Tracking wild Orang-Utans in the Sumatran Jungle

Trip Start May 20, 2010
Trip End Sep 05, 2011

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Where I stayed
Friendship Guesthouse

Flag of Indonesia  , Aceh,
Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Day : 98
Temperature : 30 degrees
Weather : Sunny and dry

Our adventures over the past few days have taken us well and trully off the beaten path, and consequently we've had very little or no internet connection to do our blogging. Soon after arriving in Takengon it became obvious that this region receives very little foreigners. According to our bible (the trusty Lonely Planet) this is due to the decades of civil war and turmoil which only ceased after the tsunami when a peace agreement was sealed. Aceh province was granted special autonomy and the area was slowly opened up for tourism. We received waves, smiles and shouts of "hello mister" at every turn, hoteliers brought us free drinks, and the "toursim minister" came out of a meeting to have chat to us about where we were from and where we were going! It was clear that we were the only westerners in town!!

We'd travelled there for the horse-riding festival which takes place each year after Independence Day on August 17th, but we soon discovered that it had been postponed this year because it coincided with Ramadan. This however gave us a day to relax and enjoy the scenery, and an opportunity explore the grounds of the strangely quiet Renggali hotel. The hotel is situated 2km out of town in a beautiful but isolated location on the lake shore. The hotel rooms were built in large blocks sprawling away from a huge open plan reception / dining area. Oddly, Kevin and I were THE only guests staying in the entire hotel. This was great during the day, but at night it was a completely different picture. We were left to wander the deserted, eery corridors. The silence was spooky and our voices echoed in the empty, gloomy reception areas, and looking outside the windows was like looking into a pitch black, dark abyss! Picture the film The Shining and you have the idea!

Thankfully, we survived 'till morning and we headed back into town to get a local bus further south towards Ketambe. Now, on the map, Ketambe looks as if it might be about 70 miles "as the crow flies" from Takengon. However, what you don't realise is that the road zig-zags it's way up and down the mountains. It's riddles with potholes and it completely disintegrates into a muddy single lane track in places. Combine that with travelling in a completely overloaded, beaten up old rustbucket which rattles and shakes and forces you feel every, single pot hole...well let's just say it's not the most luxurious way to travel!! Add in numerous stops to pile sacks of rice on top of the minibus, stops so that the driver can have a fag, stops to collect and squeeze in one more passenger, and stops for no apparent reason at all....and all of this for 10 whole hours in over 30 degree heat! What a joy! However, the only redeeming factor for this arduous journey is the people that you meet on the way. We were squeezed in with a group of local Muslim women who did not speak any English and of course we speak no Bahasa Indonesian. But, the guidebook came out and we tried to chat away as best we could using the phrases listed in the book. The postcard of the Cotswolds went down a treat, as did the bag of Rambutans which we bought for our journey, and which one lady decided to share around the bus with the the time the bag came back to us it was completely empty! The local lady in question then proceeded to ask me for my flip flops, my wedding ring and my sunglasses, which of course I politely refused to give her. But by the time the bus arrived in Ketambe we received hugs and kisses and were given kind farewells by all, and this certainly made the journey a memorable one!

We stayed in Friendship Guesthouse in Ketambe which is situated in the Gunung Leseur National Park and our room cost a whopping 3.50 per night! We decided to come to Ketambe to track the Orang-Utans rather than go to the much more popular Bukit-Lawang. This is because the Orang-Utans at Bukit Lawang are fed by the guides who call them down from the trees despite this being against park guidelines. As a result there is a significant risk to humans catching diseases from the Orang-Utans, as well as a risk of attacks on people as they associate humans with food. But, perhaps more worryingly, the Orang-Utans are catching human diseases from being in close proximity with people. Diseases such as influenza are spreading throughout the Orang-Utan population, killing many and having devastating consequences to their population numbers. 

We took a two day trek into the steaming jungle, and stopped overnight at some hot springs high up in the mountains where boiling hot water gurgled and spurted out of the ground, steam billowed up into the jungle and the rocks were so hot you could dry your clothes on them....a sure sign of the volcanic activity not far underground. It was certainly precarious getting to the bathing area since you had to walk over a fallen log, under which passed a river of boiling hot water at a temperature of nearly 100 degrees.....knowing that if you fell off the log you would not just get wet, but you would surely die was certainly not a reasurring thought!! Luckily our guide Herman was there to take my hands and help me hobble my way across to the other side! Kevin of course was a bit braver and managed perfectly well on his own! We met up with David from London who was travelling in Indonesia for a month between jobs. Funnily enough we'd bumped into him in a round-about kind of way in Pulau Weh a week previously, and so it was interesting to compare travelling tales over dinner under the stars.

We did manage to see the Orang-Utans, several in fact. Our best sighting was a mother and her baby who slowly came down out of the trees and were about 7 metres away. Unfortunately the photos aren't the best in the world because we were shooting into the light, but it's a small price to pay for seeing some of the last trully wild Orang-Utans in the world! Sadly however, the amount of deforestation in this region is shocking as illegal logging continues and this really makes you wonder what the future holds for these incredible, yet critically endangered animals. In addition to our red haired cousins we also saw Thomas Leaf monkeys, Hornbills, squirrels and many weird and wonderful insects. Sadly though we were a month too late to see the infamous Rafflesia flowers in full bloom....ah well, next time maybe?

We left Ketambe yesterday heading south for another long day of uncomfortable travelling. This time 4 minibuses for a total of 12 hours, and at one point we had 21 people crammed into a bus with 13 seats!!! When we finally arrived in Danau Toba the minibus driver dropped us off in the middle of no where and we had to walk the last 2km with our rucksacks on!!!

We are here now on the shore of the lovely Lake Toba and plan to spend a couple of days relaxing and swimming in the refreshingly cool waters of the lake. We have booked our flight from Medan to Jakarta in a couple of days, and hope that the craziness of Java combined with the festivities marking the end of Ramadan will not be too much for us weary travellers.

I am trying to upload some photos but the connection is terribly slow. So please bear with us and check back soon if you don't see many on this blog right now.
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Eileen on

OMG !! .... this looks amazing !! ... orang-utans are unbelivable ..def worth the effort to get there ... some of the secnery pics look very like Scottish highlands actually ..ferns etc..

Rain rain and more rain and cold here you arent missing anything at all ! surprise surprise :o) xx

Tony R-B on

This must be 1 of the highlights of your trip sofar? Keep on enjoying!!!!


David on

Hi Dom and Kevin!
Thanks for your comments on my blog! My travels have come to an end and with a heavy heart I am now on my way home. Your adventures are fascinating to read about and you have some great photos too! I will be sure to keep a close eye on your progress!
Happy travelling!

Ray on

Hi :) I was doing a search for Ketambe and came across your blog, so wanted to thank you for the info and the photos which are just fantastic, I will be heading to Ketambe in Feb, and plan to stay at Pak mus Guesthouse, I am a keen photographer and hope to get some good shots too, the hot springs looks fantastic so will go there for sure ,

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