Memories of a hypnotic hour in the trees

One of the few joys of being back from holiday is reliving through photos. At my PC, I'm looking at my hour spent with three rescued orang-utans of the Rasa Ria rehabilitation sanctuary on Sabah, Borneo.

After a 10 minute muddy walk-cum-climb, our viewing vantage point is a three-tiered platform looking straight at the apesí own rest-and-eat area, piled high with fruits, branches and shoots, accessible from the many trees and ropes strung about.

I find it hard not to anthropomorphise, having caught the older female looking apparently wistfully into the distance, scratching an ear lobe with a long fingernail and then adorning herself with bright green leaves which prove to double as delicately-placed hat, gorgeous against her orangey-brown hair and melting chocolate eyes, and later as mid-morning snack.

Cut then to the juvenile male playing rough-and-tumble with the infant, alternately swinging from branch to branch with evidently powerful and impossibly long, extended, lithe limbs; hands and feet with extraordinarily long fingers and toes nonchalantly interchangeable to hang on, alter position, hold fast his playmate from escaping, suspended at our eye-level, limbs and bodies entwined like lovers.

And suddenly they're on the ground, having smartly rolly-polly-ed down a gentle incline.

Now a fight has broken out beneath our platform. My blurred shots catch thrashing heads, open mouths, bared teeth; searching, pinching fingers pulling at hair and skin, looking for all the world as though fur should be coming out in lumps. Yet I remember clearly how struck I was by the silence : no calling, hooting, grunting, in castigation, encouragement, pain, satisfaction.

The littlest one breaks free and is off like a flash up the trees, his playmate tormentor in hot pursuit. Boughs bend and leaves fall as orange blurs charge about overhead, until eventually the baby cheats and seeks the safety of the warden who sits calmly on the dais with the female. Hugging the warden about the neck, he comfortably tucks his legs about his waist in the embrace of a long-legged child.

My next shot : all three are tucking into the female's erstwhile hat, stretching to select apparently choicest leaves and shoots, occasionally carefully peeling a fruit. Mostly, they seem oblivious to our shutter-clicking and hushed whispers, but every now and again they regard us and, my camera forgotten, I remember how my eyes met the femaleís and Iíd wondered whether she wondered what I was thinking.

But the peace is short-lived; itís playtime again. After another chaotic hand-over-hand chase over our heads, the juvenile reaches our platform. He performs a little dance until he warden reproves him, instructing him back. Eventually, he moves away, for the world a teenager complying on his own terms, declining to make eye contact with the spoilsport.

I come to the end of my photos. Mostly fuzzy, many incomplete where a head or limb moved too fast for me to catch, and often I find I was too mesmerised to focus and snap.

But, as for evoking a hypnotic hour in the trees... I'm right back there.

S Partington

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