Same But Different – A Volunteer Review

The following post describes the experiences of ten volunteers working on the same project over a twelve day period.

No two people are the same, maybe one of the characters below will be able to inspire you to get involved…

The Project:

Orangutan and Sun Bear focused conservation

The Location:

East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo

The Volunteers:

Name: Katy

Age: 29

Gender: Female

Where is home: South Wales, UK

Children: N/A

Occupation: Full time traveller, sometimes a Project Manager / Barmaid / Whatever I need to be

Studied: Everything and Nothing

Why Orangutans in Borneo: A friend recommended working with Orangutans in Borneo, while we worked together in Namibia on a Big Cat conservation project

What are you most looking forward to: Meeting the Orangutans and getting to understand their personalities.  Also a boat trip to see the Proboscis Monkeys!

Name: Leonie

Age: 38

Gender: Female

Where is home: Somerville, Victoria, Australia

Children: 2 (12 y/o boy, 10 y/o girl)

Occupation: Medical Laboratory Scientist

Studied: Bachelor of Science

Why Orangutans in Borneo: Orangutans have always been close to my heart. I was at a point in my life where I wanted to do something just for myself. I felt a need to fill my cup up. I wanted to take all of my “hats” off so to speak – my mum, wife, daughter hats – and just find me.

What are you most looking forward to: Seeing the Orangutans up close

Name: Wendy

Age: 56

Gender: Female

Where is home: Stoke on Trent, England, UK

Children: John (39), Louise (37), Rachel (34), Theresa (31)

Occupation: Used to work in Lithographing (printing things on plates), now running a business in catering for festivals (UK Event Catering)

Why Orangutans in Borneo: Interested in how they live and want to help in any way I can after learning about the palm oil situation

What are you most looking forward to: Feeding the Orangutans from the boat

Name: Rob

Age: 48

Gender: Male

Where is home: Wherever I lay my hat

Children: None that I’m currently aware of

Occupation: Scientist

Studied: MSC Advanced Analytical Chemistry

Why Orangutans in Borneo: I like Orangutans

What are you most looking forward to: Feeling competent to explain the plight of Orangutans to others

Name: Zoe

Age: 21

Gender: Female

Where is home: Australia

Children: 2 fur babies, a mini poodle and a cavoodle. Yoshi and Mario

Occupation: Assistant Manager at an art store

Studied: Wildlife Science at University

Why Orangutans in Borneo: Our whole overseas trip was based around coming to work with the Orangutans. We don’t have anything like them at home so it was an amazing opportunity to work with them and help out any way we could

What are you most looking forward to: Making enrichment* for the animals

Name: Laura

Age: 23

Gender: Female

Where is home: Sunshine Coast, QLD, Australia

Children: N/A

Occupation: Zoo Keeper

Studied: Bachelor of Wildlife Science

Why Orangutans in Borneo: They’re such intelligent animals which have always intrigued me. I’ve only ever seen them in captivity so I really wanted to see them in the wild

What are you most looking forward to: Probably watching them feed and use the enrichment*

Name: Danelle

Age: 22

Gender: Female

Where is home: Australia

Children: N/A

Occupation: Barista

Studied: Bachelor of Applied Science: Major in Wildlife Science

Why Orangutans in Borneo: They have always been one of my favourite animals so it’s always been something I’ve wanted to do

What are you most looking forward to: I’m most looking forward to observing Orang-utans behaviour and how they react to different stimulus and enrichment*

Name: Sam

Age: 21

Gender: Male

Where is home: Queensland, Australia

Children: N/A

Occupation: Zookeeper

Studied: Bachelor of Applied Science: Major in Wildlife Science; Certificate IV in Dance Performance Studies

Why Orangutans in Borneo: They are such amazing and intelligent animals and I’ve always had an interest in getting to know more about them and work with them

What are you most looking forward to: I’m really looking forward to being involved with the creation and implementation of enrichment* for both the Sun Bears and the Orangutans and to be a part of some of the construction projects for the animals

Name: Jemma

Age: 25

Gender: Female

Where is home: Jersey, Channel Islands

Children: N/A

Occupation: AML Consultant

Studied: Sports at college, plus professional qualifications through work

Why Orangutans in Borneo: We have Orangutans at the zoo in Jersey, I’ve liked them since I was a child. Paul O’Grady showed him volunteering in Borneo, and that inspired me

What are you most looking forward to: Seeing the Orangutans and Sun Bears and getting to know their personalities

Name: Jess

Age: 18

Gender: Female

Where is home: Brisbane, Australia

Children: N/A

Occupation: I’ve had a lot of jobs, don’t currently work

Studied: High School

Why Orangutans in Borneo: Because Clarence couldn’t (Big Lez Show Season 1 – I think – YouTube)

What are you most looking forward to: Saving Orangutans

End of Day One

What are your thoughts and feelings after your first day on the project?


I was aware that we would not have direct contact with the animals here, and fully understand why, but I am a little disappointed now that I have realised how far we are from them, I would love to have a closer encounter with some of them, especially the babies.  Seeing some of the bigger animals who have to live in captivity for their own safety is really difficult for me, although a DVD at the end of the day showing Orangutans being released into the forest has improved my outlook.


Mixed feelings. I was on an absolute high that I was actually doing this however after going on a tour of the sanctuary I was quite confronted when I saw some of the orangutans in an unnatural environment. I felt quite sad for them.


Amazed at how much there is here and intrigued to see what else is there is.  Climbing the fire tower to the top was very scary.


These animals are so much bigger than I expected, actually still can’t take it in that I’m here.


The sanctuary was so much bigger than I originally thought it was. I really liked the idea of the islands so that the orangutans could be completely free roaming. Really impressed with the enrichment facility and how much they try to make rather than just leaving it. Some parts were a bit confronting but they explained why everything was how it was. Stunned at the number of animals who actually live here but really impressed with the dedicated teams.


The lodge is so lovely, so glad to be somewhere for two weeks instead of a short time. I love that there are wild areas like the islands and the forest school for the wild orangutans. It’s unfortunate that they can’t all live in such natural surroundings just yet, but it’s nice to know that over the next two weeks, we will be contributing to the improvement of their well-being.


After the induction day I was very glad we had chosen to come to this sanctuary. I had learnt so much about how they started out and what they do for the animals. Seeing the housing for orang-utans was quite confronting, although the foundation ensure they are doing their best to cater for the influx of animals and lack of funds.


I’m really glad to be able to be a part of this project and help make a difference for some of these animals. It’s going to be an amazing 2 weeks of construction and hard work as there is definitely a lot to be done around the sanctuary. Seeing the number of animals in such a small environment and relatively unnatural conditions was a little confronting, however I can definitely see that the issue is the need for more enclosures, which is a lot of work but is currently in progress and I’m pretty happy to be able to be a part of helping to get more Orangutans and Sun Bears into larger enclosures and onto the islands.


I feel excited after seeing them and knowing that I would be working with them.  Worried about the weather, it’s really wet.


This will be interesting

End of Week One

After spending a week working on the project, how have your feelings changed?

Tell me about something you’ve learned this week.


I’ve been enjoying the tasks for this week.  I have a better understanding of the work that the organisation are trying to achieve and can see how each task we undertake is helping the cause, by improving the conditions for each animal individually.  I would love to think of a better way to help both the Orangutans and the Sun Bears on a larger scale, but a way that doesn’t involve constant fundraising.  A culture change is the only way forward.

I now have a better understanding of the Palm Oil industry and how it directly affects both of these species, and a greater understanding of why it’s just not as simple as ‘letting them go’.

Favourite moment so far: Feeding the Orangutans on the islands from the boat

Least favourite moment so far: Seeing Papa, one of the larger male orangutans displaying stress related behaviour


I don’t like leaf collecting but I really like that all the hard work is so rewarding because we get to give enrichment to the animals at the end of it.  This is very hard work.

I’ve learned that the male Orangutans don’t like it when people watch them.

Favourite moment so far: Watching how gentle the Orangutans were when they were untying the enrichment* that we’d platted for them and watching how excited the Sun Bears were with their enrichment

Least favourite moment so far: Leaf collecting


I am loving it.  I feel more educated now as opposed to how I felt the first day when I saw the Orangutans’ conditions. I now understand why they are here and feel the need to make more people aware of what we are doing here to change that and get them out of those conditions and into their natural habitat.

I’ve learned how clever and diverse the methods are that the Orangutans and Sun Bears use to dismantle and enjoy their enrichment*.

Favourite moment so far: Getting wet and muddy cleaning the weeds out of the moat. To be so close to the orangutans, especially mother and baby was AMAZING!! We all had so much fun and it was fantastic to laugh so much 🙂

Least favourite moment so far: The ants biting me while we were out in the jungle collecting ginger leaves for nesting 


Enjoying it more than I thought I would!  I’ve learned more about other species of animals than Orangutans, such as Sun Bears, they’re not just cute, they’re clever too.

Favourite moment so far: Cleaning the moat, I felt like we were swimming with the animals… I’d go back in today

Least favourite moment so far: Dragging ginger leaves through the vines in the forest


Loving it.  I’ve learned that you can do anything you put your mind to.

Favourite moment so far: Jumping into the river moat & swimming next to the Orangutans

Least favourite moment so far: Hearing some of the tensions running high among the group, we are all here for the same purpose and I wish everyone realised we could all agree to disagree on the differences between us in order to collaborate better as a group and have more fun together 


It’s been great, learning more about the individual personalities of the animals has been great.

I learnt more about the mammals that have come back to the East Kalimantan area since the reforestation. It’s comforting to know that it may be possible to reverse the damage that humans have caused. Also that bule** are very interesting to the locals.

Favourite moment so far: I love the rewards after working so hard, leaf cutting is hard but the moment you see the orangs pull it through the bars and start nesting is amazing.

Least favourite moment so far: There are average parts to each task, but I wouldn’t say any of the work is not good or fun to do. Everyone complains, even me, but I’m not a fan of when individuals excessively complain about something that needs to be done. I mean, why come if you’re not going to work?


I now have a much better understanding of just what challenges the full time staff and volunteers face. The struggle to change attitudes, and bring about a more harmonious world, freedom for all. At first I’ve asked myself what I’m doing here, I’m not an ecologist, know practically nothing about the natural world beyond a child-like curiosity, and have been questioning what difference if any I may be making… But over the duration of the first week, I’ve begun to realise that friends and family have become interested in what I’m doing, and so the conservation message will be spread through my humble activities here.

I’ve learned this week that there are two kinds of male Orangutan!

Favourite moment so far: Working on the Sun Bear habitat… manly stuff ripping out nails and being creative.

Least favourite moment so far: Hmmm, I got terribly frustrated with wrapping the palm leaves for enrichment*… grrr… not fun for me…


I’m really enjoying the project. It’s really enjoyable work (a lot of it similar to what I normally do at work back in Australia), and it’s really satisfying to know that everything you are doing is going towards improving the quality of life for the animals here at the sanctuary.

I’ve learnt so much already on this project and we’re only half way. I’ve learnt that usually it is only the dominant male orangutan of the area that will flange***, it takes a year or more to introduce a young Sun Bear back into the wild completely, and to avoid taking your time cleaning around Kay-Kay’s enclosure in the morning or she’ll spit on you!

Favourite moment so far: Cleaning the weeds out of the moat around the Orangutan islands was definitely awesome. Just being so close to the Orangutans while we did that and being watched by a female and her baby was fantastic.

Least favourite moment so far: All of the tasks here are going towards improving the animals’ quality of life so it’s always worthwhile. I think what’s probably bothered me though is having the majority of the volunteers working so hard all day every day, whilst others don’t put in the effort to help work on basic or easy tasks. Everybody here should be devoted to making some contribution, or should not be taking up a place. 


Still really liking the project, definitely feeling settled in and loving all the tasks! Never been so bloody sweaty in my life but at least we know we’re working towards making the animals lives even a little bit happier. Really good now that the keepers are opening up more about the animals and themselves and the group is meshing pretty well.

This week I’ve learned how hard bamboo is to saw through oh my goodness. Respect to pandas. Also Kay-Kay really doesn’t like “bule”** Sam, or maybe she does and shows this by spitting on him constantly!

Favourite moment so far: The day it absolutely pissed down raining after we went leaf cutting and a bunch of us got absolutely saturated but everyone was laughing and the guys inside the car were laughing and it was just a great time. But also anything involving seeing an animal!

Least favourite moment so far: Getting scratched up by the spikey plant in the sun bears enclosure but even that wasn’t awful. There really hasn’t been a stand out moment that’s been horrible because the group has a great sense of humour so everything can be laughed off.


I’m enjoying every aspect! We’ve all settled in and gotten to know each other. That’s including the guides/ keepers so a lot of fun is had even while we are sweating our butts off.

We’ve started to learn some Indonesian, I think I’m just making the Indonesians laugh at my efforts more than anything.

Favourite moment so far: We were cleaning out the ‘moat’ around the islands and the mother with a young baby came to the edge of their island to watch us only a few meters away.

Least favourite moment so far: Every ‘bad’ moment we seem to have is turned into something fun within the groups atmosphere. However not everyone’s participation in the activities is equal and sometimes brings down the group spirit.

End of Project

You’ve spent two weeks here, working with the Orangutans and Sun Bears. Today was the final day – Can you summarise your experience?


Best Moment: Laughing together on the final night

Worst Moment: The forest trek through fire ants and brambles with no destination

Funniest Moment: Almost drowning Laura and Zoe in the moat

Most difficult thing about being here: Having to wear clothes that cover my shoulders and knees in this heat! (I’m a shorts girl)

One item everyone should bring: Gardening gloves

Where is next for you? Tibet, to hike along the Great Wall of China and travel by rail into Nepal


Best Moment: Waving at the people in the village from the boat on the Proboscis Monkey day out.

Worst Moment: Leaf collecting

Funniest Moment: When the manager came to help us digging the trench

Most difficult thing about being here: Being wet all the time

One item everyone should bring: Walking Boots

Where is next for you? I’d like to take a tour through Central or South America and another wildlife project which runs in Namibia


Best Moment: Playing with the water when cleaning out the Orangutans – being able to be that close to them

Worst Moment: Digging the island ditch and getting so sweaty with no shade

Funniest Moment: Any time Wiwik is around – never a dull moment

Most difficult thing about being here: The mozzies, ants and spiders – being covered in bites all the time

One item everyone should bring: Mosquito repellent

Where is next for you? Would like to see the blue whales


Best Moment: Planting trees that will be big and strong & helpful to the orangutans in the future

Worst Moment: Getting bogged on the way to leaf collecting, seeing Wendy go home

Funniest Moment: Lots

Most difficult thing about being here: Heat, getting along with everyone

One item everyone should bring: Mozzie repellent

Where is next for you? No idea, I struggle to premeditate anything in life, probably somewhere overseas again 


Best Moment: Finding out where everyone has their tattoos

Worst Moment: erm, the constant pain put a dampener on my time here

Funniest Moment: Getting stuck in the mud 🙂 and watching Jess go into meltdown!

Most difficult thing about being here: The heat/humidity combination is hard to bear when working in the sun

One item everyone should bring: Mosquito spray

Where is next for you? Immediately afterwards to Malaysia and diving with Turtles


Best Moment: being splashed by Bagus while he played on the river bank as I went past on the boat handing out enrichment*

Worst Moment: being bitten by ants while collecting ginger leaves

Funniest Moment: Wendy falling in slow motion onto the pile of dirt on Island 5 while digging trenches

Most difficult thing about being here: Not being able to talk to my children and hear their gorgeous voices

One item everyone should bring: Bushmans insect repellent

Where is next for you? I have been accepted into the talent pool to serve as a volunteer scientist on the Mercy Ship, a hospital ship based off the coast of West Africa


Best Moment: Handing out ice block enrichment to the Sun Bears and watching them crunch away at it and rub the nice cool ice all over their bodies

Worst Moment: Clearing grass and digging trenches in the afternoon heat and almost being sick from it

Funniest Moment: Attempting to clear out the weed in the moat around the islands whilst we all almost drowned and sank in the mud

Most difficult thing about being here: Probably working in the heat and humidity along with dealing with certain other personalities that I would definitely avoid back home when I can.

One item everyone should bring: Definitely insect repellent

Where is next for you? Heading over to Balikpapan for 1 night, then to east Java to trek to Ijen crater. Then headed off to Bali to relax for a couple of days before heading back to work in Australia.


Best Moment: Watching the mother and baby orangutan watch us as we were cleaning out the moat

Worst Moment: After working in the hot afternoon sun the heat really got to me

Funniest Moment: One of the guides being drunk and being put to bed

Most difficult thing about being here: Definitely the heat mixed with peoples lack of motivation

One item everyone should bring: Insect repellent!!

Where is next for you? First we are going to east Java for a volcano trek then to Bali for a few days


Best Moment: Deciding on starting my new Soy business because of all the nicknames I have gotten here. But actually any of the moments with Kay-Kay because she is so clever. Just having the privilege of contributing to these animals lives in any way was perfect and observing them was a wonder.

Worst Moment: There were hard days where it was hot and humid and while working it was like “will this ever end” but looking back there’s nothing I would have changed because they’re all stories I will remember about Samboja and can laugh looking back.

Funniest Moment: Wendy toppling over the trench in slow-mo 🙂

Most difficult thing about being here: Everything is constantly wet and clingy from humidity, sweat or rain.

One item everyone should bring: Rain jacket

Where is next for you? Staying in Balikpapan and then travelling to East Java to complete the Ijen Crater trek to see the blue flames.


Best Moment: Loved how much Indonesian I’ve learnt while being here, almost fluent!  Seeing the enjoyment the animals got from the hard work we put into the enrichment.

Worst Moment: Probably when we working on the island cutting down the shrubbery. So many thorns and it was difficult to cut through. But the end result looked pretty good.

Funniest Moment: Happened yesterday, we got stuck on the way out to go leaf cutting. The car got bogged about five times. I mean the car is probably ruined but it was pretty funny.

Most difficult thing about being here: Over the two weeks I really struggled to not be able to wear whatever I wanted. In Australia I’m always wearing shorts and singlets and as it’s so hot here, it was difficult to not be able to wear that. I obviously understand why we can’t though.

One item everyone should bring: Long pants

Where is next for you? To east java for a crater tour, to Bali for relaxing and then home to Australia.


Would You Do It?

Ten different experiences of the exact same twelve days.  Tensions ran high at times and the work was incredibly hard, but it’s interesting to see how people from all different backgrounds chose the same project for completely different reasons, and liked and disliked different things about it throughout.

I think it’s safe to say though, nobody walked away feeling like their time in Borneo was wasted, whether because of the impact each person felt they made to these animals lives, both individually and on a wider scale, or because new friendships were formed among this group, nobody’s time here left any negative marks on the world (except maybe Robs poor spine).

Wouldn’t it be great if everybody could get involved in something that made a positive impact on our little planet. Whether it be a volunteer project in a different part of the world, or offering a coffee to that stranger who looks like they need it.  Little acts of kindness make the biggest difference!

Maybe the world isn’t as awful as we think it is.

Maybe we’re all just trying to make it through another day.

So are the people of Borneo.

So are the animals of Borneo.


Enrichment* – This is the process of giving more value to the animals’ days, by creating new and interesting ways to keep the animals amused.  Enrichment usually involves finding creative ways to feed the animals, while also giving them something to ‘play’ with.

Bule** – This is an Indonesian term used to refer to white people.

Flange*** – Not to be confused with the “Left Phalange”, an integral part of an airplane if you’re Phoebe Buffay.  There are two “types” of mature male orangutans: flanged and unflanged males. A flanged male has big cheek pads on the sides of his face, making his face appear larger and rounder.  This is usually a sign of maturity and dominance.  Flanged males tend to be quite anti-social.  Flanged adult males use their pendulous laryngeal sacs as a resonating chamber for the “long call,” parts of which sound like a loud roar. Sometimes the sound of a long call can carry for almost a mile.


3 thoughts on “Same But Different – A Volunteer Review”

  1. Love it! Thanks for capturing our thoughts. I wish I was back there with you all. Such a rewarding time. A first for me, but definitely not my last.
    I have a new funniest moment from the last day. Walking down the stairs seeing Rob spray what he thought was insect repellant all over him and me bursting out laughing telling him he had just sprayed insect/ant spray. Lucky he isn’t a giant insect lol


    1. Hahaaa! Brilliant! Thank you so much for taking part, it’s been interesting reading to piece it all together today. Hope you’re well and looking forward to your next adventure 🙂 x


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