A pause along a jungle path
As I reluctantly heaved my muddy back pack onto my shoulders one more time that morning in Sumatra I couldn’t help thinking how that final day of my jungle hike could have turned into a disaster. Sure, the leaches, the mud, the damp, not to mention the mosquito bites were annoying but what had just happened was on an entirely different, unexpected that had gotten my pulse racing.
My group, consisting of four hikers and a guide, had made its way slowly 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 concentrating on the slippery, mud caked path upon which every step had to be chosen with care to avoid a tumble and a grimy fall. The humming and the buzzing of insects was as intense as ever and somewhere in the distance the occasional howl of a lonely Gibbon was a good enough excuse to stop for a brief rest.
Suddenly ahead, the sound of crushing undergrowth caught us all off guard. We froze as the rummaging got louder and closer to where we all standing. I felt a surge of excitement and reached for my camera not really knowing what to expect. Our guide looked as stiff as a pole with one arm half raised in the air, hand clenched tightly urging us all to stand as still as possible.
Then, some 40 metres in front of us on our path, an adult female orangutang peered from the bushes. She was perhaps four feet tall, apparently in her prime with a healthy shiny orange coat and inquisitive eyes. Her gaze was squarely fixed on us all and for a few intense seconds we exchanged stares, nobody moved, no human nor ape. Then, the orangutang decided to approach, unthreateningly, with the clear intention of joining our party without fear.
Our guide remained still in his tracks but gone was all sense of urgency. He knew this ape well and assured us, as she wobbled closer, that it was a was one of several primates that had grown in a rehabilitation centre and fostered back into the wild years earlier. She had little to no fear of humans and occasionally made an appearance on the tourist tracks.
I relaxed, turned away to lay my pack on the ground and check my camera settings. The moment I looked up again the orangutang was among us and right next to me in particular. In a fraction of a second, before I had time to react, my left hand and arm were in her clasp.
I felt calm to start off with and there seemed nothing to be alarmed about. Her touch was gentle, her skin smooth soft. I took the extraordinary encounter as a photo opportunity and asked others in the group to take some pics with my camera. However, once I had satisfied myself with the shots, I began to feel uneasy. The ape’s grip began to feel a little tighter and gave no sign of relenting…my newly found admirer wanted more than to pose for pictures.
I tried to pull myself from of orangutang’s hold, whilst attempting to keep my composure as well. Of course it became clear to me very soon that there was absolutely no way I could get away from her hold. The ape was immensely stronger than I was, much more than I could possibly have imagined. Her grip became tighter and tighter the more I struggled to get free, I was getting anxious. Thie ordeal started to feel like a threat, I could tell the orangutan could easily snap my wrist if it decided to or perhaps even go for a bite for whatever reason at all. So, I decided the best thing to do was not to antagonize her, and I stopped struggling.
I accepted the fact that the female ape had me totally under her power and I looked around for some support from my fellow hikers. All understood the situation, acknowledged my concern and told me to keep clam. Someone reached for the contents of their backpack, pulled out banana and waved it in the air. That was all it took. My arm was released as the the ape made a dash for her prize. I was free and spent a few moments examining my arm while the ape gleefully ate her banana. I was just a bit sore, no damage or bruising to be seen.
So, 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 in size, make no mistake, they are a much, much stronger than anyone can imagine.