A trip to the orangutans of Bukit Lawang

Monkeys in Sumatra
monkeys having breakfast @ Reinhard Kuchenbaecker
At our arrival at Kuala Namu Internatinoal Airport in Medan our driver already awaits us, guiding us out of the stream of passengers with a handwritten sign of our names. After driving through the chaotic road from Medan, the landscape gradually gets green. However, on the left and right side of the road we only see oil palms, and oil palms, and oil palms. It is these palm oil plantations, which are pushing back the jungle of Sumatra. Because they have to bring the palm oil out of the country, the road is in surprisingly good condition just before Bukit Lawang. On the approach we can seen from a distance the mountain ranges of Sumatra, and we suspect that it is the mountainous landscape that saves the rainforest there. The palm oil plantations border exactly on the first ridge, and on the road becomes very bad. After 3.5 hours we reach the village of Bukit Lawang, located a few hundred meters inside a valley. At one side of the Bohorok Rivers there are palm oil plantations, on the other side the jungle of Sumatra begins.

In the village we are already expected by three porters for our luggage. First, we are surprised by this situation and it is not entirely clear to us, where our hotel is located, and how much this baggage service will cost. However, after a 25 minutes walk, an extremely steep stairway up 150 meters altitude to the hostel "On the Rocks", we realized that we never would have been able to carry our three 20kg cases without this help. The "On the Rocks" it is a short distance away from the noisy Bukit Lawang, which was built around the ever-rushing river. The few simple bungalows are made entirely of wood, which gives the interior a gritty scent. There is no air conditioning or television, which gives a pleasant and relaxing atmosphere. From each bungalow you can look directly into the jungle, you can hear the insects chirping and the monkeys calling. At our first breakfast in Bukit Lawang we get a visit from a herd of macaques. Just a few meters away from us, they sit in the trees and have breakfast togehter with us, eating their fruits.

Sumatra jungle trip
jungle trekking @ Reinhard Kuchenbaecker
After breakfast we're leaving for our 2-day trek through the jungles of Sumatra. It shall be a unique experience of nature. My first impression: the nature of Sumatra is very noisy. In the jungle there is no rest. The vast quantities of insects produce an infernal noise. It is not that one is surrounded by mosquito swarms. There are one or two mosquito, but overall this plague is less than expected. The plants of the rainforest offer an incredible diversity. You always see new leaves and new green color tones. Many bizarre root structure. And we pass this gigantic trees with huge trunks and crown that are considerably above everything else in the area. Everywhere hangs a braid of vines, which are sometimes finger thick, but sometimes also reach the size of a tree trunk.

Orang Utans in Sumatra
orang utan mom with son @ Reinhard Kuchenbaecker
First we see a herd of monkeys frolic just a few meters away from us in the trees. With artistic jumps and great ease, they bounce from branch to branch, wrestle and romp with each other, don't letting themselves get bothered by us. I'am somewhat surprised, however, as we shortly afterwards actually encountered an orangutan. He's a bit further up in the trees, but is not on the run, comfortably fluctuates back and forth on his trunk above the forest path. Down at the bottom about 20 tourists try to get the best photo. The lighting conditions in the rainforest are extremely difficult to photograph and the orangutan is constantly in motion. Sometimes behind green leaves, then behind tree trunks. Difficult to focus. This day we encounter orangutans for three times. Once the animal is sitting 5 feet from my path. The guides tell us to quickly pass the animal and not to take pictures. We learn that not all orangutans here are always comfortable with tourists. The number of encounters with the animals strongly suggests that the guides are baiting the animals to keep them stay near the tourist track. Although this is actually forbidden, but secures the income of the local guide. My 5 year old son finds the orangutans pretty boring. But on the forest floor huge ants are running around. They are great. And every time the child sifts an ant, he stops abruptly on the trek, what his dad walking behind finds pretty annoying.

The jungle walk takes 7 hours on the first day, including breaks. The tour is extremely exhausting. We walk constantly up and down, climb up and over roots, and on the other side right back down. In addtion, there are extreme heat and humidity. My T-shirt made from cotton is quickly drenched in sweat. We wear long pants because of the insects, which also does not contribute to cooling. I wonder about my son, who pervades the complete tour with flying colors. The climbing on the tree roots makes him a lot of fun. On our way we have a longer break for two times. Our guide serves a lot of fruit. Pineapple, watermelon, and fresh passion fruit. There are also Nasi Goreng with chips and omelette.

Sumatra Bahorok River
at the river @ Reinhard Kuchenbaecker
In the afternoon we reach our camp at Bahorok River. The river cuts deep into a valley, with deep green rainforest on both sides. It offers a beautiful jungle scenery, as we only have seen on TV so far. The water of the Bahorok River is crystal clear and about 28 C warm. After the strenuous tour we jump into the water, splashing all afternoon until dark. Not only my son has a lot of fun, even his dad likes it to go with the flow of the river, again and again. Before going to sleep, my son tells me that this was the best day of his life.

However, the unpleasant part of our Sumatra tour is the night that comes. The habitation of black plastic sheeting does not fit into the landscape. But the ugly huts do their duty, when in the night a violent, tropical rain comes down. The mattresses are extremely thin, so that one believes to sleep on bare floor. No pillow, no blanket, it's cold, my bones hurt and I'm glad when finally light comes up again. We are all whacked and agree that we are lucky to stay only one night in the jungle, not having booked a longer trip. Well, and then there's the toilet ...

Sumatra jungle toilet
jungle toilet @ Reinhard Kuchenbaecker
The next morning agains a horde of monkeys expects us at the river. They are obviously keen on leftovers of our last day's dinner, the guides have laid out on the banks at Bahorok River. Soon after, the monkeys dissappear and a orangutan mum with her child turns up. The guides want to keep her away from our camp and the food, but the lady orangutan is not impressed. When all the tourists have taken their photos from a few feet away, everybody goes back to the camp for breakfast. After some time I miss my son. On the river bank, I see the animal still sitting, and just 5 meters away my child now oberserving the orangutan with great interest. No guide or else an adult to see. I quickly run down to the river and get my son back.

After breakfast we walk upriver to a small tributary with a waterfall inviting us for visit. We splash in the shower under the waterfall and enjoy the natural pool beyond. On the way, we see some beautiful, colorful and giant butterflies. Shortly after that it goes down the river by tube rafting in large, inflated tires, back to Bukit Lawang. Sometimes we drive comfortably over the river. Then it's goes fast through the next rapid. The rafting trip is a lot of fun, so now this day is the best in my son's life. Today it is Indonesian National Day and in the town itself, the river is full of people who bathe and have fun in the water. We carefully maneuvered through the crowds until we arrive just below the stairs up to the "On the Rocks" hostel.

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