Bukit Lawang – Orangutans world

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We left Medan around noon heading towards Bukit Lawang. As predicted, some random people tried to rip us off at the bus stop by asking for money when they had nothing to do with the bus or the trip. Luckily we had read and been warned about this, so we ignored them and only handed the proper fare to the driver upon arrival. Our ‘would be’ guide was not at the terminal as he had promised. However, a friend of his was, and he lent us his phone to talk to him. It seemed like a text I had sent from Wojtek’s phone the night before(that said we were arriving ‘tomorrow’) had actually arrived an hour before, making him think we’d arrive the following day and sending him back home. He hastily returned to get us, and advised he lived 45 minutes walk out of town.

We followed him through some shop-type building that had never been used, showing great expectations but no delivery. There were big fields with cows, and soon we got to rubber tree land. Between them, an old Dutch school emerged, all filled with colours and nice legends on the wall. The Japanese did not get this far into the woods and the original family was still living there, maintaining the place and teaching local kids. It was a very inspiring place.

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We eventually got to his place, and at this point he mentioned that there was no food available without walking all the way back into town. We were pretty annoyed, specially because we could have easily picked up something at the station. Nonetheless, we were still carrying enough food for our tramp of the next two days, so we cracked opened a pack of ‘sayur krekers’ and had that for dinner. His place did not have a bathroom, so we went to a nearby river to clean ourselves and dug holes in the ground for our other necessities. To our surprise, we were informed the man we had made the arrangements with was not to be our actual guide, and we were introduced to the man that would. He explained the plan and answered our questions without trouble. Everyone slept in a common room, on the floor. It did not get much more traditional than this…

The next morning, we started at 8am by walking back to town, to eat some breakfast in a Warung to make up for the food we had eaten the night before. He first took us to a touristy restaurant, but we soon explained we wanted to go to were the locals did, and were referred to a small place were a lovely lady had a bunch of vegie curries in offer. She spoke no word of English, so we used all our Indonesian knowledge to be understood and had no trouble placing our order and eating some amazing food. It was so good an so cheap that we asked for another serving to take with us and eat for dinner.

Just as we were finishing, our guide reappeared with our permits and we were ready to set towards the jungle. We saw the first orangutan outside the official park boundaries. He was a young, strong-looking male. As we arrived at the park entrance, we got a feeling of what the day would be like. Countless tourists were piling up there, speaking loudly and taking photographs. We diverted from the main road to try to avoid the crowds, but were unable to find any more orangutans. When we finally did, there were about 50 people surrounding the animal, who was placidly hanging high up a tree staring at the humans. We tried to stick around and wait for the horde to disperse so we could start disposing of the heavy bananas we were carrying (we bought like 2 kilos) but as some left, others arrived, and we decided to move on. We were not lucky that day, and the situation kept repeating itself, with too many souls around for the apes to get close safely.

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At this point I should clarify, there is much debate regarding the whole feeding of the orangutans in this area. I am on the fence at this point and have not made up my mind on the subject, but I shall present what I know for the sake of my readers. Please bare in mind I am no expert!

The story is, a rehabilitation centre was founded in 1973 and run until 1996, giving a home to orphaned and injured orangutans, raising them among humans and then, releasing them back to the wild once they were old enough or had been nursed back to health. A feeding platform still exists in the area that provides them with complementary food twice a day, to support the local population and complement their diet. On top of that, many tourists hand feed these semi-wild creatures, mostly bananas and cane sugar.

Objections from conservationists state that

  • This practice prevents the animals from fetching their own food and become dependent on humans, and this is not natural. My argument on this point is, there is nothing natural on their habitat being constantly reduced by the rain forest being burned to give way to more land to plant oil palm/rubber/etc. Example
  • Orangutans can get sick and die from human spread diseases and viceversa
  • People feed them all sort of things besides fruit. There is a famous case of an orangutan called Mina, who was given Nasi Goreng (friend rice) and is likely to get aggressive if you give her anything other than that. She has already bitten plenty of  guides and even some tourists. I think that, this is a latent possibility. We have to bare in mind some of these are wild animals, that are much stronger than us, and should proceed with caution at all times
  • Because of the amount of food available, the orangutans cluster on a small area, which would never happen in the wild, where orangutans are lonely creatures and only travel with their offspring (female) or within their territory (male). The current situation could lead to the population growing out of hand, and the orangutans turning into the nearby town for food and terrorizing the inhabitants. I heard a girl compare this situation with that of baboons in Africa. In my opinion however, given the fact that orangutans reproduce very slowly (they only have a child every 8 years or so) this in unlikely to happen to that extent.

Arguments of those pro responsibly feeding

  • Bukit Lawang is a town teeming with tourism. People from all over the world are attracted to this forest by the opportunity of close contact with this marvellous creatures, creating job opportunities for locals and developing the area.
  • The orangutans in this forest are thriving. All females are reproducing and the population is slowly growing, when they are close to extinction in so many other areas. Apart from the daily feeding at the platform, no government or NGO is funding this, but the same tourists that pay a lot to the locals for this chance.
  • Last but not least, it’s so fucking awesome!

As you can see, there is a lot of things to keep in mind (and I just quickly summarized some), and this time around we decided that a few bananas would not hurt the status quo nor endanger the animals. They certainly seemed happy to receive them when the time finally came. That being said, I would encourage anyone that visits the spot to make their own informed decision and weigh the consequences…

Going back to our adventure, the trek was awfully hard, not because the terrain was too treacherous nor steep, but because it was extremely hot and our energy seemed to drain from us. Our guide was going way too fast for us to follow right behind him, which made the situation worse. Fortunately he had brought a friend along who seemed to notice, and was a lot more patient and supportive when he took the lead. We emerged next to a beautiful stream about 3pm, and found a quiet place to pitch our tent with our guides blessing that it was a good spot. From the shore we saw two huge monitor lizards attempting to copulate. We swam in the river, but it soon started raining, and the water level to rise. We hid in the tent and read aloud to each other, until we were interrupted by one of our escorts to let us know the river was overflowing and would soon reach our tent. We had to therefore pick up everything an move it to another location, higher up. We were pretty tired from a day of hard walking, and went to sleep shortly after dark.

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The second and last day in Gunung Leuser started around 7am. We ate some of our provisions for breakfast, and I was gifted a packet of instant noodles to complement it with something warm, which was quite nice. We then walked upstream for about 30 minutes with our feet mostly in the river, which was quite fun and refreshing. Then the hard part started. We climbed the face of a steep never ending hill, that went up and up and up and then some more, until we were panting and sweating like pigs. (I wrote that and immediately thought ‘pigs don’t sweat much’, so if you are as curious as me about the origin of the expression you can click here) The forest around us was old and stunning, a wonderful and magical place to tramp around.

We rested and had some chocolate cookies when we reached the top. Now we were in Mina’s domain, and attentively looking for her. For better or worse, we were unable to find her (or she decided not to make an appearance) and instead we found a beautiful peacock. I had some plain peanuts with me, so we managed to get him to come quite close to us to film/take some pictures. He was a bit shy at first, but was obviously never been hunted and not very afraid of humans…

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We kept walking onward, and soon found one of the most amazing things I had the chance to see in the wild. A whole family of gibbons, just passing by over our heads. These creatures have a majestic way to swing through branches barely making a sound, and it’s not common for humans to get a clear glance at them, as they keep high and don’t like people much. So we were extremely lucky not only to spot them but to be able to admire them for more than five minutes while young and old made their way through their jungle, jumped from one tree to another right above our heads and completely ignored us.

With our spirits high up and big smiles, we continued our trek. Soon we found an orangutan and its baby, with a small multitude around them. By this point we had been carrying the bananas for a long while and I no longer cared about the spectators. I carefully broke a bunch where she could not see me (lest she would come for all) and held one high for her to see. She immediately came down, causing a bit of a commotion because of her speed, and scaring some of the people around us. I gave her one banana, then another, and she kept holding her hand out to me… She wanted ALL I had. It was quite hilarious for all present to see her shove 5 bananas in her mouth and quickly made her way back up the tree. A whole family of macaques was hanging out on the floor, waiting to eat whatever the big apes would throw out as their spoils.

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On we went, and soon found another of these beautiful creatures, this time with only another group of local tourists around. Momma orangutan seemed to be very tame, and had no trouble socializing with humans. She even came to the ground (not something they normally do) and walked around in her hind legs, like a person. Quite a cute sight. She soon returned to her tree and held her hand out to us, expectantly. We did not dare to disappoint her, so we broke off some more bananas and gave them to her. Her offspring was also around, and it came to get its share of food as well, though momma was not much in the mood for sharing, so we had to distract her to be able to give it to the kid (he must have been 5-8). At one point when she held her hand out I took it and close my own hand around it. There was a moment when the guide next to me panicked because she was not letting go, and I could feel her grasp tightening with just a small portion of her strength. I waved him away as he was about to hit her to release me since I was not one bit afraid (courageous? stupid? its a fine line :P) and she held my gaze the whole time and soon let go of her own accord, leaving me with a wonderful feeling of communion. Her hand was so soft and human that it would be hard to distinguish in the dark. Putting aside all the arguments I laid out previously, this was a one in a lifetime experience that I will never forget.

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A few minutes later we found another female/child pair. Our guides warned us to keep our distance because this one was not as tame as the ones we had seen previously. Soon a male approached, with his big head and plump body. He looked extremely funny with his light beard and happy face. We though we would get to see some monkey business, but they seemed to just be courting at that stage. After a while, we heard some rustle through the leaves and our guides motioned us to slowly move away. The male looked frightened for a moment and immediately rushed away from the spot at an amazing speed.

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We soon realized what had happened. A few metres away, an enormous alpha male was approaching the female, and the younger one knew his place well and escaped while he could. This huge newcomer had the flat face that characterises dominant grown male and a mighty body. He could possibly rip your limbs off without breaking a sweat. We took some pictures and left the spot, full of awe but excited we got to see this interchange.

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We were on our way out, and I had been unable to spot Thomas leaf Monkeys, another species native to this piece of forest, so I was calling out to them as I went. We crossed the entrance of the park, and were back into rubber tree land, when we spot some in the distance. Tim and I left our guides behind and cut through a field to get closer, but they were pretty high up some trees and had no interest on coming closer to us. We were still able to see their angular haired faces but unable to get any photos because of how far they were… It was still quite awesome regardless, as they are quite unique…

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Eventually we made it back to town, and dove into the river to clean ourselves. We had a late lunch and were taken to the bus stop to get back to Medan. The bus ride uneventful and we got back to Eva’s when it was already quite dark, and went to bed quite exhausted after the days’ adventures.

A CS gathering was taking place the next day, so we were taken to a local vegan restaurant where we met with about 20 CS and had a wonderful dinner. The place closed early, so we went to a second café to have some drinks and talk way past midnight. We were sitting next to some pretty liberal/laid back Muslim friends, and had a pretty serious and enlightening conversation on their belief system and other similar subjects. It was a fabulous, eye opening evening.

The next day Tim started feeling very ill and exhibiting all symptoms of food poisoning, but we had already promised to make dinner for some of our friends, so I set out to find the traditional market. I followed our host’s instructions, and had to stop a few times to ask “Nimana Pasar Maranti?” (Where market Maranti?) If there are verbs in Bahasa Indonesia, I do not know them, so my questions and sentences never have them.. Let’s be honest, who needs them? My question did seem to satisfy the locals and directions where given (mostly fingers pointed) and I made it to the place, where again my language skills were tested. Unfortunately I had got to it pretty late and not many stalls remained, so I did not have much of a choice and the remaining produce was not utterly fresh. I was still able to get what I wanted: tempe, eggplant, onion, chili, coconut milk, kasava leaves, potato, garlic, shallot, ginger, tomato and lime. I returned with a pretty heavy backpack and soon started to prepare dinner. I must have spent about 4 hours in the kitchen that day, preparing food for 9 people. Tim popped in and out and made his best to try and help, but his health situation was not improving. We had a set back when we used an opened bag of oil, without realizing it had gone stale and pretty much ruined the tempe. I also under cooked the eggplant (there was too much of it) so we had to let it simmer in the milk for a lot longer. All in all, it was possibly the worst meal we had cooked in a long time. At least our kentang goreng were delicious and the guys loved them, but after all that work, Tim and I were quite disappointed. Due to his sickness, he was unable to eat anyway…

The next night was very long for both of us. The sickness finally caught up with me as well and I was forced out of bed about 8 times to run to the toilet. The days that followed were very unpleasant for both and were mostly spent in lethargy lying down in bed. Our original plan was to cross to Singapore by boat, but we were quickly running out of time, and comparing the prize of flying with that of taking bus+ferry+ferry, we realized it would not make much of a difference. We booked a plane ticket and were lucky that Eva was OK having us at her place while we convalesced. A few days later we were feeling a little bit better, but I still had no hunger. We managed to get on the plane and fly to Singapore.

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