A "MIDLIFE crisis" has led to a life-changing experience for one Ryedale businesswoman who spent a month volunteering at an animal sanctuary in Borneo.

Lynn Hempsall, co-owner of Helmsley’s Traditional Sweet Shop, spent a month at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, in Ketapang, on a self-funded trip.

The 55-year-old said it had been a massive challenge for her as a real “girly girl” who did five-star hotels and hated flying, but faced three flights, a nine-hour coach journey followed by five hours on a ferry just to get there.

"I chose not to follow the normal trip to see Orangutans in questionable zoos and sanctuaries where they are exposed to tourists for commercial gain – we all sadly believe what we see and are told, often it is not the whole truth especially where money is involved," Lynn said.

"I decided to go and volunteer at a rehabilitation centre where the sole aim is to teach the orphan babies how to be wild adult orangutans and get them back into the wild in a protected area where they can flourish."

Lynn said that the trip had totally pushed her to her limits as the journey involved three flights over numerous time zones, a 10-hour bus journey on roads that were little more than dirt tracks full of craters and a nine-hour ferry journey in the South China sea.

"On arrival I had terrible jet lag, total exhaustion and without any contact with home," she said.

"I was also with eight total strangers – five from Australia and three from the UK, with a shower that was a pan of cold water poured over my head.

"But it was so worth it. The first time you see the babies in their wheelbarrows your heart melts. Yes, it may look very cute, but these babies are all orphans and have been subjected to things that are heartbreaking."

The centre is one of the projects run by International Animal Rescue UK, along with support from two other charities.

Orangutans at the centre range from six months to seven years old starting off in a nursery quarantine until they are strong enough to go to baby school.

When the baby has learned all the stages in baby school they then go to forest school and are taken out into the forest from 6am to 6pm with keepers and again taught the next set of skills.

Lynn said they were very much like naughty children.

"When we were building a board walk, we were told to shout Orang if we saw one and move quickly back to the main buildings. The big rule was we had to collect all the tools and equipment as the orangutans were very good at stealing them and mimicking what we had been doing – an orangutan with a hammer, saw and drill is not something to be laughed at."

Lynn added that it was amazing to see the dedication of the vets –some of whom volunteer for over a year at a time to nurture and nurse the little guys back to health and then to teach them how to be an orangutan

"I was aware when I went that I would have no hands on contact with the babies for several reasons – they can catch illnesses off humans, a simple cold virus could wipe them all out.

"Secondly, even though they look so cute and cuddly, they are wild animals and very strong –they do bite. Finally for their release to be successful they have to have very little human contact."

Lynn said the experience had also enabled her to question her views on the deforestation of the the orangutan's habitat for production of cheap palm oil.

"To totally blame palm oil and demand its banning is not as clear cut or as correct as I thought before leaving the UK," she said.

"There were children still living in wooden huts with no clean water and very little protection from storms and tsunamis. I saw a little boy the same age as my grandson, floating a leaf in some very dirty water as his only entertainment.

"The palm oil plantations are giving the parents of these children an income that is allowing them to build concrete houses and have running water. Who are we to deprive them of that?"

Lynn said the centre, along with the local forestry department, was running a mass education programme on what to do if a villager, plantation worker or logger comes in contact with an Orangutan.

"Instead of killing it and, if it’s a female, removing the baby to sell as a pet, they are being taught how to contact the centre who will go out and capture the orangutan and keep it in an isolated quarantine building until it can be re-released into a safe area away from humans," she said.

"While I was there a mum and baby and also a big male orangutan were re-released which was a massive step forward. So things are starting to improve, but very slowly."

Lynn said she had numerous discussions and debates with the other volunteers and in the end they had to accept that the plight of the orangutan and other species around the world is the responsibility of us all and not just the fault of palm oil.

"We can’t sit back and stop it as this would deny that little boy a better way of life. I didn’t change anything by painting sleeping cages, building board walks in the forest or digging ditches, but it helped a little bit.

"If we all helped a little bit things would start to change and we would improve our lives too. Check the ingredients of the things you purchase – palm oil is not just in food, make an ethical choice about whether you change brands.

"Instead of that car journey using fuel why not walk or use a bike a couple of days a week. Buy your food locally and in season. This puts money into our local economy as well as saving air miles."

Lynn said the trip had been a massive adventure.

"It was hard, both physically and mentally even for the healthy younger members of our group," she said.

"It was also a real culture shock and created me a major ethical dilemma. I hated the flights, was terrified up the ladders in the forest and petrified in the unstable canoe where there had been crocodiles spotted, but I never said no to anything I was asked to do.

"My reward was seeing those babies at school. Knowing that they would have the skills to go back into a wild forest and be part of a project to ensure the orangutan does not become extinct and my two year old grandson will be able to go out there in 20 years time to see them and knowing that he may meet the little boy who will have grown up with clean water and a proper house."