Adventures on the Island of Sumatra: Part 2, the Search for Wild Orangutan

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December 26th 2013
Published: December 27th 2013
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October 8th (cont’d) and October 9th: The Search for Wild Orangutan

The trip to Bukhit Lawang is longer than anticipated. I will soon discover this is a common complaint in Indonesia. Stretches of the road are in various states of disrepair. Parts of it are flooded and others are mined with poorly located potholes. The truck barrels down the road, veering between flowing water and fissures, towns become villages and villages become mossy forests of rubber and palm trees. In a small village, the truck is caught in a line of traffic. While we inch along for an hour, cars and trucks come full-speed the other way. Peculiar. The cheering passengers standing on the truck beds peek my confusion even more.

A slim Indonesian man wearing a tan leather jacket greets our truck as it arrives. He has long, black hair parted down the middle, brown eyes, a broad nose, and a set of pearly whites that contrast with his tan skin. He speaks calmly, and I initially distrust him, after he tries to ferry the German couple and I into a hotel owned by his friend. It’s pouring and the darkness is near complete. It’s the kind of darkness that flashlights fear. Our guide leads us across a rope bridge spanning a raging rapid that I can only catch glimpses of, despite it being ten-feet below me. The rushing water is deafening. On the other side, I take a large, but simple room for 60,000 Rupiah (less than $6). The slim man with parted hair, as it turns out, is a representative of the village’s jungle guides. For 25 Euros (this really tells you who frequents the place), I book a one-day tour that leaves in the morning. We’re going to search for wild orangutan.


The rain slows to a trickle. I spend the evening wandering the cobbled street that runs along the river. The mud between the rocks makes slurping sounds under my weight. I stop and watch part of a soccer match with a longhaired Indonesian man sitting at a restaurant/bar. I refuse the local hooch politely and pester the man about the match. Apparently, Indonesia is playing Laos. “We watch U19 here, because our professional teams aren’t great,” the man tells me as the ball sails back and forth across the field.
Rubber FarmRubber FarmRubber Farm

The tree releases it's contents. It is not allowed for farmers near the park to harvest their trees, the best way to get rubber. They have to make due with draining the sap.
When the camera zooms in, the players’ faces do look quite young. Otherwise, the series of image is indistinguishable from a European League match. He reckons that Indonesia will have some great players twenty years from now. They certainly have enough people to field a great team.


When I get up in the morning, the village has undergone a metamorphosis. The sun is out and the evening’s rain is a distant memory. The whole town is situated below densely forested hills that extend out of sight. I see a row of appealing wooden huts with tin roofs, the street of sucking mud where I walked yesterday. Below, an island covered with straw canopies is nestled in a shallow river, beset with large smooth rocks that reflect the sunlight. The river makes a soft gurgling sound.

After a meal of greasy nasi goring, Indonesian fried rice, I meet my guides and fellow trekkers. Our group includes our two guides, Dedi and Augustin, a Frenchman, and two Russian, a mother and her son. We begin our climb into the hills of Gunung Leusser National Park. Gunung Leusser covers nearly 8,000 km2 between the Indonesian states of North Sumatra and Aceh, and Bukhit Lawang is one of the main gateways for tourists to experience the vast depths of the park. The town’s name literally means “gateway to the hills” in Bahasa Indonesian, the state language of Indonesia.

To get to the jungle, we ascended a half-kilometer set of steps made from dried bamboo and dirt. This stretch of hillside hosts a rubber plantation, a fitting start to the trek. Rubber and palm plantations are squeezing Sumatra’s forests. Logging is hard to enforce in rural locales across such a large area, the national government in Java doesn’t have enough money to provide locals a lucrative alternative to logging and palm oil, and as I’ve been told, regionalism plays a factor as well. Sumatrans do not want the government in Java to tell them what to do with their land. The two entities comprise many different ethnic groups with different histories. While these political battles are waged, the environment is the clear loser. Virgin rainforest is slashed and burned to make way for cash crops. Habitat for large fauna like the orangutan and tigers is eaten away. Palm sucks the soil dry and the absence of a canopy means that daily rainstorms strike the ground with a higher velocity, eroding topsoil. The burning also launches massive smoke plumes across the strait to Singapore. This past summer, residents of Singapore took to wearing masks – the smog was so thick. Photographs look like something out of an apocalypse movie.

Within minutes of entering the jungle, we encounter a member of the monochrome Thomas leaf monkey species. He is dangling his feet over a low hanging branch like you or I might do on a swing. A member of the langur family, the Thomas leaf monkey has a slate grey back and white chest. White rings around the eyes adjoin what looks like two white racing stripes separating a grayish black face from a similarly colored mohawk. The monkey in front of us appears to be about two feet tall. He watches us, half-interestedly and then picks at leaves with an upset look on his face.

I turn and join the Frenchman. He is admiring three other leaf monkeys perched on high tree roots. After I snap a few shots, Dedi calls out to us. “Come here. Look up in the thicket.” Way up high in the branches, I can see my first orang. A blotch of burnt orange in a sea of green color-swatches, she is starring down at us almost as interestedly as we are starring up. “I wish my students had that kind of focus!” I thought to myself. I pop off a few quick shots, but fail to get a good one. The light escaping through the foliage causes blur.

From this point on, we spot orangs nearly every thirty minutes.

We encounter our first and only male next. He is at the top of a ridge. Because grown males weigh more than females, they cannot climb as high in the tree. Consequently, I get a much better shot of the orange bearded fellow with the round-moon face. The Frenchman, Pierre, snapping pictures, moves closer and closer to the orang. “Don’t get too close under,” Dedi warns. He might feel threatened and jump on you. Pierre acknowledges and steps back, his bun of dreadlocks bobbing with his abrupt back step. His understanding of English is not great, but Dedi’s message has gotten across.

We continue trekking along the ridge. We pause and Dedi points up at a tree with a splintered top. The splintering wood has been carefully peeled back to form a platform of sorts. “An orang nest,” Dedi explains. “They build a new one every night and travel during the day.” “Not unlike backpackers,” I think to myself, continuing the unnecessary editorial jokes.

We descend into a valley, and at the base we encounter a stream. From here the path becomes treacherous. We use tree roots to pull ourselves up a bank of muddy rocks that scratch our legs with each misstep. The humidity is oppressive. I drink heavily from my three liters of water. The Russian lady, Veronica, I will call her, who is in her late fifties and heavyset, is having trouble and falls behind. After a few minutes of stop and go up the hill, her son, Michael, moves back to help motivate her. He is wearing a full-body nylon suit that he tells me he wears when he races bicycles. I admire the Russian lady’s spunk and imagine my mother trying to make the trek. I am enjoying the exertion but am sure that I stink.

We reach the top of the ridge, drop down to another stream, and then begin climbing the next ridge. Part way up, we hear cracking branches and rustling leaves to our left. Dedi motions for us to stop, giving mother Russian and son time to catch up. We turn around and face the downward sloping hillside we were just climbing. A mother orang swings by at eye level, her baby clinging to her paunch. These photos come out much better, because the foliage lightening blur is not an issue.

In a clearing at the top of the ridge, we meet a group of three middle-aged Australians and their guide. They are admiring a mother orang and her baby, who are on separate ends of the clearing. The baby is playing in the branches. Says Dedi, “The baby must learn to navigate without its mother.” Judging the mother’s face, she looks bored to tears. She inspects us, throws herself over the branch, and exposes her backside to us. Obviously, she doesn’t think we are a threat.

The Australians have left by now, and Augustin is lying with his head on the root of a
Jungle TheaterJungle TheaterJungle Theater

In this open-air theater, the stage is above your head.
tall jungle tree. His electric blue Fly Emirates jersey is out of place in the muted colors of the jungle. At least it won’t be hard to find him if we get separated! Dedi and the Frenchman are sitting on roots just below Augustin’s supine body. Now, baby orang is really in motion. He swings over to Mom and does a rendition of Adam and God in Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel for my camera. He wraps his arm around Mom who is now looking our direction. She still has a distanced look but baby watches us with mischievous curiosity.

Orangutan is a Bahasa word. It is a composite of orang “man” and utan “forest” or “jungle” (forgive me the exact details). Watch the expressions that cross an orangutan’s face, and you’ll realize the moniker “jungle man’s” startlingly, maybe even upsetting, accuracy.

Mom and baby have just gone when we hear more crackling branches. Augustin cups his hand together, “Oh-weyh oh-weyh.” Orangutan calls. His call is greeted by a storm of burnt-orange humanoids working their way up the ridge. I start snapping photos furiously. Michael the bicycle-suit wearing Russian joins me with his fisheye lens, as
Mother and Son in Rendition of Michaelangelo's Sistine ChapelMother and Son in Rendition of Michaelangelo's Sistine ChapelMother and Son in Rendition of Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel

I don't think God looked bored in Michaelangelo's version.
does the dreadlocked Frenchman, Pierre. The second orang stops. She glances at us and begins to swing lower and lower in the branches. “Get back,” Dedi says, but his words are too calm for me to assess them as a stern warning. I snap a last shot as she reaches the ground and scamper back. “They’ve already changed their behavior when they are on the ground,” he said. “You are in their territory.”

He tells us that the orangs must be moving together. When he goes on 3-day long treks, they only see three or four orangs. We’re getting really lucky today.

We continue on. The way down this ridge is more gradual. We round a bend and climb for about 100 meters, when Dedi points to a spot. “Jungle canteen,” he says. He has directed us to a small clearing on the trail with tree roots poking out of the soft, leaf littered ground. The roots are good to sit on. He moves to the side of the path, takes a long knife out of his bag, and cuts two large ferns. He lays them down as a mat and begins to slice cucumbers and pineapples. Augustin busies himself with our packed lunch, nasi goring. He ties back the butcher’s paper with a rubber band – jungle plates. A female peacock struts slowly around the perimeter of the clearing. As we eat, Michael and Dedi throw it scraps of fruit. It hustles after the scraps the instant they thud against the ground.

After lunch, the group splits in two. Pierre, Augustin, and I take the land route back, while Michael, Veronica, and Dedi raft down the river, an additional charge on top of the 25 Euro. Fresh from lunch, we make double time climbing and descending ridge after ridge. The Frenchman is wearing a pair of Converses with no socks. They are cutting into his feet, and I notice that he is bleeding. He picks at the wounds when we stop for a break. Augustin seems content in his thong sandals. Half an hour later, we reach a near vertical precipice over the village. This is our road out. We work our way down the dry slope carefully. A lizard scampers out of a hollow, as I am about to put my foot there. I run down the last stretch of hill to maintain my balance. We have arrived in the north part of the village. Based on the steepness of the north route, I can see why treks start in the south.


It is mid-afternoon, and I still have a lot of day to fill, but first pragmatics. Dedi, now back from rafting, takes me to his aunt’s travel agency to book a ticket to Berastagi, my next destination. All in the family I guess? Berastagi is a mountain town directly south of Medan. A five-hour drive from Medan it is a launching point for travelers hoping to climb one of two nearby volcanoes, the fierce Gunung Sinabung and the more leisurely Gunung Sibayak.

“You’re the only one who wants to go there tomorrow,” she tells me. “Why not go to Lake Toba instead?”

My PiA friend is not scheduled to be in Toba for three whole days, and I don’t want to get there two days ahead of her. I’ll burn up my whole month at one site! Her husband appears at the entrance to the shop. He chimes in, “You don’t want to go
Protective MotherProtective MotherProtective Mother

It's dangerous when they get this close to the ground.
to Berastagi now. The air is bad.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“The volcano is erupting,” he says with a wry smile.

If I were anywhere else besides Indonesia, I would be positive I’m being had, but I play along. “What’s the price difference?” I inquire. Berastagi is 150,000 Rupiah, Lake Toba 200,000k. Reluctantly, I buy a ticket for Toba, figuring I can get it changed the next day if someone else wants to go to Berastagi. I can afford to lose the change, especially if it means not dying of asphyxiation.

Just to calibrate my traveler’s judgment, I go to the only Internet café in town. Sure enough, the volcano erupted a few weeks back for the second time in 400 years. There is no more recent news than this.


I wander the streets some more and go back to my hotel. The Russian lady, who is also staying at my guesthouse, is spilling her guts with a local boy who works there. Her son and constant companion is away it turns out. The Russians were caught
Jungle CanteenJungle CanteenJungle Canteen

Augustin (left) and Dedi (right) prepare lunch.
unawares. Bukhit Lawang does not have an ATM. It does not take VISA or Mastercard. So the son has gone off with Dedi on a motorbike to retrieve what they owe. The mother, now bored, and as the hours dragged on, increasingly worried about her son, turns her attention to the guesthouse worker and I. She chats chats chats in prodigious English. When her tone becomes fearful, the boy pulls out a small, wooden guitar and begins to pluck away at it haphazardly. We all sing along to a mixture of American pop and rock songs. The guitar finds its way into my hands, and the session continues. Now, it’s the Russian lady’s turn. She contributes an a’cappella rendition of a Russian folk song. Though I cannot understand the words, the song is bitterly hopeful and her soft alto is compelling.

I excuse myself for a bit. When I return, Dedi, Augustin, and Michael are all present. I pull up a plastic chair. The guitar is traded for a while until Dedi takes on a serious air. He shares two stories with us. Last year, a young Dutch couple on the verge of getting married was out in the hills of the jungle when they got caught in a thunderstorm. Lightening struck a nearby tree, and the bolt travelled through the root and up into the man, burning him to a crisp. It fell on the rangers to carry the charred body out on a stretcher. Grimaces.

In the second story, a German man told his wife that he wanted to take an hour-long jaunt in the woods and “show his boy nature.” The son was nine-months old at the time. That afternoon, the wife came into the ranger station bawling about her missing son and husband. The rangers sent out an expedition that night, and they found the two, dehydrated but alive deep in the forest, beneath a big tree.

“I hope she divorced the man,” the Russian lady interrupts, “He must be out of his mind.” I nod in assent, as does Michael.

“Maybe,” Dedi said. “I don’t know what happened after.”

The nodding and chuckles subsided, and Dedi continued, “What I meant to say… that’s why you get a guide.”

We closed the night with another rendition of “Jungle Trek” to
Afternoon pursuitsAfternoon pursuitsAfternoon pursuits

Local children take a dip in the river. The current is powerful and the water bone-chilling cold, but it feels good after a trek in the jungle.
the tune of “Jingle Bells.” Jungle Trek, Jungle Trek in Bukhit Lawang, see the monkeys, see the birds, see orangutan.


At night, I am writing the day's events in my journal. I think about the Dutch man, the nine-month old, and the different morals Dedi and the Russian lady have derived from the stories. Neither Dedi nor the Russian ladys' morals seem spot on to me. Clearly, the German mother is a bit crazy, too. She assented to a trip to Sumatra with a small child and frankly, married the man in the first place. I wonder if there were warning signs his judgment was a bit off? And as for the need for a guide, a guide may help look out for the visitor in the wild jungle and help protect the jungle from visitors gone wild. But when their families work you for more and more dough, are they working in anyone's best interests than their own? I’m all for contributing to the local economy. But does the extra $5 given again and again to the same family help preserve the orangutan, Bukhit's livelihood? Isn't this just trickle down economics, circa 30 years and 9,482 miles apart?


27th December 2013

Yeni yılın kutlu olsun!
Where will it all end? Alles Gute fürs Neue Jahr!
29th December 2013

Nice commentary at the end. Nice pictures of the orangs.
5th January 2014

That´s art
I love your rendition of Michel Angelo, excelent, congratulations, Stephen, great work. Happy 2014, Frank

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