Welcome to the Jungle: Searching for Sumatra’s Orangutans

The last three days have been among the best of our whole backpacking trip so far, and a great way to finish off our 6-week Indonesian adventure. Yes, we’re now sweaty, stinky, tired, soaking wet excuses for civilised humans, but it was totally worth it.

Out of the nine countries we’ve visited so far this year, Indonesia is without a doubt up there in the top three, and Sumatra is our absolute favourite place in Indo, and that is all down to the fabulous experience of trekking through the jungle.

Finding a responsible trekking company

One thing we’d regretted not doing in Malaysia was heading to Borneo to see the orangutans. However, we’d heard mixed reviews about the experience – super expensive, staged photos, feeding stations for the animals, not authentic, tourist trap. When the possibility of heading out to find orangutans in Sumatra came up, we first wanted to find an ethical company to make sure we weren’t unknowingly engaging in an activity detrimental to the animals, the local people, or the environment.

The Critically Endangered Sumatran Orangutan

With a fair amount of trawling through travel blogs, I found Sumatra Orangutan Discovery, based in a village in Northern Sumatra called Bukit Lawang. They’re a relatively new company, only been running for a year or so, and they appealed to us because they had a very responsible message – employing local people, supporting surrounding communities, reducing plastic, small group sizes, keeping a safe distance from the wildlife and no feeding the animals (except for one very special circumstance involving a terrorist orangutan, tourist hostages, and condensed milk… but we’ll get to that later) .

Once we booked, Ellie (the owner) messaged with all the info we needed. When we arrived in Sumatra, Ellie and her partner, Teson, met with us at our guesthouse for a pre-trek briefing to make sure we were comfortable with how the three days in the jungle would go. They also brought along our two guides, Zuri (pronounced Juri) and Teger, so we could meet them before starting the trek the next day.

Wading through the river with our amazing guides, Zuri and Teger

We’d all recommend Sumatra Orangutan Discovery, they were brilliant from start to finish and throughout the trek we all said several versions of ‘thank god we’ve got these guides, not those idiots over there’.

First Day – Welcome to the Jungle

Zuri and Teger came by the guesthouse to pick us up in the morning, luckily at a respectable time of 9am, so no early start needed. We had time for leisurely breakfasts and re-packing our bags – we could only take our day bags into the jungle with us, so had to make some hard decisions on what to take. We all settled on one set of clothes for hiking and another, clean set, for evening. This meant we’d all be stinky and gross by the end of the three days, but what can you do.

We’d got as far as the rubber plantations at the edge of Bukit Lawang before we had our first taste of jungle wildlife. The Thomas leaf monkeys are endemic to Sumatra and super cute. They have the best hair styles. Our guide told us that Thomas leaf monkeys have never been kept as pets like other monkeys because they have to eat such a varied diet of different types of fruit and leaves.

Thomas Leaf Monkey, only found in Sumatra

Zuri spent some time telling us about the rubber and palm oil plantations, explaining how the rubber is collected from each tree by stripping a section of bark and letting the rubber drip down from the cut to be collected in a coconut shell at the base of the tree. Once the coconut shell gets full, after around 5 days, the rubber will be gathered and the process will start again. It sounds like hugely time consuming labour, and for little reward.

The price of rubber has greatly dropped, meaning the return for the farmer is very low. The alternative is palm oil, where the labour process is much less intensive, and the returns are far greater – meaning that the farmer’s family don’t go hungry quite as often. We all know that palm oil is destroying habitats and is a terrible threat to the survival of orangutans, but it’s hard to condemn these farmers for choosing to have a profitable crop and a stable income… while global demand is so high, palm oil will continue to be the best use of land for many people in difficult circumstances.

Zuri teaching us about rubber plantations

It took us around an hour to get through the rubber plantations and into Gunung Leuser National Park itself, mostly because we stopped to spend time with the Thomas leaf monkeys and long tailed macaques hanging around the area.

We just arrived at the boundary of the park when we saw a distant tree shaking and a flash of orange between the branches… and there they were, our first orangutans. It was pretty special, Rebecca admitted after that she had a little cry. To see a critically endangered orangutan out in the wild was something that none of us will ever forget.

Orangutans in the Sumatran Jungle

Throughout that first day we saw plenty more, some in the distance and some so close we had to back up out of their way. Zuri and Teger explained that here in Bukit Lawang there had been a rehabilitation project for many years, gathering orangutans from captivity and sending them out into the jungle again. The project first had to teach them to survive in the wild – how to feed themselves, how to climb, how to build nests… then once the orangutans were released, feeding stations had to be set up to supplement their own food gathering. Now, the feeding stations have all been shut down and the project declared a success – all of the released orangutans now can feed themselves, and many have gone on to have babies out in the wild and fully assimilated to life in their true home.

Over the course of our first day we saw many of these semi-wild orangutans, all of whom our guides could incredibly recognise by one glance. Not only did we see them, but we also saw plenty of their babies – orangutans considered to be truly wild as they were born and raised in the wild with no human interference.

After around 6 hours of trekking up and down jungle-covered hills, we made it to our first camp. It was very simple, no luxury glamping for us. Our shelter for the night was a wooden structure by the river. It had a tarp over the top to keep out the rain, a solid packed dirt floor and a mosquito net strung from the ceiling. Underneath the net were camping mattresses, little more than roll mats.  There was no toilet, just the bushes.

Tea by the river… how very civilised!

Our local chef for the trek was already at camp, setting up and making dinner while we washed off a day’s worth of sweat and dirt in the river. We all ate dinner together under the stars, watching the fireflies floating above us and learning more about our guides and life in Sumatra. After that we retreated straight to bed as it began absolutely pissing down with rain. Jungle rain isn’t like the showers back home – here it absolutely pours, and keeps going all night.

Our rustic camp!

Even though our camp was the definition of rough and ready, we just loved it. Rebecca slept like a log, Blakey got dripped on all night from a leaky ceiling and I ‘slept like a chicken’ as Teger says. Whatever that means.

Day Two – Hostage Situation

Our second day in the jungle began with a gorgeous breakfast from our camp mum, then we packed up, changed into our still-damp clothes and headed out again. We started out by wading through the river, following it’s path for around an hour. Sometimes we’d be picking our way over the slippery stones on the edge of the river, other times we’d be wading thigh-high through the water, really hoping we wouldn’t fall over and drench our bags, and trying not to think about the things brushing up against our legs… surely just sticks, not giant river pythons.

Zuri leading us along the crest of a narrow hill after a very steep climb

I found the second day really tough, we had to concentrate for every step – either trying not to slip in the water or watching for tree roots tripping us, or trying not to fall face first down a steep hill. I think a bad night’s sleep didn’t help either, and the mega amounts of sweat must have left us all dehydrated. I could even squeeze the bun in my hair and the water would just pour onto the ground. Not rain, just sweat. Gross.

Climbing the jungle vines with Teger

Within a few hours of setting off on our second day we saw a fully grown adult male orangutan, a fully wild one that Zuri and Teger didn’t know. He was really curious about us and stayed for ages, swinging about from tree to tree. Zuri would tell us to back up at some points if the orangutan got too close to us, making sure we kept a safe distance and didn’t interact.

It was really nice to see a truly wild orangutan as well as all the semi wild ones, although to be honest the semi wild orangutans acted just the same as the wild one, keeping their distance and not looking to interact… with one exception.

Wild male orangutan

Jacquie. The ginger terror of the Sumatra. She’s a semi wild orangutan who was successfully rehabilitated into the jungle after being rescued from her owners, who kept her as a pet. She’s been in the wild for quite a few years now and has raised a few babies. She currently has a little baby boy.

Jacquie doesn’t keep her distance from humans like the others. She’s very smart, and has realised that if she takes a ‘hostage’, the guides will bribe her with food until she releases her victim.

We had just had lunch and were hiking up the last hill of the day, when suddenly Zuri and Teger spotted an orangutan in the trees and shouted ‘Uh oh! Here comes Jacquie!’. She was making a beeline straight for us, so they resigned themselves to the inevitable and told us to stay still as Jacquie would want to make friends.

Jacquie looking for her victim

Blakey and Rebecca wisely moved back but I stayed where I was and she knuckled right up to me, took my hand in a gentle grip and pulled me along to the nearest tree. The guides told me to sit down, so I did, not wanting to be dragged into the tree. Jacquie sat down too and a little face popped up under her arm – a little baby with a tuft of ginger hair sticking up on his cute little head.

I tried to slowly pull my arm away, but that soft leather hand was not letting me go. Adult female orangutans have the strength of three grown men. I didn’t stand a chance. She never hurt me, but that grip was strong as steel, I had no doubt she could rip my arm off if she wanted to. It wasn’t an ideal situation.

Jacquie threatening to bite my fingers off, although look at that baby… worth it

She started to slowly move my hand towards her mouth, her eyes fixed on Zuri, who was rummaging in his pack for food. “She’s going to bite me!” I panicked as her teeth grazed my fingers. Those teeth were not small. I started to sweat. “Don’t worry, she doesn’t bite!” Teger assured me, although with my fingers in her mouth, I wasn’t inclined to believe him.

She lowered my hand (although no chance was she letting go) as Zuri’s hand appealed over my shoulder, armed with a sachet of condensed milk. He poured it into her mouth and she lowered my hand more. Next came a banana, then she took me over to another tree (it was either walk or be dragged) and pretended to nibble my fingers again. By this point I was getting uncomfortable with the situation.

Dragging me to a new spot while the guides supervised from a distance

Although, on the plus side, the baby was super cute, which I tried to concentrate on, and managed to get a few pictures while trying to control my panic. He even passed me a little rock. Eventually, after more condensed milk and bananas, Zuri managed to get enough fruit together to entice Jacquie away and she finally let me go.

I walked over to Blakey and Rebecca, sweat poring down my face, and Rebecca just said a shaky “Have you shit your pants yet?” and nervously laughed.

Our encounter with Jacquie was pretty scary. What if the guides had no more food? What if she was in a terrible mood and just decided to bite someone? What if her baby learns her bad behaviour? There are too many ‘What ifs?’ in this situation. But what is the answer? The guides always know they need to carry extra food for Jacquie negotiation, but you can’t guarantee the cooperation of a wild animal. The guides are certainly not to blame – Jacquie is so clever, she’s learned that threatening a tourist gets her food, so she’ll grab you and not let go…. Then she’ll do the same to the next group… and the next. It just reinforces her behaviour when she gets her own way, but how can you stop it (without getting your arm ripped off)?

Someone looking innocent and happy after her fruit fix… although she still was not letting go

Day Three – River Rafting

Unfortunately, possibly after all the excitement of the day, I got sick when we reached our next camp, so it was an early night, and plenty of vomming in the bushes. Wonderful. However, the next day made up for it – after breakfast we had a surprise visit… a female orangutan and her baby came down to the trees by our riverside camp to have a look at us, then some long-tailed macaques joined the party.

We were meant to walk down the river to a waterfall on our third morning, but as I was still feeling unwell, we decided to call it a day and get back to civilisation.

Zuri creating our river raft

Once we finished packing up, we hopped into our river ‘raft’ – a couple of rubber tubes lashed together, which Zuri steered with a bamboo pole. We rafted down the river, singing Teger’s trekking song (‘Jungle Trek, Jungle Trek’ sang to the tune of Jingle Bells, it sticks in your head), and laughing and whooping each time the freezing cold water splashed over us. It was loads of fun, and definitely more fun than the rafting trip we did in Bali.

After around 45 minutes floating down the river, the riverside village of Bukit Lawang came into view. Surrounded by jungle hills, with the river to one side, Bukit Lawang is a beautiful village of higgledy-piggledy houses and a winding footpath down by the water. It was a very welcome sight after our time in the jungle and we couldn’t wait to get to our guesthouse and straight in to a shower.

The beautiful Bukit Lawang, Northern Sumatra

Unfortunately we only got one full day in the village, as we need to catch a flight to Vietnam tomorrow, but we could easily have spent longer here. We had a nice breakfast, chilled out by the river, got a much-needed massage and then had a few beers. Perfect.

Sumatra – worth the trip?

Absolutely yes. We would come back to Sumatra without any hesitation. We’ve only spent a few days here, but we wish we’d stayed for longer – there’s so much more to do, and we’d do the jungle trek again without any hesitation. It was everything we imagined it would be, and truly wild – there were no wooden boardwalks for easy walking through the jungle, no convenient steps to get down the hills (only jungle vines lashed onto a sturdy tree root if it got really steep), no ‘glamping’ tents or electricity. The only running water you’ll see is the river, the bushes are your toilet. You really work for the amazing sights you see, and it makes it so unbelievably rewarding. Absolute highlight of our year.

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