud to eat in front of us and would wait until we’d gone to pick up their snacks.

Sam and me on the boat

The boat trip let me get extra close up with the largest orangutans in their natural habitat

The boat wasn’t sturdy in the slightest and it was a miracle that it didn’t capsize. Little did I know, my fate with the water was already written.

Moat cleaning

The narrow moats surrounding the orangutan islands tend to fill with sediment over time and so to prevent the orangutans making a bid for freedom, they require dredging every few months. Unlucky for the staff, but lucky for the volunteers, the solution is suitably…low-tech.  Jumping into the swampy, snake and insect infested moat around the orangutan islands, our job for two hours was to grab some mud from the floor with our bare hands and throw it onto the banks. Except, that’s how it was planned. It ended up being volunteers versus keeper mud fight, some of whom didn’t take too kindly to a mud headshot!

The most striking moment of this bizarre activity was when Papa, an utterly enormous pale-haired orangutan, ventured within a couple of metres of me just on the edge of the water, bemused at what these humans were doing. A typically shy orangutan lurking in the trees, usually at the sight of humans would often pace around the island and shake a tree to show who’s boss.  But as Papa and I stared directly into each other’s eyes, he gave me a look of sincerity and revealed his softer side beneath his dominating presence.

Looking up at Papa in awe. A few of the other orangutans poked their heads out too, see if you can spot them.

A few of the other orangutans poked their heads out to observe the entertaining scenes in front of them. For the afternoon, we were their enrichment. It’s hands down the most ridiculous yet amazing thing I’ve done in my life. And I was lucky enough to have a second stab at it a few days later, that time armed with a shovel.

Project work

One of our main projects was to build a large cage behind the clinic for Jeffery, who is one of the elder statesmen at the reserve. Jeffrey had sadly dislocated his leg after an accident and he needed to be operated on to help with his recovery. Building the cage was no small feat: the task for the group was to transport the frame of the cage from the forest and then pour concrete to form the slab beneath the cage.

Assembling the cage behind the clinic

Our job for the afternoon was to form a human chain to pass the freshly mixed concrete from the mixer to behind the building site behind the clinic. The scorching sun, heat from the concrete and running with the heavy buckets was back breaking work. Tempers were running high too with frustrations growing between the volunteers, including myself. We got the job done eventually but I was physically spent afterwards.

The concrete bucket chain

Some of Jeffrey’s hair after his operation. It was sharp and resembled copper wire unlike soft human hair

The third project task was to prepare one of the unoccupied islands for habitation by Bujang. The island had become overgrown and the job was to get out the machetes and chop a path around the perimeter of the island to enable Bujang to walk around.

I’d often sit on the bank of the moat observing the orangutans during breaks or at the end of the day. Here’s Papa making an unusual appearance.



Over the course of the experience we had a couple of days off and trips away from the reserve to explore some of the cultural and natural attractions nearby.

During the middle of our stay, we visited Balikpapan city for shopping opportunities. Balikpapan is an industrialised port city and usually given a wide berth by tourists. We visited a mall and market for shopping but I just used the chance along with several others to stock up on savoury snacks. I’d grown used to my rural surroundings and was quite glad to get back to the lodge.

We had the opportunity to trek in a primary rainforest a couple of hours away from Samboja. With its taller canopy the forest was naturally gloomier than the one in the reserve. We didn’t see much wildlife but that was likely due to the footsteps of our large group scaring away the animals. My previous solo experience trekking in a primary forest was more enjoyable (although far riskier).

Walking across the jungle canopy

A more local trip was to a nearby village for a boat ride to see the pointy nosed proboscis monkeys. These monkeys are endangered in the wild and a rare site these days in Borneo, but we managed to catch sight of dozens of them. As we slowly traversed the river with the young local villagers waving us by, several of the proboscis monkeys would take flight leaping from tree to tree, a few of them grappling their young in their pouch. It was amazing at twilight see from the boat a tree with dozens of tails hanging down and observe their rapid movements.

I was having a hard time getting a proper close up of the proboscis monkeys

Pinocchio would be right at home here

Visiting a night market on the way back to the lodge


While most of the days weren’t physically strenuous they were exhausting due to the intense heat and humidity in the forest. My evening showers were refreshingly cold but bone chilling with the AC on! The air conditioning was a life saver as prolonged periods outside were uncomfortable. Stepping inside during our midday break was a welcome relief, and helped ensure I slept like a log overnight.

We weren’t allowed to leave the lodge alone for our safety, so I’d typically spend the late afternoon before dinner reading a few books I’d brought with me up on the roof to catch the last light while keeping an eye on the orangutans swinging around on the islands.

A scenic view overlooking the islands from the top of the lodge

The buffet dining options at the lodge were mixed and depleted my energy somewhat after a couple of weeks. Evening dinners mainly consisted of vegetables and rice with the occasional delicious fruit platter, but the lack of protein meant my stomach was often grumbling. Probably for the first time in my life I actually got fed up of eating peanut butter too. For an environmental conservation charity, I was disappointed that plant based foods didn’t feature more prominently as dining options.

The group was formed of personalities mainly from Australia and the UK with a diverse gender and age mix. I didn’t click with the group in the same way I did with the team at Trees for Life the year before. There were quite a few overly loud personalities and in general I didn’t find that the group was overly interested in the environmental aspect of conservation in the way I am. Many of the group tended to congregate and light up cigarettes which was frustrating too. But we did play a few board games in the evening which brought us closer together. Wik and Sam joined us and were very entertaining company, and particularly animated during our evening games of murder mysteries.


Moat cleaning and my close encounter with Papa stands out as my favourite highlight

Our last night was an emotional one as Wik showed a video compilation of clips from our experience. She also showed a video of some of the orangutans, including a poignant video of alpha male Romeo feeling the earth beneath his feet for the first time in 25 years of being in a concrete cage, and the heart-warming rehabilitation of a blind orangutan who is now one of the favourites in their group.

Wik finished off by showing us the video of an orangutan being released into the wild. I’ve got a new appreciation now how expensive and difficult it is to reintroduce them back into the wild. It can take days to travel to the remote pockets of the rainforest to find a suitable range. Habitat that’s sadly increasingly difficult to find.

And with that, the following morning we bid each other farewell destined to our respective destinations. For me, it was onwards to Singapore to meet and work with my team there.

As someone who’s increasing eco-conscious, I was in two minds how sustainable it was to fly half way around the world for this experience. Just before we went our separate ways at the end of our experience, I raised my conundrum with Kate. She mentioned that the volunteers lifted up the spirits of the keepers and it was only because of the money from the volunteers that some key projects were able to take place, like the construction of the islands.  If the volunteers take a piece of the experience away to raise awareness of the threats to wildlife, it’s worth it.

I’m impressed by what BOS Foundation have done and it’s encouraging to see how nature has made such a comeback from the barren land it was. But it doesn’t yet resemble a majestic rainforest and the sheer extent of biodiversity is missing, which was obvious to see from our rainforest trek. This was a reminder of how important it is that we conserve the remaining rainforests, particularly the large hardwood trees which are pillars of the ecosystem and massive carbon sinks. We can’t rely on reforestation alone to stop climate change or mass extinction.

Orangutans are now critically endangered and with their fragmented habitat and long reproductive cycles, they have an uncertain future ahead. With the hard work of BOS Foundation, there is still hope for these intelligent primates.

From a personal experience, this was yet another reminder that I’m unquestionably at my happiest deep inside forests, surrounded by nature and far away from civilisation. ‘Orangutan’ in Malay means ‘forest person’.  I’m starting to think I’m one myself.


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