I caught a passenger ferry from Penang to the town of Medan on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It was my first experience with a large passenger ferry, and I was a bit surprised at how it operated. I’d expected it to be just a big boat with benches for seats, and people standing around. I certainly did not expect airline style seating with bad kung-fu movies playing on televisions.
Anyway, when I got to Medan I hooked up with a tout who was selling seats on a minivan headed to Bukit Lawang, the village near the island’s orangutan sanctuary. I was glad to get out of the dock area as quickly as possible. Leaving the city it was nothing but filth, garbage, stench and poverty. Once we left the city itself things started looking much better. The trees got thicker as we drove into the jungle. We finally arrived in Bukit Lawang after about 4 hours driving. I looked around and found a guest house with a private bathroom and a balcony overlooking the river for the princely sum of $3.00 per night.
That evening hanging in the guest house bar, I met up with a few other travelers and we hired a couple of locals to guide us on a two day trek to find the orangutans in their natural environment. We got to bed fairly early after a few beers knowing that the next day could be a tough one.
The first day of the trek featured high humidity, but relatively pleasant temperatures. We were hiking up hill most of the morning, and our guides called a break after about two hours. They pulled out their packs of weed, and offered it all around to the rest of us. I’d later get used to this casual attitude toward pot use in Asia, but it was surprising at first. About an hour later we finally ran into a group of four adult orangutans plus a baby. These were fantastic animals! One was obviously unhappy with our presence, and kept pulling down branches from the rain forest canopy and throwing them down on us. We watched them for about half an hour before they finally moved on. We could see evidence of their presence all around. Old sleeping nests were everywhere in the trees, and branches had been stripped of nearly all fruit.
We finally stopped for lunch of Nasi Goreng (Indonesian fried rice), cucumbers, boiled eggs, and fresh fruit. We ate by a stream in the forest, and the soon after came to an overlook where we could see the whole canopy of trees below us. We started heading down a steep hill toward our campsite when the afternoon thunderstorm opened up on us. It quickly became obvious that this was more than just a regular rain shower. Our guides looked a little nervous as we were encouraged to hurry up and get down the mountain. Finally we reached our shelter for the night which was just a plastic tarp on a wooden frame next to the river. It was enough to keep the six of us dry though, and thats what really mattered. I’m constantly worried about the aluminium guttering on the back side of our house whenever we have a big thunderstorm. Some storms are powerful enough to tear it out of the side of the house, and it’d not be cheap to fix it.
The rain kept up for a good 8 hours, thru the evening, and a good part of the night. When we woke up the river had nearly doubled in size from the previous day. The plan was for us to float down the river on a homemade raft, but our guides said it was way too dangerous to attempt with the river at its current level. It was best that we wait around for a few hours and see if the river would recede. We entertained ourselves with stories of where we were from, and the locals special tobacco. It turns out that one of the guys on the trip was a dive instructor in Thailand, so I got his address and told him I’d see him in a few weeks.
Finally the river got low enough that we could float back to the village. Normally the river is fairly tame, but we bounced and splashed back thru rapids the whole way. One great thing was that there were probably a dozen waterfalls we passed on the way back that are normally dry. Watching them splash down from over 50 feet up right next to us was quite a treat!
The next day after a hot shower, I went out to see the actual sanctuary. Here we got to meet some orangutans who had been orphaned by either bad luck or poachers. One actually reached out his hand to me and grabbed mine..I couldn’t believe the power in his arms! That last night I made plans to move on Lake Toba, and then went to one of the local bars to hear our guide play in his band.
One footnote to this chapter…the village of Bukit Lawang was completely destroyed in November of 2003 by a flood of the river. Over half the population was drowned, and most of the buildings were washed away. Blame has been placed on illegal logging in the forests that used to act as a natural flood-stop. Apparently rebuilding is progressing slowly, but the region depends on tourist dollars to keep it alive. Hopefully in a few more months things will be close to normal…at least as close to normal as things ever get in the third world.