Heading to the Jungle
We were so happy to leave Medan and head to the jungle! I found a very reputable company called Sumatra Eco-Travel Bukit Lawang to take us on our jungle trek. A driver picked us up from our mediocre hotel in the morning. We picked up a few other people from town as well. The drive from Medan to Bukit Lawang is around three hours. I’m pretty sure our driver was related to our driver in Egypt who drove us to the pyramids. Even though our driver was terrible, I was able to sleep most of the way.
We arrived in Bukit Lawang and were shuffled out of the van unsure as to where to go or what to do. A few men on motorcycles grabbed our luggage and drove off. We followed a guide through the little village that is built on the side of a fast moving river. The village looks as if Walt Disney himself designed it. One of the first places you pass as you enter the walkway up to the lodging area is a man made cave with a water feature. Luscious plants decorate the side of wooden buildings with decorated stones. There are small restaurants and many places to stay on the route. Three suspension bridges also hang over the river. It felt magical.
We found out later that this was the tourist part of the village and that during high season the places is filled with backpackers and travelers. We were lucky to enjoy the area a bit more quiet so that we could take it all in and not dodge other tourists. Just outside of this part of the village is where most of the actual villagers live. Some of them lived in their shops along this route with just a mattress in the main floor of the shop, but the true village is large and bustling with life outside of the tourists who come there to see orangutans.
The Entrance of Eco Travel Little bungalows along the river below the lodge. Our room on the bottom left.
We arrived fifteen minutes or so later on the steps of the most idyllic location with two large stone buildings on either side of the grounds, red hammocks, flowers, and carved benches and picnic tables were placed in the common areas. It couldn’t have been more perfect. We were all assigned to our rooms. We were given a ground floor unit with a large king bed and private bathroom. It was a paradise-styled room with pops of red dotted about. Nothing about this place screamed jungle.
What’s Going to Happen Next
We were asked to come back out after checking our rooms and freshening up in order to have a few welcome drinks and speak with a guide who would explain about the trek in to the jungle, what to expect, and take the rest of our payment. We got to know the other guests as we sat and waited. I spent time relaxing in our hammock, writing in my journal, and sipping a cocktail. Just below the common picnic spaces was a built in cabana area along the rushing blue river. Monkeys played in the forest across the river, and I could not have been happier to be in the middle of nowhere.
The guide told us that we would go across the river, go up and down about 7 times, he drew little hills on the sheet of paper, and then we would go down, down, down, down to the river for the campsite in the jungle. He told us that we would be fed lunch and dinner, and that we would get a couple snacks along the way. The guide said not to worry that it would take around 7 hours to hike all day, but that we would stop as often and as long as we needed. We were told to pack and backpack to take with us for the night, and bring our swimsuits and bug spray.
All of those happy feelings changed when I woke up the next morning. We were told to eat a large breakfast so I ordered the largest on offer. I wasn’t sure if I would like the food they provided for snacks or lunch, but I didn’t have much of an option since we did not bring any food with us. So I really did eat as much as I could. That was a terrible choice on my part. We began hiking promptly after breakfast so my food did not have time to settle. It was incredibly hot and humid, and my anxiety began growing.
Welcome to the Jungle
We began crossing the river and encountered more Thomas Leaf monkeys bringing up the rear coming to see what the fuss was about. We were assigned to a group of five people, our head guide, and our porter. There were a few other groups in the jungle at the same time. Other guides went ahead to try and scout for orangutans.
We got across the river easily and began our ascent up the first hill. This was when I began breaking down due to the heat, my anxiety, and my stomach full of food. I felt I was walking too slowly; I was too hot, and I had put too much weight in my pack. My self-doubt began getting the better of me. I was overweight, out of shape, and it was all getting to me mentally which was affecting me physically. I began to cry and have a mini panic attack. Andrew tried calming me down. The guides made sure I was okay.
We stopped for a few minutes, which made things worse since all the attention was on me and I didn’t like it. Everyone reassured me that we would stop as often as needed. The porter took my pack off of me, or maybe Andrew did. The porter (forgive me, I learned his name, but was never able to pronounce it properly) eventually made me a walking stick and fanned me with large palm leaves. I felt like such a diva. It was embarrassing to say the least.
We kept going up when I felt like I wasn’t going to throw up or pass out anymore. We encountered a few more Thomas Leaf monkeys, and within thirty minutes of entering the jungle we heard the whistles letting us know they spotted orangutans. Our guide led us along the trail towards them. We were the second or third small group to arrive. We couldn’t have asked for a better first encounter!
Orangutans Make it all Better
I was still feeling a bit rough, a bit sorry for myself, and still a bit worried I wouldn’t make it the whole 8 hour hike. The guide let me know there was a short cut if I needed it so that helped calm me down. However, no matter how I was feeling at this time it couldn’t compare to the excitement of seeing a large male orangutan no farther than ten feet on the ground in front of me, and a mother and child in the tree above! Apparently, he was sulking. Our guide, Enda, said that the male wanted to mate with the female, but since she had her young offspring with her it was basically out of the question. So Mr. Orangutan was in a bad mood cause he couldn’t get laid. Sound familiar, ladies?
At this point, I could have left the jungle happy to have at least seen an orangutan! Many times the tours go in and never see them, or some days they go in and see only one or two. We were incredibly blessed and saw at least 13 on our trip that day. Once we had spent enough time with the little family at our first siting we continued in to the jungle. We went a little farther up, but it wasn’t as steep, and my breakfast had settled in my stomach a bit more so I was feeling better and adjusting to the heat.
We began our first “down” as the guide the day before put it and we got another call of more orangutan sightings. Off we went again on another trail to find two more sitting in trees looking bored. They were like Tweedle Dee and Dum. The guides were great as they let us spend more than enough time around the orangutans and we never felt rushed to continue on the trail. We were able to take ample photos and just enjoy watching them.
Making Friends with Germans
As we continued walking we got to know the three others in our group. They were all German. Barbara and Stefan, a married couple, and Hans, a single male traveler who stunk to high heaven, but swore that his merino wool shirt didn’t smell. I am writing this post five months after our jungle trek and we still try and keep in touch with Barbara and Stefan. I can honestly say, that if it had not have been for Barbara being so kind and patient during this day with me and helping me feel calm I would have taken the quick way out of the jungle and down to the camp. So Barbara, if you’re reading this, thank you, again!
I can’t remember how many ups and downs we had on the hills (mountainside?) before having a snack of assorted fresh fruits. Enda pointed out different ants and how you could tell the males from females. We saw a large, wild peacock, heard a few more small monkeys, and learned about rubber trees. I really began to enjoy myself. Though I was still the slowest in the group I was having a fun time!
Half-way through the day we encountered two more orangutans who were excited that it was our lunch time! They were happily holding out their hands in anticipation of being offered our lunch of egg fried rice. Let me say, this was the best egg fried rice I have ever eaten, and it wasn’t because I was hungry or there were orangutans. It was legitimately delicious fried rice.
What It Means to be Wild
You may wonder how or why they were holding out their hands for food. The “wild” orangutans of Sumatra are not entirely wild. Only a short year or two ago there were still a few being fed at a feeding platform set up between the jungle and the village. As our guide explained, the villagers are poor people who are sometimes asked by rich people to steal the baby orangutans from their mothers. These orangutans wind up in people’s private homes eating meals or being fed candy and other sweets. They were considered pets and not wild animals.
It is illegal and the orangutans were put back in to the wild. The problem is, they don’t know how to take care of themselves. This is why the feeding platform is important, or was important. The orangutans would be fed here twice a day to help supplement their diets while they learned to live in the jungle and not in the village. Eventually, the pet orangutans became wild and no longer needed the feeding platform. That doesn’t mean they don’t remember human food, what it tastes like, or how to beg! So many of the older orangutans are “wild” now, but have had a lot of human contact in their past, and their offspring are fully wild, and will hopefully never know what it feels like to live as a pet.
The orangutans we encountered at lunch were partially wild, and/or have been fed before by guides or people in the jungle. Our guide explained to us that many of the other tour companies carry peanuts or fruits to bribe the orangutans. The reason I chose Eco Travel was their responsible approach to these majestic animals is very sustainable. They realize that their lively-hood’s depend on the tourism in their town. Without it, they could not make money. What we bring in to the jungle we take out. After lunch our guides found a few bags of trash that other groups had left behind, so we loaded it in with our trash and took it.
After lunch we continued with a few more ups and downs, I lost count at some point, but I’m sure the guide who explained it the day before was right. We saw quite a few more orangutans before arriving at a small stream where we were warned beforehand was Jackie’s territory. Jackie is one of the more friendly of the orangutans in the jungle since she lived with humans the first three years of her life. If you click the link above you will see multiple accounts of Jackie’s interactions with the trekkers in the jungle. You will also hear of Mina, who we did not see, who has a habit of biting people! They call her Mina because she is mean!
Jackie and her baby
On this day, Jackie was at the water’s edge with a baby on her back and another of her younger children in the trees above. Straight away, she grabbed Andrew’s hand. We were told to sit down next to her and do not pull away if she grabs you. The guides position themselves between her and her “victim” and distract her so she lets go. Usually she is out for a bribe. Because she grew up with humans and food she has a bit of a sweet tooth. Today they distracted her with some peanuts, but scooped them up before she got to them. Enda said the fruits the orangutans find in the jungle are not very sweet. Jackie is always on the hunt for a banana or something else from the humans.
She held hands with Andrew and a few more people in our group with the baby on her back. I swear I took a video of Andrew’s encounter, but if I did, I must have deleted it on accident. I have not found it. Or maybe, I thought I took a video. Either way, I at least have photos, and he has the memory of her tight grasp wrapped around his wrist.
We headed out of Jackie’s territory and had another five minute or so steep climb ahead of us before our long descent down to the camp. We stopped for another snack of pineapple. However, I do not eat pineapple and I was still full from lunch. I made sure to drink enough water and just rested. We began going down, and it was very difficult. My old friend, Anxiety, showed up again. I began fearing we would never get to camp and that the end of this descent would never happen. I kept having to stop since my muscles were so sore. Gratefully, Barbara offered me a small box of orange juice she was carrying with her. My blood sugar was low and my shaky muscles made me want to just throw myself down the hill.
The Final Descent
Sweet Barbara continued to remind me to take my time and Andrew kept reminding me not to worry. About ten or fifteen minutes later we saw the river! Thank the Lord! We had arrived at the camp. We changed in to our swimwear, and headed to the cold river to soak our sore and sweaty bodies. Our guides made us tea and put out biscuits for us, and I was finally able to relax knowing I made it in and out of the jungle. The orangutan sightings far exceeded our expectations!
Our tent on the right.
As nightfall came we gathered in the make-shift kitchen area for dinner and had a feast of curries and rice. We had more than enough food to fill our stomachs and all of it was delicious. Our group spent dinner laughing, telling stories, and playing silly games. We eventually fell asleep half naked in our tents with the suffocating heat around us.
I will continue our jungle adventure in my next post.