Lasting bond - incredible reunion

NATALIE Chester remembers little of her time in Malaysia.

Visits to the Australian High Commission, banana splits, family holidays to Singapore and watching otters scatter across the beach at Penang are all distant memories.

So too, are the days of eating durian fruit, which "tasted as bad as it smelled''. 

"Another place we often visited when friends came from Australia was Batu caves," she said.

"There's a huge hill and I think it's a type of temple that is there - there is a statue of a five legged cow.

"Our family all hated Durian fruit - we convinced one of our cousins to have Durian ice cream on a visit to Batu caves once ... yuk.''

Natalie's father was in the Army and posted to the Australian High Commission in Malaysia when she was four years old.

Her eldest sisters, Suzie and Pamela, attended an American curriculum school, whilst Natalie and her twin Cait, and their older sister Kylie attended the British Army School, Highgate Hill.

And it was during her time at Highgate that Natalie met Charlie - the one thing she does remember of her two-year Malaysian experience.

Natalie's parents would joke with their red-headed twins they were Charlie's sisters - little orangutans.

"Our school sponsored a baby orangutan named Charlie who lived at Zoo Negara in Kuala Lumpur,' she said.

"Charlie used to visit the school and play on the playground with us kids.

"I remember the days Charlie came to visit school were always exciting for all us kids - he was a much loved playmate for all of us.

"When he got too big to visit the school we used to go to visit him at the zoo.

"I was six years old when we left Malaysia and as you can imagine I don't remember much about our time living there but one memory that has always stuck with me has been of Charlie.

"I've had quite the soft spot for orangutans ever since and my daughter Carly has heard the story of Charlie many times."

But Natalie never thought she would see Charlie again.

Fate, however, had other plans.

When Natalie was invited to take her husband, Wayne, and daughter, Carly, along to a business conference in Singapore by her employer George Flack earlier this month, her first thought turned to the zoo - and the breakfast experience with the orangutans.

She never expected what was to come.

"We visited the zoo and had a fantastic time watching the orangutan mums with their babies as we finished our breakfast,'' she said.

The family then spent the rest of the day at the zoo, but did not need to visit the orangutan area as they had already spent time with their favourite animals for breakfast.

It was like finding an old friend – he was the one strong memory of that part of my childhood, he has made it real.

Some constant questions from Carly about again wanting to see the orangutans took the family to the area towards the end of their visit.

And what happened next was a moment that will forever bring Natalie to tears.

"There was a picture of a big male orangutan named Charlie," she says.

"I read the sign and saw that this orangutan had come to Singapore Zoo in 2005 from Zoo Negara in Malaysia.

"I called my husband over with exclamations of ‘it couldn't be’.

“We went in and looked and there was a beautiful big male orangutan lying on the ground.

"Wayne, Carly and I stood looking at him and taking photos, agreeing that he looked old and could possibly be the same Charlie and it was a pretty big coincidence if it wasn't him.

"There were a few people lined along the glass looking at him lying there.

"All of a sudden he stood up, throwing his arms into the air and making loud grunting noises.

"He walked up and down in front of the glass and then stopped - right in front of me.

"Right there where I was standing with my hand against the glass, Charlie stopped.

"He leaned against the glass and he sat there.

"It's him, Wayne said…’he remembers you’.”

With tears in her eyes, Natalie agreed.

“It was far too big a coincidence for it not to be him,’’ she said.

“I stood there, then sat on the ground and spoke to him. It took me a while to drag myself away.

“It was like finding an old friend – he was the one strong memory of that part of my childhood, he has made it real.

“It kind of reinforces there is such a bond between humans and animals.”

The family left the area and found a zoo keeper nearby, whom they asked about Charlie.

Without telling him their story, he said Charlie had come from a zoo in Malaysia and estimated he would be in his late 30's.

“I then told him about the orangutan that my school had sponsored and he said that it would definitely be the same orang-utan,’’ Natalie said.

“When I told him about Charlie stopping in front of me he said that it was possible that Charlie had remembered me as they have good memories.

“My husband can’t tell the story without tearing up.’’

Natalie is now planning a trip back to the zoo with her sister, Cait, and their families next year to visit Charlie.

In the meantime, reuniting with her old friend has turned her attention to groups such as The Orangutan Project, a not-for-profit organisation that works to support orangutan conservation, rainforest protection and the rehabilitation and reintroduction of displaced orangutans back to the wild.

The project’s goal is to save the orangutan species from extinction. 

“This reunion with Charlie has got me thinking a lot about the devastating effect palm oil plantations are having on the environment,” Natalie said.

“It would be great if I could somehow use this story to raise awareness and help groups such as the orangutan project.

“Charlie is safe and well looked after where he is - I would love to help the orangutans who are less fortunate and hope that when others read my story they feel the same way.

“I can't believe that after 34 years I was reunited with this very special animal.

“I don't know if he did remember me or not, but I believe he came into my life again for a reason and saying goodbye to him was hard.”

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