Bukit Lawang

Everything we’ve done so far turned out to be a training for our trip into the Bukit Lawang jungle. Our jungle trek (read leeches) in Endau Rompin, the climbing on Trail 2 in Cameron Highlands, the stairs in Teman Negara and on Penang Hill, we all needed this to make the trekking in Bukit Lawang seem easy.

Don’t get me wrong it was not really easy; steep ups and downs never are. And why would we put ourselves through this you may think? Well, because the jungle in Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra is home to the famous Orangutan. And for years I’ve dreamt to see them ‘live’. While living in Singapore I heard from many people who came here that it is fantastic!

They were understating it totally! It is fan-bloody-tastic!

Let’s start at the beginning. As said, for years I wanted to do this trek and when we started preparing for this trip I found this website. I thought it looked really good and put in a request for a 2 day trekking (one night in the jungle seemed a great idea at the time). Christina from Eco traveling got back to me and told me that they thought a two-day trek with my emphysema would be unwise. She suggested a one day walk and there really was nothing I could say to her. In hindsight she was right, so thank you for that!

When we were chilling the day after, the first orangutan and her baby appeared right across the river from us; that was really cool! Mesmerized we stared at her and even though they were not doing anything out of the ordinary, we felt we were witnessing something very special. When they left we felt they were leaving us. Totally dramatic, but on our part only of course. They didn’t have a clue.

The next day was so brilliant I don’t even know where to begin! We saw orangutans, baboons, Thomas leaf monkeys, macaques, spiders, giant ants, termites and mosquitos of course! We heard the white and black gibbons as well as the call of the toucans. We climbed up and down hills and had breaks in the most amazing spots with the best food ever (I know that everything tastes good when you are hungry, but this fried rice really tasted amazing!)

The first orangutan we came across was Sipa, she had a baby and a bigger kid accompanying her. The bigger one was of the age that it should be independent, so it might have been someone else’s. Not sure. Orangutans start having babies at age 15 or so and then take care of their baby for about 5-6 years before having another one. When they get another one they shoo the older one out so they can focus on their little one. The older ones sometimes hook up with another mother, they are independent but don’t want to be alone yet.

Until 10 years ago there was a large orangutan sanctuary in Bukit Lawang and they rescued the apes from when their habitats were taken by the palm oil plantations. So, most of the older apes here are used to humans and have been fed for decades. They never had to learn how to find their own food and their instincts are not developed to do so. When the government closed the sanctuary, they let all the apes go free into the jungle, but they tend to stay closer to town. They still have feedings daily for the ones that need it. Somehow their babies do learn the lessons of life and they know how to look after themselves. Instinct is a beautiful thing!

Jackie and Mina are the most famous apes and they are totally opposite in character. Jackie was taken care of by a ranger as a baby and he took her hand every time he led her to the feeding platform. This is why she always grabs someone’s hand, it’s her way of asking for fruit; because even though they don’t find their own food anymore, they are certainly not stupid.

Mina on the other hand was abused by her caretaker. And so she is aggressive. She will not let you pass and you need to pay the toll in the form of fruit. Problem is, she never thinks it’s enough; while she gets her fruit she is ok, but as soon as you stop feeding her she gets upset and aggressive. When we bumped into her, our guide told us that we would be able to look and take a few pictures, but that we would have to leave straight after. Our other guide was already up there, trying to distract her by giving her fruit and leading her slowly in the opposite direction from where we needed to go.

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Mina begging for food with her baby upside down in the tree, playing like babies do.
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Our guide leading Mina away so we could safely pass.

We had a look and she is beautiful. She has her own baby and that one is so playful and cute. Hard to believe Mina is so aggressive, but apparently 60 guides in Bukit Lawang have the scars to prove it. Herri, our guide, took us down a hill that was pretty much straight down, and he kept looking upwards in a sort of worried fashion. It made me go a lot faster, because even though getting bitten by Mina would be a good story, I’d rather not tell it. Both our guides have been bitten and they tell us it hurts badly; these guys don’t look like they know the meaning of the word pain, so when they say it hurts, I believe it!

Cheeky Thomas leaf monkey, stealing bananas.

When we had our first energy break, we had a huge amount of fruits to choose from. The fact that these guides carry everything on their backs, made us eat as much as we could! One Thomas leaf monkey studied us and came closer every 30 seconds. When he got really close, I got up to take a picture. That was the opening he’d been waiting for and before I could say boo or ba, he’d ‘stolen’ three bananas of which he dropped one.

It is policy in the park to not feed the animals. But these monkeys and apes are smart and through the amounts of tourists they see every year (hundreds per day in the high season!) they have pretty much worked out that there is fruit everywhere they go. When you think about it, it is quite amazing they are still so very well-behaved.

Some guides will feed the animals, so their tourists get a good photograph. But that means they get used to it and before you know it the whole jungle is full of Mina’s. While it is great to have one moody ape, it is another story to have a forest full of them. So if you ever think of doing this trip (and really we can highly recommend it), please make sure you do so with a reputable company. There are several eco-responsible companies in town. It will cost a little more maybe, but it will make your stay so much more worthwhile.

On a more serious note

As much as I hate mass-tourism, it is also what keeps this rainforest alive. The money made in Bukit Lawang feeds the people here and gets their kids through school. Eco-companies use part of their proceeds to organize cleaning days (to clear the garbage from the disreputable guides and tourists that think they are in the zoo) and to plant fruit trees away from fruit plantations, so the monkeys and apes can go there to find their food. At least the company we used does so.

Where ever money can be made, bad seeds spoil it for the rest. Some of the things we heard are just ridiculous and you really wonder why people would go for it. But to be honest, this could have happened to us too. Like, when you go into the jungle you need a permit. You pay for it too. But some of the guides will buy only two permits for a group of seven and keep the rest of the money as theirs; they show you a stack of papers and there is no one who checks. As a tourist you just assume it is okay; after all it is in their own best interest, right? The money for the permit goes to the park and is used to keep everything in it safe. Now that you know, make sure you get your own!

Another thing is that the ‘bad’ guides throw away the leftovers of the food you consume during your breaks for the animals to find, under the pretense of compost. I would not think twice about that as we tend to do the same back home. But when the fruits are bought commercially, they usually have pesticides on their skin which are then digested by the animals. The better way is to either bury it, so they cannot find it, or simply to take the garbage home with you.

We were lucky, we had the best guides who care about their jungle and take pride in their work and the company they work for. And because of that they made our day unforgettable.

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