There are a lot of hills in Northern Sumatra. Some are functionally inaccessible and a few are just down a potholed highway from Medan. Being my first sojourn to the land of palm plantations, Orangutans, and horrible natural disasters, I settled for a realistic endeavor. Four hours of queezy, white knuckle driving, and my friends Nick, Ellen, and I had arrived in Bukit Lawang from Medan. Our driver had done his best to kill us, passing on blind corners through the palm stands, using the horn as if he believed it an essential component of locomotion. As a result of our relief, he was tipped excessively.
I hadn’t given Medan a chance, but I trusted my gut (hemorrhaging from sewer stench), and got out as soon as possible. Distances in Sumatra are deceiving, and before arrival I had aspirations of visiting far flung corners I now realized were insurmountably distant for two weeks of travel. Acquaintances thus far spouted any manner of nonsense, one said Sumatra is easy to travel. Yet both unanimous and accurate, was that much of the island has been laid waste. The palm oil plantations march right up to the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park, where we’d be heading into the forest.
The river Bahorok flows through the middle of Bukit Lawang and while shimmeringly beautiful, flowing out of hills swathed in ancient forest, it has been the source of major disaster. Early in the morning on November 2, 2003, a flash flood stormed through town, killing 239 people and destroying practically everything. The source of all this? A major illegal logging operation, somewhere in the depths of the National Park, was likely the culprit, judging by the timber that came with the flood. Illegal logging is a huge threat to Sumatra and natural disaster is the morose MO here; consider the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. The people here are tough and excessively friendly still.
The morning after our arrival it was off on a jungle trek. Normally I’d shy away from something that attracts so many tourists (I’m no tourist), with little real interest in nature beyond gawking at big apes. Many simply show up to visit the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, founded in 1973, which now is little more than a feeding platform for semi-wild Orangutans. However, this is one of the best ways to get out and see them (nearly 5000 inhabit the parkland), as well as Gibbons, various monkeys, and other wildlife. Birds took a sideline for my first great apes. We met our group (far larger than we wanted but it ended up being manageable), our guides, and set off through a diminutive rubber plantation before hitting forest.
Our guide, Omano, proved to be a great conduit of information. He was excited to be with people who were interested in nature, though he was initially taken aback by my monstrous pack, filled to the brim with the crap of a natural history peeping tom. Because Bukit Lawang draws so many visitors (even in wet season of February), guides start after high school and amass quite a bit of good information on the forest. Unfortunately they have little formal training in knowing the plants and wildlife beyond a few key species, something Omano attributed to the lack of necessity with people with only one thing on their minds. According to Omano, this place wasn’t spared from logging until 1970 when the World Wildlife Fund visited and recognized the habitat as a unique and vital piece of global biodiversity. The huge hardwoods we were struggling beneath wouldn’t likely be still standing if the government hadn’t been encouraged to set it aside. Even still, as evident in the 2004 flood, people find ways around protection.
Alright, I’ll admit it, the Orangutans most people see are not completely wild. The original Orangutan Project no longer exists but there are a great many individuals who still come the feeding platform by the river. This is the easiest way to see Orangs, but we wanted a bit more realistic experience. Before we knew it, there was a female only a few meters from us. She swung so close, passing over that the guides recoiled in horror screaming, “Watch out! Hot shower!” I was completely stunned by such a close encounter, just looking into the face of an animal not so distantly related to me.
Over the course of the sweaty hike, our group encountered six Orangutans. According to the guides, the single, huge male, was wild, along with at least one of the females. I remain skeptical, especially considering our adjacency to the rehabilitation center, but if our guides were spinning illusions, they did a good job with the big male particularly. A big ape of any origin is worthy of a respectful distance. The Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring cites that contact with the many visitors to the park has spread disease, raising infant mortality in the local population. While I am yet to see actual figures this is certainly feasible, and another good reason for space.
By lunch we’d also come upon fig tree lively with activity. Minutes earlier, Ellen had spotted a White-handed Gibbon far away, and before most of us could see it well, took a fantastic leap out of sight. At this towering Ficus, we found ourselves witness to a small family group, complete with a gushingly cute toddler and it’s older adolescent sibling. Their swinging about and obvious admiration for fruit, evident as they rapturously pushed handfuls of figs into awaiting maws. A smile never left my face. I’d always wanted to see a wild gibbon. Here I was, stinking of exertion, watching them go about their daily life undisturbed, high in the canopy. With the brachiation these lesser apes are so famous for, they slowly moved away.
The end of the hike to our camp (the basic package is to hike in and then float out in inner tubes), was a slog. The only other place I’ve been that was so humid was the Amazon, yet with the exertion of pulling myself up slippery tracks, I’d argue it was worse. The going was treacherous and never would have happened in the states without signing a release, saying we wouldn’t sue their pants off when we slipped in “hot shower” and smashed our skulls. Every few minutes we’d hear the yelp one issues when experiencing the downsides of gravity paired with the answer of our guides, doing pirouettes ahead of us: “All bagus (good)?”
I fared well on this hike but I had to remind myself to appreciate the fact that I was back in the jungle of Sumatra! A Rhinoceros or Tiger could pop out any minute (unlikely, both are highly endangered in Sumatra)! Birds I was frustratingly ignorant of, chortled overhead, and countless plants I will likely never know by name passed by. The beauty of any tropical forest is diversity and it takes a zenlike approach for me to not spasm in the guilt of biological ignorance.
Finding ourselves again at the riverside, it was all we could do but tear off our clothes and fling ourselves into the torrent. A Water Monitor was nearby camp investigating the “leave no trace” ethic of previous visitors and several flashy Grey Wagtails (decidedly more yellow than grey) perched amid the flowing clear water. Simple adjacency to water that didn’t appear to be effluvia from a sewage treatment plant was highly refreshing.
Late afternoon arrival found us tired and capable of little else but the delicious relaxation after a good hike. Drinking tea and coffee sweetened with condensed milk and simple biscuits, we talked away the late afternoon and simply gazed at the vertical vegetation on either side of us. Until the next morning I didn’t fully grasp the scale of the land we’d descended until I tried to look at a bird far above, and found it still a spec in my binoculars. I could have stayed here and explored for ages; I decided that I will have to return again with better plans of venturing farther afield.
The rushing river, and suspicion someone had beaten me with rocks all night, woke me at an early hour. We’d been given rubber mats, the thinnest I’d ever seen, for sleeping. The soft Westerners of our trek weren’t fit for a night on the ground and none of us slept well. Luckily the stunning forest and ethereal river were still there and I hadn’t dreamed it all. Unfortunately the river was so loud with banks so steep, that birding around the river wasn’t all that possible. Sumatra came through still, a Tiger Shrike alighted nearby tearing at bright green katydid nearly the same size.
The rest of the day was a write off from an exploratory standpoint. I saw a few new birds during our tromping about; a Black-capped Kingfisher on the float back and a pair of eagles woefully backlit and still unidentified. The float was a riot, perilously skidding through white-water on truck inner-tubes tied together with thin gauge rope, pushed about by long sticks. Our packs were wrapped in large, optimistic plastic bags, and we were plopped down in the middle. We made it back, very wet but without incident.
I wanted to go back already.
I can see why people do these “tourist things” and ultimately, the impact seems fairly minimal compared to say, a 5 star resort. If anything there could be less contact with the Orangutans, however, staring into eyes with recognition much like my own, I know this experience will be a jolt of concern for a species on the brink.
A few more photos from the trek here.
The next few weeks are thus far undecided. Judging on my research, I’ll be headed to Bornean Malaysia. My backup plan is to work my way back through Peninsular Malaysia and into Thailand. I’ll know soon and already know that Sumatra is an amazing place and worth years of travel.