Camping deep in the jungle with the red fur giants

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October 27th 2012
Published: October 27th 2012
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Berastagi at twilight
My brain still rattling around in my skull, I stagger out of what should only be referred to as an earthquake on wheels. "We made it to Kutacane," I say with hope as I attempt to see if my brain still works. Another bumpy 45 minutes by van into the wilderness and we arrive in small Ketambe where I drag my numb backside into the guesthouse and begin to find my equilibrium. Oh Ketambe, you little barely-even-a-village tiny unruly place. You're not even on most maps of North Sumatra. Ketambe! Doesn't it just sound wild? Say it out loud... Keh-Tom-Bay. It sounds like a place off the map doesn't it? I hear it and think tribal, African even. And with all the rugged terrain I've endured on various modes of transport to get here I feel as though I very well could be in the middle of the Congo if I didn't know any better.

Our bungalow is settled in the dense wild beside a flowing river of mocha. A distant howl. Chirping. Some unidentifiable clicking. Invisible creatures in an unorganized symphony protruding from the big green. Some local children cast their clothes aside and race into the river, splashes
Tree beard? That you?Tree beard? That you?Tree beard? That you?

This puppy's over 300 years old!
of water framing their laughing faces. The reality of just how far from home I am sinks in. It makes me feel both peaceful and anxious.

People don't usually venture all the way to Ketambe for the village, they come for the JUNGLE. Treks into Gunung Leuser national park can be arranged for one, two, three, five, or even 18 days! Most visitors opt for the 1-3 days range seeing as how anything longer is recommended only for those of optimum fitness levels and experience. I chose the two-day trek with one night of camping in the deep jungle. Grab your bug spray and read on...

Day 1:

As I forego deep into the wild, stringy invisible strands clench to my forehead every few minutes. I shuffle my fingers over my face in fear the spider that made them is perched on my nose. An abundance of growth with surprising density grows endlessly around me. After a good sixty minutes in I'm drenched, and not because I'm sweating, but because everything in the jungle is wet. Sopping in fact. "Orangutan" our guide, John, shouts in a whisper. I look to where he's pointing and catch a glimpse

JFK up ahead
of red fur making its way to the top of a trunk and then safely hidden in the rustling leaves. Farther into the wilderness we swing like Tarzan himself on a rooty vine hanging from a massive wood. After some more traipsing through overgrowth and wading through streams we make it to our campsite and have a late lunch followed by a dip in the adjacent river. Afternoon trekking allows us a better viewing of the orangutans. We observe a mother and it's one-month-old infant eating mangoes in the high treetops above. I'm filled with a strong justification for my undying wanderlust when I get to witness something exotic and as naturally beautiful as this. *I have a flashback* It's three years ago and I'm peering through a glass barrier at an orangutan in captivity at Busch Gardens in Tampa, FLorida. A map of Indonesia posted beside the viewing window has small red blobs to indicate where they live in the wild. A place, to me at the time, that seemed as far away as Jupiter. Yet here I am now at the core of one of those red blotches on the map. The result of a foreshadowing of sorts.

The mother (day 2)
A half eaten mango falls an inch away from John's head and on that queue we march on.


Don't ask me how but our guide catches our fish dinner from the river with his bare hands. A talented man that John! John's nickname is JFK. Yes, like the former US president. He comes highly recommended as a jungle guide with his 19 years of experience. He's even mentioned in the Lonely Planet books. After supper we gather around the campfire like any good campers do and chat about travel, family, women, life, etc. After assuring me there are no ghosts in the jungle, John scratches the itch I have for a spooky tale with a story about his tiger encounter. Soon it's time to hit the dirt, and by that I mean it's time to sleep, and by that I mean it's time to lay down all night with one eye open irrationally questioning every noise I hear coming from outside the tent. I manage a little shut-eye intermittently throughout the night despite Jiminy Cricket who snuck into the tent and made it his sole purpose to torment me with his hopping antics.

Day 2:

Don't worry, I'm wearing shorts, jeez!

A quick breakfast followed by a short morning trek leads me to my third sighting of the red giants, and for the first time relatively close up. A mother, father, and a baby lounging on a low branch lets us watch them for a good while until the male seems suddenly annoyed by our presence and guides his family into hiding in a leafier tree. The better part of the afternoon is occupied by jumping, swimming, and skinny dipping *gasp* in the river. A refreshing swim in the heart of the jungle (in my birthday suit no less) with no one around except the monkeys; now that's one of those truly freeing feelings that only seldom comes around. The rest of the day consisted of more trekking, some hornbill and monkey spotting, and eventually ended back in itsy-bitsy Ketambe where I have to admit it was nice to return to after two days in the big green.

Side bar: I'd like to note that I didn't complain about the jungle insects at all in this blog entry *pats self on back* and believe me, I could probably write a trilogy about them. I'll say only this: Bug spray and
My 'travel buddy'My 'travel buddy'My 'travel buddy'

No more turns please!!!
a harpoon are packing essentials if you decide to go into the national park.

So, I mostly just wish I could remember what it feels like to be clean. Sure, I semi-bathed in the river and did as good of a job as anyone could with the tiny trickling faucet in the guesthouse, but oddly I've gotten used to the idea of being "half clean." I'm like those jeans you wore out that aren't visibly dirty but don't quite smell of fabric softener anymore...

The public shuttle back to Berastagi is a cramped tin box rolling into a million or so sharp turns through the mountains. A heavyset gentleman to my left must have narcolepsy to be able to fall asleep in these driving conditions. Each left turn sends his full body weight into me. I cringe. Each right turn acts as the instrument in my revenge as I strongly lean a little more than necessary back into him. My cringe turns into a smirk and so the pattern continues turn after turn, curve after curve... A hard left turn lands his head nestled straight into my neck, open-mouthed and still very much asleep. My face crinkles up
Jungle + River = ?Jungle + River = ?Jungle + River = ?

Red shrooms by the river
and I look puzzlingly down at his face. Partly because I was impressed with his ability to sleep through a roller-coaster ride and partly because I felt bad for the guy, I let him rest there for a bit, or at least until the next sharp right turn.

Quick blurb on the town of Berastagi:

Two volcanoes dripping with green tower over Berastagi. When the storms roll in, the clouds come pouring over the peaks like a white flood preparing to drown the city. Just after sunset, twilight casts a navy blue shadow upon the city that slowly melts into nighttime.

Mery, Abdy, Nachelle and the whole family were incredible. Genuine, kind, down to earth people that made my entire stay superbly comfortable. I stayed at their homestay and was able to practice my Chinese with Mery's father whose family is originally from China. He and I became sort of instant friends and before I knew it he was pouring me a whiskey and inviting me to sing with him in his very own karaoke room in the house (fully equipped with rotating disco ball).

The volcanoes are epic. We ate wild
Caldera steam and sulfurCaldera steam and sulfurCaldera steam and sulfur

That guy sure is hot-headed... o_O
raspberries, saw steam and smoke bursting from small openings in the caldera; yellow sulfur crystallizing around the openings like freeze dried Mountain Dew. A guide is recommended for two reasons. 1. You learn a lot. 2. Many people have been lost in the jungle for days and some have even died attempting the hike to the top.

I actually love the food here! Chicken, beef, and fish curries. They're spicy, and flavorful. The seasonings in the sauces are not finely grated allowing for a thickness and texture that leaves you longing for more. The varieties of exotic fruits in Berastagi are even given praise by Indonesians from other cities, so you know it's the place to buy some. I tried a lot of freaky fruits that I can't remember the name of (not sure they even have English names).

Additional photos below
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27th October 2012

Smiles and laughter
Your blogs always brighten my day. It makes me feel like every corner of the world should explored and shared.
28th October 2012

That's very kind of you to say...
I'm so happy my blog is enjoyed by the readers. And I agree, I hope to spend my life exploring all those corners. =)
28th October 2012

Wow, all of that sounds and looks sensational!! Brilliant post Matt, and a stunning picture of Berastagi at twilight.
28th October 2012

Means a lot. I loved this shot most.
28th October 2012

Laughing out loud!!!
The camping pic made me cringe and the one with your sleeping travel buddy had me in tears laughing! Love it! Love it! Love it! So sorry about the phone! What a major disappointment.
28th October 2012

Hahaha! Thanks for reading! And yeah, I think I'll wait 'till travels are finished to get a new smart phone. ^_^

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