Bukit Lawang; Orangutans at last, and they are worth all the trouble; In which Sheryl is on death's door, again

We’d crossed half a world to hang out with orangutans in the jungle. It was always one of the big goals of the world tour. Outside of zoos there are only two places in the world you can do that anymore - Sumatra and Borneo. Bukit Lawang is the tourist-friendly eastern side of Gunung Leuser National Park, one of the last remaining enclaves of tropical rainforest left in Asia. A last-minute change of plans had led us here rather than the relatively unknown western edge at Ketambe - an unusual inversion. Last-minute changes almost always lead us into the hinterlands.

It would have taken us 20 hours to get to Ketambe from where we were in Banda Aceh, but it hadn’t been any picnic getting here either. Our overnight bus from Banda Aceh to Medan had been like a meat-locker on wheels, so cold I swear I could see my breath. It’s a mystery to me why long-distance buses in Southeast Asia are so glacially refrigerated. The driver was wearing a toque. No really, my hand to God, a toque. It was miserable. We had ourselves wrapped in blankets without a patch of skin showing and we were still shivering. Of course an AC bus means that the windows don’t open, so with 30 chain-smoking Indonesian men on board there was soon no air to breathe either. I can only imagine what I must smell like after a week in this country. I might as well start smoking myself, I’m sure the lung cancer is coming along nicely already. Ten or eleven hours of frozen jolting and swerving down the amusingly-named Trans-Sumatran Highway left us three-quarters dead in Medan the next morning, and the three-hour local bus to Bukit Lawang took care of the last quarter.

It’s not allowed to enter the National Park without a licensed guide, but fortunately there are roughly 700 guides for every tourist that visits. In most places the fractionally-employed young men lying around on their scooters (I can’t call them motorcycles, I just can’t) sleeping, picking their noses or getting high will call themselves taxi drivers, but here they’re rainforest guides. Like their close relations the jungle leeches, these guides attach themselves to you long before you enter the village - sometimes even on the bus to the village - and take a lot of effort to remove. It’s a very soft sell, and they’re very friendly and relaxed, but that just means they take bloody forever to get to the point. First they have to know your name and where you’re from, and then escort you around to guesthouses and have lunch with you and give you a massage and shine your shoes and introduce you to their grandmother before ever so casually mentioning that they happen to be a guide. Out of sheer desperation I began to make that my first polite question after they introduced themselves. Of course we were thinking about doing some jungle-trekking, but I didn’t dare admit that to any of them or he’d probably have handcuffed himself to me. By the same token I always pretended to forget the name of our guesthouse. It’s never a good idea to answer that question anyway, no matter where you are. There’s no possible legitimate reason a chance-met person could have for wanting to know where you’re sleeping. I’ve developed a whole arsenal of polite ways of failing to answer the question.

There’s not much to Bukit Lawang. A small village where the bus stops and a string of guesthouses, food stalls and orangutan-souvenir shops. Some of the guesthouses are wood or concrete, but mostly everything else is constructed in the plywood-and-bamboo style. All the buildings are on one side of the river along an intermittently-paved footpath. The river is shallow and rocky and the village kids spend dawn to dusk floating down the rapids on old, many-times-patched inner-tubes from truck tires. Their energy for this is inexhaustible. They must make 30 trips a day down the river and back up the path. To walk to or from the village is to suddenly be surrounded by a stream of wet little brown bodies rushing back upstream in a blur of HALLOMISTERs, just as suddenly gone. In contrast to their kids, the adults mostly spend their days stoned and watching TV, because there’s nothing else to do.

On the opposite bank of the river a massive green wall of rainforest piles up in a verdant, impenetrable, dripping tangle of trees, giant ferns and vines, source of strange hootings and rustlings, mysterious vapours and gigantic bugs. The butterflies here are the size of your hand. We saw a bright-red centipede fifteen centimetres long, and - worst of all by far - a cricket as long as my middle finger (I’m fine with spiders, snakes, scorpions, giant hissing cockroaches and every other crawling or creeping thing, but crickets terrify me, don’t ask me why).

It rains all the time in Bukit Lawang. I’ve never seen so much rain in my life. Our Africa compatriots will remember the huge storm one day at South Luangwa National Park in Namibia, when it rained so much the tents floated away. That was a lot of rain, but there’s a storm like that in north Sumatra every day, mostly around 4pm. Sometimes there’s an afternoon downpour and an evening one too. The river swells its banks and the roar of the rain makes thought impossible. The air is a solid curtain of water and any flat ground floods calf-deep in tan water. Ever slope is a coursing waterfall and one constant roll of thunder fills the sky. Lightning flashes turn the whole world the lurid yellow-brown of the flooded ground. You can’t have a good rainforest without rain, I guess.

At the village end of the river path is the park permit office, and a kilometre away at the other end is the little canoe that takes visitors across the river into the park. It’s forbidden to enter the park without a guide, and for a large park without gates or fences it’s a primitive form of access control - effective enough to keep the tourists out, at least. As always, there’s one rule for foreigners and another for locals, and poaching and deforestation from illegal logging are critical problems here.

We took that canoe back and forth across the river many times. Most people come to the orangutan feeding platform once, maybe stay a night and then leave. We went to see them five times, which seems to have been some kind of record judging from the rangers’ reactions. We got to know a couple of them. One, Sindra, suggested we “go ask Boss” about volunteering to work there. We jumped at the chance but when we raised the subject, Boss just gazed at us through half-closed eyes through a cloud of tobacco smoke in inscrutable evaluation, then explained that they wouldn’t need any help until two new orangutans arrived for rehabilitation in June, long after we’d be gone from the country.

Rehabilitation of formerly-captive orangutans is the purpose of the station. The feeding platform is part of that program. Intended for recently-released animals that aren’t yet skilled at food-gathering, and for mothers with infants that need extra nutrition, the platform gives them a place to come twice a day for bananas and a milk-like formula. Wild apes get nothing and have to be shoved off with noise and banging sticks so that they don’t become dependent.

Our visits were split between the morning and evening feedings. It’s a ten-minute hike uphill through the jungle to the platform - a treehouse-like affair of a few simple planks of wood with a ladder. The rangers have a couple of old backpacks full of bananas and a huge bucket of formula. Banging a rock loudly on the platform is the signal - soon after, orange shapes begin to swing through the treetops. You can see their progress long before spotting them - branches and whole trees sway wildly back and forth as they swing from one to another high above the ground. Every one of them is an individual. Their faces, hairlines and the colours of their fur and skin are all different. All the apes that come to the platform were previously captive and rehabilitated (or their mothers were) so they all have names and the rangers know them well. Any babies born in the wild to rehabilitated orangutans aren’t given names - both because the mortality rate is high and because it’s better not to encourage attachments.

Encouragingly, there were a lot more babies than I expected - half a dozen or so, clinging to their moms and peeking out with perpetually surprised expressions under giant explosions of fuzzy orange troll-doll hair. The oldest was two and a half years and uncontrollably mobile, off on his own up and down trees visiting aunties while Mama rested, flopped like a pile of motheaten carpet on a branch. The youngest was tiny - only two weeks old - and couldn’t do much but hold on and stare around in goggle-eyed astonishment. They were all amazing to watch. They’d swing down the tree-trunks to collect their bananas, and some of them would sit and eat companionably with the rangers while others preferred to swing from two limbs high up while eating with the other two. Some of them came for formula and drank very politely out of a tin cup - though only some of them bothered to hold it by the handle, I noticed.

We would have watched them for hours every time. The rangers nearly had to drag us away. Wild orangutans are different, of course, but the rehabilitated ones have no fear of humans and don’t mind hanging around in close quarters. A couple of times they passed on the fence in front of us, and once Suma, an older female with a little baby, walked so close to me that I could have touched her, and I felt her fur brush my legs. She had the most soulful calm, brown eyes. They say you’re supposed to keep a distance of seven meters from them at all times to prevent disease transmission - human diseases can decimate the orangutan population - but the viewing area isn’t big enough for that. Suma is a beautiful ape - beautiful enough to have made the cover of National Geographic not once but twice (a distinction shared only by that Afghan woman with the green eyes, I think). The little one with her was her sixth, which is uncommon for orangutans and part of the reason for her fame. Only one other survived to adulthood - all too common, unfortunately.

Besides Suma there were the other mothers, Pesak, Ratma and Sandra, young adults Sepi, Rada and Juni, and assorted others, wild and rehabilitated. Sepi and Rada went everywhere together and had a half-hour wrestling match on the first day that rivalled giant pandas for sheer laziness.

The undisputed queen of the rainforest by virtue of meanness, however, is a huge older female named Mina. She’s legendary for her aggression, and has attacked many guides. She’s probably the single biggest danger in Gunung Leuser. Apparently she tracks trekking groups through the forest and if she isn’t given food immediately she’ll become belligerent and violent. That’s something you don’t want - orangutans might look like old carpets but they have arms a meter long, sharp teeth and muscles like old tree roots. Mina’s big and she can take a grown man apart without breaking a sweat. Indeed, while we were in Bukit Lawang we met a couple who’d had to run from her. Their guide wasn’t so lucky - she put him in the hospital. There’s a story that tells how, when one of her babies died, she carried its body around until a ranger tried to take it from her and she’s hated humans ever since, but it’s too much of a crowd-pleasing ghost story for me to believe it. I doubt any explanation is really needed besides a bad temper, bad habits and bad treatment while she was captive. There’s one good thing about it though - the example and the ever-present threat of Mina keeps the Bukit Lawang guides from feeding the orangutans in the jungle to please the tourists.

Everybody that went trekking into the jungle raved about it, especially the ones who stayed overnight. We were torn. It sounded great, but it was very expensive at $75. The plan had always been to go to Ketambe on the other side of the park, where the trekking is said to be much better and was half the price besides. We were still waffling when, toward the end of our third day in Bukit Lawang, the decision was made for us. Sheryl fell sick with a bad headache, high fever and stomach problems. It was clear that we wouldn’t be doing any trekking. I was deeply concerned. Not just because she was sick, which has been happening a lot these past few months, but because the symptoms were those of both malaria and Dengue Fever. Malaria is very bad news indeed, and you need to get to a hospital within 24 hours. The nearest hospital was three hours away in Medan, but it requires a minimum of 48 hours to get Sheryl to admit that she needs to go. Dengue Fever isn’t in the same class as malaria but it can still be quite serious, or fatal if you’re unlucky.

She wasn’t exactly bedridden, but she didn’t go far from our falling-down guesthouse with the holes in the walls and the mildewed mattress. She wouldn’t eat, though she had learned her lesson from her last hospital stay in India and made sure to keep herself hydrated. All the locals were recommending “traditional massage”. In Sumatra, traditional massage is a miracle cure for everything from an upset stomach to decapitation. We met an Australian man later in Medan who’d shattered a collarbone in a motorcycle accident - he told us that he’d had the same experience with everyone earnestly recommending traditional massage. Sheryl was desperate enough to give it a halfhearted try. “Mama” Nora, the owner of the guesthouse where we took our meals, offered to massage her head to fix the headache. She’s a massively fat woman who announces the presence of customers by bawling out the word “bule” (foreigner) at the top of her lungs. She’s got a good heart under that obnoxious exterior, though. “I traditional massage your head, fix headache. All guide come to me, they take six pills, not fix. Mama massage, head better”. If only it really were true - Mama had a deft touch, Sheryl said, but things had gone long past the help of a massage. Sheryl realized that she either had to hurt the woman’s feelings or pretend the headache was gone. She took the diplomatic middle course and said she felt “a bit” better.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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