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Published: November 15th 2012
An orang-utan playing hide and seek in the trees
Our next stop was the jungle village of Bukit Lawang to visit our furry primate cousins, the Orang-Utans. Our journey took five hours, and on the way we stopped at a petrol station. There was a small cage of dogs outside, and I wondered whether these were guard dogs that were let out in the evening, or whether they were being transported for someone's dinner. Dog is eaten in some parts of Sumatra, although it's seldom written as dog on the menu. It's simply written as B1, and pig is written as B2. These correspond to the number of letter Bs in the name (dog is called Biang and pig is called Babi). I had seen plenty of adverting signs written with B2, but had yet to see B1.
One strange thing I noticed about some petrol stations in Sumatra is that you can only buy petrol and nothing else. They are just big empty buildings with pumps outside. You don't even go inside, because you give your money to the attendant who pumps your petrol for you. If they put a small shop inside selling drinks and snacks, they would make a fortune. Only a few petrol stations in
Dogs for Dinner?
You'd need a huge casserole pot for all three of these
Sumatra have come up with this revolutionary money-making scheme!
And so we reached Buking Lawang, a small jungle town which had been almost completely wiped out by flooding in 2003. Deforestation is a major problem in Sumatra, and if a forest doesn't have Natural Park status, it's fair game for logging. As well as destroying habitats for Sumatra's many rare animals, the loss of trees removes a natural barrier that helps keep water flows in check. In the case of Bukit Lawang, nearby deforestation caused a huge flood which destroyed most of the town, which then had to be rebuilt from scratch.
We stayed in a welcoming jungle retreat called Rainforest. According to our guidebook, they served "the best Rendang in town". This is not a statement to be made lightly, and it certainly wasn't a claim that my rumbling stomach and curry-loving nature could ignore. Especially considering that this is one of my all-time favourite Asian dishes. To those of you who aren't familiar with Rendang, it's a meat-based curry served in a rich coconut sauce. The style in Sumatra is to cook the Rendang long and slow, until the meat is falling apart and the sauce
Attack of the Killer Ants
This is what happens when ants get hold of steroids
has reduced to a thick coconut paste that clings to the meat in a spicy embrace. Was it any good? The answer was a resounding Yes, and my tastebuds were dancing in joy. After dinner, the staff gathered around us with a guitar and sang to us. One amusing song had the music to "Jingle Bells"' but the lyrics were something like this (sing along now)
Jungle trek, jungle trek
In Bukit Lawang
Oh what fun it is to see
The big orang-utan
A few days ago we had contacted a guide called Jungle Eddy, to arrange a two-day trek which would involved camping in the jungle. On our trek we were hoping to see orang-utans in the wild. The most famous fact about orang-utans is that their DNA is 96% identical to ours. But did you know that we also share 50% of our DNA with chickens? This does not surprise me when you look at how some people walk. What does surprise me is that people have actually bothered to spend time on that research. It was carried out by the "International Chicken Genome Sequencing Consortium", which can be loosely translated as a
"Did I leave the oven on?"
A monkey looking very worried
bunch of scientists around the world with nothing better to do with their time. But anyway, I digress. Back to our trek.
Two other endangered species could be found in this area of jungle, namely the Sumatran Tiger and the Sumatran Rhino. I'm sure everyone wants to see a tiger in the wild in theory. But do you REALLY want to see a tiger in the wild? Think about it. You're standing there in the jungle. You have two legs, you're out of shape, and are not accustomed to running in jungle terrain. And suddenly you spot the tiger. A lean, powerful mass of muscle with huge teeth and sharp claws. It has two more legs than you, it's perfectly adapted to running in the jungle, and it hasn't eaten in two days. What's your next move? Luckily, you don't have to outrun a tiger. You just need to outrun the person who's nearest to the tiger!
The jungle was also the territory of our dreaded enemy, the mosquito. I've been bitten so many times in so many countries by so many mosquitoes that I could consider myself a connoisseur. There are bites that's leave tiny marks barely
visible to the naked eye and yet they itch like crazy. Then there are bites that swell up like small blisters but don't itch at all. With over 3,500 different species of mosquito, there's plenty of variety of bites to look forward to. And did you know that only female mosquitos suck blood? The men are tee-total and stick to sugary fluids such as nectar, bless them. Zena had been preparing for our mosquito encounter with the help of a jar of Marmite which I had brought over from England for her. "A spoonful a day keeps the Mozzies away". Ever wondered why some people get bitten more often than others? Apparently mosquitoes track people down according to the chemical composition of their sweat. Blood types can affect your sweat, with Group O being the tastiest. And Marmite contains a high level of vitamin B, which changes your sweat signature and makes you unpalatable to the little critters. Or so the rumour goes. You can also get the same anti-mosquito effect by smearing Marmite liberally all over your face and arms. But this is likely to keep people away as much as the mozzies!
Jungle Eddy ran a small
Climbing down a steep slope
Thank goodness for tree roots to hold onto
team of well-trained and informed guides. Out guide was called Collin, a short dude with tattoos, ponytail and a machete strapped to his waist. He looked like he lived in the jungle. He seemed confident that we would spot our hairy orange chums. Sure enough, we had our first Orang-Utan encounter an hour into our trek. A large female was hanging from a low branch next to our path. She was amazing to behold, with bright orange fluffy fur and a remarkably expressive face. Now there are a couple of guidelines when approaching Orang-Utans. You should not get closer than 7 metres, and you should not linger for more than 10 minutes. There was one girl who stood right up close to take a photo, about a metre away. Stupid! This is a bad mistake for two reasons. Firstly, they might appear gentle and docile, but you must never forget that these are wild animals with brute strength. They are unpredictable, and if you invade their personal space, anything could happen. Especially if you get between a mother and a baby. As it happens, her baby was actually in the trees above us, and ambled its way down a few
Checking out our camp
minutes later. So this girl was very lucky. Secondly, orang-utans can catch human diseases, but their immune systems are not well equipped to deal with them. A mild cold can actually kill an orang-utan.
Our group stood a respectful and safe distance away, but as we watched, she picked up a huge rock with her feet and started climbing higher up the tree. Had she had enough of us snap-happy tourists? Was she about to throw the rock at us? There were some murmurings through our group and a few people started to feel uneasy and slowly back away. Thankfully it wasn't a rock, it was a termite nest. She broke it open with her fist and picked out the termites to eat with her nimble fingers. Our guide Collin informed us her name was Suma and she was 32 years old. She had been released into the wild from a rehabilitation centre, which was why she stayed so close to the village and felt comfortable around humans. The centre has released about 200 orang-utans back into the wild over the past 20 years, many of which had been caged pets. They had to be taught how to forage
Zena and I, having a rest before our final hike to the camp
for food, climb trees and build nests. Most caged orang-utans were caught as babies, and therefore never got the chance to learn these skills. It's sad enough that these magnificent creatures should be confined to a cage, but it's even sadder that a trapper will typically kill the mother first, otherwise it is too dangerous for him to capture the baby. Which means that for every orang-utan baby captured, an adult female has most likely been killed.
Whilst Suma was a gentle creature, there is another rehabilitated orang-utan who is fearless and aggressive. Her name is Mina, and she is the bad girl of the jungle. She is known to attack humans, and her current count of attacks is somewhere over 70. She never adapted properly to her release, and still expects food from humans, and indeed tries to take food from humans. Luckily we didn't come across the naughty Mina.
Although the jungle is a vast place, many of the animals stick to the same areas which is why the guides know them and their names. As we trekked deeper into the jungle, Collin said "if we're lucky we might see Paul around here". Lo and behold,
A Peacock called Paul
Isn't he magnificent?
ten minutes later we saw Paul resting on a log in his full feathery magnificence. Paul was a transvestite peacock, with an enormous folded plumage trailing behind him like a bridal dress. It would put most brides to shame, and he should have had a series of little peacocks to hold it off the ground for him. Sadly we didn't see him strut his stuff and show off his plumage to the ladies, because no ladies were around. If I had known, I would have brought a life-sized cardboard cutout of a female peacock.
Our trek was challenging in places with lots of scrambling over rocks and roots, and lowering ourselves down steep slopes on vines. By the time we reached our jungle camp, we were muddy, wet and tired. But although this was a good jungle experience, it was still a well-trodden tourist trail that had been used by thousands of travellers before us. We were not under any illusions that we were being proper explorers or pioneers.
We reached our jungle camp by late afternoon. It was a peaceful spot on a river bank, and consisted of two basic tents thrown together with bamboo and plastic
Our Jungle Camp
Kitchen tent on the left, and our 5 star accommodation on the right.
sheets. Monkeys we leaping around in the trees like furry buffoons, and a couple of monitor lizards were walking past in a casual manner, as if on their way to the shops for a pint of milk. A team of locals prepared dinner in a makeshift kitchen consisting of little more than two wood fires, machetes and a collection of battered soot-coated pans. Yet they turned out an epic feast of no less than six dishes. Curries had been simmered in pots, vegetables fried in woks and chickens roasted to perfection on wooden poles. The most basic "kitchen" I had even seen produced a truly impressive spread of food.
After darkness descended we lit candles, chatted nonsense and and got dive-bombed by kamikaze moths. Once we retired to bed, the heavens opened and we went to sleep with rumbles of thunder, flashes of lightning and heavy rain drumming on the plastic sheeting. We had no blankets and the thinnest foam mattress in the world, barely a centimetre thick. It was a warm night but the ground was hard and I didn't sleep too well. We also had a few nocturnal visitors. A bat found its way inside and was
Mother and Baby
Having a day out by the river
manically flapping around, and a jungle rat was scampering around in the darkness, looking for scraps of food.
In the morning we were entertained by the local troop of monkeys. They were play fighting and leaping from tree to tree. One of them missed a branch and fell splashing into the river. They kept sending daring raiding parties into the camp to steal fruit. We also saw monkeys getting jiggy in the jungle. Monkey sex is hilarious. The male monkey keeps looking left and right during the act, with an expression that is somewhere between concern and embarrassment. (male says to female: "I'd better hurry up Betty, people are watching.") Whereas monkeys are at it all the time, orang-utans just aren't getting enough nookie. No wonder they are endangered. The female has a baby once every six to nine years on average. Perhaps we could do something to encourage them, to bring a bit of jungle romance into their lives. Put some mood lighting in the trees. Send some flowers anonymously. Pipe a bit of Barry White through the jungle. Or send in a Barbers Shop Quartet of gibbons to sing a romantic song or two. Whatever happens, unless
The Jungle Crew
Myself, Zena, Aliz, Julia, Thommi and Jungle Collin
they start getting jiggy in the jungle, they are going to remain on the endangered list.
(More photos at the bottom of the page)
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