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As I heaved my muddy back pack onto my shoulders once more that morning in northern Sumatra I couldn’t help feel a sense of relife. Sure, my hike had challenged me with leaches, thick mud, heat and mosquitos but what had just happened was on an entirely new level and had sent my pulse into overdrive.

My hiking buddies and I had already marched in composed silence for a couple of hours that morning along the old logging trail that lead to the Bahorok river ahead. Each of us was absorbed by the slippery, mud caked path upon which every step had to be chosen wisely in order to avoid a grimy fall. The humming and the buzzing of insects all around us was as intense as ever and somewhere in the distance I remember the occasional howl of a lonely Gibbon.

Jungle treck
Jungle Hike

Suddenly, there was a sound of crushing undergrowth not too far in front of us. We froze as the rummaging got louder and closer. I felt the a surge of excitement and reached for my camera not really knowing what to expect. Our guide was stiff, a look of apprehension all over him, one arm raised in the air, hand clenched in a fist urging us all not to move.

Then, some forty metres or so on the path ahead, an adult female orangutang appeared from the bushes. She was perhaps four feet tall, apparently in good health with a long shiny orange coat of fur. She peered straight at us on the trail for a few intense seconds and then slowly started to approach unthreateningly, with a clear intent of joining our party.

Our guide remained still but gone was his sense of urgency. He knew this ape well and assured us, as it wobbled closer, that the animal had grown in a rehabilitation centre and had been fostered back into the wild some years ago. The orangutang had no fear of humans, he said and occasionally made an appearance on the tourist trodden trails.

The Drama

I barely had time to take off my rugsack hoping for a few minutes of rest when the ape was upon us and in a fraction of a second, before I could react, my left hand and arm were in her firm clasp.

Orangutang hand shake
…still finding it amusing at this point.

I felt calm to start off with as there seemed nothing to be alarmed about. I took this extraordinary encounter as a photo opportunity and asked others in the group to take some snaps with my camera. The ape’s touch felt soft and warm, not unlike the hand of a human. It was reassuring. My new primate friend seemed to pose willingly with me for pictures and even looked straight at the camera for more than just a few.

However, once I had satisfied myself with the shots, I began to feel uncomfortable with animal’s grip. I could see there was no sign from ape of relenting her clasp. I tried to pull free whilst keeping a smile but of course there was no chance to get out the animal’s hold. She was immensely stronger than I could possibly have imagined and her hand held tighter and tighter the more I fought. Now I was getting anxious, I felt threatened, breaking free was a matter of urgency, but I realised that the orangutang could easily overpower me and even snap a bone or bite should she choose to do so. Struggling was futile, there was no way i could win so I chose not to antagonise my captor any further and simply stood still.

The ape had me totally under her power and I looked around for support from my pals.  They all saw my concern and told me reiassuringly to remain calm. Someone reached for the contents of their backpack, pulled out banana and waved it in the air. That was what it took. My arm was released instantly with a dash by the ape to grab the prised ransom. I was free and spent a moment examining my arm. Just a bit sore, no damage, no bruising, all good.

Eyes of an Orangutang
Orangutang stares inquisitively

Lesson learned

So, please don’t even think about offering a hand, arm or limb to an ape. Apes have evolved to live on trees where they climb and swing from branches all day, we all know that. What we might not be aware of is that although they appear smaller than us, make no mistake, they’re immensly stronger than a human, more than you could immagine and once they have you in their grip there is no getting away … unless you have bananas that is.

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