Welcome to Sumatra!
That's what Bukit Lawang is famous for
We were back in Indonesia (almost) and the second attempt did not start very well. The flight from Kuala Lumpur to Medan took only one hour but the haze caused by severe fires on Sumatra had reduced visibility considerably, so that when approaching Medan
the pilot informed us that most probably he would not be able to land and that the plane might be forced to return to Kuala Lumpur. After circling above Medan airport for some time, the pilot decided to give it a try and finally managed to land, though the landing was a bit rough. Anyway, welcome back to Indonesia! Border formalities came next and we really got our visa on arrival in exchange for hard cash ($25 per person). Well, that was a positive surprise for once. Sumatra is Indonesia’s westernmost island bordering Malaysia and the world’s fourth largest island. Tourists are mainly attracted by nature, rich wildlife, trekking in national parks and around hill stations, swimming in massive lakes or diving off small white beaches. The big city of Medan is North Sumatra’s capital and economic centre as well as an international gateway due to its airport and port, one of its most important features for
Now you can understand why it is named like this
tourists. Apart from that - according to our guidebook and other travellers’ tales - it is hot, noisy, congested and dirty. But we did not care at all, not intending to do any sightseeing but we would use Medan only as our gateway to explore North Sumatra. We decided to share a metered taxi (an endangered species in Indonesia) with an Australian we had met on the plane. Unfortunately we did not know where we were and where the driver was heading but it definitely took him too long, the more so as the airport is situated in the town centre. As soon as we had discovered where we were on a map, we dismissed him - we already had to pay considerably more than if we had taken a taxi with a fixed price - and walked to the hotel as it was really close. But we did not really like the hotel we had chosen, it was too expensive for its category and had obviously seen better days. The Australian, who had been in Medan before, recommended a guesthouse he knew and we followed him there, since it had also got positive commentaries in our guidebook. Unfortunately, also
Sandra on her way to meet her friends
the Zakia Guesthouse was run down and the room we were given was one of the worst ever. It wad dirty, the bed was unbelievably hard, there was of course no private bathroom and in addition to that a very active and numerous population of cockroaches was thriving. A horrible place, though extremely cheap (only EUR 2). But it was late, we were already exhausted and would be brave for one night. We then had dinner in a restaurant next door, where we met a retired German who had been living in Thailand for many years and loved travelling in Asia. He had many interesting stories to tell and since we were not attracted by the thought of our hotel, we stayed with him a couple of hours. The night passed somehow, but Klaudia agreed to have a shower in the mandi only after Stephan had killed all the cockroaches and stayed with her to watch out. In the morning we were relieved to leave!
Next morning, when we were waiting for the small bus to take us to the bus terminal, we met a Belgian couple and they gave us some hints about our next destination, they for
Hurry, breakfast is waiting!
This ape exactly knew the feeding time and was well ahead of time
example recommended a guide for the jungle trip. In the bus to Bukit Lawang
we met somebody who worked there, a very nice young man, and he recommended us to stay in the hotel Jungle Inn, which we had already taken into consideration after reading the blog of Tom Lewsey. The bus-ride was quite long and rather uneventful apart from the fact that we had been spotted by a guide (not very difficult, we were the only white people on board), who had no intention to let us off his hook, which annoyed us a bit. The small community of Bukit Lawang used to be a major tourist destination due to the orang utans, with a good selection of guesthouses, restaurants, stalls, bars and even discos, and all that set in beautiful countryside on the edge of a national park. Until the big flood came and washed away all the houses that had been built too close to the Bohorok River. Today few guesthouses are left, the rest washed away or deserted ruins, and hardly any restaurants. Some efforts have been made to tame the river and a brand new settlement of featureless houses has been built further away from
They are somehow awkward on the ground, but in thee trees they are the kings
the river. The place again offers all necessary tourist facilities and the jungle with the apes, which the tourists come to see, have not suffered any damage. Still, people have decided to stay away, Bukit Lawang is very quiet compared to the bustling place it used to be, and is still licking its wounds.
Upon our arrival the motorbike rickshaws wanted almost as much money as the bus ride from Medan had cost us, so we declined and bravely walked to the Jungle Inn, accompanied by the young man and the guide. When we finally arrived at the guesthouse, we were exhausted and hungry (our lunch had consisted only of rambutans, our favourite fruits). Thank God we could stay in the Jungle Inn, we do not know how we would have managed the way back and to cross a shaky suspension bridge to the other side of the river, where the few other hotels were. We got a very hearty welcome, though, with a lot of friendly smiles and nice guitar music. The hotel is definitely a beautiful place, plants and flowers grow everywhere, with tiny stone bridges and an airy terrace provided with nice furniture made of bamboo
They are used to humans in the rehabilitation centre, but they are wild animals after all
or wood. The room was very nice as well, with a private bathroom and a lovely balcony facing a steep densely wooded hill and a small waterfall to our right. The guide was of course still waiting for us, and since we pitied him - all of the guys were just trying to survive - and also wanted to be left in peace, we agreed to engage him for a jungle trek tomorrow, but only a short one. We then spent a lovely evening with great food and drink (incredible herbal teas), guitar music and conversations with the guides and fellow travellers. This evening we made the acquaintance of Lindsay, a Canadian girl who had taught English in South Korea and lived in Thailand for some time and was now heading home. We immediately liked each other, once again we were so glad to be travelling and about all the experiences and acquaintances we make. This night we slept very well until we heard a strange sound we could not identify; Klaudia got really scared as we did not know what wild animal produced this noise, it seemed so near, could it possibly be an orang utan
? After some cool-headed
Sandra and her baby
We were really excited to see an orang utan with a baby
reflection Klaudia dismissed this absurd thought, knowing that all apes and monkeys are diurnal animals, but we did not sleep well afterwards nevertheless. When we asked around next morning, we were relieved to hear that the strange sound was emitted by a big gecko. Unbelievable how loud such a small animal can get, especially in the dead of night, when all sounds are hushed.
Time had almost come for our jungle walk
, but before it started we had the chance to see semi-wild orang utans at the rehabilitation centre and the feeding platform. We were really lucky, because while we were enjoying our breakfast, an orang utan got also hungry and made its way to the rangers following the river. Wow, it was really great to see the ape with the sad face in the wild! You can imagine how excited we were when we found out that it was a female specimen and that furthermore she was carrying a baby clinging to her belly! Forget about breakfast, Sandra (the ape’s name) was far more fascinating. We soon took a raft to the other side of the river, never losing sight of Sandra and her baby. Orang utans look
rather awkward when they walk, with their long arms, but in the trees they are in their element and move graciously and quickly. As soon as a special ranger turned up at the rehabilitation centre, Sandra climbed down a tree swiftly like a flash, ran to him and took him by the hand until the registration office. She was not timid at all, frolicking on the balustrade, exploring the rooms and making gay somersaults. We got incredibly close, Klaudia sat herself beside the ape, but we refrained from touching, they are wild animals after all. It was soon time to walk to the feeding platform, accompanied by our guide and his assistant and two rangers carrying the food. Although it was August and theoretically the middle of high season, we were the only tourists there, and after all we had problems imagining a huge crowd around, as the space around the feeding platform was quite limited. The orang utans get milk and bananas there, but this serves only as a supplement to the fruits of the jungle, so that when they find enough food in the wild, the apes do not even come to the feeding platform. To us this
Holding on to a liana
They manage to use even small lianas for climbing
fact was very comforting, the orang utans can survive on their own, they do not live like in a zoo in Bukit Lawang. One of the tasks of the rehabilitation centre is to make such apes accustomed to the jungle again that have been held in private apartments. Actually, only a few turned up that day, around four or five, Sandra was one of them, she definitely needed more food for her baby, also another pregnant female. The ranger put a bucket of milk down, filled a mug and handed this to the ape, which then drank as any human would. One of the rangers did not feed one orang utans quickly enough to its taste, so it took the mug and dipped it into the bucket all by itself. They are fascinating creatures using their hands like humans, we were told that like the chimpanzees they also use straw to catch termites or ants, and are extremely dexterous climbers making use even of tiny branches or lianas, which you would not consider capable of bearing them. Too soon we had to bid them farewell and stared our hike, which was frequently interrupted by human feeing breaks when we ate
Stick to me
We were wondering how the baby managed not to fall down
rambutans and bananas, which the guide had brought along. Initially they were meant to be fed to any wild animal we would encounter on our way, but since we did not see any, we were obliged to eat the delicious fruits on our own, what a pity! Although we did not come across wild orang utans or gibbons, we appreciated the trek, butterflies were often fluttering around us and we heard many birds, gibbons or all kinds of insects twittering, barking or chirping. The jungle is a unique habitat, the huge trees especially fascinated us, some specimens have a very broad base consisting of huge slates arranged all around the trunk. For the first time we saw rattan as it grows and not processed into furniture. It looks like a small bushy palm without trunk and the branches have terrible spikes, which may keep away the animals but do not detain man from cutting it. The jungle walk was not very difficult, perfect for us who are not extremely fit and sporty, at the very end we crossed the Bohorok River on foot and although the river did not have much water it was full of strong currents, which made
Great breakfast, thanks!
The bananas were only a supplement to the fruits they find in the jungle
the crossing a little difficult. The river was flowing very quickly, and one of the Indonesians’ pleasure who come to Bukit Lawang, is to ride on the waters on an inflated tyre. The local people mostly come for that and less to see the orang utans, that day there were especially huge crowds around and all of them had a lot of fun on and in the river.
After lunch we went to the village to watch some of the activities going on in honour of Indonesia’s 60th year of independence. We sat down in a small restaurant by the village square, where local bands were having a competition, and there we met Lindsay again, as well as Yan, a guide from the Jungle Inn and three English-speaking young men who had just returned from a longer trek. They had been attacked by a hive of wild bees and stung several times, the American was allergic to the poison and had a tremendously swollen hand, nevertheless they were happy and had enjoyed their contact with nature. Lindsay and Yan planned a chicken barbecue for this evening and asked us whether we would like to share it with them, which
In a brooding mood
Where are all my friends gone?
we gladly accepted. Then we decided to stroll around some more and in the end crossed the shaky suspension bridge (yes, Klaudia managed and even without protesting) and came to a hotel, which we had heard offered tourist buses to Lake Toba, our next destination. We were successful and bought a tour on a scenic road with sightseeing stops in between. When we came back to the restaurant, Lindsay and Yan were still there, with the chickens this rime, and we watched men trying to climb up a greased pole, very similar to an Austrian tradition, the Maibaum. At the beginning of May a decorated fir tree without bark and branches is set up in the village square and the local young men try their best to climb to the top, where some gifts dangle from a circle, and those who manage to are also granted a kiss by the May Queen. When we were there, nobody had managed it to the top, maybe the stimulation of the kiss was missing? On our way back on the newly erected riverside promenade we were caught in heavy rainfall and managed to escape it only by stepping into a small restaurant, where
Unique habitat with fascinating species of plants and animals
we waited quite a long time for the rain to subside, but it only diminished and we decided to cover the distance to the Jungle Inn in the rain but still by daylight. As it was not possible to have a barbecue due to the rain, which we really regretted, the two chickens were fried for us. The funny thing in Indonesia about chicken is that when you order a whole chicken, there are always considerable parts missing, namely the breast, and they do not have much meat either. So two chickens plus rice plus salad were not too much for the four of us. Anyway, we spent a very nice evening with Lindsay and Yan and were sorry to leave our new friends so soon. We also regretted going away from the Jungle Inn and the wonderful people working there, but we had to go on with our trip. On our way to the bus we saw another orang utan to wish us farewell, how considerate! We wish Bukit Lawang and the Jungle Inn a lot more tourists, they duly deserve so.
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