Category Archives: Bukit Lawang

Orangutans and Earthquakes

We left Lake Toba brimming with excitement for our next destination, Bukit Lawang, a small town bordering Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park, which is the last refuge for the island’s famed and highly endangered wild orangutans. Getting there, however, was once again a story in itself, as road travel in Sumatra was proving itself to be something of an extreme sport relished by drivers with a death wish. This trip involved a packed-to-capacity Toyota Avanza (share taxi), some chaotic end-of-Hari-Raya traffic and many kilometres gained by plunging into oncoming traffic and hoping for the best. It took us about eight hours to travel 200km (most of it in defiance of every road law we know) but we got there. The tension of the drive was at last appeased when we broke out of the seemingly endless plantations and got our first views of what remains of Sumatra’s forests.
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.

After Mina moved on, we were incredibly lucky to see a wild male approach the platform in pursuit of the semi-wild female he was courting. The park rangers had quite a job keeping him away (they never feed the wild orangutans) while his girlfriend ate her fill. We were ecstatic. From the platform, we began our hike into the forest, and although the path was relatively strenuous at times, Bobby and PI kept a very comfortable pace and gave us lots of opportunities to rest. By the time we stopped for lunch, we had seen the Great Argus or the forest ‘peacock,’ some Thomas Leaf Monkeys (dubbed the ‘funky monkeys’ because of their white Mohawk hairstyles), a turtle, and some very interesting insects. Lunch was some of the most delicious nasi goreng (fried rice – Sumatran style) we have tasted. Sadly, the promise of rain meant bad news for our trek, as Bobby explained that after it started we would only have a limited time to cross the river to our campsite, which meant cutting the afternoon part of the hike short in order to make it across. Thank goodness he made that decision, because the rain started almost immediately after we started walking, and it was torrential. The final half an hour of our path was a steep descent down to the river, and it was almost as if we were trekking down a waterfall, with all the rainwater gushing around our ankles down the narrow, slippery path. There were some close calls, but everybody made it down okay and our dorky plastic ponchos once again served us well. After PI and Mr Turtle found a good place to cross the river, we all waded through while Bobby floated our packs over on the tubes. We had just enough time to take a much-needed rinse before the water-level rose, the current became dangerous, and the river changed from clear and blue to a muddy brown in a matter of seconds.
The campsite was simple but entirely sufficient and we gratefully clasped our warm cups of tea with condensed milk and devoured the biscuits that went with them, as the local gang of Macaques (a.k.a cheaky monkeys) kept us entertained. Luckily, the rain died off in the evening and we had an incredible candle-lit dinner under the stars, which was pretty much a buffet of the best Indonesian food imaginable. This was followed by some strong ginger tea and a night’s worth of getting to know one another. The following morning we were once again treated to a fantastic breakfast of scrambled egg club sandwiches and tea (seriously, the food on our trek was top notch!) But as we went down to get these, the ‘orangutans!’ shout went up and we all rushed down to the river, where we watched a feeding group of three of four swing through the trees on the other side. We sat there for ages, entranced by their every move, and thrilled by our luck.
A short walk upstream led us to a beautiful waterfall, and a very comfortable tanning rock, where we swam and relaxed until it was time to raft back to camp. The raft was a series of inner-tubes, strung together expertly, and saddled with our sleeping mats from the night before. This made for a surprisingly comfortable and exhilarating trip down the river and rapids back to Bukit Lawang.
Positively high on our forest experiences, we clattered back into Green Hill, thrilled by the prospect of another five days in this wonderful town. The downstairs layout is perfectly designed for mingling, and this was to be our main activity for the next few days. We met such amazing people and made firm friends over evening beers and morning pancakes, guitar sing-alongs and strong spiced tea. We visited the market, did some more tubing, and we did, eventually, make it to the bat cave, which was a dark and dirty excursion. However, the orphanage was closed for the holidays so we missed out on spending time with the kids. Another visit to the feeding platform saw another encounter with Mina, but this time one of the other semi-wild mothers joined her, and watching their two toddlers playing and rolling through the trees is something we will never forget. As a farewell, we spent our last lazy breakfast watching white-handed gibbons in the forest canopy across the river, before saying heartfelt goodbyes to our Green Hill family, and sadly leaving what is surely one of the most mesmerising places on this Earth.