Meeting our red-haired cousins on Sumatra: 27-29 Jan '14
Mon 27 Jan 14 - Wed 29 Jan 14 28 °C
Next stop from Singapore was a worlf away, we were heading to Sumatra - the northern-most main island in Indonesia, and specifically to Bukit Lawang, a little town by the Taman Nasional Gunung Leuser, famous for one very special thing: Sumatran orang-utans. First we flew to Medan, Indonesia's third largest city, and reputedly one of the places topping backpacker's worst place they've ever stayed list. Apparently its a massive culture shock if you've never been to Indonesia (except Bali) before, and even more so coming from Malaysia and/or Singapore, because it's poor and it's dirty and it's full of crazy traffic, but driving through it, it just seemed like SE Asia to me - but then again I have said starting in Myanmar was actually a wise choice, because I'm pretty chilled out about seeing undeveloped dirty crazy towns (not to mention being unfazed by Asian-style squat toilets, even when dirty).
But we weren't staying in Medan. We were heading into the jungle. We arrived into the town of Bukit Lawang at night - it doesn't have a proper road - our driver dropped us at the end of a path where two guys from our guesthouse were waiting to motorbike our bags and walk us through the village on the up and down rock-strewn pavement-width concrete (mostly) track along the river. It was so chilled - I immediately loved it. Our guesthouse cafe/restaurant was opensided overlooking the river and the jungle on the other side; our room was a bamboo bungalow on the.hillside with a balcony, a huge carved wooden bed, and a rain shower. Bliss. Sampling my first Indonesian beer - Bintang - after a long day, it just felt.fantastic.
Next day we went trekking into the jungle. After a very steep climb, we were a little worn out, and slightly dreading the whole day would be like that - but we'd only been 30/40 mins in when our very experienced guide - he was one of the original guides from when Bukit Lawang's rehabilitation centre started out in the 70s - took us to see our very first orang-utans, a mother and baby. Orang-utans are now found in only two places on earth - both islands - Borneo and Sumatra. Sumatran orang-utans are slightly different to their Bornean cousins, probably because the populations have been isolated from each other, but they're just as endangered. Of all the great apes they are actually one of the least related to us - but we still share 90+% of the same DNA - which is why I was so desperate to get rid of my cold in KL, as otherwise I wouldn't have been able to go just in case I passed it on - human colds could be fatal to an orang-utan, and I didn't want the potential death of a critically endangered animal on my conscience.
So the while reason for the expense and hassle of getting to Bukit Lawang and the effort in trekking was worth it - in five and a half hours trekking we saw 11 (yes, 11) orang-utans in the wild. A few were half-wild or rehabilitated - the guide and his helpers knew which ones - but some were completely wild. They were amazing. We saw three mothers with babies/young ones, one big adult male and four other lone orang-utans. We even saw a mother and child building a nest, and another pair redigesting their food - apparently orang-utans eat, then later regurgitate it, often from a store in their necks, before re-eating it - sometimes 15 or so times - using their mouth like a blender, making a banana shake as the guide put it.
They were awesome. So majestic yet funny - one even seemingly posed for us. Absolutely totally and utterly worth every minute and every penny. We even tubed back along the river after some hair-raising ascents and descents to the riverbank, and after a rest, finished the evening singing along with our lovely local trek helpers in a riverside(ish) bar. Bukit Lawang was amazing.
Oh and we learnt a new song...it'll be going round my head for days.
(to the tune of Jingle Bells)
"Jungle trek, jungle trek, in Bukit Lawang.
See the monkeys, see the birds, see orang-utans."