Even though it’s only 110km from Kuala Namu airport to Bukit Lawang the estimated journey time is around 4 hours. Throw in a torrential rain storm and this increases to 5 and a half hours. We were pretty glad we’d booked the airport taxi pick up through our accommodation now so could experience a final bit of air-con before giving up mod-cons for a few days. We checked in to our accommodation and got our back packs sorted for the next day before a gado-gado and an early night.
We hadn’t slept ‘badly’, but we’d apparently shared our room with a gecko which decided to bark like a dog sporadically throughout the night. We made full use of the buffet breakfast before storing our big bags and introducing ourselves to our guides Ling and “Joe Joe” and fellow trekker Fabien. There was supposed to be another lady joining us but she’d underestimated how long it would take to get from the airport and arrived at 1am, deciding it best to cancel and join another group later on.
9:00 am and we set off through the botanical gardens of ‘On The Rocks’ casually passing a male moon snake and 2ft lizard on the way out. One minute later up a short hill we reached the boundary of the Gunung Leuser National Park and World Heritage Site.
This was the main entrance to the park from Bukit Lawang so we passed quite a few groups of people on the fairly well trodden paths. We were ready for 2 nights in the jungle, the people on their day trips looked like they could be going out for lunch straight after. Anyway, we went off the main trail pretty quickly as Ling could hear some white handed gibbons in the distance. We stopped, he listened and then made off in whatever direction he thought the sound was coming from path or no path. He called out to them and they started getting louder, white handed gibbons sound like they’re having a right laugh, whooping before jumping between trees. They’re pretty elusive too and we were surprised but also excited to be this close to them so early into the trek. The only time you could actually see them was when they moved between trees, annoyingly one gibbon would start whooping and would draw your attention whilst the others moved around. Luckily we caught glimpses of the group, including a mother and her child. Unfortunately never quick enough to snap a photo.
So we were off to the perfect start, as we rejoined the path we came across a family of macaques. These are the monkeys which hang around the temples of Asia looking cute coaxing tourists into shoving an iPhone into their face to take a photo before stealing it and selling it on eBay to feed their western food addiction. Fun fact: The alpha male of the group will mate up to 60 times a day. The alpha male here even put on a show for us, it was like an Instagram story. There’s a lot of baby macaques here…
A guide approaching us told Ling that they’d seen Mina (one of the orangutans from the days where there were feeding platforms in the area) and her daughter. Feeding platforms were all removed in 2010 but the animals will habitually return to where they were being fed. Mina can be aggressive so we did as Ling told us to, moving when she came towards us and not leaving any bags on the ground. We spent about 10 minutes before leaving them to it and heading back in the same direction.
It wasn’t long before we came across another family. This time a mother about 26 with a 5 year old child. They will stay together for another couple of years. You can almost tell where there will orangutans because there’s a small crowd on the jungle floor below. 30 minutes gentle hiking later and we’d come across orangutans 5 and 6 of the day, another family, the child much younger hiding in the canopy. Only the semi wild orangutans from the days of feeding platforms have names, this mother is called Borjong. The child will stay with the mother for 6 years before going off alone further into the jungle. They will not start reproducing themselves until they 16.
We spent about 15 minutes heading downhill, this is where it got slippery. Ling joked that we should be glad it didn’t rain the night before. We stopped in a clearing for a platter of fruit. Katy discovered it’s not best to wear £1 elephant pants from Thailand for trekking and would finish the day wearing some jazzy shorts over the broken pants.
After fruit we ascended and descended a steep hills until we came across some more Thomas Leaf monkeys in a clearing. This is also where we found that it was a gecko making the barking noise keeping us awake the night before. No need to be worried about that noise anymore! It was as Katy was taking photos of the Thomas Leaf monkeys that the big wild male orangutan came from the side on the jungle floor. It took everyone (including Ling) by surprise. He’s over 100 kg and can do 1 armed chin ups for days so we observed him from a distance, we were probably as nervous/intrigued as he was and respected each others space. This was the real deal! After a few minutes we both went our separate ways.
After this we went looking for one of the semi wild females who is apparently quite friendly. We climbed to the top of a hill where we stopped for lunch. Also having lunch here was the lizard which jumped from a tree, scuttled across the floor and hid. We later saw him whilst watching a giant ant walking along a tree root. The lizard swallowed the ant and went running off again. Our lunch was veggie fried rice with egg, if you wanted some spice, you could add some (whole) Birdseye! Pineapple for pudding. Yum!
We left our lunch spot around 1pm and headed off through more thick jungle. A few times we needed to “trim” the path rather than cutting a new one. The terrain was slippery again, apparently it had rained in this area yesterday and some areas clearly retain more moisture than others. We headed deeper into the jungle and the wildlife appeared more sparse. A lot of the time you could hear something but never see it. The terrain was tough too, spending so much time looking at where was safe to place feet and hands reduced the opportunity to stare into the canopy. We gladly reached the top of the final ascent and could hear gibbons calling out. They were so high up in the canopy the only time we could see them was when they jumped and swung between the trees. Again, they sounded like they were having a right good laugh though.
10 minutes of tough descending later and we were at our campsite for the evening. We’d heard a few rumbles of thunder and knew this would soon turn to rain. Literally as we put our bags by our tents, the heavens opened. The timing could not have been any better! There are a few tents by a river with a waterfall around 50 metres away. We rested and had tea and biscuits before changing into swimming clothes and scrambling to the waterfall. We took this opportunity to wash ourselves and the clothes we’d been wearing as they’d got ridiculously sweaty, ready for trekking tomorrow hoping they would dry!
We chilled out around the camp and had a quick lay down in the tent before dinner was served. We sat and ate rice, potato cakes, vegetable curries, sambal, omelette and the nicest tofu soya bean curd dish I’ve ever had. Once again the meat eaters tucked into the vegetarian dishes and left their chicken. After dinner everyone sat in the communal tent, Ling, “Joe Joe”and “Doodee” (our chef) were carving stones, Fabien was sketching, Katy was writing the journal and I was present. We went to bed around 9pm for a fairly uncomfortable nights sleep.
After all the ginger tea the day before I didn’t need to get out of bed until 6am. It was starting to get light and “Doodee” was lighting the campfire already. I managed to get back to sleep until around 7am when we started to sort our wet clothes from our damp clothes. We drank coffee down by the river whilst eating some Indonesian mini cheddars. This wasn’t breakfast though, we were served a jungle style toasted club sandwich, with egg, salad and cheese. It was perfect.
It seems to be tradition with three day treks that the second morning always starts with a really steep ascent. We could be in the Norfolk Broads and we’d still manage to find one! The second morning was no different and in the 90% plus humidity had everyone soaked already. As we recovered and took on lost fluids at the top Ling made hats. Nearby Ling spotted a Cinchona tree. Ling had found us gibbons within a hour of being in the rain forest, and could carve an orangutan out of a stone he found in a river with a penknife so of course we were going to believe when he said the bark of this tree tastes like ice-cream. The bark of this tree is full of quinine which is what gives tonic water its bitter taste. Cheers Ling! We also saw a wild cinnamon tree, like a citrus cinnamon used to make tea or curries, the bark of this tasted much better!
Walked to the top of (another) hill for a fruit (and wring out my tshirt) break. We heard some black gibbons in the distance and walked in that direction.
When we were in “bed” the night before I was saying to Katy that this was like a documentary. We’d done treks before, even in the jungle, but it was never as hot, as humid, as full of wildlife, as beautiful and certainly not as difficult as this. It genuinely was like a TV show but the sort that people where people would ask to go home early!
The rain from the night before had made the ground even more slippery, it was even harder to take a look up at the canopy today. We stopped for lunch around 12:30. Veggie noodles with egg, pineapple for pudding. After 45 minutes we set off again up a steep slope. We could still hear the Black Gibbons in the distance – they have a different call to the White Handed Gibbons we’d seen the day before. They seemed to maintain their distance as we navigated the ridge at the top of the hill. We saw some recent orangutan nests, but nothing bigger than a lizard so far.
There were a few openings on the top ridge where trees had fallen during storms. These allowed for a cold breeze to reach us, what Ling referred to as the “jungle air con”. These openings also allowed us to see the storm which was closing in on us. We started to make our way towards the camp.
So we got about a quarter of the way down the final descent before the heavens opened. Obviously this was the steepest one we’d had to tackle so far! Here though you get about a 30 second window between hearing the rain pummelling the canopy above before the water starts drenching you, not that we weren’t already saturated with sweat. We had enough time to make everything waterproof before carefully navigating our way down. “Doodee” went off in front. He had the tents (and the kettle) we all followed Ling who added to the atmosphere by reminding us that if we slipped here there’s nothing really to stop us. Cheers mate!
By the time we’d got to the bottom the rain had stopped, there were blue skies and you were able to appreciate how beautiful the area was. We changed out of wet clothes into some damp ones which hadn’t quite managed to get dry the night before. Luckily this camp was a lot more open so maybe we would be luckier here. We had our tea and coffee and biscuits sat on a huge rock on the bend of the fast flowing river, misty jungle in front and behind. Day 2 was tough, and as cliche as it sounds, it’s moments like this when you don’t even care that your whole body aches, your whole bag is soaking wet and stinks so badly that there’s honey bees trying to pollinate it and that the humidity has left your phone unusable! Because just look around you! Then remind yourself that you’ve seen wild orangutans, the closest living relatives to the human species! This is incredible!
Doodee got the dinner on, Fabien was off sketching, Katy was writing the journal and Ling and I sat on the rock drinking tea and chatting about literally everything. Katy and I had agreed at the end of the first day that he was the best guide we’ve had on any of the treks we’ve been on, and we’ve had some awesome guides. He’s been a guide since 2001 and has completed everything from an afternoon with locals to a 20 day trek with a group of German stoners (Ling’s words), with numerous 7 day Bukit Lawang to Aceh treks in between. We spoke about our jobs, the countries we’d visited and we even got into how colonisation had affected Indonesia.
We were spoilt again for dinner, Doodee had rustled up rice, more potato cakes, pumpkin and fern curry, prawn crackers, sambal and stir fried veg. It was all absolutely delicious. After dinner we drank ginger tea and turned off all of the lights to watch a lightening storm in the distance. We managed to stay up until 9:00 pm this evening.
Today we would be “rafting” back to Bukit Lawang, the raft was basically 4 tractor inner tubes tied together with rope. When I saw the materials I was thinking “team building exercise gone wrong”, but was super confident after seeing the finished product. The morning was free time to enjoy the campsite, we going to do a short trek at the end of the rafting rather that going all the way back to Bukit Lawang via raft so we needed to leave by 11:00 am. We had coffee and pancakes for breakfast, then at 10:30 Ling used up the rest of the fruit he’d been carrying for three days to make some fruit salads before “waterproofing” everything (putting it in huge plastic bags and tying it to various parts of the raft).
The 40 minutes of rafting was over far too quickly! It was huge amounts of fun. We now need to change into our (now dry) hiking gear for the last time before making our way back to On The Rocks through the jungle. Doodee left us here and travelled back to Bukit Lawang on the raft by himself.
The place we’d left the river was at one of the old feeding platforms, the path now overgrown and crumbling platform and campsite was quite eerie but also impressive how nature had taken back over so quickly. Ling explained that the feeding platform was closed because the contract with the WWF had ended. The numbers (of orangutans and tourists) had increased sufficiently. There are now more than 7000 in the national park, all the newborns would be fully wild after parting with their mother at 6 years old.
We were lucky enough to see more Thomas Leaf monkeys on the way back. We also sat for 20 minutes and watched a female orangutan and her 2 year old child. You really got a sense for how similar to humans these animals are, from the curiosity of the mother, picking random twigs and dropping them to the jungle floor, to the child sneezing, picking its nose and then putting it in its mouth before yawning and leaning on a branch like a bored/tired human child.
We also got to see one of the down sides of eco-tourism. People on day treks with guides coaxing the animals with fruit, out of the trees to get in a better position to take a selfie with them. That’s not progress, but hopefully it will fizzle out when there are no orangutans from the feeding platforms era left.
After 3 hours trekking we’d arrived back at On The Rocks for a “bloody cold Bintang” and a well earned shower!
On The Rocks were awesome. They helped arrange so much of our time in Sumatra including airport transfers and onward travel. Absolutely get in touch with them if you’re thinking of doing something similar.
This experience will certainly take some beating!
Finally, massive thanks to Katy for carrying that camera around the whole time and capturing some of the encounters so well.