Sumatra - Bukit Lawang
Sumatra - Bukit Lawang (18/08/11 - 22/08/11)
Having made the decision yesterday to travel over to Indonesia to see the Orang-utans, we found ourselves sitting in MacD’s at Penangs airport early in the morning - having caught the bus their at 6.30am ish. All the way to the airport we had been undecided as to whether we were doing the right thing. After very quickly looking into flights yesterday - we had seen some info on the net advising travellers that it was not safe to visit at this time, the country is on high security alert further to their public holiday of Independance Day (17.08.11 - the day before we arrived) as this is when they are subjected to terrorist attacks, and they have reason to believe to expect another. GREAT! I had initially dismissed what I had read - not thinking too much about it - but when Ollie expressed his concerns - he got me worried too! So, sat in the airport we used MacD’s free WIFI and quickly looked into the risks a bit more - we knew it wouldn’t put other people off - it just feels like your tempting fate if you go knowing what we had just read. Seeing that all the attacks were in a different part of Indonesia, we decided to go for it - but not before sending a quick email to my Mum, just letting her know that we are going there, incase anything did happen and they seen it on the news, they could link it to us being there and potentially help us if we needed it. Email sent - it was time to board the plane.
We arrived at Medan in Indonesia and made our way to the taxi rank, knowing that we needed to get a cab to a near by bus station. On the way we met a girl who shared our taxi with us to split the cost. We arrived at Pinang Baris bus station (already hoping to get the local bus to avoid increased terrorist opportunity! Ha!) and avoided all the guys there trying to sell us a ticket on the faster minibus service that only takes 2-3hours, but they wanted 100,000 (£7 each!) which is 5 times the amount it should have been!!! We found the local bus, sat on after paying the correct fare of 15,000 and waited for our journey to begin. The bus took 5 hours to drive a total of 60 miles (painfully slow!) and stopped many many times along the way loading up all sorts of stock, and also some other western travellers. All the westeners enjoyed chatting together, and to the locals, who were guides from Bukit Lawang trying to sell them a trek tour - but me and Ollie kept pretty quiet with our fingers crossed for most of the journey. (I was very flattered when Ollie offered for me to sit in the window seat - until only after, I realised that this was the “Murder Seat” - first in line for any bullets that may be sprayed our way, acting as a human shield for him!!! He tried to assure me this was not the case... but still didn’t offer to swap seats! Ha!).
We arrived in Bukit Lawang about 5.30pm ish, in the pouring rain, and settled on the first room we looked at. It was a 50,000 (£3 per night room, with private bathroom - but there is no bed, just matress on floor, not a flushing toilet, and cold water only) room in Rainforest Lodge - I think I had read good reviews for it on the net and also got chatting to another woman upon arriving in Bukit Lawang who had heard good things about it too. Having checked in - we headed to the restaurant which looked very nice, set right on the edge of the pretty river that runs through the jungle. The menus almost put us off ordering - they STUNK - everything here is damp as its amoungst the jungle and the laminated pages had obviously not dried well. Hunger over-ruled though, and we ordered a curry each, which was very nice. Having chance to relax for the evening there, the realisation of just how damp the atmosphere was there hit - and the prospect of sleeping in our £3 a night room was not a good one. We stayed up as late as we could, but after having arranged a trek the next day with a local guide whilst having our meal, we knew that we needed a good few hours sleep as we had to meet him at 7am the next day. We walked up the stairs, along our balcony, and were pleasently surprised to smell flowers outside our room - Phew, not as we were expecting!!! We opened the door, and a a hot wall of smell smacked us in the face!! Oh no, it was much worse than we had ever expected!!!! How we managed to sleep I will never know - but we did! Ollie had a few hissy fits this time, which I found funny on the inside, and luckily it distracted me from my own disgust!
7am arrived - wahoo! It was time for the Orang-utans!!!!! (& to get out of this room! Ha!). We arrived for our guide, but he was a little late, and after concerns that he wasn’t going to turn up - we finally found him and headed into the jungle, along with his teenage son who kindly carried our water for us (otherwise the monkeys might try to steal it! Ha!). We trampled through the jungle for a good 2 hours - the guide kindly pointing out different types of plants (Cinnamon, Cocoa etc) - but no Orang-utans. We weren’t surprised by this - we thought it was going to be difficult to find them - but when we could sense a little concern/ desperation from the guide in trying to find them - we hoped we wouldn’t be unlucky and not manage to. Our guide seemed fantastic, he had been a guide for trekking tours since the 80‘s - so we knew he knew what he was doing. Any others we passed on our way through all seemed to stick to the trodden paths within the jungle, but oh no, not our guide, he had us climbing through the thick of it, up and down steep hills swinging our body weight from tree to tree to support ourselves. Ollie, not being the most agile of creatures, nearly went flying countless times! Which was hilarious, but not good wildlife spotting - and as Ollies came thundering down the hill thumping his way behind the guide, he eventually had to tell him off for being too loud and scaring all the Orang-utans away! Ha!
It was about 2hours into our trek that we managed to spot our first Orang-utan - well 2 in fact - a mother, with her baby. We quickly crept down the steep hillside to get a closer look. The baby was REALLY close, swinging around, from vine to vine - just playing around in front of us really! We quickly snapped as many pictures as we could and then sat and watched. The guides put some bananas on a tree, the mother graciously swang her way over, took the bananas from the tree, but didn’t stop there, she decided she wanted to sit by us to eat it too. She quickly swang right over to exactly where we were sitting - I mean literally inches away!!! The guides told us to move back, and we all did so quickly, a little nervous of being so close, never anticipating such a situation to happen. With safe distance (all of a metre!) we sat and watched as she enjoyed her fruit, until she had finished, and our guide passed me a banana to feed her!!! I nervously put my hand out to offer her the food, and she very trustingly and gently took the banana from my hand, with her own human like hands and polished it off. She then slowly returned to the trees, still only just infront of us, swinging around with baby. It was fantastic!!! Never had either of us imagined we would get close to the animals - we thought they would be swinging high in the trees above us and we would be able to spot an orange figure moving through - that would have been a treat enough - but this - really was fantastic!!! Completely overwhelmed with what we had seen, the guide would go off on his own for short periods to lok for more wildlife, in which time, we couldn’t stop talking about what had just happened - chuffed with coming here, so lucky to get such a rare chance.
I say rare chance, but it didn’t turn out to be!!! We went on that day to see a total of 10 Orang-utans!!!! 4 Mums, 4 babies, and 2 pregnant females!!!
On separate occassions, we then seen a pregnant female who came and sat with us for ages. Again we got chance to feed her bananas - Ollie managed to feed her too this time - he was impressed how gentle she was, and how human her hands were. We sat with her for some time. She relaxed in the trees just a metre infront of us. The sun was out and shone through the trees illuminating her flourecent orange hair. Her big pregnant belly poked out proudly, as she looked up warming her face in the sun, one long arm outstretched out on a vine. She looked BEAUTIFUL. We didn’t take too many pictures (well 100 actually - but these were snapped in a few seconds) we got what we could and just sat there and soaked up being in her presence. It really was fantastic. Something we never imagined we could expect from the trip.
We contined further on our trek, this time on a more walked trail, and next stumbled across a
Mum with her baby in the trees. This time the pair were high up in the trees, and we watched from afar as they went about their daily business, just enjoying swinging through the trees playing with each other, they are so graceful. The babies are very playful, and the mums will let them go off swinging about so far, but if they are a bit further away than she like, she will go and collect them in again. To be honest, it was lovely to stand and watch them for 20mins, just being themselves, completely 100% natural, with no human interaction - 100% wild.
It was around mid-day now, and we headed to a good place to stop and eat (well, we ate, the poor guide and son couldn’t as it was Ramadan, they couldn’t eat or drink all way, in the hot jungle! It was a strenuous walk - I don’t know how they had the energy - we felt so guilty!!). The guide unpacked our lunch and began preparing the ingrediants - me & Ollie couldn’t wait - we were STARVING! As soon as he had all the food out of his bag, he had to put it away again - he spotted an Orang-utan passing through the area we were in - and knew that if it spotted our food, it may come down to try and indulge in a snack for itself. Food safely away - but the Orang-utan still decided it wanted to say hello. Mother & baby, made their way down through the trees and stopped hanging from a vine for us admire (well, our hearts admired - but our stomachs wanted to throw a stone at it - we really were hungry! Ha!). The baby this time was so so tiny - much smaller than the others we had seen - it’s crazy orange strands of hair tuffting out in all directions - it was soo cute - too small for it to move around on it’s own, it just clambered around it’s mums body as if it was it’s training ground for the vines that lay ahead of it. Again mother and baby played until they dcided to be on their way (Orang-utans are always on the move all day) and we continued with our lunch. As soon as Mum & baby were almost out of sight, another Mum & baby came swinging through the trees over to the Mum & baby that had just left. We watched them encouter each other, without them paying too much attention to each other really - and they both headed off, slowly swinging through the trees, babies clinging to their backs, in opposite direction to us. Food out - we demolished a HUGE portion of deliciously flavoured rice, cooked in banana leaf, garnished with tomato, cucumber & an egg.. oh yes and some chilli saue - it really was tasty and filled us up that we were so stuffed - I think his wife must have cooked it for us - tasted like good home cooking food! The guide and son sat out of sight of us eating - I don’t think they could bare it! Poor things!! Food finished, we had a few minutes to let it go down - again still astonished at what we had seen that day (and also astonished at the size of the HUGE ants in the jungle - I’m not joking they were the size of a 10p - and for an ant thats BIG!!!). Just before our lunch, while we were watching the two parents swing by, we also spotted a Horn Bill (bird with huge horn on its beak). The video camera was brilliant to zoom in and get a pic of him. He moved around above our heads for a while - you could hear everytime he moved - its wings were huge!! The noise it made almost made you think a plane was flying over head - the power in its wings was immense - reallly glad we got to see this too! Up and ready to move on, Ollie with banana in hand for dessert, yet another Orang-utan made an appearance. We stopped in our tracks, unable to believe our luck - more monkeys - and sat unti she reached us. She was a pregnant female, and Ollie selflessly handed over the banana he had been looking forward to. As did the others, she sat infront of us as she peeled off the skin and devoured the mushy insides. Being a pregnant mum, with cravings and all that, she had decided that this was not enough for her - she wanted more - so she came down even closer and tapped Ollies pockets to check if he had anything else on offer that she might like. We laughed hysterically at her cheek, impressed by her intelligence, she soon realised that was the best he had to offer and returned a little further up into the trees.
In total we had spent about a whole hour with the Orang-utans!!! We began to continue our trek, but me & Ollie were so please with how the day had gone so far we decided to leave things on a high, appreciating that we still had a steep decent ahead of us before we would be back to the village. We also felt the guides had gone so far above and beyond that of any other guides we seen - working hard to get us right in the thick of the jungle to see what we did - whereas others just stuck to the walked trails. They must have been shattered not being able to eat either! We suggested heading back to the guides and they happily agreed - although walking back they were still on constant alert trying to find things for us. Walking back we passed people who asked if we had seen any - some had been out from 7am this morning - and not seen one Orang-utan yet!!! This proves just how lucky we were in getting a good guide!!! On the way back we also seen a “Thomas Monkey” who they call the “Beckham” monkey thanks to its funky mohican. He was very cute, and sat still, not worried by us passing through. Again we stopped to admire, and the guide taught us a little game of hide & seek, he hid the banana down the neck of our top and Beckham would find it! Ha!
We got back around 2pm ish having enjoyed an amazing day! We checked out a few other hostels on our way back to ours in the hope of getting a better room - but then we remembered they had a slightly more expensive room at our hostel, which was still cheaper than the others we had seen. We checked it out - and discovered that this one was much better - the room was much bigger and the ceilings were much higher so it didn’t feel as damp, and we had an actual bed this one - so we moved rooms straight away.
The rest of the time here, we spent just hanging around really, watching the monkeys carry out their secret missions, making their way across the power cables & across the roof to sneak some food from the kitchens before getting chased away by the locals. Ha! We had a really sunny day too where we treated ourselves to a beer and some chips as we sat on the grass at the riverside - we felt like we were sat in a pub garden in England on a very sunny day! Nice! We also did a bit of shopping - I managed to get Ollie a black T-shirt for his birthday as he has wanted one for ages since being out here to go with his new shorts he got in Bangkok & his suit in Vegas (wanted to keep it a surprise - couldn’t as I had to make sure it fit him OK - no refunds here! Ha!). Whilst I was off shopping for his birthday prezzie, Ollie went off for a walk on his own, only to be confronted by “THE HUGEST, ANGRIEST MONKEY YOU HAVE EVER SEEN” (so he tells me - although I only ever seen baby ones hanging around our hostel..... Ha!) which bared its teeth to him and chased after him for his water bottle - Ollie running the fastest he has done in years - loosing a flip flop in the process!!! Ha! Wish I could have seen it! After that he was too scared to walk past that same bit of path again on his own so he would make us cross it with a local whenever they were walking through. We seem to have bad luck with monkeys though, as we also returned to our room one day to find it trashed - not burglars though - monkey thiefs who had opened up all our tightly sealed food and scoffed the lot - leaving a messy trail of crumbs behind them! (Although I would take this bad luck over running into Mina - who is apparently an aggresive Orang-utan who has bitten 96 people so far - and chased another couple we got chatting to out of the jungle, while the guides just screamed for them to RUN!!! Our luck doesn’t seem all that bad seeing we managed to avoid her - phew! Ha!)
It was their rainy season in Indonesia I think - so it rained everyday late afternoon - about 4pm - so we would either sit out on our terrace reading and watching the rain thrash down around us - or take refuge in the riverside cafe and have an early tea of noodles (which were about 70p) - same every night - but it was a good routine to have.
All the staff at the Rainforest hostel were super friendly - they all sat around all day just wanting to chat with you - wanting to help you with your travel plans, making sure nobody rips you off etc. From our short few days we were in Indonesia - we were only met by the loveliest, friendlist, most welcoming people ever! I’m not sure if it the same everywhere in Indonesia - but if it is - it seems like a lovely place to go - and we would have loved to spend more time there if we could. Everyone seemed to smile and want to talk to you just to be nice - rather than for money etc as other places can be. It still seems a fairly poor country - but you don’t notice this when talking to people - it doesn’t come across at all!
All in all we had a fab time here - and despite our initial fear of terrorist attacks - we were very glad that we spent the extra money to come across and see them - it went way above and beyond what we expected to get from the experience - plus were had a little taster of almost being back in India again, which was good for nostalgia - and we met some lovely friendly people.
The other thing I would say, is that feeding the Orang-utans is amazing as you get to see them so closely. When you think this is a one off thing - it doesn’t feel too bad - however when you realise they do it quite often - and the Orang-utans are learning to come down to the jungle floor when they see humas as they relate it to food - it feels like perhaps it is not the most responsible thing to be doing. You aren’t being cruel to them in a direct way - but perhaps, in the long term, it is not the best as you are teaching them behaviours that are not natural to them - and may parhaps put them at risk of predators lower in the jungle!? - I don’t know!? Me & Ollie spoke about this - he feels that as long as it doesn’t go any further than what we seen here, then it is a good thing, lots of people come to get to see a wild animal up close therefore funding for the area to remain protected, and for them to live freely in the wild. Whereas I’m a bit more black & white about it - I think we have a responsibility to keep them as wild animals, not feeding them, leaving them in the tree tops, admiring from afar - any animal lovers who would make the effort to come to Indonesia to see them, would prefer to see them in their most natural state, and therefore numbers of visitors would still remain high enough to keep it protected.
But hey - it’s definately not cruel the way it is at the moment - we loved every minute and are so glad we came - fantastic - exceeded all our expectations. (Just one of our many many conversations on an evening about the day - just wondering what it might mean for the animals future - will it get over developed and ruined for the future - hope not!)