Welcome to Sumatra
As I sit here on my balcony overlooking Lake Toba in central Sumatra I finally have a chance to reflect back on the last nine days and share my experience in what has been a week and a half that I’ll never forget. From jungle leeches and near falls off the mountain while trekking to making friends for life with locals and sharing stories with other travelers over Bintang, one of South East Asia’s finest brews, Sumatra has provided me with a travel experience that I’ve been looking for a long time. The people of the island have been nothing short of an absolute pleasure to be around every moment.
It began more than a week ago in hot and dusty Medan, Indonesia’s fourth largest city and an important port of entry for the Island of Sumatra. Other travelers will tell you that there is nothing to do here and one should pass through as quickly as possible. I’m hesitant to judge Medan solely on a two night stay so I won’t be turning anyone away from it.
I met three travelers the first day in Medan who had similar plans as me. First there is Liz from the UK of Chinese descent who has done some travel but nothing too adventurous prior to Sumatra. Nick, also from the UK had just arrived. The three of us spent Valentine’s Day evening eating Indonesia’s national dish, Nasi Goreng (fried noodles.) The next morning Emiel from the Netherlands arrived on a two week holiday from work and was ready to get going into the jungle the following day. Nick had issues with his ATM card that he had to get sorted so he stayed behind while Liz, Emiel and I headed to Bukit Lawang about four hours into the interior of Sumatra.
When the three of us boarded our minibus to Bukit Lawang there was one seat available in the back that was soon occupied by a friendly Indonesian guy named Rozy who instantly began talking to Emiel about the jungle. He spent the entire trip getting to know Emiel and finally revealed himself as a guide for the jungle. We had the plan to work out our guides once we arrived in Bukit Lawang but Rozy gave all of us a pretty good vibe. It turns out Rozy planned this scheme the entire time and trekking guides often hop on buses from Medan to Bukit Lawang to befriend travelers before even arriving. It is a very innovative business move and smart seeing as though there are about 140 guides in Bukit Lawang and in the low season, only a small handful of tourists.
The three of us shared a really nice room at the Jungle Inn, Bukit Lawang’s nicest hotel along the river. We met with Rozy after we settled in and worked out the specifics for our trek into the jungle. For a reasonable price we agreed on a two day trek that would include food, camping and a raft back to town down the Bohorok River.
In the morning we met with Rozy and two other girls who he had managed to get into our group. There was Reike, also Dutch and Frida who is Indonesian. The five of us, Rozy and his assistant guide, Marwan headed into the jungle at around 9am. For the first hour it was mostly a pretty easy walk through the town its outlying forest. We made it to the border of the jungle where a sign greeted us to explain some of the rules when viewing an orangutan. Much like my gorilla trek in Rwanda, there was no guarantee that we’d get to see any animals so it is up to having a good guide and good fortune.
Man of the Forest
The jungles of Bukit Lawang are home to the Orangutan, the only great ape living outside of Africa. Our red-headed cousins are the main draw for tourism to this part of Sumatra but I’d argue the people are what makes you want to stay.
Orangutan translates from Malay and Indonesian into English to mean man of the forest. We spotted two high in the trees very early on in the trek. They quietly sat there looking down at us while we quietly sat there looking up at them. Orangutans are arboreal creatures, meaning they live almost the entirety of their life in the trees. They build nests where they protect their young and often move about the forest canopy in search of new spots to nest. We spent just a few moments with these orangutans and then moved on.
Several hours into the trek we made a rest stop to eat watermelon and hydrate ourselves for the long stretch before lunch time. Emiel had issues with his pants so he was attempting to sow up a hole. Another group had moved on past us and we waited a few moments before packing up to move on. Just as I was putting my belongings back in my pack one of the girls from the group ahead of us came walking back rather briskly. She said something about an orangutan and Rozy our guide said, “The aggressive one?” Everyone started moving very quickly. Emiel and I were still preoccupied with our tasks and figured everyone was just hurrying so they could go take a look. As I was still zipping my bag up I heard Rozy say, “Don’t panic, Don’t panic! Come, Come” Then I heard one of the girls say, “Joey, watch out.” I turned around and there she was, Sumai, the largest and most aggressive orangutan in the jungle walking directly behind me within a couple of yards. I had misunderstood everyone moving quickly. My heart jumped as I didn’t expect a giant beast behind me when I turned around. Rozy urged everone to not panic and just to walk away quickly. The orangutan passed everyone else but Rozy, Emiel and I were still in its path. Rozy told me to grab the watermelon and eat it as fast as I could. I shoved several pieces in my mouth and Rozy grabbed the rind from me and tossed it towards the orangutan to appease it. Orangutans are normally very peaceful and non-aggressive but this one has become used to humans feeding it and has been known to attack guides and travelers. After she had the rind in her mouth she walked up into a tree with her baby and sat there watching us. We got a lot of good photographs here as our guide successfully calmed her down.
I have very little experience in the jungle but luckily I have been on the road for more than a month and a half and I’m physically in much better shape than I am normally. Aside from a little complaining occasionally, our group was pretty good. We went up and down the mountain and covered a range of about 7km in about 8 hours. Rozy’s assistant, Marwan, would run ahead to look for more animals. He spotted a small group of black gibbon very high in the tree tops. It was nearly impossible for us to see them if it were not for the zoom on my camera lens. How Marwan was able to spot them so high up in a sea of green tree tops is beyond me. We nicknamed him jungle boy for his uncanny ability to see wildlife from so far away. Rozy said that black gibbons were very rare to see and that we were lucky. I later confirmed that this was true and that spotting a black gibbon, even for the locals only happens once every few months. The one we saw was pregnant.
After a few slips and falls along the way we finally made it to our camp for the night. We had to ford the river first in order to get to our spot on the riverbank. It was a long day of trekking and we were told the river was OK to swim in. I was the first one in and was given a very stern warning about how to handle the currents. This wasn’t a lazy river and the water moved quickly. Rozy told us the following morning that an American had died 26 years ago because he lost his balance and was swept into the rapids where he hit his head. I consider myself a strong swimmer so I wasn’t too worried. The five of us including the guides all jumped in and enjoyed ourselves. We all shared a bar of soup to clean ourselves off and sat up at camp talking, eating and playing card games. Our camp was very simple. We opted to sleep outside away from the cover and directly under the stars. The river in Bukit Lawang provides the entire jungle and town with the perfect white noise needed to fall asleep soundly.
I got very little sleep that night since the rocks on the ground were sticking into my side and the temperature dropped significantly in the early morning hours. We got up and had breakfast, took photos as a group and the three girls headed off down the river on the raft while Emiel and I trekked on for our second day. We headed up a path directly behind camp and were confronted with the cruel reality that we would be walking again. It only took about 3 minutes before the two of us and Rozy stopped to catch our breaths. The initial hike was nearly straight up into the mountain. Our ears were popping and the ground seemed wetter than the day before. It was exhausting and we were starting to doubt going for a second day. Neither of us wanted to disappoint the other and we both knew that complaining didn’t accomplish anything so we moved on.
Mom, Stop Reading Here
After going high up in the mountain we walked along a plateau for awhile. This kept us from spending a lot of energy traveling upwards but it presented a new danger. We walked along a slippery and narrow side of the hill where the only thing between us and a 30 meter drop were a few stumps and the occasional thin tree to grab on to. I watched my steps very carefully but Emiel and Rozy were up ahead a bit so I wasn’t able to watch where they stepped. Emiel is about 6’6” so watching him step is useless to me anyway as he can take much bigger strides. We got ourselves into a pretty good rhythm when the path got narrower. I felt myself losing confidence in my footing and it finally happened. Early in the walk I would make sure to keep my eye on branches that look stable enough to grab in case of a slip. Most of the trek falling meant a little slip on the butt but on this specific path the stakes were higher. It wasn’t a sheer drop off the cliff but at any moment a slip could mean an uncontrolled tumble into trees and rocks below that could easily end my trip. I put my foot forward on what looked like a safe enough spot but just before my foot landed I could sense that it wasn’t going to end right. My left foot slid down and my entire body turned facing the mountain. I was spread out with my hands and let out a loud “Woah!” to alert Rozy and Emiel that something was wrong. It’s hard to explain the exact motion of my body but in a split second I turned completely around and was falling off the side. In mid air I was able to grasp a tree with my left hand and I slammed down into the ground. It was about a 2 meter drop from the path above. Emiel ran back but I was fine. My butt was bruised and my wrist a bit sore from the grab but it could have been a lot worse. Emiel asked me if I was OK as he helped me up back onto the path. I replied, “F*** Yea!” He asked me if my adrenaline was pumping and I said, YES, let’s move on! It really was pumping. I don’t know how to explain it but I felt really alive in that moment and rode the high for the rest of the trek.
The second day proved to be harder of the two. It wasn’t nearly as long as day one but it was more technical and the wetness of the mountain meant leeches were a problem. Both Emiel and I were fighting them the entire walk. One would land on my arm and I would quickly flick It off before it had a chance to dig itself into my skin. We eventually made it to a private waterfall where we rested for a few minutes before heading to the river to raft back into town. The trek was over and it was time to relax. This was my first time rafting through any kind of rapids.
There is a lot more to write about and please forgive my lack of updates but I’ve really been so engulfed in my travels that it has been a nice break from reality and especially the internet. I will make sure I catch everyone up as soon as possible!