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Published: August 31st 2014
I was in Penang, feeling very worldly & wonderful on my first solo trip in Asia. I had overcome my fear & stepped out alone into the big wide world. I was 50.
Then l saw a sign pointing towards the ferry to Sumatra. It sounded so enticing & exotic. The 'fly by the seat of my pants' itinerary was working well so feeling confident & a bit cocky, l booked the ferry for the following morning. I knew nothing about Sumatra except that the endangered orang-utans lived there & l wanted to see them in the wild before they no longer existed.
After a pleasant passage across the Malaccan Straits, l arrived in Medan, the ugliest city l had ever seen. Clogged, crumbling & cluttered, l just wanted to get out of there. So l immediately high-tailed it by tuk tuk to a bus heading for Bukit Lawang, a village perched just outside of Gunang Lesseur National Park, where l had been told that the 'man of the forest', the orang-utans, lived there in their natural habitat.
On arrival there, l decided a one day trek was enough for me but some how was cunningly conned into a two day trek which the guides promised me was a 'walk in the park.' And l was guaranteed to see the orang-utans.
The 'walk in the park' ended at the base of the first mountain and l needed to drag myself up by tree-roots, crawl on all fours up steep inclines & slid down by the 'seat of my pants' on the other side. The trek became the most gruelling l had experienced in all my travels. The jungles of Sumatra can be extremely mountainous & difficult to trek. The overnight accommodation was on a thin rubber mat under a plastic tarp without mosquito nets. Our group was struggling with the stifling heat & humidity. If l'd had the energy, l would have kicked myself in my complacent arse for not doing some research into the wilderness tours of Sumatra.
Eventually after slogging breathlessly through dense & what felt like, unchartered terrain, we were well rewarded with the over-whelming joy of sightings of several orang-utans. Orang-utans are not family grouped animals and are generally lead solitary lives with a baby & sometimes a toddler. The dominant male has large cheek pads and it is rare to spot one.
Suddenly all the pain was forgotten & time stood still as we watched these close cousins of our own species climbing through the trees of their natural home environment. So human like in their facial expressions, playing with their babies, grooming them tenderly and quietly & curiously watching us below. All was forgiven and we wanted to scream with delight, but instead our group just looked at each other with beaming smiles bordering on bursting.
After two days, l limped out of the jungle exhausted, my heart filled and my soul singing.
The next day l rested up and late in the day, l headed up river for a swim to alleviate the pain in my aching limbs. As l waded into the cool water, a young boy offered to bring me a beer. While l sat enjoying the weightlessness of the water, the boy returned with a cold Bintang & pointed across the river into the trees where l could see the hairy red arms of an orang-utan. Then there were two, mothers & babies. Before l had finished my beer, a group of funky monkeys had climbed down to the rocks opposite & were feasting on some pineapples left from a picnic. They are a quite a large monkey with a sort of mohawk style hair growth. And then some spider monkeys, small very light, long limbed monkeys, were swinging through the branches hanging over the river.
Here we were at sunset, four species of primates, in the jungles of Sumatra, quietly enjoying the peace, no threat to each other, just quiet respect & acceptance.. I inwardly laughed to myself that l could have saved myself a sizeable sum of money and two days of tiresome trekking if l'd just come down to the river & waited for the orang-utans to come to me. I sat in silent solitude, the water washing away my pain, the sounds of the jungle echoing eternally around me. It may have been the alcohol, but l was in a state of bliss.
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