Sumatra kicked my brother's ass

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August 29th 2008
Published: August 29th 2008
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little oranglittle oranglittle orang

I forded the raging river to see this guy. totally worth it
"I, like, hate Medan," said my 17-year old brother of the capital of North Sumatra. I don't quite agree with him, but I don't love city either. The entire metropolis reminded me of the outskirts of Kathmandu -like, the area near Tribhuvan that's a run-down shamble old bricks, mangy monkeys and polluted rivers. I didn't see any wildlife in Medan itself, but I enjoyed having a beer at a pub on a small lane adjacent to the beautiful mosque on J.I. Raya. In fact, sipping a large Bintang and listening to the 'call to prayer' live just a few dozen meters away leaves me with an indelible memory.

But one night in the capital was plenty, and by 10am the following morning, we were in a van on our way to Bukit Lawang, legendary home of the endangered orangutan, Sumatran tiger, rhino, elephant and numerous primate species. It took a while to get out of Medan proper, passing through considerable messy urban scenery. When we finally made a break out into the countryside, I was hoping for vistas of rolling hills and forest, but instead we were rewarded with 3 hours on a bombed-out road through what must be the world's largest palm oil plantation. Not one cubic foot of lowland area in the area between Medan and Bukit Lawang (BL) has escaped the wholesale conversion to palm oil plantations. There's the occasional rubber farm in the midst of this vast monoculture -an improvement as rubber trees leave the soil intact and provide leaves favored by many species of bird- but there's no escaping the fact that what was once a riot of jungle and wildlife exists no more.

And then we arrived in Bukit Lawang. We stayed at the Jungle Inn, the very last bungalow outfit on the long path to the boat across the Bohorok River into Gunung Leuser Nat'l park. Lonely Planet describes this place as having a "funky feel" and mentions a room having the rockface of a mountainside as one of the walls. This was to be my room.

The Bohorok carves a sweet little canyon through a mountain range, the western side of which forms the boundary of Gunung Leuser Nat'l Park (GLNP); the other side of the river is private property; this is where all the bungalows and restaurants are, ending at the Jungle Inn (+6281370730151).

We arrived around 2pm, time enough to catch the 3pm orangutan feeding, but we were rattled from the horrendous "moonscape" of a road in, sweaty and still hungover, so I opted for a plunge in the creamy green Bohorok and vowed to see the "orangs" the following morning.

The reason we came to BL was to trek across the park to Kutacane, a 7-day adventure pushing through wild tropical forest and prime tiger habitat. I envisioned myself setting my watch alarm for 4am every morning, venturing out of the tent to sit by the river with a flashlight to spot an unsuspecting clouded leopard, golden cat, or tiger. Our pre-arranged guide, Darma, a national park ranger, who I had finally met -very briefly- at the Jungle Inn restaurant just 30 minutes ago, was waving to me from across the river.

"Greg!" he called out. "Come see the orangs!"

"I will tomorrow morning," I shouted back over the small rapids. "Swimming now."

He gave me a thumbs up.

After climbing out of the river I sat down on a large rock to dry off and take in the forested walls of the valley. A convoy of macaques were making their way across the shore directly across from me. I saw them more as rodents, pests, compared with the majestic gibbons and Dusky Langurs I saw in Thailand last year and the year before.

I was just about to get up and head over to the Jungle Inn restaurant for a Bintang and a Nasi-Goreng when a monitor lizard crashed across the rocks on the opposite bank in pursuit of a smaller reptile. In desperation, the tiny lizard leapt into the strong river current, miraculously beating an effective water-walk upstream. The monitor, however, was undeterred, launching straight in after his prey and catching it in his mouth right on the surface of the Bohorok.

We're in the jungle now, I pondered.

I enjoyed my room stupendously, and I loved the way the employees of the Jungle Inn put their work down and pick up their guitars and provide live music till 1am almost every night. We met people who had been staying in BL for 3 weeks, doing nothing other than hopping on the occasional tube for a ride downstream and deciding if it was time for a Sumatran coffee or a Bintang.

It rained hard that

orang taking the trail
night, but not until 2am when almost everyone was in their rooms. The next morning, at 8am -one hour before the boat begins carrying people across into the park for the orangutan feeding up on the mountain- a line of 50-60 French tourists. The rainfall from the night before had the river gushing with silt-laden swells.

There was no way I was going to wait in that line, so I began eying up the shallowest parts of the river, all of which looked tough to cross. Everyone advised me against fording across it, but, I figured, I'm going to hike for 7 days across Gunung Leuser, surely I'll have to conquer worse than this, so why not test myself. I made it across, camera in hand with the current at my waist, but I very nearly lost it twice and could have easily been swept a hundred yards downstream in less than a minute.

And up in the park I got my first look at a semi-wild orangutan, a little guy who came swinging down from the benches far above. The crunching of leaves, the bending of branches, the pauses in his sojourn, created a lot of anticipation, and the site of his furry orange body and playful face did not disappoint.

Two day later we began our trek, joined by two last-minute tag-ons: Greg and Nancy. Greg, 34, was a school teacher and professional surfer from Los Angeles, and Nancy, his girlfriend from Colorado, has been trekking the globe for the better part of 20 years.

We began by going back up to the feeding platform, where this time 2 large orangs came down to meet us, after feeding time, and we had them all to ourselves. After that we began hiking up and across the mountains, seranaded by singing gibbons the entire day. Besides the orangs, we found a peacock, but other than that, a day's trek outside of BL is too crammed with trekkers to make room for much wildlife.

It was a very, very rough hike to our campsite. "This is as tough as the Everest Base Camp trek," remarked Nancy, catching her breath and wiping the sweat from her forehead. We all devoured locally grown rambuttans and drained our waters. We stopped off near a river for lunch and a swim; lunch was served wrapped in paper -spicy rice with
campsite, Day 1campsite, Day 1campsite, Day 1

that's Luke in the foreground, before Sumatra KICKED HIS ASS
some vegatables and a whole fish. To this day, it remains the tastiest lunch I have ever consumed.

Another 2 hours and we were at camp, where I hiked down to a waterfall and took another swim. Unfortunately, that evening my brother became very ill, vomitting into the river all the way until daybreak. Maybe it was exhaustion, maybe a virus, we didn't know. He didn't clear up by the following afternoon, so we decide to take a different route back to the river where we could call for some tubes to be brought up so that we could raft on on Day 3. And that's what happened. But we spent a nice day and a half by the second campsite along an upper stretch of the Bohorok River, a particularly beautifuly stretch of jungle and wild river.

"I don't remember the Amazon being as beautiful as this," said Nancy, shaking her heard at the great green panorama.

Sadly, since the other side of the Bohorok is private property, developers are already carving it up into palm oil plots. Many orangutans, Thomas Leaf Monkeys, macaques and Great Hornbills reside on that side of the river.

waterfall, day 1waterfall, day 1waterfall, day 1

just downstream from out campsite. I was stung by a hive of ants
of all," Darma explained, "the Chinese want to build a casino up there on top of the mountain. That's right, the Chinese have got the money, and they're talking to the farmers who own it and they want to buy them out and build Sumatra's largest casino up on to, providing little "sideshows" to come see the orangs. They want to bulldoze the path that leads to the Jungle Inn, knock down some of the smaller guest houses, and pave a large road all the way to the boat across to Gunung Leuser. That way they can bus in large tour groups. They can let their guests gamble up on the mountain and then come see the orangs as a side attraction," he said, shaking his head but never losing his eternally wise smile.

The next day the tubes came and we shot the rapids back to Bukit Lawang. My brother and sister were both relieved to be back under a roof with Bintangs in front of them.

"Luke," I said to my brother. "I'm going to have a tee-shirt made for you that read: Sumatra kicked my ass".

Darma Pinem and his team are probably the
Sumatran jungleSumatran jungleSumatran jungle

...the Amazon ain't got nuthin on this
best guides in Bukit Lawang. Darma also works as a National Park Ranger for Gunung Leuser. His contact info are: and his mobile phone # is: +6281396038163
Darma was also recently featured in this Diplomat article titled Inside Indonesia's Burning Forests

Additional photos below
Photos: 14, Displayed: 14


along the Bohorokalong the Bohorok
along the Bohorok

does it get any more beautiful than this? I don't care if it does. Near campsite day 2.
back in Bukit Lawangback in Bukit Lawang
back in Bukit Lawang

That's Ali on the left and Darma on the right, the strongest, coolest, most knowledgeable guides a visitor to Gunung Leuser could ask for
Thomas Leaf MonkeyThomas Leaf Monkey
Thomas Leaf Monkey

a troupe invaded the Jungle Inn one afternoon, scarring off the macaques for once
goodbye, orangsgoodbye, orangs
goodbye, orangs

2 friends walking by the river...

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