The orangutans of Bukit Lawang....

Trip Start May 31, 2008
Trip End Jul 14, 2008

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Flag of Indonesia  , Sumatra,
Monday, June 23, 2008

All my clothes smell like musty river water.  Even after a thorough washing in some hard core detergent....sort of like they've been in a swamp too long.  And forget my boots...the ones that were new in January...wet too many times.  And in the jungle things don't ever really dry out.  So there's an accumulation of swampy water, hot sweaty feet, and no drying sunlight for days on end.  Actually it started in the Galapagos when they regularly got wet and sat on the boat deck only to get wetter.  But now they're intolerable.  Their last great act was a trek in the Sumatran jungle to seek orangutans and other assorted primates. 
We connect with this guy Udin, minutes after we get off of the plane in Medan, Sumatra.  I was never aware of the fact that Sumatra is part of Indonesia...thought of it as it's own country...and the culture is very unique, just as it was in Java and Bali.  My primary focus in Sumatra is to go up north to see the orangutans.  I mentioned earlier that they are extremely endangered...their jungle home is being cut for palm oil plantations...the tree has a productive life of about 30 years and then it's cut for wood.  It's cheaper for palm oil companies (most if not all, being foreign companies) to cut down jungle on a new tract of land to plant more trees for palm oil rather than create a sustainable palm oil plantation.   So there goes the home of the orangutan...there are very few's thought that they probably won't make it into the next decade.
So we drive on up to Bukit Lawang, a town at the end of the road, after that there's only jungle.  If you hike in a ways you can visit the preserve that was established for the rehabilitation of orangutans...those that were rescued as pets or from other assorted places ( by the way, did you know that Ellen DeGeneres had/has a pet orangutan.  I know I'm going to investigate...time to give that pet up).  Apparently pet orangutans are very cute and social while they are young...and although an adult orangutan may still be great company, they are very active - they get into and tear up everything - and usually end up being kept in barred enclosures...very seldom is appropriate habitat created for the mischievous and strong pet.  So there are wild orangutans and semi-wild which are those that have been released.  The feeding station on the preserve provides bananas and milk to the newly released orangutans until they get bored with the lack of variety and get back into the groove of searching out their own food from the forest.  
A little bit about Bukit Lawang.  It's a small town right on a river, the size of which is perfect for tubing...wide and shallow.  But about four years ago the town suffered a catastrophic flood....a dam upstream had been created by logged timber blocking the flow...the dam broke and the water level rose over 40 feet in a very short time.  Over 500 people died in the flood...the town was devastated....people watched others and their homes float downstream amongst logs and other debris.  We talk to one guy who witnessed and survived the flood...he just happened to be slightly upland when it happened.  He describes seeing the electrical poles crash down into the flood and watching the whole town light up during the night.  The town still has a tragic air about it...the event is still very present in conversation and awareness. 
But on weekends, the river has families picnicking along the shore and all the kids tubing downstream.  It's so hot and muggy in this lowland part of the jungle that the river provides perfect recreation. 
So we connect with Udin who is going to guide us on a 'trek' thru the jungle for a couple of days...that would include a night camping along the river and tubing back down...sounds fun, no?   It all starts with a visit to the feeding station.  We made out way up there the day walk upriver a bit, then cross in this dugout canoe on a rope that seemed a little precarious me to, then we climbed an excessive number of steps but it was all worth it when we were surrounded by orangutans...they are so cool...they live up in the canopy but gracefully swing their way down to the feeding platform for milk and bananas and come right thru those of us watching them.  They have the mental ability of an 8 year old...they interact with the feeders who pour them cups of milk that they drink just like you or me.  They are completely fascinating to me...I could sit and watch them for hours....making faces, scratching, eating, making their way thru the jungle. 
Although they seem very safe to be around, I get a little rush of adrenaline when one seems to walk right up to me...actually passing me to get somewhere else...but I don't seems like moving fast in any direction might be unwise.  When they get that close the reality of their size and wildness and their beauty is thrilling.
When the feeding is over the trek begins in earnest.  And it seems like a never ending series of up and down hills...steep hills...and quite immediately I'm drenched...truly drenched,'s dripping in my eyes, clothes are soaked through.  Is the whole day going to be this difficult?  The climbs are so steep that my knees and thighs are starting to wear out...I try to use my hands to pull me up or keep me from sliding instead of hiking down.  At one steep part I start slipping on the wet clayey my arms braced against 2 trees on the side of the trail so I don't crash...but my body slides right between the trees and it feels like my shoulders do a 360...end up with an impressive bruise...check it out in the photos. 
It's a tough hike.  But we get to see the king of the jungle....this huge male...he weighs about 90 kg...that's about 200 pounds I believe.  He's a wild one...never been anybody's pet...he has a territory of about 1 square km...the females within his area are his mates...he gets them pregnant and then is off by himself again...the babies are raised by the mothers. 
So there he is up in the tree....looking serious and large and powerful...dark face...strong features...don't want to mess with this guy.  Well, we're watching and trying to get some good photos...he's down far enough where we can see his expressions...he's watching us intently.     And then, as we're right under him, he starts shaking the tree and coming down towards us...seems a bit irritated by the attention and wants to let us know it.  Not wanting to confront a large irritated orangutan, we all scurry down the trail...well more than scurry...I know that it's a serious adrenaline rush powering my scurrying!!  My foot gets caught in a thorny vine...I just about trip as I make a rapid dash away from this king of the jungle.  Nobody gets hurt...I think we probably amused him with our frantic response.   We watch a bit more...he is joined by another...they swing...we exchange glances... I can't believe I'm in the Sumatran jungle interacting with wild orangutans...beyond amazing. 
Well after a lot more up and down steep trails we finally reach the top of the final descent...I can see the river below us that we'll be camping on.  Quite a steep descent it is!  Seems to go on and on...we cross one small stream that is the final downfall of my boots...water-logged by now.  After descending the slippery slope, the river needs to be crossed. Since I'm wearing most of the clothes I brought I'm thinking I ought to take some of them off to swim.  But truth is they're already saturated with sweat...a swim might serve to refresh them a bit.  Plus I desperately need to submerge my body to drop my core temperature after the day of jungle hiking.  One thing though...since it was so rainy the night before, the river is thick with golden silts...erosion from the upland...
But we waddle our way across it... sit in it for a while to cool off.  And there, on the opposite bank is our home for the night.  Actually it's a piece of plastic or two...very ingeniously supported by bamboo strips...of course there is no mosquito netting...or barrier between me and any other insects for the night...but it's all ok because Udin says there are no mosquitoes down here by the river.  Now I've never heard of a hot jungle without mosquitoes but I'm tired and there's really no choice but to be comfortable here.  Maybe comfortable is the wrong word.  The 'tent' is set up on a bed of large cobbly rocks...and our 'mattress' is about 1/16 of an inch thick...not exactly going to keep my bones cushioned from the rocks I'm sleeping on.  And then, it starts to rain....downpour actually.  But it's all still a big adventure...I'm thinking it's going to be one LONG night with a downpour like this.  Then the river starts to rise...pretty rapidly.  I never think it's a particularly great idea to sleep right next to a river on the side of a canyon.  And it's coming up that were visible when we arrived are submerged.  Udin acts like it's no big deal but with the history of this town and my own sense of dis-ease, I scope out the higher ground and plan for an escape if my feet start to get wet during the night. 
And a couple of other mosquitoes???  Well something is leaving welts on my legs...and then there are the red ants...that bite just because they're mean...and with my toes stinging from the ants sinking their teeth into them, I put my saturated boots (and socks) on for the night.  And after some dinner, I suppose it's time to make believe I'm going to sleep.  I've got my wet and muddy pants for a pillow....I'm sleeping in wet clothes and the ground is pure torture.  I'm awake thru most of the night...ok,  I got a little sleep here and there but I'm checking my watch at least every half this the worst nights sleep of my life?  I'm trying to decide if this falls in the top actually the top three probably......
Morning comes....I'm ready to go back...but for some reason we have to hang around the camp all morning (and the red ants) before tubing back.   The monkeys make up for the ants (sort of) and the tubing back is great...way easier than hiking...end of another challenging event ...always worthwhile after it's over.  BUT a suggestion for those of you who attempt the same trip...if I were to do it again, I'd hike for the day, and then tube back for the evening when I was hot and dirty...forget the night sleeping on rocks, forget being eaten alive, just get in the tube and float back to the start and call it a day...and find a dry bed with a mosquito net over it and dream about the orangutans you saw that day......

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Marga on

You really took some amazing pictures there! I can see that you do enjoy the traveling.

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