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At One with Orangutans


To visit Sumatra, the second largest of the Indonesian islands, was an impulsive decision driven by the promise of seeing wild orang utans in their natural habitat of tropical rainforest. It was with little preparation, apart from a last minute purchase of a lonely planet guide in Penang, our point of departure and with nervous excitement fuelled by intrepidation of travelling into the unknown and amidst warnings from the locals in Penang that we should be careful with current unrest in Aceh. Like its fellow Indonesian State East Timor, Banda Aceh in the north of Sumatra, is a province fighting for independence from the Indonesian government. Shootings and violence has taken its toll on the tourist industry with the number of visitors rapidly declining throughout the whole of the island. The fact that every visitor is handed a booklet on arrival reassuring them of the safety of the island only goes to highlight further the plight of the declining tourist industry in a country so dependent on visitors for its economy.

We passed through customs quickly and were herded onto a bus to Medan, Sumatra’s capital. The short journey led us to a sprawling city of apparent chaos. It was a far cry from the image I had conjured in my mind of luscious rainforest and ox driven ploughs working the countryside. My immediate reaction was to leave Medan and quickly. A man on the seat in front of me seemed to read my mind and within seconds was offering my friend Jayne and I a ride to the main bus station for a mere ten thousand rupiah, under one British pound. As the rest of the passengers made their way off the bus we swiftly handed the man a note and remained in our seats. After a while of sitting and with constant hand motions from the driver beckoning us off the bus it became apparent that this vehicle was going nowhere. After hurriedly retrieving my money from the man who also seemed to be in a hurry I realised I would have to keep my wits about me. A western face is easy prey for the con man.

Eddie, Collin and Jayne at the market Another man escorted us to a small roadside café, instructing us to wait for the bus that would take us to our first destination, home of the orang utans Bukit Lawang. I was suspicious of this second man after my experience a few minutes earlier and declined to give him any money until I was seated on the bus. I was relieved when our transport pulled up as I was feeling tired from the early start that morning. The bus was old and shabby looking but nonetheless in apparent full working mechanical order. As I handed the driver a note and wearily threw my backpack onto a seat I was surprised to see my friend and I were the only passengers and gladly sprawled myself over a seat. As I reclined and opened up my guidebook it was of little surprise that I noticed the Lonely Planet stated that the actual fare to Bukit Lawang was ten times less than we had paid. This was to be a common occurrence throughout Sumatra as I rapidly learned of the difference between local prices, western tourist prices and most of expensive of all Japanese tourist prices.

After an hour of zig zagging through a road system that apparently had no system at all, the view from my window gradually changed. The hustle and bustle of Medan and its suburbs evolved into stretches of the most beautiful countryside. Suddenly I wasn’t tired anymore. Everything around me was fascinating, from the workers knee deep in the paddy fields to the old man sitting watching the world go by at the side of the road to the woman carrying a fifty kilo bundle on her head seemingly without effort. As we meandered through the roads I relaxed, sat back and marvelled at the stunning scenery.

I had no preconceptions about Bukit Lawang. It was hard for me, a lifelong city girl, to imagine what a village in the jungle would be like. The bus arrived late and in the dark and as we pulled into the village three locals jumped in, introduced themselves and bombarded us with questions. What’s your name? Where you from? Will you stay at my guesthouse tonight? As I stepped off the bus my backpack was whipped away from the seat and carried off by one of the young lads. A group of around twenty circled me and as we walked toward the village I attempted with little success to answer all of the questions being thrown at me. As quickly as they had surrounded me, the group disbanded and I found myself following just one of the group onto a swinging bridge over the river Songai Bohorok. The rapids sounded deafening and it was with precaution I crossed the bridge to the opposite bank where we were shown our room. The lad introduced himself as Calvin, one of the guides working at the guesthouse. It was later discovered that Calvin had actually won Jayne and I over the rest of the group when we had initially arrived at the bus station and for the first night we were treated as his guests. During my stay in Bukit Lawang the system of guides and their guests revealed itself in an almost mafiaesque way. With the number of guides exceeding the number of guests it was a cut throat business persuading the tourist that his trek was the best or that there was no other white water rafting trip like the one he was leading tomorrow.

The guides of Bukit Lawang became an integral part of day to day life in the village. They introduced themselves as Dennis, Eddie, Collin and other western style names. Many of them were no older than nineteen or twenty years old and didn’t know life beyond their hometown. It may be argued that they didn’t need life outside of the village. After all it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Rows of colourful bamboo guesthouses, restaurants and shops lining the riverfront, each accessed by its own individual bridge and surrounded by lush rainforest. A community who spend their days bathing and playing in the river and exploring the rainforest and their nights playing guitar and card games with their guests. A simple life, containing none of the complexities of modern day life. An English girl we met had lived in Bukit Lawang for the past six months. She had taken her boyfriend, one of the guides who could neither read nor write nor knew his real age to Medan and watched as he shied away from automatic doors not understanding what they were. Those guides who had been to Medan to pick up tourists told in disgust of their experiences of noise, dirt and overcrowdedness in the city.

Suma, the Orangutan Bukit Lawang is however more than a quaint little village. We were treated to a deeper insight into community life. On market day, Eddie and Colin took us down to the colourful stalls where we sampled local produce such as passion fruit and freshly made murtabak (thick pancake filled with peanuts and chocolate). We were then taken to Eddie’s family home. He explained that although not large, the house accommodated his parents, brothers and sisters and he felt privileged to have a roof over his head. He smiled as he lifted his hands into the air, shrugged his shoulders and proudly stated “it’s my home”. From there we took two taxis, each a motorbike and sidecar to another of the guides, Ellis, home. I once again marvelled at the driving skills of Indonesians as our drivers raced each other the entire way, skirting around potholes on the gravel tracks, haring around bends and once or twice stalling as they hit grassy verges at the side of the road. I clung onto my seat laughing the entire journey partly through excitement, partly through nerves. To my great relief we arrived safely and walked into the home of Ellis to find his mother chopping vegetables in the kitchen. She motioned for us to sit down, laughed and started preparing more vegetables when she learned there were four extra mouths to feed. She seemed pleased to see her new guests. I’m not sure I would have been so obliging. Whilst our meal was being cooked the group of around twelve sat in the lounge on the floor on a straw mat, the only furnishing in the room. We chatted with the father of Ellis, himself a guide in Bukit Lawang, looked through family photos and played brainteasers with matches. After a couple of hours Ellis’s mother carried through plates and plates of traditional Indonesian dishes. Stir fried vegetables with soya, fried fish, rice and chilli sauce. We all sat in silence as we devoured the food in Indonesian fashion, with our right hand. The whole day had encapsulated the importance of sharing in the community and of looking after the group over the individual, just one of the traditional Asian Values.

The guides of Bukit Lawang were eager to show us that there was more to their home than orang utans. One day we were taken to the aptly named Bat Cave, an extensive row of dark chambers where thousand of bats reside. A guide is a must, as is a sense of adventure and torch with sections of the cave proving tricky to negotiate, especially in the pitch black. They also took us to quiet swimming areas away from the busy and noisy Songai Bohorok where many tourists take part in one of Bukit Lawang’s favourite past times ‘tubing’, an activity involving travelling downstream in the rapids in a large inflated rubber ring.

We did of course do the obligatory trip to the Bohorok rehabilitation centre for orang utans. One of only three in the world, the other two located in Borneo. A short boat crossing over the river and a fairly steep walk up into the rainforest takes you to the feeding platform where the orang utans come to take bananas off the centres rangers whilst a row of tourists snap photos. The guides know each of the orang utans individually and every one has a name. Only Meena is regarded as dangerous with many guides showing off their scars of when they were attacked by her. On the day we see Meena she seems quite subdued, simply feeding herself and her baby with apparent disinterest in the group of onlookers watching with amusement at her humanlike actions. There have been protests from previous visitors, arguing that the centre does little for the rehabilitation of the orang utans but instead turns them into a circus act and increases their dependency on humans for food. It appears however that the animals are content as they swing effortlessly through trees, dangle from branches or simply sit with their arms crossed seemingly bemused at their spectators.

The Bohorok centre was enjoyable but to really get a feel for life in the jungle I recommend a trek. The guides are in their element, as from an early age they have explored the surrounding area thoroughly. To them it is like a second home. We opted for the one-day trek. Calvin was our guide and Johnny his helper having the arduous task of carrying the supplies for the day. As we ventured up into the trees I wondered what I had let myself in for as I grabbed frantically on to twines and tree roots to stop myself tumbling down the steep ground. It was with bewilderment that I noticed Calvin effortlessly skipping up the trail with bare feet, laughing at my clumsy effort to keep up and frequently offering a hand of help. Within minutes we spotted our first family of monkeys. We watched as they swung through trees, oblivious to the fascinated onlookers. Calvin and Johnny took the group of three deeper into the trees, stopping at various points to inform us about our new environment. We were shown rubber tree plantations, termites at work and different varieties of plantlife and animals which to us city folk would have probably gone unnoticed. We weaved in and out, up and down through the most incredible and at times demanding terrain. We were apparently following a path although it was invisible to my eye. Calvin suddenly stopped and told us all to be quiet and still, he pointed and as we followed the direction of his finger gasped as we saw an orang utan with her baby swinging in the tree tops. The Bohorok centre had been fun but was nothing in comparison to seeing the orang utan in the wild without the falsity of the feeding platform. We continued further into the dense forest, stopping frequently to watch monkeys at play or sometimes just to listen to birds camouflaged in the greenery. The highlight undoubtedly was the chance crossing of Suma, the orang utan who had tragically lost her baby in the previous month. Suma She was sitting on a log directly in our pathway. Suma sat subdued and unfazed by the group. With her arms crossed and an almost weary look on her face we stood only metres from her, fascinated by her almost human characteristics and sensing her bereavement at the loss of her baby. Suma seemed far from wild. She had been a previous visitor to the feeding platform and was accustomed to contact with humans unlike other orang utans we saw on the way who kept their distance, obviously suspicious of us. After a while Suma clearly got bored and swung gracefully away to seek adventure in the jungle.

Calvin guided us to a small waterfall for our lunch where we relieved Johnny of the weight on his back. The stop enabled us to soak our tired feet in the cool water. The afternoon walk proved to be more of a challenge than the morning session as we clambered up and down steep ground. For most of the trek back towards the river I relied on twines to cling on to or the hand of Calvin. It really felt as though we were in the heart of the jungle, far from civilisation, although I knew that in the short time we had been out we couldn’t really be too far from Bukit Lawang. I was relieved when I heard the sound of the river in the distance and with a newly found burst of energy stepped up the pace to reach what was to be our final destination.

Bukit Lawang At the river bank we met up with other guides from Bukit Lawang who had prepared our transport back to the village, three rubber rings bound together to form a raft. I watched as our possessions were placed in plastic bags and secured to the raft, hoping that my camera containing photos from the day would be safe. With little grace I climbed on to the front of the raft, legs dangling either side of the ring and waited for the other four to clamber on. Our driver, a small lad, to our amusement named Umbrella and no older than seventeen guided us through the rapids with a wooden pole. He showed incredible strength as we veered towards rocks but still found time to laugh and tickle my feet. As we were swept speedily downstream we passed others tubing down the Songai Bohorok and I appreciated the strength of the current which should not be undermined. Indeed some have died in the rapids, not heeding advice from the local guides. The trip back took about twenty minutes and as I climbed off the raft, as ungracefully as I had got on and drenched, I couldn’t stop smiling from the amazing experience. I felt a huge sense of achievement from the day. It had been physically challenging but I would gladly have done it all over again.

We left Bukit Lawang on a Sunday, the busiest day in the village when crowds of people arrive from Medan to spend a day by the river. As we carried our backpacks over the swinging bridge, hundreds of stalls were being set up and many were already playing in the rapids of the Songai Bohorok. For the guides it was just another day as they sat playing cards and prepared for more trekking. As we looked back they waved and shouted, “We miss you. Come back soon”. Who knows? Maybe one day I will return to the village in the jungle.

The leading charity working to save the Orang-utans of Sumatra is the [1]Sumatran Orangutan Society, Box 330, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. The organiser told the Travelmag, in October 2000, that if present rates continue, Orangutans will be extinct by the year 2010.

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