Whilst we were in Sumatra, one of the things on our list was to see orangutans in the wild. We knew the best place for this was the Gunung Leuser National Park, accessed from Bukit Lawang.
Getting to Bukit Lawang
We travelled from Medan by minibus for a reasonable 25,000 IDR each (£1.25 for us both) to Bukit Lawang. An amazing local guide helped us board the bus away from the main bus station, where tourists are known to get royally ripped off; they can end up paying up to 200,000 IDR per person through mafia intimidation. We were nervous about this journey but, thanks to the guide’s help, we avoided any problems.
The journey was a slightly cramped, uncomfortable 3 hour drive over bumpy roads. Once we arrived, a tuk tuk drove us and our bags as far as he could go then we had to walk the rest of the way to our guesthouse.
Staying in Bukit Lawang
The village of Bukit Lawang is basically a long narrow strip of shops, restaurants and guesthouses that runs parallel to a river, where swimming, tubing, laundry and bathing all take place. The village is pretty much set up for tourists, who come to Bukit Lawang to see orangutans in their natural habitat.
After a long walk with all our bags we made it to our guesthouse, Garden Inn. The people seemed nice, offering us a seat and something from the menu; we didn’t get anything though as it was quite expensive. A guide then started to talk to us about the trekking that was available and before we had even been shown our room, he had signed us up for a trek and uttered the scary words, “OK, you pay deposit now.”
At this point we told him that we would think about it and asked to see our room. After that, each time we saw the guesthouse owners, they pestered us about doing a trek with them. We didn’t like how pushy they were, so booked a trek elsewhere.
We booked our jungle trek with a friendly restaurant owner, after having stopped at his place for a drink and to use the WIFI. Incidentally, we had met a young guy on the bus in Medan who had recommended the place; it turned out to be the owner’s son! This was unbeknown to us until we heard the name of the guesthouse. We felt more comfortable here and even received a discount! We booked a jungle trek for the next day.
Jungle treks can be booked at most, if not all, guesthouses, hotels and travel agencies in Bukit Lawang; single day and two-day one-night options are available. Shop around as packages, guides and prices vary. Don’t feel pressured to book with one particular company or at the place you’re staying.
Trekking in the Sumatran Jungle
The next day came; it had been raining all night and was still wet when we got up. We were worried and didn’t want to trek in the rain. I relayed our fears about the weather to Amar, the restaurant owner, who looked at his watch, then to the sky and said, “don’t worry, rain will stop at 9 o’clock. The path will be OK, no problem.”
Lynette and I ate breakfast at the restaurant and, low and behold, at 9am the rain stopped. I also relayed our worry that we wouldn’t see any of the amazing animals that we had come to see. Amar smiled and replied, “don’t worry, I already message them in the jungle!”
We set off with our guides, who were both friendly young boys; one carried a hunting knife in his belt “just in case.” We met up with another couple, who were coming along as part of the group, and off we set into the jungle. We had to do a bit of climbing first, which was a little tough, but after that the path was OK. The guides were very knowledgeable and knew the route very well, explaining a lot about certain trees, plants and wildlife along the way. I was hoping to see at least a glimpse of an orangutan whilst on the trek.
About 30 minutes in, the guides stopped us and pointed up into a tree; sitting there was a female orangutan with her baby. We could just about see her. The other guide walked us around to another angle to see if we could get a better view. This was where we bumped into several other groups of tourists and their guides. The path we were on wasn’t exactly unbeaten. We couldn’t see much from there so returned to where we’d been.
Moments later, the orangutan had moved and was climbing down the tree! There she was, in plain view, mere meters from where we stood. We snapped some photos and watched, mesmerised, as this incredible creature went about her day. I felt like it had already been worth it. Then it got even better!
As we stood there, this critically endangered, beautiful animal descended the tree and walked right in front of us, slowly, confidently. Climbing another tree opposite, she even stopped to pose for pictures! Witnessing her baby clamber on the branches and learn to swing was amazing to see as well. We watched in awe as they moved around.
I had now seen not just one but two orangutans in the wild! We moved on to continue our trek and, along the way, saw another one high in a tree. Our guides told us that they are solitary creatures, moving daily to find food.
We took a break and were given fruit that included banana, passion fruit and oranges. I do love the availability of fruit in Asia! Suitably refreshed we pressed on, moving through thick jungle terrain. The scenery in the jungle doesn’t really change; the thought of spending a night in it didn’t really appeal to us, which is why we were glad to just do the day trek. As we walked we saw lots of amazing looking trees, some more than 100 years old!
Our guides were chatty throughout and we got on well. I spoke the (very) little Indonesian that I knew, which seemed to please them. The main guide, with the knife on his hip, sang away happily to himself on the trail. Annoyingly I can’t remember it all, but the opening line of “jungle trek, jungle trek” sung to the tune of “jingle bells, jingle bells” tends to stick in your head after a while!
We stopped for lunch; it seemed that all of the groups in the forest had had the same idea; it was a hive of activity. Our guides handed each of us an open paper packet containing veg fried rice, tomato and cucumber slices, crispy crackers and a fried egg, topped off with tofu chunks in a spicy sauce. That and a quarter of a fresh pineapple each for dessert made for one amazing, tasty meal!
We had just packed up and were ready to set off again when the guides suddenly jumped into action, repeatedly saying “move back, move back!” As we turned to find out the cause of the commotion, we were confronted by a very large, infamous orangutan called Mina. Renowned for being aggressive and always on the lookout for food, she is well known to guides and even has a special mention in the Indonesian Lonely Planet. We kept our distance whilst the guides coaxed her away with offerings of bananas.
An Adventure Back to Bukit Lawang
As we had climbed all that way up, it was now time to go all the way down. This involved a steep, slippery descent to the river. We even had to abseil part of the way using pre-made ropes and vines. After several slip ups, two leaches (that took a liking to Lynette) and one bruised leg (thanks to my clumsiness), we made it to the river.
We followed the river for a while until we reached a wide open section beyond the trees. As we were rafting back to Bukit Lawang, we had to wait for the tubes to be brought down.
Eventually, tubes were tied together and we all clambered in. It was a wet and wild but fun ride downriver. Hitting rapids with twists and turns, the journey back was a good laugh, all of us soaked through by the time we reached Bukit Lawang. Clambering to shore, we thanked the guides for what had ultimately been a great day!
We had set out in the morning to see at least one orangutan; we ended the day having seen at least eight! It truly was an amazing experience to witness these incredible animals in their natural environment.
However, it highlighted to me the saddening fact that these creatures are critically endangered, their habitat rapidly disappearing to make way for so called development. If this continues, the chance to see them in their natural surroundings may not be possible in years to come. I sincerely hope that this is realised before it is too late.
Fore more on Sumatra check out:
- 10 Unmissable Places to Visit in Sumatra
- Quick Guide: Banda Aceh and Pulau Weh