We’re not jungle people, but we hadn’t done much naturing lately so we decided to immerse ourselves in it by going to the jungles of Sumatra in search of orangutans and other wild animals. As mentally prepared for malarial mosquitoes and lunging leeches as we could be, N and I decided to visit Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra.
We arrived in Medan and spent a few days hanging out in a mall there, recovering from stomach issues we got on our way out of Penang. Medan proved to be a pretty crappy city (to put it nicely), with nothing interesting to see or do. The traffic and pollution are horrible there, making it nearly impossible to go anywhere anyway. So we spent too much time at Centre Point, a new mall near our hotel, and ate at the mediocre restaurants and wandered around it. To say the least, it wasn’t a good first impression of Indonesia.
Because we heard horror stories about minibuses in Indonesia (and driving in general), we took a private car to Bukit Lawang for $45 instead of the minibus fare of about $6 per person. A bit of a splurge, but we’re fancy like that, and we had promised ourselves to spend a little bit more on safer modes of transportations while in Indonesia.
We passed Malaysian palm oil plantations and arrived three and a half hours later in a small town split in half by a river. This would be our home for the next five days, complete with a cold shower and no AC.
We signed up for a trek with a licensed guide and an assistant — who walks around looking for animals — and left on a sunny morning through rubber plantations where monkeys played in the trees. Our guide Tonda explained the process of rubber extraction and why these trees — which aren’t native to Indonesia — ended up here (because of the Dutch, who brought them over from Brazil). He also told us that the palm oil plantations in the area were destroying the jungle because the greedy trees suck all of the water out of the earth, leaving little for native flora. We walked on, while hungry mosquitoes followed us in an unnerving swarm. But we had covered ourselves in DEET so they stayed away.
I asked Tonda about leeches. He laughed and shook his head and said there wouldn’t be any. As we walked on, I realized that this trek wouldn’t be the wild hacking-through-the-brush-with-machetes-and-plucking-leeches-off-our-ankles sort of jungle hike I had been imagining. And I was totally fine with it. I have plenty of time to work up to that level of hardcore hiking.
Not long after entering the actual national park, we came across a large group of tourists looking up into the trees. Our first orangutans! We all peered through the trees at an orange furry thing about 20 meters away, mostly obscured by the leaves and branches. A guide hooted at it while tapping a rock against the tree it was laying in, trying to rouse the poor thing from her nest. I don’t know about you but if some weak little human was trying to wake me from my slumber, there would be some mauling and shit-throwing involved, but I guess orangutans are pretty chill creatures.
I squinted up at the orangutan and her baby, thinking to myself that this might be the only sighting we have all day of these endangered and elusive apes. I tried to soak it all in, obscured ape and all.
We walked on and stopped to eat some fruit with Tonda and Aldi. We hadn’t seen any animals besides the monkeys and the orangutans, and we asked him what our chances were of seeing more animals. He smiled and shrugged.
“It depends. Sometimes you see a lot, and sometimes you don’t see any. One time I went on a four-day trek and we didn’t see any. Nothing.”
Poor tourists. I hope the trek was at least worth it. We talked about living near the jungle, and about our own lives in the concrete jungle of New York. Tonda carefully amassed our trash in a plastic bag, which he put in his backpack. I liked this about him; he would pick up cigarette butts and other trash we came across in the jungle.
We walked on, through a well-trodden path through the jungle. Aldi left us and swiftly disappeared into the trees, hunting for wildlife for us tourists to see. Soon after, he called out to Tonda, “Ooh ooh!” To which Tonda replied in same, and led us to where Aldi waited.
“There might be some orangutans down there. Do you want to try?”
We peered down to where Tonda pointed. There was nothing to see but lush green plants and trees growing out of a steep slope. N knew she couldn’t do it with her knee still weak from ACL surgery, so I decided to go. I got this far to see orangutans, and a short deadly descent wasn’t going to stop me. So I followed Tonda, who attentively made sure I was safe, and I tried my best to not be so awkward as I crashed into him, hung from saplings to break my fall, and slipped my way down.
There were a few tourists (of course, German) already there, quietly watching the orangutans and taking photos. Tonda led me to a vantage point and there they were: five orangutans of different ages, deftly and effortlessly climbing and swinging from the vines. So close to us that on numerous occasions they stopped to make eye contact with us and watch us for a while.
I watched orangutans at play up close and personal. A swarm of sweat bees found me tasty and started landing on me; my hands, neck, down my shirt, face, ears. I looked down to see little white fuzzy things sticking to my pants and realized there were a ton of them on the bush near me. And they were moving. Normally, I would’ve screamed and torn back up the mountain at the sight of so many bugs touching me, but that day I was not to be deterred. This was the first time I’d ever seen anything like this. It took me a second to realize that there were no bars keeping these animals inside this little valley where they were climbing the vines. It would’ve been nice if I had my DSLR instead of my point-and-shoot, but I really can’t imagine carrying that heavy thing up and down the steep ravines.
While I was being eaten alive, N met the first unfriendly Germans we’ve ever encountered. They were sitting on a log looking grumpy and disgruntled. These standoffish tourists proved themselves to also be assholes when Aldi and N had a lost in translation moment. One of the women snorted and laughed. Aldi apologized. “I’m sorry, I’m trying to speak better English.” To which her asshole husband shot back, “Try harder.” N tried to make conversation with them, and found them to be insufferable. The only nice guy was the one they were waiting for, down in the valley with me. So N was stuck with them while I watched the orangutans and the orangutans watched me.
Tonda dragged me back up the slope and we walked on for a bit before we stopped for lunch where some young Germans were finishing up and taking photos of some opportunistic Thomas Leaf monkeys who were hanging out close by and waiting for scraps. We ate our fried rice and watched our favorite monkeys, while Tonda and Aldi cut up some pineapple for us to snack on.
After lunch, we opted for the shorter route, which ended up being an insanely steep and slippery descent down a muddy “trail” while clutching onto trees, vines and anything else to keep ourselves upright. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Tonda and Aldi carried us both down the side of the mountain. We talked about Indonesia and hope, especially with the incoming president who is the first to not have come from money or the political elite.
On the way down, Aldi spotted a peacock and we all snuck up on it. It stood there under a bush long enough for me to snap a bunch of photos but they don’t do it justice. This beautiful bird had a cobalt blue head, fuzzy feathers that stuck out behind its head, a mottled brown pattern similar to a quail’s, and a very long tail. It certainly wasn’t as showy as the peacocks we saw in Croatia, but we thought it was more beautiful.
We followed the stream on slippery rocks, passing young tourists bathing in the pools of cold water in their bathing suits. It was overcast and definitely not warm enough to be in that water, but to each his own. We stopped briefly to rest and wash our hands in the cool water. Tonda and Aldi applied “jungle make-up” on us by grinding up red clay with water. We returned the favor.
By the time we got to the riverbank and the “jungle taxi” that awaited us, the sound of the then distant thunder was getting closer, and ominous clouds covered the sky. We took off our hiking boots and socks and put them in “dry bags”, which were essentially plastic bags that they tied up and strapped to the inner tubes. We were told to sit in the middle inner tube of the three that were attached together, while Tonda manned the captain’s seat in the front and Aldi and the inner tube guy climbed on in the back.
We sat back and took off, the light rapids bouncing us around and soaking us as we drifted towards home. Lightning crackled in the sky ahead of us and big thunder crashed nearby. Tonda kept rowing and Aldi kept right on singing the guides’ song to the tune of “Jingle Bells”:
In Bukit Lawang
See the monkeys
See the birds
Potential electrocution ain’t no thang. By the time we got back, huge raindrops were pelting us from the sky. We were already soaked anyway so we picked our way through the shallow water and made our way back to our bungalow for a cold shower and a hot meal.