Courage & Dignity in the Forest

by Becky Keller, Orangutan Coach.  Courage – a seven-letter word with a million-dollar impact. Having it or not having it can determine the path on which you travel in life. Courage can determine where you end up, where you go and how you get there. As a parent, I wanted my children to have courage while growing up…to be courageous. I wanted them to be able to face the inevitable challenges that would come their way in life. What I found was that HAVING challenges is what helped create their courage

male orangutan

An adult male orangutan


“Going in” on my first trek to look for orangutans, I entered the rainforest habitat – home of the large red-ape I wanted to see – with both fear and excitement. Everything was new. I was told I must trust and depend on complete strangers to get me into the forest and safely back out in one piece on the same day. I researched and learned about the danger of animals as yet still unseen by me. I discovered that with one bite or sting I could be rendered immobile or worse! I understood that the emergency evacuation medical insurance I had purchased meant a helicopter would have to somehow lift me out of my impending doom (if my fears were realized). I was remembering all I had read prior to traveling that involved everything from how to pee in the rainforest (carefully and always looking for bloodsucking leeches) to how to tie a hammock (there are no “camp chairs” or even stools carried, as we carried SO MUCH WATER!).

Follow your Guides – they know what they are doing; whatever animal happens to already be in the rainforest was there before you and will see you before you see them. If you happen to come upon an orangutan suddenly – slowly back away and retreat with dignity (which means no matter how fast your heart is beating and how rapidly your breath suddenly becomes along with a spontaneous scream or yell that is trying to jump out of your body – exercise self-control and remain calm. Retreating with dignity means that you have to ignore your instinct and gut feelings to panic. Instead, you quietly back away, therefore, acknowledging that the orangutan was there first, you are in his space and you are respectfully honoring his priority.

The trees belong to the forest and the animals who live there that depend on them for survival. I love trees – especially being IN them! Growing up, I had a treehouse in my backyard tree (which was actually more of a platform as I remember it now). Regardless, I loved to climb up there and be among the branches, leaves, birds, and whatever other little creatures I happened to find within what I considered “my area” (an important concept to remember when visiting orangutan habitat). Growing up, my family went camping several times a year where there were plenty of places and trees that beckoned me to explore. I heeded their call happily.

When I decided to learn more about orangutans, I naturally wanted to know more about what they did all day while in the trees. I wanted to go up there. About that time, a Leader of a group in which my daughters spent time decided to teach the young people how to rappel using ropes, harnesses, and climbing gear. Perfect timing. I got to learn as well.

practice before Borneo

Practice climbing before Borneo


We learned and we practiced – my daughters and me. We found local trees perfectly suited (and fun) on which to practice placing our gear, then climbing up and rappelling down. We prepared our gear – heavy gear – and our bodies (we hoped) for conducting this “fun” in a rainforest. We planned how we would transport it to Borneo, pack it for carrying through the rainforest, and how to get the gear INTO the trees so we could even start climbing the trees. We planned and thought and practiced – a lot. At times my daughters questioned me if this would work “over there.” Their skepticism was fair. The “fun” seemed a bit like work on some of our practice days.

Climbing in Borneo

Climbing for real in Borneo

When we arrived in Borneo, we asked for help from others who had gone before us. We listened and learned from the Indonesian Guides. We asked questions. They showed us skills and techniques that helped us see and figure out the answers ourselves. We all learned to trust, let go and be courageous. It seems that is a good way to develop courage.

Inspire – Create – Connect!


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