Going Ape in Bukit Lawang

Trip Start Jan 02, 2009
Trip End Dec 07, 2009

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Where I stayed
Jungle Inn
Eco Lodge

Flag of Indonesia  , North Sumatra,
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

We left Lake Toba early in the morning and caught the ferry from Tuk Tuk to Parapat. Our travel agent was waiting for us at the harbour and was very apologetic that he would be unable to accompany us to Bukit Lawang as planned.  We both breathed a huge sigh of relief as we had been dreading a long car journey with him barking into his mobile phone the entire way.  As our stay in Lake Toba had been so cheap (the total bill for seven nights at the best hotel in Tuk Tuk in one of their nicest rooms came to the equivalent of 130 for the two of us, including two meals a day, sometimes three, motorbike and bicycle hire), we had decided to treat ourselves to a private car to take us to Bukit Lawang as the journey by public transport would have involved taking four buses.  Our travel agent was true to his word and provided us with a practically brand new people carrier with air-con and reclining seats.  The seven hour journey was really quite pleasant and for once, passed without incident. 

Bukit Lawang is a small village on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park.  It is home to approximately 7000 orangutans, as well as many other animals.  Neither of us felt particularly ready for another jungle experience as Dean had only just started to feel normal again after our trek in Borneo.  Since the incident with the tick, he had been feeling lethargic, nauseous and had been suffering from headaches and a loss of appetite.  When we were last in the jungle, Tracey had developed a fungal infection on her toenails, which was in the process of growing out, and she was reluctant to make it worse.  However, we both really wanted to see orangutans so we decided to brave it.  As orangutans are now only native to Borneo and Sumatra, this would be our only chance to see them in the wild.

Our driver dropped us off in the village where we met with our trekking guide, Muhdi (renamed Mowgli by Dean) at the Eco Lodge to discuss the plans for the trek which was to start the following morning.  We had booked a room at the nicest guesthouse in the village, the Jungle Inn, which we discovered was a twenty minute hike upriver.  It was pretty hard going as we had to walk with our full backpacks uphill and it was very humid.  We arrived at the guesthouse dripping with sweat, only to be told by the owner that he had given our room away!  He then informed us that he only had one room left which was their most expensive one and was twice the price of the room we had booked.  We were absolutely livid and Dean demanded that he let us have the room for the same price.  After some hard negotiating, he finally agreed that we could pay just $5 extra.  It was well worth the extra money as the room was extremely stylish with an outdoor tropical bathroom and a balcony with a hammock overlooking the jungle and the river.    The owner then proceeded to try and sell us a jungle trek.  When we told him that we had already booked a guide for the following morning, he was most unhappy and refused to store our backpacks for us while we were away trekking, despite the fact that we were booked in to stay there for another night when we returned.  We were less than impressed with his attitude so we checked out the following morning and lugged our backpacks all the way back to the Eco Lodge where we were meeting Muhdi and his colleague.

We set off for the trek along with Christian, a German guy doing an internship in Medan, and Hannah, a Scottish girl who is almost at the end of a six month stint of travelling around Asia.  It turned out that Hannah was sitting behind us on the ferry from Lake Toba and was also booked on the same flight as we were to Banda Aceh.

After only a few minutes of entering the jungle, we were dripping with sweat due to the extreme humidity.  Within fifteen minutes, we saw our first orangutans – a female swinging around on some vines with her baby close by on top of a tree.  As the orangutans are protected in the Park from poachers, they are not under any threat from humans so are very relaxed with people observing them and taking photographs.  It was fascinating to watch them.  After about twenty minutes, they swung away from us and we continued our trek deeper into the jungle.  The trails were extremely muddy and slippery, paved with gnarly tree roots and rocks.  Our guides were very good and managed to spot two more orangutans, gibbons, Thomas Leaf monkeys and long-tailed macaques who were completely fearless and surrounded us looking for food.   

At lunchtime, we stopped in a clearing and our guides started unpacking the food they had prepared.  Tracey took the opportunity to have a pee behind a large tree.  While she was pulling up her trousers, she spotted a large orangutan out of the corner of her eye heading towards us at some speed.  She quickly alerted the others and everyone got their cameras ready.  However, as the orangutan had suddenly become a little too close for comfort, our guides told us to quickly pick up our bags and get moving into the forest, while they hurriedly packed up all the food.  Although orangutans are gentle creatures they can become aggressive when searching for food, so we didn’t need to be asked twice. 

After we had eaten lunch, we continued the trek for another couple of hours to the place where we would be camping for the night.  The trek involved a lot of clambering up steep muddy banks using rocks and tree roots for support and then sliding down slippery trails, often with precipitous drops to the side.  As we were climbing up a particularly steep verge, Tracey slipped and fell.  Luckily Dean was right behind her and, ever the hero, caught her and managed to prop her up by her bottom to prevent her from sliding down the bank any further whilst she frantically tried to find something to hold onto and regain her footing.  This trek was much harder than the one in Borneo, as the terrain there had been mainly flat.  Thankfully, however, this time there were no leeches, ticks or sweat bees to contend with. 

As relieved as we were to reach the camp, we were somewhat dismayed to find that the accommodation was even more basic than Prison Camp 5 in Borneo.  The campsite itself was in a beautiful spot, set in a clearing beside the river.  The sleeping area for the six of us was basically a large sheet of thin plastic secured to some bamboo poles with a sheet of tarpaulin on the stony ground.  Our beds were very thin mats that must have been slept on by hundreds of people before us as they were so worn and compressed that it was like sleeping on wafers.  There was a second sleeping area set up for another group and a small cooking area in the middle.  The toilet was wherever you could find a bush and the shower was the river.  It was the most basic accommodation either of us had ever experienced.  Completely the opposite of "Glamping", this was “Tramping” at its finest.  However, it was blissful to jump into the river to swim and wash after the intense humidity of the trek and the water was very clean.  The other group turned up shortly after us and consisted of two English guys in their twenties, a Spanish couple and their two guides.  It appeared that the Spanish woman was under the impression that she was being filmed for “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”, as she spent the entire time wandering around the campsite wearing nothing but a very skimpy bikini teamed with a pair of hiking boots.  This attire was completely inappropriate for the jungle, firstly because there are loads of bitey insects around and secondly, Sumatra is a Muslim country and our guides were Muslim.  On the other hand, if you have had to pay for your breasts then you may as well show them off to all and sundry and get your money’s worth.  The following morning over breakfast, Tracey especially was most amused to discover that she was covered from head to toe in mosquito bites and took great delight in muttering “I told you so” under her breath.  

While we were waiting for dinner to be served, a monitor lizard appeared in the campsite searching for food.  Monitor lizards are huge and can grow up to 6ft in length, although this one was probably half that size.  Our four guides produced a delicious spread for the eight of us, quite some feat given the very limited facilities available.  After dinner, we were looking forward to an evening of sitting around the camp fire exchanging stories, but literally as soon as the plates had been cleared away, there was a clap of thunder, a flash of lightening and it started to pour with rain.  We had to run to our “tents” for cover.  As there were only a couple of candles for light, there was nothing else to do but go to bed and it was only 7.15pm.  Neither of us felt even remotely tired and our mats were extremely uncomfortable.  Tracey finally managed to drift off to sleep at around midnight only to be awoken by a frog using her as a springboard who then lodged itself directly above her head.  The rain lashed down noisily on the plastic sheeting above our heads all night long and we had to remain in the tent until around 7am the next morning.  Twelve hours of lying on a bed of rocks resulted in very stiff necks and sore backs.  Tracey was also parched with thirst as she had avoided drinking any water throughout the night so that she wouldn’t have to venture out alone into the rainy jungle for a pee.    

Thankfully, by breakfast time, it finally stopped raining.  The plan for that morning was to trek back into the jungle again for another three hours before returning to the campsite for lunch.  Given the heavy rainfall the previous night and also our lack of sleep, we decided that another three hours of slipping and sliding around in the mud was not for us and we decided to give it a miss.  The Spanish couple had also decided not to bother and to hang around the campsite instead until the others returned.  Thankfully Miss Barcelona 1989 had decided to cover up by this time.  The other four trekkers went off with the guides until lunchtime.  When they returned, they reported that all they had seen was one very large butterfly and a poisonous centipede, so we were rather relieved that we hadn’t bothered to go with them.

We had paid extra to “raft” back to the village rather than trek back.  This involved sitting in the middle of some inflated truck inner tubes tied together with rope.  The journey downriver through the Sungai Bohorok rapids lasted for around thirty minutes and was a much more enjoyable experience than the actual trekking.  When we arrived back, we took a room at the Eco Lodge for the night.  Although it was pretty shabby and basic with no air-con and a cold water shower, after a night in the jungle, it felt like The Ritz.     

Although it had been amazing to get so close to orangutans in the wild, we both vowed that this would be our last ever jungle trek.  The jungle is just not designed for man.  It doesn’t want us there and makes that sentiment felt at every available opportunity.   
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