You are my boss, but I am your leader. That was the first thing I heard during the briefing before trekking. It was my first trekking. Maybe not the first in my life, but definitely first one in a long time and the most serious ever, considering that it took a few days in the jungle. Our guide gave us a couple of important guidelines.
- Keep you backpack on your back, not on the ground. There is no insurance against thieving apes.
- Don’t feed the apes
- Don’t come too close to the apes
- And if the guide shouts “move back”, you move back, and when he shouts “run”, you run.
You are my boss, but I am your leader.
I bought a special objective lens so that I could take photos of these extraordinary monkeys and therefore the last thing I wanted to hear was that I had to stay away from them once I see them. I think he read my mind when he saw the expression on my face, so he addressed me personally:
“Julie, I’m serious. I’m here and my task is to protect you, but I won’t be able to do that if you don’t follow that rule. I know you want to take pictures, but your safety comes first. I’ll do everything so that you can take nice photos and get home safe with them, but you have to trust me and follow my orders. Is that clear?
“I can’t say I like it, but yeah, it’s clear.”
Obviously, I went on thinking that he has no idea how important it is to take good photos and that I came a really long way in order to meet the people of the forest. When I saw an orangutan close up for the first time, I understood that everything that he told us about them on the way is true. And when I was watching them I understood where the inspiration for the King Kong came from. They are really HUGE. Simply gigantic. They are like you and me, well, maybe more like a bruiser from Warsaw, but hairier, taller and with intelligence in their eyes (so maybe more like you and me in the end). They are beautiful. They are delightfully gorgeous and observing them is like contemplating a wonder of nature. That is, until the wonder starts chasing you!
I WAS REALLY GRATEFUL that the guide established that one rule at the beginning: I am your leader! Don’t think, don’t discuss. Just do what I say.
See, that monkey has the strength of 5 grown men. It might prod you just for fun and break your bones as a result. In Bukit Lawang there has never been a case of an orangutan killing anyone, but there have been plenty of cases of biting. Looking at this giant I thought that if it touched me (and earlier I dreamed of touching him), I would have nightmares for the rest of my life. They are really gigantic! And, as I learned later, they move very fast. When that hairy giant was approaching me, my knees went weak. It was a lot larger than any picture could show. If anyone wonders why my photos are so lame after me raving about them for such a long time – well, that’s my explanation. Every part of me was shaking: legs, hands and my whole body – if not from fear then from exhaustion.
“Julie – back off and run!! NOW!!! RUNNN!”
I obediently made a few steps back. I stumbled on a few branches while doing that because my legs were already made of jelly. I couldn’t move them any faster, and the orangutan was closing in fast. Ando, our guide, jumped in front of me to cover me.
“Give me your camera and run run run!!! FASTER! You can do it, RUN!”
The situation was looking really dramatic. The orangutan was running faster than me. The guide was more upset than I was. And my legs were scared more than I was, too! Without looking back, so as not to allow terror to take away all my strength, I ran. As fast as I could.
“JULIA. You have to escape before it gets on the tree, so please, RUN!”
I run 3-4 times a week, I practice kickboxing and sometimes yoga. I’m really in quite a good shape, but running down and trying to stay upright while leaning you back against the steep slope, stumbling on rocks and branches, dragging your gear and looking back again and again trying to see where the ape is – that’s not easy. I felt that I was running out of breath.
“Julia. Once it climbs a tree it’s going to move faster than we do. Our chance are going to be pretty slim then, so focus on one thing only: escaping. Don’t think about being scared. Think about making one more step. And then another and another, and then about making it faster. Run!”
He was yelling at me all the time. When I reached the group, another guide took me over and shouted to the first one that he doesn’t have to yell anymore. “He didn’t want you to be afraid so he yelled in order for you to know that he is right behind you”.
I had a parachute accident because I didn’t know how to behave in a dangerous/extreme situation. It was a typical accident at work, nothing special. I didn’t know what to do and I made a wrong decision. I lacked knowledge, instruction and the imprinted automatic reaction telling me what to do. My instructor had an obligation to discuss with me how to act in such situation but he didn’t do that because he thought it might only scare me and “provoke something bad happening” (if anyone would like to know with whom not to jump in Poland, I’ll be happy to advise). He was given a reprimand from the court. Only a REPRIMAND, because “he was acting in good faith”. I lost a year of my life and had my spine broken and held in place with screws. Bravo to the Polish courts!
That’s why then, in the jungle, I felt safe because not only did I know that there was someone who was going to protect me but also that I knew what to do as well. When a large ape is chasing you, you can’t think, you have to act. I’m grateful that in conditions which were less dangerous than in case of parachuting my guide discussed with me and established the plan of action. Sure, it deprived us of euphoria for a few minutes, but in the end it saved us from danger.
It is not discussion that provokes bad situations but lack of responsibility, buttering up and hiding one’s head in the sand.
It’s amazing that a guide in Bukit Lawang is more aware of that than a professional parachutist. Escaping from an orangutan may sound like a funny story but it wasn’t funny at all – I certainly didn’t feel like laughing. And I really felt something that I hadn’t felt for ages: FEAR. Not anxiety, which is something a bit non-specific, but the FEAR of actual danger. The last time I felt it was when I was falling from the altitude of 4 thousand metres. But then, in the air, I didn’t know how to act if something goes wrong.
What have I learned from this history? No matter how romantic and exciting the situation you find yourself in is, you have to be prepared. Only then you can relax and let the universe operate without your permission. A prepared mind and a guide for whom you are the priority will allow you to escape every ape, even the quickest one.