In a Borneo jungle, Tom Neal Tacker meets orang-utans and the remarkable woman who fights for their lives.
A long, hairy arm extends over my shoulder; fingers tickle my torso. I reach around to hold her hand behind my back, like we're canoodling at the cinema and hoping no one will notice. She turns to me and smiles. Her mouth is full of stinky sweet durian and her lower lip protrudes comically.
It's an intimate moment and I return the smile, smitten. Siswe and I share a simple wooden bench on the verandah of Dr Birute Galdikas's home at Camp Leakey in Borneo's Tanjung Puting National Park. Siswe is about 35 years old, the local orang-utan troupe's alpha female and as strong as 10 men.
''She could dislocate your arm as easily as you would snap a twig, you know,'' Galdikas says. ''But she likes men, particularly older men.''
Borneo's rainforests aren't for the faint-hearted. I've travelled two hours on a small boat up a river full of crocodiles to get here. Venomous snakes are everywhere; leeches, too.
Borneo is alive with things that bite, sting or suck. If I trip on a boardwalk and fall into the swamp that surrounds Camp Leakey, I might not live to tell the tale. But I've come to meet one of my heroes, Galdikas, and to get close to Indonesia's critically endangered orang-utans.
Once there were three Leakey angels working in the field; now there is one. Jane Goodall retired from studying chimpanzees in Tanzania more than 20 years ago to launch her own wildlife preservation foundation. Dian Fossey was murdered in 1985 while studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Galdikas continues her field research where it all started in 1971, in Indonesia's Kalimantan Province in Borneo. Her research station is called Camp Leakey in honour of her mentor, anthropologist Louis Leakey.
Before meeting Galdikas I wander around Camp Leakey. The orang-utans are supplied with fruit twice a day at various feeding stations in the surrounding forest, enough to supplement their diet but not enough to encourage dependence.
The hours between feeding times allow visitors to explore the camp unsupervised.
I find a black-handed gibbon in a small tree outside the cook's cabin. Normally gibbons are as high up in a tree as possible, invisible in the upper canopy. Without excellent vision, binoculars and luck, they're difficult to spot.
This gibbon poses for me a few metres away, looking for companionship or a handout, or both. Not so the proboscis monkeys. They sit in the trees along the river in full view, catching the rays of the morning sun.
The local Dayaks call them the Dutch monkeys, drawing attention to the resemblance of the monkey's protuberant noses to those of the country's former colonial masters.
A family of wild pigs scampers about. Piglets squeal in an open area near the dining room. One of the adult female pigs is blind; she has no trouble avoiding tree stumps, unlike me - I continually trip over tree roots in the dimly lit forest.
Siswe is one of Galdikas's favourites and a regular at Camp Leakey. Though essentially a wild animal, she has adapted to occasional human company. ''Sometimes I hear her banging around on my roof while I'm trying to sleep,'' Galdikas says, ''but usually she's off somewhere in the forest reminding other orang-utans who's boss.''
It's difficult to imagine Siswe as a tyrant. Instead, her gentle caresses lead me to believe otherwise. Her giant hand rests easily on my shoulder, her fingers a bit grotty and sticky from the durian. Her intelligence is comparable to that of a three-year-old child. Like most kids, Siswe charms, cajoles, manipulates emotions and throws temper tantrums, yet I detect wisdom. She is a picture of calm sitting next to me yet still unpredictable, hence Galdikas's warning.
The light grows crepuscular; night descends quickly at this latitude. Heavy rain resumes. Siswe sighs melodramatically, scratches her head with her left hand, leaving her right around my waist giving me a slight squeeze.
''She gets depressed when it rains,'' Galdikas says; her shoulders slump in sympathy with Siswe's glum attitude.
''Maybe you two need to move to a drier climate,'' I suggest. Galdikas has a hearty, frequent laugh. Though her reputation for not suffering fools gladly puts her in strife with logging and mining companies, I find Galdikas an amiable companion.
When Suharto was president of Indonesia, Galdikas was kidnapped and beaten. Her deportation from the country was a frequent topic of discussion in government cabinet meetings.
Threats continue to thwart her work to save the rainforest environment and all the creatures that live in it, but now her work is supported by the police and forestry authorities.
She was given Indonesia's Hero of the Earth award as national recognition for her work to save not only orang-utans but all the remaining wild habitats of Indonesia.
Illegal logging and mining jeopardise the park's boundaries, though lately the damage in the park has been minimal. That's not so outside the park.
''Not far from where you're staying is a huge palm oil plantation,'' Galdikas says.
''The young male orang-utan you saw outside your cabin yesterday has nowhere else to go so he's travelling along the river looking for somewhere to cross into the park. There's no food or shelter for him or other orang-utans on the opposite side of the river.
''Gold mining upriver is polluting the eco-system, too.''
There is concern for the Dayaks who live on, wash in, drink from and fish in the river. Mercury poisoning is a threat.
Galdikas's mood shifts, not just from the rain. ''The whole system here is so caught up in corruption and greed. I've been fighting against it for almost 40 years, saving 95,000 hectares of land as a buffer for the park but the destruction continues. We have perhaps 4000 or 5000 orang-utans left in Borneo, fewer than 1000 in Sumatra. Unless the world does something quickly, they may not survive.
''I do what I can but it's not enough.''
Galdikas cares for about 300 orang-utans in her sanctuary. They are protected by 200 local employees. Her foundation runs on the sniff of an oily rag and her income is derived solely through donations.
Siswe chews her durian while we sit out the storm; she leans against me as if I can keep the raindrops away. Galdikas sips her coffee.
I'm sitting on a wooden bench with one of the world's leading anthropologists and one of its rarest apes. The combination this represents could not be more pertinent for me. Here in one of the planet's few remaining wildernesses, my thoughts focus on its future.
Galdikas's project has recorded more than 100,000 hours of observation of a single mammalian species, the longest in the history of scientific field research. As well as direct study of orang-utans and other primates and monkeys, Galdikas and her team have studied regional ecology since 1971.
It would be hard to find someone more qualified to speak the truth about the decimation of rainforest habitats throughout the world.
''The main problem in Kalimantan is the palm oil plantations,'' she says.
''Poaching is more of a problem in Sarawak and Sabah. While the logging clears the land, the logging roads allow access to the hunters hired by the logging companies.''
I am humbled by her stoicism. Others would have given up long ago. Galdikas's intellect, compassion and energy are remarkably constant.
''And now it's time we headed to the dining room, the third bell just sounded and we're making the staff late for their dinner,'' she says. ''They don't like it when I'm late and they won't start eating without me.'' Galdikas's employees know how hard she works and this is how they show their respect.
At dinner in the communal dining room, she insists that visitors stand and recount a brief history of how they came to be here, their work and family backgrounds. It's an important custom for the Dayak people.
Galdikas translates my words into Bahasa Indonesian. I explain that I am a writer interested in Indonesia's flora and fauna and that I have come a long way to observe the work being done at Camp Leakey to preserve Indonesia's remaining wild forests. I thank them all for their hard work and promise to help spread the word about their conservation project. They in turn thank me and welcome me to their land.
After midnight I reboard my boat and head downstream to Rimba Orangutan Lodge. I sit on the top deck under a canvas shelter, peering into a small circle of brightness illuminated by the boat's single light globe. Crocodile eyes cast reddish-orange reflections. Fireflies flutter around me. A water monitor lizard swims quickly into tall reeds. I write more notes.
Before I was introduced to Siswe on a path outside Galdikas's house, I met a younger female, Princess. Of all the orang-utans I encountered at Camp Leakey, Princess is the most famous. Sir David Attenborough filmed her while she paddled a boat across a small river. No one taught her to do it. Orang-utans don't swim. They hitch rides on floating logs … or they learn to paddle a boat.
Princess copied one of the workers at Camp Leakey while he rowed a small boat from one side of a stream to another. Her feat of ingenuity was the first recorded instance of an ape using a boat in the same manner as a human.
I return to my cabin once the boat is safely moored at the lodge. I've been allocated Julia Roberts's cabin. My guide, a long-time employee, announced enthusiastically upon my arrival at the airport a few days earlier: ''You are sleeping in Julia Roberts's bed!''
Surprised, I point out that she stayed here 10 years ago, when the 1998 documentary In the Wild, Orang-Utans with Julia Roberts was made.
''Yes, but it is a new mattress,'' he confirms.
That night, I sleep very well in Julia Roberts's bed.
Tom Neal Tacker travelled courtesy of Garuda Indonesia and Eco Lodges Indonesia.
Garuda Indonesia has a fare to Jakarta (about 6hr) for about $870 low-season return including tax from Melbourne and Sydney. Trigana Air flies three times a week from Jakarta to Pangkalan Bun (PKN).
Eco Lodges Indonesia arranges land transport from Pangkalan Bun to Kumai (about 45min) and river transport from Kumai to Rimba Orangutan Eco Lodge (about 2½hr).
Australians obtain a tourist visa on arrival for a stay of up to 30 days ($US25, $25.34). You must have a return or onward air ticket showing a date no more than 30 days from the arrival date.
Rimba Orangutan Eco Lodge is operated by Eco Lodges Indonesia. It costs about $250 a day for a superior room, including most meals, park fees and river transport to Camp Leakey (2hr). See ecolodgesindonesia.com.
Eco Lodges Indonesia, the only Green Globe-accredited accommodation group in Indonesia, directs profits to preserving habitats and rescue projects for endangered species such as those run by Birute Galdikas's Orangutan Foundation International at Camp Leakey. For more information on the foundation see orangutan.org.