Mother & Child
I had been looking forward to Bukit Lawang and its famed Orang-utan for quite some time, so much so that I dreamt about it whilst on Pulau Weh...but not in the way that you might think. In the dream, Amy had apparently had a child whilst we’ve been away (from where I don’t know) and had decided to name the boy Lawang! Of course I thought this ridiculous (although preferable to “Bukit”) and we argued and then...I woke up! Hopefully the place itself would not be as bizarre...
Leaving from Pulau Weh, we knew we were in for one of those tediously long journeys again. A bus, a boat, a tuk tuk, two buses and then finally a final tuk tuk; all of which consumed 24 hours of our 30-day Indonesian visa before we ultimately arrived at our accommodation for the ensuing four nights in Bukit Lawang. Still, we again found that the journey was not without its pleasantries and certainly friends were made along the way. Amy has already described her encounter with numerous local teenagers on our boat crossing to Banda Aceh. Almost immediately after disembarking at the port, we found ourselves conversing with Uchi, a very friendly
and genuine tuk tuk driver who escorted us around Aceh while we checked off our list of chores: ATM, arrange a flight to Sulawesi, go to Pizza Hut...etc. Afterwards, he drove us to the bus station for our transportation south to Binjai, the jump-off point for buses to Bukit Lawang. Whilst waiting for our bus, we also met a really nice guy called Tofi, who would also be taking the same bus, and someone who is fascinated by English people, in particular our regional accents and the intricacies of slang!
We happily chatted away with Uchi and Tofi for around an hour before our bus arrived, laughing and joking, all the while marvelling at the authentic friendliness of these locals. Certainly, during our time in Indonesia thus far, it would not be a stretch to describe the locals as the friendliest we have met on our travels. With their unadulterated willingness to engage us in conversation that is not predicated on a sale, and their seeming eternal smiles, it would be challenging indeed not to feel welcome or wanted.
Sure we found Koreans to be endlessly helpful and Cambodians are as kind as you’ll find, but there just
seems to be something different about Indonesians. I remember reading one of the guidebooks about Sumatra a year or so ago and, although it acknowledged this friendliness, it seemed more concerned with striking a little fear into prospective travellers based on Indonesia’s fanatical Muslim element. Islam dominates in Indonesia and is an enormous part of the daily lives of these people, but the plentiful locals we have conversed with cannot distance themselves enough from these acts of a minority and almost go out of their way to prove it! Our experiences in Bukit Lawang did nothing but enhance this observation.
After arriving into this riverside village, located in Taman Nasional Gunung Leuser (or Taman National Park), we checked into ‘Green Hill,’ an ambient guest house about 800m or so from the local village. Our room boasted fine views of the jungle and each evening around 4pm, we were treated to a troop of passing monkeys, scurrying along the branches inches from our balcony. As day turned to night following this passing, we could hear the soothing sounds of the Sungai Bohorok River harmoniously merging with those of the surrounding jungle and its wildlife. It was often difficult to even
get out of the hammock...
But, pull ourselves away we did and we were introduced to the awesome staff at Green Hill: Arif, Syafii, Bandi (a Guns ‘n’ Roses acolyte who would play perfect acoustic versions of their songs late into the night) and Yosif. Whether you are eating dinner our just lounging around the restaurant area, it’s not difficult to find conversation amongst these four, whether it be music, religion or politics, their knowledge spans a vast array! Again, each day we were greeted with genuine smiles and often they would need to be pulled away from conversation to continue with their work.
Another reason we decided upon Green Hill was the fact it is owned and run by a conservation scientist, one whom has sought to educate her staff, who in turn take eco-orientated treks into the jungle to see the wildlife, including the Orang-utans. Their treks stress respect for the wildlife and their habitats – and Green Hill practice what they preach as they advised us to wait to trek while Amy recovered from her cold she acquired in Pulau Weh. The reason for waiting we were informed was because we would be getting very
close to the Orang-utans, who are particularly susceptible to human illness and germs. We happily obliged, confident that we had found a conscionable trekking service and spent our days traipsing up and down the single path alongside the river, or swinging in our hammock reading. Occasionally, we excitedly discussed what Indonesian dish we would be devouring from green Hill’s excellent menu (how exciting our lives have become!).
Finally the morning arrived for our trek, and we eagerly dressed and ate quickly (yet another banana pancake with honey) before departing at 8am with our guide Syafii. We crossed the river by boat an immediately began an uphill climb into the dense jungle. We opted to begin our trek with a visit to the feeding platform for the Orang-utans, where they receive bananas and milk each day if they show up. The idea of a viewing platform sounded unappealing – my mind conjured images of a heavy metal structure in the jungle, akin to those found in zoos and we would view this act from a distance. However, what we found there was quite different.
The feeding station was barely a structure at all and there was no metal in
sight. We were simply stood beneath some trees whilst semi-wild Orang-utan climbed, swung or idly lazed in the canopy above, frequently coming down to the ground for some bananas. Whilst there we counted three adult females and three youngsters, all of whom casually descended upon our position for their feed as if we weren’t there, relaxing on branches mere feet away from where we stood, easily close enough to touch. Seeing the Orang-utan this close in their natural environment is truly one of the most special experiences we have had – the similarities between the Orang-utan and humans is breathtaking. However, with a 96% match in our DNA, they amazingly remain the least similar to humans of all apes!
Despite these similarities, it is humans that have caused these creatures to be designated with the tag “Semi-Wild,” since extensive deforestation and an explosion of palm oil plantations have taken over their natural habitats. Since then, many of the 5,000 or so Orang-utans in this national park were relocated here due to this development, but of course they were the lucky ones, as countless others lost their lives.
Staring in wonder at these beautiful animals, we were a little
startled when Meena, one of the females who we subsequently learned has bitten over 50 people in her time, aggressively advanced towards us and with that we decided it was time to move on, not wanting to outstay our welcome (or visit the hospital for rabies shots!).
On we went in search of other wild-life, excited by the prospect of what we would find. Around an hour later was for me the highlight of the day. As we walked Syafii signalled for us to be silent and walk slowly – as we did so, we spotted just two of them, a mother and her only months old baby, truly wild Orang-utan. They stayed around just long enough to survey us and, unfamiliar with what they found, shyly retreated far up into the canopy. Considering wild Orang-utans are found in only two places in the world, we consider ourselves exceptionally lucky for those few brief moments!
For the remainder of the day, we walked high and low, up and down slippery trails where more than once we were sent sprawling (Amy tried to claim she was impaled by a stick when it didn’t even pluck a few threats from
her shirt!). This of course did not detract from the experience of the day. Indeed, as it wore on, we were treated to even more wild life – toucans, swinging gibbons, the bizarre Thomas Leaf monkey - indigenous to Sumatra, and poison millipedes amongst others. We luckily avoided any snakes (apparently Cobras and Green Mambas amongst them!) or the very rare Sumatran Tiger. Aiding the visual was the consistent soundtrack of animal noise accompanying us throughout our journey.
Finally, we again crossed the river (this time without a boat, minus our shoes with rapid-like current hammering into our bodies and yes, of course I fell over into the water yet again!) and headed for home, after what was by far one of the most rewarding days of our travels so far. After dinner (and yet another deep conversation with Arif!), we lethargically climbed into bed and dozen off before hitting the road again the following day...
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