A Sumatran Menagerie - Orang-utans, Elephants and those effin leeches

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February 1st 2009
Published: February 1st 2009
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First of all, apologies to all of you who have sent emails over the last ten days or so, but I haven’t seen the internet since leaving Toba - alas the 21st century hasn’t quite penetrated the throbbing jungles of North Sumatra just yet. However, you will be pleased to hear that I’ve actually done stuff this time, so hopefully episode two will be a little more interesting than the previous entry…

I’d met up with a couple of guys in Toba, Mats from Oslo and Tim from Alkmaar, and we made the semi-tortuous eight hour journey (these roads truly set the bar when it comes to spine-jarring and axel-destroying potholes) to Bukit Lawang, a small village perched on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park.

Bukit Lawang was completely devastated by a massive flash flood that tore through the village five years ago. Due to excessive logging and the ensuing erosion, a mass of old trees had fallen across the river over the years, creating a natural dam which eventually broke after particularly heavy rains. A ten metre high wall of water swept through the narrow valley in seconds, killing over 200 and destroying everything in its path within seconds. Much of it has been rebuilt now, but the emotional and psychological scars are still evident - we met a bunch of guys who talked of just being hollow shells for weeks, unable to eat or talk at all.

However the village is best known for its orang-utan rehabilitation centre which was set up in 1973 to reintroduce caged and mistreated orangs to their natural environment, slowly teaching them how to forage for food and readjust to jungle life. And these creatures are so amazing, you can look into their eyes and see the intelligence there as they sit and calmly check you out as well. Except for Mena that is, who appears to have quite a temper, particularly when she’s feeling peckish. Apparently over sixty tourists have been injured by this big momma over the last fifteen years and you knew when to move when the tone of the rangers began to change. But it was an incredible experience, just observing them filling up bottles of water from the river, sitting in the sun and casually scratching themselves. (I tried to pop a short video at the end of the blog but after two hours of uploading I gave up in despair.) Besides the orang-utans, we regularly spot hordes of macaques and Thomas Leaf Monkeys who scamper across the roofs, searching for food or errant tourists’ cameras. There's something truly special in being able to watch all of these amazing creatures cavorting about as you eat your brekkie each morning.

Ron staggered into town on a steamy Saturday afternoon and since then the four of us have hung out pretty continuously - sharing stories and beers and generally having a ball. We also quickly joined in the daily football matches and I’m pleased to announce that Bukit Lawang is now home to the recently formed FC Bule. Before I go any further, I should explain that a bule is the Indonesia term for a white man (much like a farang or falang in other parts of Southeast Asia) and when we can scrounge up the numbers, FC Bule pull on our thongs, sandals or in case of the lucky ones, shoes, and take on the locals. And while the Jungle Stadium may not be as renowned as the Maracana, the Nou Camp or Old Trafford, I reckon it beats them all hands down in terms of location - perched on the river’s edge with the towering jungle looming overhead, monkeys chattering, birds twittering and some thumping Indo-techno as the half-time entertainment.

While our record isn’t spectacular - we generally win the first game of the afternoon, until the oppressive heat and humidity tend to handicap us considerably for the return leg, much fun is had by all. And although the locals may not possess the physical presence of us bules, particularly the towering Viking Mats who’s twice the size of most of our opponents, they play with a determination and tenacity which generally leaves us sore, muddy and utterly knackered. And well ready for that first Bintang.

Besides the football, our days here have consisted of visiting the orang-utan feeding centre, trekking for hours up-river to spend fifteen minutes tubing back down, wandering aimlessly taking photos and eating exceedingly well. Nights are spent with a crew of the local lads playing chess, chatting, drinking, listening to music and generally chilling out - a big terimah kasi to the wonderfully genuine and hilarious Pino in particular.

Oh, and then there was our room. While lying lazily in the hammock on the balcony reading (alas, I’m still to convince my brain to call off the strike and start working again and haven’t progressed past page 134 of my first book in the fortnight that I’ve been in Sumatra) a thunderous waterfall roars right past the room, providing the most stunning natural shower, the perfect cure for those early morning hangovers. I’ve attached a couple of photos just to make you all terribly jealous.

After allowing Ron a few days to acclimatise to our incredibly stressful and hectic pace of life, we decided to head north to the relatively hidden gem of Tangkahan on a road that made the previously derided one to Bukit Lawang seem like a serene journey on freshly laid tarmac. To get an idea, we rarely exceeded ten kms an hour for the entire trip and the potholes resembled the volcano craters that ringed the countryside.

Tangkahan is just sublime - a tiny retreat of two lodges, a raft that ferries you across the river to the village itself and very little else. Besides jungle. From the balcony where you sip the most luscious Sumatran coffee, you can gaze up the river which twists through a mass of primeval, untouched jungle. Macaques, monkeys and monitor lizards all saunter down to drink and birdsongs cry out throughout the day and night.

We all woke early on our first morning and wandered down to a sanctuary which has been built to rehabilitate the elephants that were previously used to haul the trees that were logged in the area. It’s supported by Zoos Victoria and these guys are doing some truly amazing work. Since the flood at Bukit Lawang, the locals have recognised the need to protect their jungle so a huge effort is made to prevent any further illegal logging. These days, a bunch of local rangers head out on the elephants and patrol the borders of the national park and every morning they head down to the river to clean them off. So we spent a couple of hours just hanging out with the elephants - washing them, feeding them and watching as they got their pedicures to remove thorns, rocks and the like. It really was such an amazing experience to stand there in the river, scrubbing brush in hand and wash away the previous days grime, the elephants lying there serenely, occasionally grunting in satisfaction and bellowing to each other.

While Bukit Lawang has it’s relatively well trodden paths, Tangkahan is dense impenetrable jungle and the supposed tracks are essentially non-existent. We spent a few hours climbing up slippery, muddy slopes, pushing aside thorn-encrusted creepers which left us all covered with masses of ragged scratches. And of course the leeches. We had the wisdom to arrive here just at the end of the rainy season, so of course they’ve been breeding and teaching the young ‘uns exactly how to snare themselves a bule. You are constantly scanning your legs and arms, pausing every twenty steps or so to rip the buggers off. Thus, I unfortunately got very few decent photos as if you stood still for more than four or five seconds, then they’d be onto you from all directions. We’d taken the local preventative mixture of tobacco-water and smeared ourselves with it but to very little avail. By the end, we all had dozens of nice juicy bites, with trails of blood dripping down our legs and arms. And of course they weren’t picky and could move with amazing speed, so you had to check everywhere. And I mean everywhere - lest the buggers decided to feast on certain unmentionables.

We spent our last night in Tangkahan with a few of the local boys watching the Indonesia versus Australia game on a television that sported a thirty foot aerial and if you strained your eyes, you could vaguely make out various sides as they battled out a thrilling 0-0 draw. As a local guy muttered, it's like watching a television infested with white ants. But it is pretty cool to be able to say you watched the game in the depths of the Sumatran jungle - yet for the entire ninety minutes we found ourselves inadvertently running our hands over our legs and frequently glancing over our limbs, checking for phantom leeches…

And so it’s south from here to Berastagi where we’ll tackle a climb to the volcanic crater of Gunung Sibayak and then back to Toba and Ron’s family village of Balige where I’m going to find him a nice Batak wife. Any contributions to the dowry would be greatly appreciated, just deposit the money in my account and I’ll bulk-buy the water buffalo…

Additional photos below
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6th February 2009

Two great places Bukit Lawang and Tangkahan
Hi, Wow, loved your report- both places are so different but both worth visiting Bukit Lawang and Tangkahan. I first visited Tangkahan in Sept 2006 and have written about it ever since. Just love the place- seems like you stayed at Jungle Lodge with that photo of the view at the breakfast table- like being in heaven. Actually there are 3 accomodation places in Tangkahan across the river- Mega Inn to your left as you climb the stairs from the ferry, then Bambu River and finally Jungle Lodge. Look forward to reading your next blog. Pamela a great lover of Indonesia. ( back in 2010 for my 9th trip.)
4th December 2010

i just happened to come across your blog and felt the need for a bit of factual correction- not nit picking or anything! Elephants were never used in t.han as part of illegal logging ventures they were brought in after illegal loggers were cleared out of the area - some from elephant camps in Acheh and other places. the only thing used to haul illegally cut wood were people and the odd water buffalo- they were originally introduced by flora and fauna international as part ofan eco turism programme.

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