Bukit Lawang, North-Sumatra. 21-24 December.
After landing in Medan we travel on to Bukit Lawang, home of the Sumatran orangutan (lit. jungle people).
We stay in a small tourist village on the Bahorok River, which is the main access point to Gunung Leuser National Park. The park has a population of around 5,000 orangutans.
The local rehabilitation centre for orangutans was founded in 1973, its purpose to preserve the decreasing population due to hunting, trading and deforestation. The centre closed its doors in 2002 as it had become too crowded with tourism.
Today in Bukit Lawang, the situation has changed much for the better. Although big palm oil and rubber plantations are still a threat to the jungle and wildlife, local rangers have successfully rehabilitated captive apes into the wild. Feeding platforms are no longer needed and thanks to a newly adopted ethical approach to tourism, the population is once again on the rise.
From the airport in Medan we take the local bus halfway to Binjai. From there we plan to take a local van to get us to our destination. In all fairness, the official Bukit Lawang tourism website does explicitly warn tourists not to use the local vans, as the guys running the service are “all drug-addicts who can’t be trusted”. Reviews on TripAdvisor confirm much the same, but for some reason we feel obliged to see for ourselves. Famous last words.
When we eventually find a van that can take us to Bukit Lawang, our bags securely tied on top, and we ourselves crammed inside together with 19 locals, shit hits the fan. Six guys start banging on our window demanding money. We insist we will only pay the driver once we’ve reached our destination. The driver meanwhile shrugs his shoulders, pretending not to notice what’s going on outside the vehicle. Lauren quickly makes friends with the girl sitting next to her, who confirms none of the other passengers have paid upfront and the argument continues for what feels like an eternity.
Some of the guys are getting pretty aggressive now, but we’re not impressed. Realizing he’s not getting anything from us, a fat man comes walking up, points at us and shouts: “You! And you! Get out!” Our reply is synchronous: “Not a chance!” I’m now shouting on the driver to go, before anyone gets the idea of taking our bags down, and some of the locals join our cause. Faced with a whole group of annoyed passengers, the driver finally starts the car and drives away. The biggest smackhead of the bunch chases us down the road for a bit, but only manages to punch the van and we can relax. Lauren’s made a new friend, who is clearly impressed with her courage. The Binjai mafia has learned a valuable lesson today: The most dangerous animal of them all is a lioness from Scotland.
In town we’re collected by Erwin, who walks us to our hotel. He’s very likeable, and when we ask what he does for a living and it turns out he’s one of the rangers, we quickly decide to go trekking with him.
First we rest up a bit at the hotel after a long journey. There is a bat cave not far from the village, a complex of four different caves, each housing unique wildlife: spiders, scorpions, snakes, frogs, stingless blue bees, swallows and both small and large bats. We tunnel through small crevices from cave to cave for a peek into the habitat of some incredible nocturnal creatures.
In the midst of the wet season in Sumatra, the rain never stops coming down at night, but the following morning is bright and sunny when we prepare to go trekking in the jungle. The day couldn’t start off more auspicious with our first orange sighting, high up in the trees on the opposite side of the river that runs by the hotel.
To enhance our chances of a close encounter we’ve booked in for the 2-day trek and spend the night inside the park. It’s almost the season for Durian, aka king of fruits, so perhaps unsurprisingly it doesn’t take long at all to find our first great apes close to the park’s entrance; a mother and her teenage son, who tries to show off his skills to us by swinging dangerously from a branch. The branch breaks off mid-swing and with a thump the ape lands on his back and takes off in a huff, while mum isn’t moved at all. She casually sits munching a piece of fruit through the whole ordeal.
The same day we also spot a big male, and a female with a tiny baby, high up in the trees. Then there’s two types of macaque, a white-handed gibbon and a very chill Thomas leaf monkey.
The trek itself at times is pretty challenging, consisting almost exclusively of steep climbs and descents. Finally we reach the campsite by the side of a stream. After a long and taxing day we enjoy an ice-cold, refreshing bath, until we see the giant monitor lizards that had same idea.
At dinner Erwin tells us about Mina, one of the orangutans in the park, who has recently become a grandmother. He has known Mina since she was still in captivity as a pet to one of the villagers. Back then she was already known as aggressive, and ever since she was released into the wild, has become infamous for biting people, our ranger included. As if the lizards roaming free around camp weren’t enough to worry about.
The next morning we wake up with the light and after breakfast set off on the second trek. After a little while we strike lucky again. A full-grown male comes up close to get a good look at us all.
After just about the steepest, most dangerous decline, when we’re just beginning to think our luck’s dried up for today we suddenly hear Erwin shout: “Orangutan!” He’s worried it might be Mina, and leaves all of us scrambling to safety while a dark figure appears overhead. “No worries, it’s Jackie!”, we hear him breathe a sigh of relief. Jackie is meant to be a playful orangutan, so equally relieved, the two of us slow to a halt and look up to see a big orange figure slide down a big tree and jump onto the path beside us.
Relief quickly turns to mild anxiety when Jackie runs straight at us with her giant powerful arms and mild anxiety quickly turns to panic, when the first thing Jackie does is grabbing a firm hold of Lauren’s wrist and dragging her back up the steep incline we descended a moment ago. Once at the top, Erwin tells Lauren to sit down next to her new friend and right there and then a little baby pops its head out from under its mothers hairy arm. How about this for a Christmas card?
Mere seconds after this blissful scene, suddenly we’re in a reallife hostage situation. Jackie refuses to release Lauren and even threatens to bite off one of her fingers. Erwin freaks the fuck out and does not manage to diffuse the situation. He’s threatening a slap but Jackie is unfazed and lands a punch in his gut. Only after enough fruit is piled up for her does she choose to let the hostage go. So now we know how much Lauren is worth: No less than 6 pieces of fruit, thank you very much! 3 rambutons, 1 mandarin, 2 bananas. Jackie quickly gathers up the ransom and bounds up a tree with her baby.
The trek resumes. Just when we’re all fully relaxed again, once again Erwin sounds the alarm. He’s spotted Mina, of course, or rather, Mina has spotted him! No need to tell us twice, we’re already running. Behind us we hear the sounds of branches breaking and Erwin shouting. When we arrive at a clearing we turn around. There’s Erwin coming up on the path, followed by Mina. The thing is with Mina, she can smell fear, and she doesn’t like it if people are impolite. Just the other month, one of the rangers, who, in his panic, threw all his fruit down on the ground for her, got bitten. Erwin knows. Staring death in the eyes, this time he remains in complete control of the situation. Showing no fear, he politely hands her bits of a mandarin, while we safely escape behind him. Erwin kens how to treat a lady.
When we get to the river we’re exhausted but fully satisfied. Trekking over we’re heading back to the village in style: we’re tubing back down river for the perfect end to a memorable two days in the jungle.
It’s Christmas eve, we’ve just finished our first Christmas dinner of mash potatoes and chicken, wonderwall is being performed on guitar by a member of staff and we’re getting to ready to say goodbye to wonderful Bukit Lawang. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s Christmas special straight from the Reddoorz airport hotel in Medan!