There’s a pervading sense of calm that characterises Bukit Lawang, but it’s hardly surprising when one thinks of the factors that distinguish it; the forest and its remarkable inhabitants, the gushing river, and the jovial, care-free nature of the locals (many with guitars permanently in hand, doing some very good Gunners covers). We were only due to arrive two days later, but the welcoming staff at Green Hill checked us in with no hassles, big smiles and the offer of “BCB – bloody cold beer.”
After much research on the subject, we had chosen Green Hill (a little pricier than some other places nearby) based on its reputation for having a great atmopshere and fantastically knowledgeable local guides who lead responsible, conservation-oriented treks into the forest. From the minute we arrived, we knew we had made the right choice. Our room felt a bit like a treehouse – rustic but enchanting – and was elevated up the hill from the lively restaurant/bar/common area below, with a great balcony overlooking the river and the National Park on the other side. The first evening was spent researching the different trekking options available to us with our new friends, Paul and Louanne, from the Netherlands (fellow sufferers on our share-taxi ride from Hades), and enjoying some phenomenal pumpkin curry and semur, served up by Green Hill’s ‘master chefs’.
The following morning brought with it big plans to explore the nearby Bat Cave, and visit the orphanage, which was set up out of necessity after a catastrophic 2003 flash flood levelled the town, and killed over 200 people (roughly 10% of BL’s population). But after a lazy breakfast, a roam around town, and bumping into some fellow South Africans, the day escaped us. We quickly realised that this is both the danger and allure of Bukit Lawang; lazy days just fly serenely by, and before you know it, a week has passed and you never want to leave. We did manage to do one productive thing that day and that was book our two day forest trek, which was set to start at 7:30 the following morning, so we retired early-ish in order to get some good rest.
Being a light sleeper, I (Hails) was the first to be woken by the rumbling and shaking that seemed to have taken hold of everything around us. It felt as if our bed was perched on the top of a bubbling kettle, and the reverberations penetrated our walls from every angle. Petrified, I shouted to Joff, who was still in a half-awake-half-dream state, “What is happening?!” to which he incoherently responded, “it’s just the monkeys!” Bewildered by this response, I shouted “It’s not the damned monkeys!” but by this time, he had properly woken up and realised that it was not a dream. Not knowing what else to do we ran out onto the balcony to see what was going on downstairs. In total, the earthquake couldn’t have lasted longer than thirty seconds, but it felt like an eternity. Paul ran down to find out if we ought to be worried, and returned with the news that we had been instructed to grab our passports and head downstairs until the all-clear was given. The real danger was a landslide, but the locals were also concerned about the possibility of an aftershock, so we just sat and waited in the dark (there was no power) until a report came over the radio with more information. It was an anxious time, especially for the locals with families up North in Aceh, so we were very relieved to hear that nobody had been seriously injured. We were eventually allowed back to our rooms after 2am.
When we emerged for the trek the next morning, everyone was still talking about the earthquake, but Bobby, our energetic guide, was rearing to go. If there was any doubt that it was still a good idea to set out after the quake, his enthusiasm and good humour soon eclipsed it. He was joined by PI, a particularly quiet and introspective character, with a sage-like knowledge of the forest flora, and Mr. Turtle (so named due to his down-river tubing skills), who acted as a bit of a spotter and a trailfinder. The trek started at the feeding platform, where park rangers hand out supplemental meals of bananas and milk to the semi-wild orangutans who have come through rehabilitation programmes and been released back into the forest. Their first customer was the notorious Mina and her four year old baby. Because she was raised in captivity, Mina is completely indifferent to human beings, and has bitten just about every guide at some point – usually in a bid to get to their backpacks, which she knows contain the food for the trekkers. Her lack of fear makes her one of the most dangerous animals in the park, but simultaneously one of the most vulnerable, as close contact with humans makes these orangutans entirely susceptible to human illnesses and poaching. A similar case is Jackie — unlike Mina in that she is more affectionate than aggressive — she is known to sneak down and either hold hands with, or hug surprised trekkers. While it is likely that we all secretly wished to run into Jackie and receive one of these famed hugs, both hers and Mina’s are cautionary tales, and they very much vindicate the strict guidelines for proper conduct while trekking. The four rules are simple: maintain a distance of at least 10m from the animals, do not feed them, do not attempt to call them out of the trees, and do not spend more than twenty minutes with them. Unfortunately, not all people abide by these rules, and we heard firsthand reports of guides who had done all of these things to ensure a ‘close encounter’ for their tourists. Bobby, on the other hand, reiterated that we had not ‘bought’ orangutans by choosing to trek, but that we had rather bought time in the jungle, and him, and we were very grateful for his dedication to the conservation effort.