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Published: October 30th 2009
The reason I’d gone up to Medan, apart for the obvious one of that was where my flight left from, was to visit the Gunung Leuser National Park to see orangutans. I’d arranged for a pick-up from my hotel by a public car (rather than going on the bus) on the understanding that we would be leaving at 9am, giving me plenty of time to get first to the town of Kutacane six or seven hours away and then from there to the little village of Gurah an hour further on. At 10am I was still waiting. At 11am I was still waiting. At 11.30 the car finally arrived. We drove round town for a while trying to find the hotel where another couple of passengers were waiting, then we went to the company’s office where we sat for another while longer. At 1pm we finally left the city. I was not a happy camper. It took seven hours to get to Kutacane over roads that just kept getting worse and worse, passing through villages that just kept getting progressively more and more squalid until I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of this little excursion. It was almost 8pm by
the time we rolled into Kutacane, meaning I had to stay there the night.
On the way we had passed through a popular tourist town called Berastagi. All over Indonesia there are odd town statues, usually seen from the bus so one cannot take photos of them. In Bandar Lampung, down in the south of Sumatra, there is a big one featuring four elephants, each of which is resting its front foot on a soccer ball. But the most peculiar I’ve seen must surely be Berastagi’s cabbage on a pedestal.
Surprisingly, after the rough trip between Medan and Kutacane, the road the next morning towards Gurah was almost perfect the whole way. The transport was a small open-sided black truck of the sort that in the rest of Indonesia you usually see the police or military in. There were 13 people packed inside the truck along with various cargo items, 7 or 8 hanging off the back, and maybe 10 on the roof. With the good road we tore along at an exceptionally fast clip and no doubt would have arrived in record time if we hadn’t been side-swiped by a larger truck coming from the other direction
at even more of an exceptionally fast clip, sending us spinning off the road, flipping the length of the vehicle, then rolling several times down a bank to end up upside-down in a river. With outstanding good luck (from my personal point of view) the only people seriously injured were people other than myself, unless you’re wussy enough to count a full-body tenderizing, various cuts and gashes and a couple of cracked ribs as serious injuries! Amazingly my cameras and binoculars survived unscathed due to my attention to always packing them correctly before travelling anywhere, and all my books and notebooks were in plastic so everything was fine. Most of the other passengers headed back to Kutacane or where-ever the nearest hospital was, but I wasn’t going to let a slight misadventure dampen my spirit, and caught another truck onwards to Gurah.
Before setting out there had been some uncertainty in my mind as to the physical status of Gurah. Nobody in Medan had even heard of it, the driver to Kutacane said Gurah and Ketambe were the same place, someone in Kutacane said they were different places: it was all very confusing, not least when I arrived and
Thomas' leaf-monkey (Presbytis thomasi)
not a great photo, but it shows the Mad Max hair-do quite well!
the guesthouse was called Pondok Wisata Ketambe. It turned out that Gurah is sort of like a sub-village of the village of Ketambe, as if that’s any clearer! My en-route fears about what sort of conditions I’d find in Gurah also proved unfounded. Gurah/Ketambe is a very nice little place, the Pondok Wisata Ketambe is very pleasant, and best of all there was a troop of Thomas’ leaf-monkeys frolicking in the trees right outside. They have to be one of the most attractive monkeys around, with their crisp white bellies and striped head crests.
I probably should have lain up a bit after arrival but I didn’t want to waste any of the short time I had so even though it was close to midday I struck out into the forest. Gurah is only about 500 metres above sea-level hence still pretty hot. Being midday there were no birds around so I decided to concentrate on primates instead which are active all the time. As well as more Thomas’ leaf-monkeys I soon saw the ubiquitous crab-eating macaques and the less obnoxious pig-tailed macaques, and after only two hours of searching I found a mother and baby Sumatran orangutan feeding
high up in a fruiting fig tree. (Two hours means it was “easy” -- “difficult” would be several days of searching). On Sumatra orangutans are only found up in the far north, with Gunung Leuser National Park being one of the prime localities to spot them. Most tourists just go to Bukit Lawang which is only two or three hours from Medan so its an easy day-trip and you’re pretty much guaranteed of seeing orangutans because they feed them, but to me its no different to going to see them at a zoo with all the hoards of people around, the same as at the similar facilities in Borneo. I’d much rather put in the effort to get out into the back-and-beyond to see them in the real wild, the way you should be seeing orangutans. Not many people can be bothered with that though - Ketambe only sees about 150 tourists a year I was told, whereas Bukit Lawang no doubt sees several thousands. Apart for poaching and general deforestation, one of the major reasons for the endangered status of orangutans is said to be the establishment of oil palm plantations but curiously enough I saw little sign of
these in Sumatra. I saw a small plantation way down in the south of the island and a couple more small ones between Medan and Kutacane, and I’ve seen some trucks laden with the fruit clusters from which the oil is processed, but the situation seems vastly different to that in Borneo where you can barely turn around without seeing another colossal palm plantation. Maybe in Sumatra they just keep them out of sight of the main roads.
There wasn’t much in the way of birds in the forest around Gurah, even in the morning it was fairly quiet, but the main reason I’d come up here was for the orangutan and Thomas’ leaf-monkey so I didn’t mind. Another north Sumatran mammal specialty that I’d hoped for was Kloss’ squirrel, but the problem I had with that one was that I hadn’t been able to find out any information on it except for its name and that it was endemic to north Sumatra. I couldn’t find any illustrations of it anywhere so didn’t even know what it looked like. I did know that some authorities consider it to just be a subspecies of the common plantain squirrel and so
as its scientific name is albescens
I imagined it must look like a paler version of that species. I did see a squirrel in the forest that looked like a plantain squirrel, maybe a bit paler. So was it a plantain or a Kloss’? I don’t know, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Kloss’ squirrel is a montane species that is replaced at lower altitudes by the plantain squirrel, which would mean the one I saw was just a plantain squirrel. If there are any random mammologists or sciurophiles reading this, let me know!
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