A pause along a jungle path
As I reluctantly heaved my muddy, sweaty back pack onto my shoulders one more time that mid morning in northern Sumatra I couldn’t help thinking how the final day of my jungle hike had not gone quite as planned. Sure, there were the leaches, the mud, the humidity not to mention the mosquito bites to contend with but what had just happened was on an entirely new level that had gotten my pulse racing.
My group, made up of four hikers and a guide, had made its way slowly in composed silence perhaps for a couple of hours already that morning along the old logging trail that lead to the river a few kilometres away from our night’s camp. Each of us was absorbed by the slippery, mud caked path on which every foothold had to be chosen carefully to avoid a slip and 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.
Suddenly, there was a sound of crushing undergrowth not too far ahead of us. We froze as the rummaging was obviously getting louder and heading in our direction. I felt the a surge of excitement and reached for my camera not really knowing what to expect. Our guide was as stiff as a pole with one arm raised in the air, hand clenched in a white knuckle fist urging us all to stop in our tracks.
Then, some 40 metres or so on the path ahead an adult female orangutang appeared from the bushes. She was perhaps four feet tall, apparently in her prime with a healthy shiny orange coat of fur. She peered straight at us for a few intense seconds and then slowly started to approach unthreateningly, with a clear intention of joining the party.
Our guide remained still but gone was his sense of urgency. He knew this particular ape well and assured us, as wobbled closer, that she had grown in a rehabilitation centre and had been fostered back into the wild some of years earlier. She had no fear of humans and every now and then made an appearance on the tourist tracks.
I barely had time to take off my backpack anticipating a few minutes of rest that the ape was on us and in a fraction of a second, before I even coud react, my left hand and arm were in her very firm clasp.
I felt calm to start off with and 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 frames with my camera. However, once I had satisfied myself with enough shots, I began to feel increasingly concerned and uncomfortable with animal’s grip as I could see there was no sign of relenting the clasp from my newly found buddy.
I tried to pull myself free from of orangutang’s hold maintaining a half smile on my face. Of course there was absolutely no chance I could get away from her. She was immensely stronger than I could possibly have imagined and her hand held tighter and tighter the more I struggled. Now I was getting anxious, this was becoming threatening and I could tell the orangutan could easily snap a bone or even decide to bite. Thusly, I decided not to antagonize her and stopped struggling.
I acknowledged the orangutan had me totally in her power and I looked around for support from my fellow hikers. They all could see my concern. Someone reached for the contents of their backpack, pulled out banana waving it in the air. That was all it took. My arm was released as the the ape made a dash for the ransom banana! I was free and spent a moment examining my arm. Just a bit sore, no damage or bruising.
So, my friends the moral to the story is: do not attempt to shake hands with an ape. It’s a trick to win some bananas off you and if you have none to offer then you’re pretty much fecked! Apes live in the jungle, many on trees where they jump, swing from branch to branch all day, we all know that. What we might not be aware of is that although they can appear smaller than us, make no mistake, they are a damn sight stronger than anyone can imagine.