From the lens of a veterinarian: The Dayaks of Camp Leakey in 1991


Veterinarian and wildlife photographer recounts his adventures learning from and interacting with the natives of Borneo Island

The young Dayaks that ran Camp Leakey and guided us have a profound connection to nature and a comprehensive understanding of the flora and fauna of their rainforest. Because of our inexperience, we were wisely not allowed to go into the rainforest without one of them and their expertise. If you ever go to the rainforest of Borneo, don’t leave home without one!

The Dayaks have a keen sense of hearing that enabled them to hear wildlife moving deep in the rainforest. They also had sharp eyesight that enabled them to spot an animal in the shadows high up in the canopy and follow it. I was in awe of their ability to do this.

Once spotted, they could follow an orangutan deep into the rainforest, mark its location mentally, navigate our way back to camp in the dark (remember, no flashlights to ruin their “night eyes”) in time for dinner. They brought us back to that exact spot in the dark at 4 am as the orangutan still slept in its nest. Impressive.

The Dayak in front of me is listening intently to some forest sound I was unable to discern.

Beetop is on the left, Uil on the right. You can feel the humidity in this picture, and also see Mr Beetop’s holstered gun on his right hip.

Two special Dayaks, Mr Uil and Mr Beetop (you only call them by their first name, and put Mr in front of it), were with us from the time we left Kumai on our Sekonyer river trip until we returned to Kumai. I will do a complete article on my special day with Mr Uil in the future.

Mr Beetop, a policeman assigned to stay with us from beginning to end, was hard to figure out. A common topic of discussion in our group was speculating the reason for his presence. Was he there to protect us from wild animals, maybe poachers, or maybe just to keep an eye on us?

As is consistent with the mysterious nature of mostly everything in Indonesia, we never knew the true reason Mr Beetop was with us. It didn’t matter since had a great and positive personality, an infectious smile, loved learning English slang from us, and even laughed at my jokes, so he was a cool in our eyes.

The elderly head Dayak in charge of the camp never ventured out into the jungle with us. He was the most experienced one and oversaw feeding the female orangutans the milk and rice concoction every day.

He knew every orangutan, and it is obvious from his smile that he enjoyed being around them.

Because of this man, I dared to get this close to this male orangutan. It was hard to resist the urge to touch this male since he is so humanlike.

Even with his diminutive stature, the head Dayak was feared and respected by the large and potentially highly aggressive male orangutans. Because of him, I was able to get close pictures of the mature males that hung around camp who know visitors like me are weak in comparison to their tremendous strength. With orangutans, it is all about dominance.

The size of his huge hands that can crush yours are obvious.

They have powerful arms and shoulders, and a bite that can break bones. It is amazing that with such power they can take a cup of water from the senior Dayak and gently drink from it.

On our last night, the camp staff had a surprise and touching “thank you for coming” ceremony for us. They are gracious people who were happy we took the time to respect them by traveling across the world to learn about their culture. Our presence also gave them employment for 2 weeks.

Mr Beetop and the young male Dayaks at dinner waiting for the surprise ceremony to begin.

All the camp staff said a few farewell words, including the cook (so, she is the one that made all that rice), as she read the words on a sheet in her native language since she did not speak English.

After everyone spoke, they gifted us ironwood blowguns with spears in front that are used to hunt game with a poison dart. After the blowguns were put away, we danced and sang the night away. The international airlines were not too thrilled when we checked them with our baggage on our flight home. 

Here come the blowguns.

Mine is still in my office next to my photos, and I am looking at it right now as I write this article.

After our blowgun presents, one of the young men brought out his guitar and we sang and danced together for hours. You could request any song you wanted as long as it was “Hey Jude,” since this was the only song he could play, and did play, for over 2 hours.

What is not to love about this guy and his repertoire of 1 song!

We danced the night away with our Dayak friends to our new favorite song.

The small man in front is the one who allowed me to take the pictures with the male orangutan.

On our last morning, they taught us how to use the blowguns.

On our last morning, they taught us how to use the blowguns.

My time with these people at Camp Leakey was one of my best travel experiences in my over 35 years of travels to all 7 continents. I am glad I have these photos as a memory. Next month, I will share a story about my special day with Mr Uil.

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