Sumartra: Bukit Lawang and the orangutan trek
Dec 10, 2017
|Monday 27th November:
We left at our apartment at 5.15 and checked onto our flight which would take us to Medan in Sumatra via Bali. We waited in the departure lounge and were told to queue for boarding. No-one moved for a long while, other than the boarding of the crew, then there was an announcement that the flight had been cancelled due to ash from the earlier Mount Agung eruption. The airport had been intermittently closed in the previous few days and we knew that many airlines had already cancelled their flights to Denpasar in Bali. This had been a cause for slight anxiety on our part but Garuda Air had been confident they would fly as the airport was open. The flat screens of CNN TV showed that an eruption was expected imminently.
Garuda airlines were less than helpful, telling passengers to go to the airline offices for more information but when we got there , there was no one to be seen. Later we were directed between the airline office and check- in desk but the staff had done a disappearing trick at both, therefore no help was available. Due to so many people wanting to fly to Indonesia and so many flights going via Bali there were no direct flights available to any airport in Indonesia. We needed a plan B so using advanced technological skills we (Jane) found us a flight on the Internet with Malindo airlines, part of Air Asia, (the Easyjet of Indonesia)to Medan in Sumatra, our initial destination. However we were required to fly via Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and had an unexpected night’s stop over, requiring us to go through immigration, blagging our way out of a visa and checking in at an airport hotel.
We got to Medan after another early start and were picked up by a driver from our trekking company, Greenlife.
Have I mentioned that the purpose of this part of the trip to Sumatra was an overnight (in the jungle) trek through the rain forest/jungle to see the orangutans?
The drive to Bukit Luang, the starting point for the trek, was not a long one in distance but took 3 hours due to the condition of the roads, some being black top ( term I picked up in Australia) or dirt tracks with pot holes, so similar to journeys I have taken in Uganda. The drive gave us a taste of local life, including a stop for a local meal.
We arrived at Bukit Lawang and had to cross a swaying, wooden foot bridge over a wide and turbulent river to get to our hotel. This in itself was a challenge, but more so as we struggled with heavy bags and rucksacks, with no help offered by the driver, who had advised against accepting the help of a local porter! We noted, whilst others ignored, instructions on the bridge for only eight people at a time to cross.
The hotel is set in beautiful gardens on the very edge of the rainforest the Gunung Leuser National Park. It is an eco hotel, ensuite outdoor bathroom, hot water collected in a thermos from the hotel reception and small gecko lizards sleeping in the toilet roll.
It has a wonderfully (Swiss) designed open plan dining and bar area similar to the safari lodges of Africa, with an upstairs which was a massive area with hammocks and rattan swinging chairs for reading and relaxing.
The hotel overlooks the Bohorok River and paths along the river led to restaurants, bars, guest houses on one side and through the village on the other. The river was crossed by three further ever more rickety bridges. Bukit Lawang is the entry point to the dense rain forest, hence the level of tourist accommodation. However it is low season, due to the rains so the place was relatively empty.
As we arrived we were met by Baik, who runs Greenlife and his brother Ren who was to be our guide on our two day trek into the rain forest. We debated long and hard with them about whether we are willing to come down the river at the end of the trek on rubber tubes. This reduces the time taken from several hours to about half an hour. But it looked terrifying. It is rainy season and the river was high and fierce and tubing would take us through white water rapids. We reached an impasse and decided to decide when we completed the trek.
Wednesday 29th and and Thursday 30th:
The beginning of the trek, carrying a litre and a half of water, clothing essentials, sleeping bag inner, swimming gear, sun cream, insect repellent etc etc….
There were four of us on the trek and three guides, one a trained National Park guide and two more people with him to assist us, especially me and look after us. The other couple was German, Martin and Sandra, Martin is a landscape gardener in Germany half the year and lives in Bukit Luang for the other half of the year.
On the first day we trekked for about eight hours, hard going, as difficult as anything I have ever done. We stopped often when we encountered orangutans (literally jungle humans in Indonesian language). The low season here is to our advantage because there are fewer people trekking in the rainforest and potentially scaring off the orangutans.
Early on, the guide showed us a green mamba snake in the tree high above us. Large and deadly, it set the tone! We saw four different types of monkeys and gibbons and huge forest peacocks. We were so fortunate in seeing four different groups of Orangutans. Each of the groups had young with them, and we had good views of all at close distance. We watched one youngster apparently In trouble as he swung through the trees, requiring assistance from a long suffering mother.
We had an unexpectedly close encounter when our guides stopped for us to have a break and laid out some wonderful fruit for us all to eat on a plastic sheet. We spotted two Orangutans swinging through the trees towards us, almost stalking us, as they had they had smelled the fruit. It is forbidden to feed the Orangutans and so the guides quickly packed up all the fruit in the plastic sheet. But the approaching female was too quick for them and swung down powerfully through the trees. She was so close to Jane, who was obliviously filming her that she could have patted her on the head, but she instead chose the watermelon.She stole a very large piece of it and sat in the tree right above us enjoying the fruit.It was magical.
The walk in the rainforest ranged from easy tracks to very steep ups and downs.We were following the course of the valley, initially up high and later descending to the river. There were times when we were climbing up banks using both hands and using the surface roots of the trees to help us get up. The descent was just as tough, again having to use the tree roots to help us on our way. Our guides were very very helpful every time we came to a tricky part of the path, frequently having to haul me up ( what happened to the muscles in my thighs?) and assist me down the muddy, slippy tracks.
After the steep descent we came to our jungle camp which was an enclosure, with tarpaulin around the outsides and on the roof but open from about three feet up to the roof. The floor was sand covered by a plastic sheet. The guide had set up a little mosquito net tent and inflatable mattresses for us to sleep on and offered us rather smelly sleeping bags. We had invested in mosquito repellent sleeping bag liners, never so glad we had them.
Beside the camp was waterfall over a tributary of the big river. We changed into our swimming kit and swam in the pool below, not without some trepidation! The water was clear but even so we didn’t know what lurked within. We were right to be cautious as the pool and stream was the territory of 4 very large water monitor lizards who prowled around the stream as it left the waterfall pool. The largest was huge, about six feet long. Looking back, I can’t believe I went for another swim the following morning. Monkeys and gibbons came looking for the chance to steal food and entertained us whilst our cook prepared the most delicious meal of rice, bean curd, potatoes fritters, chicken in coconut batter, vegetable curry and a spicy tofu and nut dish. This was all cooked on an open fire and was delicious. We taught our hosts how to play whist and then visited the outdoor bathroom, a piece of porcelain in the ground with a couple of rattan hurdles around it amidst the jungle foliage. Not a place to visit more often than you really needed to, keeping an eye out for all things slithery above you and on the ground !
I did not sleep much in the night. Who can blame me? Candle flames were set around the sleeping area to deter animals as the enclosure was completely open. There were holes in the plastic sheeting and we had visions of snakes visiting and insects crawling in. I was never so pleased to see the dawn break.
We woke to a beautiful sunny day and sat in the sun eating a breakfast of pineapple, water melon and a triple decker club sandwich which was all delicious. We watched the monkeys and the water monitors and then walked down to the big river to assess whether we had the courage/nerve/stupidity to take the tube back to the village. We were persuaded to do so and after a wonderful noodle and vegetable soup we packed up, swimming kit on and tramped through the jungle to the river.
We were given a life jacket each, old and ready for the tip. There was not a helmet in sight for these grade three white water rapids. It all felt like some bizarre reality tv show, without Ant and Dec. Talk about facing your fears.
As the guides packed everything up in copious plastic sacks a tube came by with a tourist nonchalantly filming as she sat in the tube - this made us feel a little more reassured.
The white water raft consisted of one large inner tube and two connected smaller inner tubes front and back. The middle one was for the two fat ladies with a guide front and back with a stick each to push us off the rocks. High tech indeed. The guides pushed us into the middle of the river and we were off.The rapids were exciting and exhilarating, we were well wedged in with our feet hanging over the tyre, with a mat to sit on rather than the bits of string holding the tyres together. We of course got soaked but did not fall in,even, dare I say it, managing to enjoy once we understood that the peaks and troughs would not unseat us. Down the river we went and pulled in just short of the weir close to our hotel, feeling heroic and satisfied with ourselves- having completed the jungle trek, slept out in the jungle and tubed back down the river which will all obviously get bigger in the telling.
We had organised a local traditional massage on our return.Our two masseurs arrived and set to work initially very gently but soon built up into a robust massage with Amazonian strength. Not only that, but every muscle had to be involved on all sides of the body. No exemption for buttocks or breasts. I know, too much info but it was a bit memorable!
Friday 1st December:
Our final day in Bukit Lawang and one for relaxation. We visited the local market, watching the rubber from the jungle being sold to buyers from the big companies, looking at the blocks of locally produced brown sugar and fabulous vegetables. Jane and I bought beautiful sarongs, getting very het up about whether, at £6, we had paid too much. Seems churlish in retrospect….
We went for lunch at another village hotel and then there was the most amazing downpour, torrential rain and thunder of African proportions. .The local monkeys took the opportunity to bounce over the corrugated roof making a deafening noise and to slip under it to see if they could find any food whilst backs were turned. The river we had tubed down the previous day turned into a raging torrent. We were so glad and we were not leaving the jungle on a tube that afternoon. The enforced break was the prompt we needed to convert some of our rough notes into this journal but it will take much longer to get up to date and upload photos on feeble wifi.