Having recovered from the ravages of our rafting adventure, our second intrepid mission from Bukit Lawang (a small backpackery village in North Sumatra) was an overnight trip into the forrest in the hopes of seeing that most majestic of creature, the orangutan.
We had an adrenaline fuelled start to the day 1 hike. I’m not sure which was more exiting, nearly tripping over a deadly green viper before we’d even hit the jungle trail, or being escorted over the torrenting river by men in pants!
Bukit Lawang means ‘door to the hills’, and boy was it hilly:
And then we did it again and again and again and again…..
As ever there was a heck of a lot of cool stuff to see on the way:
Despite diligently tucking our leggings into our socks to stop the leeches getting up our trousers, we learned the hard way about our t-shirts! Bella was the first to screech ‘LEEEEEEEEEECH’ as one had found its way all the way up her legs to her tasty bare succulent tummy………….. Then about 20 minutes later exactly the same thing happened to poor Millie. It did bleed really quite a bit. Our guide’s remedy was to pull the side paper off his packet of fags – apparently its very absorbent and absolutely the best for stemming the blood flow. Who needs that medi kit?!?
As seasoned jungle trekkers by now, we knew all about rash-inducing hairy caterpillars, and more or less successfully avoided any direct contact with this fine fellow and his friends.
We had a particularly lovely lunch spot with a natural vine swing to play on, and feasted on delicious nasi goreng (fried rice) and prawn crackers served in an environmentally friendly banana leaf!
We saw SOOO many other monkeys on our quest to see the big orange primates. Most common were the long tailed macaques, but we also saw quite a few funky mohicaned Thomas Leaf monkeys (second from the left in the pics below).
We saw plenty of Orangutan nests over the course of the morning (they make on average 3 per day to nap in), but not a peep yet of the actual beasts.
In recompense a forest peacock showed up, but he would neither stay still long enough for an unblurry photo, nor display his fine tail feathers.
After lunch, our group had one of those oh-so-common tricky decisions to make. A fellow hiker had a heart condition and was struggling with the terrain, so we knew we needed to change something to ease the physical stress on him, and agreed to form 2 sub-groups. Less clear cut was which route the full-health group should take to get to our overnight camp site. News had arrived from another guide that there were 5 Orangutans about 10 minutes away. Our guide seemed really unenthusiastic to go there, for reasons that became clear later. When presented as an ‘almost guaranteed siting, plus a shorter route to the overnight camp’, despite the sense that there was a piece of the puzzle missing, there was really no way that the girls were going to opt for the ‘longer hike, plus some remote possibility of seeing ‘other’ orangutans’ option. Hard to argue despite the loud tolling of my inner intuition alarm bells.
So, soon enough we reached the recommended nearby location and 45 year old Mina appeared in front of us in a clearing! She was magnificent, and it took my breath away when she first came into sight, but very quickly our guide’s reticence became elucidated. Several of the Orangutang in this part of the forrest are rehabilitated ex-pets. Most embraced their freedom whole heartedly, but indubitably as a result of tourism, Mina shows up most days somewhere easy to find, and takes food from certain guides. She bites if she doesn’t get fed, and is smart enough to know that the guides are very wary (hence generous with the bananas and papaya) if she makes a move on any of the tourists). Female Orangtang have the strength of 3 human men (males the strength of 5), so you really don’t want to mess with them! We enjoyed seeing her from a safe distance, and then had to make a run for it when she came after us. The whole experience seeing Mina at such close quarters was incredible, but left a sour taste in our mouth also.
Luckily there were some other fully wild Orangutan in the vicinity of Mina, and we just revelled in seeing them go about their daily lives, entirely naturally. There was a mother with a tiny baby who was using her as a climbing frame, and 2 youngsters playing rough and tumble together up and down the creepers. It was so absorbing and wonderful to be watching these creatures in their world that we had to be dragged away when the light started failing.
Getting to our overnight camping spot involved a lot of fairly hairy river crossings. It might look calm, but the current was incredibly strong, and more than a few flip flops were lost along the way!
But what an incredible sight when we finally arrived! There was an impressive backdrop of jungle, a cooling stretch of white water to play in and rinse off the sweat/sun lotion, and (oh yes!), the cunning camp staff had brought a crate of beers to sell at highly inflated prices (we were more than happy to reward their entrepreneurship!).
Here are the girls ‘playing’ in the rapids. The current really was very strong such that I found it rather hard to watch, and was hugely grateful for the attentive eyes of our guides who were ever ready to dive in and rescue should they get carried away!
After dinner of delectable pumpkin curry, fried chicken, fried bananas and rice, our wonderful guides entertained us with matchstick puzzle games by candlelight. We had retreated under cover as there was a humungous electrical storm, and the battering of the rain overhead rendered chatting almost impossible.
The girls opted to stay in camp for a couple of hours in the morning while James, I and a lovely fellow trekker, Jill went in search of more Orang Utans.
After a couple of hours of excessively sweaty climbing/hiking, we came across Jakey. She was another rehabilitated orangutan who still enjoys human contact, but is very much more gentle than Mina. She has an eye for the gentlemen, and likes to take them by the hand and stay close to them. She immediately picked out James as an eligible candidate, and they spent about 20 minutes together.
Jakey has a 2 month old baby who was adorable, and she tolerated me coming in for a group photo! She was gentle, yet very powerful and so expressive. Orangutan apparently share 96.7% of the same DNA as humans, so its unsurprising that we felt that we could relate to them so easily. They are still endangered (threatened by loggers, farmers, poachers and pet dealers), but numbers in Sumatra have risen from 8000 – 12000 in the past 10 years, so moving in the right direction. Meeting Jakey felt like an incredibly intimate and real experience. Hopefully in one further generations time, all the orangutan in Sumatra will be fully wild, and no rehabilitated human-loving apes will be left wanting to hold our hands. This experience with Jakey therefore felt even more special and unique.
We got back to camp to find the girls in brighter spirits and ready for a mini-treck to the nearby waterfall. We enjoyed a lovely cooling dip and a bit of a scramble round the back to launch ourselves out through the pounding water.
Then our inventive guides found various coloured muds and soft rocks to kick off some face painting fun.
I managed to escape the ministrations of the guides, only to get a personal adornment of my very own from my firstborn. Couldn’t help feeling a bit zulu warrier with my warpaint!
Back to camp for a final feast with our new hiking buddies Arden and Jill, and our festive guides. They surpassed themselves with today’s fruit platter!
The ride home involved piling ourselves and all our possessions onto a kind of tube ‘caterpillar’ and then launching ourselves down the river through some fairly hair-raising rapids. Thank goodness for the adrenalin, as it was also really rather cold. It was tough to photograph for obvious reasons, so here is a stock image to give you a sense of the crazy vibe:
Suffice to say we slept well that night, and have created memories of an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience with creatures that inspire so much joy and admiration.