A Life-Changing Journey To Help Save The Orangutans

29/08/2015 6:36 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Lara Shannon

Up to 300 football fields of some of the richest and most biologically diverse rainforest across Indonesia and Malaysia are being cleared every single hour.

Much of this is to make way for palm oil, the most widely used vegetable oil on earth, found in around 50 percent of household products on supermarket shelves and contributing to one of the world's biggest environmental threats of modern times.

After years of campaigning for the conservation of our wildlife, I had to see for myself how dire the situation was. So, last August, I decided to join the 2014 Trans Borneo Challenge -- an expedition that raises funds for leading conservation group The Orangutan Project.

Not being much of a hiker or camper, the thought of spending 25 days travelling across Borneo from East to West Kalimantan, along rough roads and rivers off the beaten track, navigating 100kms of mountainous jungle terrain on foot in humidity levels of 80 percent plus was daunting to say the least.

We began our journey with an early morning flight from Jakarta to the town of Balikpapan, where we spent our first two days at Samboja Lodge. Home to six established Orangutan Islands and the Sun Bear Sanctuary. Here we got to see these magnificent creatures for the first time, not free in the wild, but at least safe from harm and not having to live their days out in cages.

This was followed by a sobering drive into the Kutai region as we headed towards our first trek in the Kutai National Park. On the way we could see just how prolific palm oil was. Pristine rainforests were now replaced by miles of palm oil plantations, displacing the wildlife that had once inhabited this region as a result.

Fortunately our dismay turned into delight when, during our trek through the park, we were privileged to spot a mother and her baby in the trees high above us. What a wonderful sight this makes: seeing such a beautiful creature and her baby climbing from tree to tree in their natural environment.

borneo orangutans

From here we travelled along the Mahakam River by house boat, long boat and speed boat, scooting along river rapids, passing villages on the water's edge and even visiting a traditional Dayak village to learn more about their history and culture.

On day nine we began our rainforest trek, which would be one of the most surreal, challenging and fulfilling experiences of my life.

The wet and humid rainforest conditions saw us slipping and sliding up, down and around mountains and waterfalls, dealing with flash floods, endlessly crossing river rapids and generally trying to just put one foot in front of the other without looking at what was coming up next.

It is impossible to explain the jungle trek, no words can describe how 'present' you have to be to ensure you don't slip or fall off the edge of a mountain, and just how much concentration, physical and mental strength that is required to see you through. Without the support and experience of our porters, who literally held our hands through the toughest moments, there is no way we would have completed such a journey.

It was a mixture of relief and an amazing sense of accomplishment when we emerged from the rainforest into the Tanjung Lockang village. To celebrate we hired a five-dollar loudspeaker sound system and spent the evening dancing the night away with our trekking team.

borneo villagers

Lara Shannon with local villagers

We finished the journey in Ketapang, where we visited the International Animal Rescue Centre to learn more about the work and the challenges conservation groups face in rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing baby orangutans into the wild.

This visit in particular reinforced just how much the people on the ground have their work cut out for them. But they refuse to give up. I can attest to how important and effective the awareness and fundraising work is in helping them to help save one of our closest living relatives from extinction.

Initiatives such as The Trans Borneo Challenge really do help put things into perspective, whilst also raising vital funds for this conservation work.


To watch Lara's debut documentary on The Trans Borneo Challenge view here. Registrations are now open for the 2016 Trans Borneo Challenge.

Follow Lara on Instagram @ecochickadv or on Facebook here.

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