Bukit Lawang : Welcome to the Jungle!
Bukit Lawang Travel Blog› entry 263 of 268 › view all entries
'Akuuu masi di siniiiii!...' I scribble illegibly in my pocket notebook whilst staring at the TV that's bolted to the roof of Bus 145, playing karaoke videos as the vehicle rumbas, and salsas past the palm trees and waltzes drunkenly around potholes along the road to Bukit Lawang. 'What does that mean?' I ask Martha, one of a bus load of pretty Medan college girls also aboard for the ride. She leans over the back of my chair, wearing my cheap cap that I bought for 10,000IDR (75p) outside Jakarta's main train station which has three stars upon it (there had been four but the vendor had ripped one off, demoting me and declaring 'Now you are The General!') and looks far cuter on her than it ever will on me.
Learning a language can be tricky enough but when sections of the 'Kamus Lengkap' [ 'Complete Dictionary' ] you've borrowed are bound together upside down and back to front the process is further complicated. Opik who sits smoking and sipping the anagram of his name ( 'kopi' or coffee ) laughs loudly, 'Ha ha ha ha, welcome to the jungle!' Welcome to the jungle. A local catchphrase. A catchall phrase delivered in response to anything slightly humorous, surreal, challenging, out of the ordinary (or often here just ordinary) or when anything just goes plain wrong in little and large ways here in the jungle river township of Bukit Lawang.
I made my entrance some hours ago. I'm getting a little lazy these days so when a local guy hooks me off the baicek (motorbike sidecar taxi) and propositions me for the guesthouse I was planning on heading to anyway I let him sweep me along like a tired, dry forest leaf in his slipstream. As we sweat along through the bamboo, wood and reed tinderbox tourist village that adheres to the banks of the Bahorok river Amri points out a short stretch of low, ruined concrete buildings not far from its banks. Nothing looks more forlorn in architecture and human history than decaying, abandoned concrete I muse. This broken-toothed, hollow-eyed little edifice stands as a memento mori to a devastating flash flood that occurred here in 2003 claiming upwards of 240 lives and destroying countless homes and livelihoods along the river.
Bukit Lawang means 'Hill Doorway' or 'Hill Entrance' and acts as such for most human/ tourism ingress into the 8,000 square kilometre Gunung Leuser National Park. The park was established in 1973 in an attempt to stem the breathtakingly rapid destruction of Sumatra's rainforests and the ecosystems and species it harbours. Legal and more notably illegal logging have made devastating inroads into this, one of the world's last remaining great rainforest territories over recent decades and indeed it is this logging and its consequent reduction of forest/ rain cover (the environments capacity to retain rainfall) that was cited as the most significant contributory factor to the 2003 flood, a 'natural' dam of felled logs, stored in the river having given way to the excessive rain waters.
Of all the thousands of rare and beautiful animals housed in this great, but greatly retracting zone of biodiversity in central and northern Sumatra the most famous is pongo abelii, or the Sumatran orang-utan. Sumatra and Borneo house the last remaining orang-utan populations in the world, a population estimated to be approximately 62,500 strong. Though 'strong' is obviously a misnomer in these circumstances as the Sumatran orang-utan, with a remaining population of approximately 7,500 is marked as 'critically endangered' on the IUCN Red List (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and its Bornean cousin pongo pygmaeus as 'endangered'. **
The population of Sumatran orang-utans within Gunung Laseur National Park is estimated to be about 5,000 or 8% of the remaining population if we run with the World Wildlife Fund figures.
...but before we meet the relatives, let's say "Hi" to a couple of the locals shall we.
Meet Tony Blair. 'Hello, I am Tony. TONY BLAIR! Ha Ha Ha! Where are you from?' 'England actually.' 'OH ha ha ha, so I am your, what you call him, Pres.
Tony soon becomes a firm friend who is kindly willing to apply some of his time and good humour during my stay in Bukit Lawang to assisting my attempts to learn Bahasa, his daughters and son giggling and running around and serving hot sugary tea all the while.
Next up is Sarah (not real name) who runs one of the many struggling restaurant-cafes constructed of wood and bamboo that garland the main riverside 'street' of Jalan Orang Utan. Here I let myself in for a classic 'sympathy vote' scenario. Ya know the situation. You pass an establishment by and the enthusiastic proprietor dashes out to try to acquire your kindness and custom for lunch, all smiles and greetings and sunshine. But, put on the spot, you're 'sorry' but you've 'already eaten' (possibly true, possibly not). Still you halt in your tracks and finger the dog-eared menu out of politeness and feigned interest knowing already that that smile, tweaking your guilt and teasing out flustered assurances of future business will have you sat back there come nightfall fingering the same dog-eared, laminate menu wondering which treasures are actually available.
So later I sit there and stare at the dark river to my right, it now being night and with a grumble in my belly. A faint dusty bulb glimmers over my head, but nobody else's, the place being deserted as seems to be the norm. It's hard to scrape a living in Bukit Lawang if you're not in the guesthouse game. Sarah pops up and asks 'would you like to try some "family food"?'. Reading the silent runes (no customers, no cash, bare cupboards in the kitchen) I guess this is all that's actually on offer and smile and say 'that'd be lovely'. Sarah speaks very good English but we're struggling along in Bahasa and she enquires : 'Kamu mau pedas?' [ 'Would you like it hot/spicy?'].
Unfortunately when the rice and series of fish and veg dishes arrive something appears to have been lost in translation and plenty gained in heat for every single one is swimming...ney, drowning in chopped, ground and pureed chillies! I smile with a twitch and nervously eyeball what I know I must now out of politeness consume, but what I also know to be the equivalent of sending a series of timer-delayed nail bombs into my bowels. Spice is nice, but I know I'll be payin' the price come morning. Oh well, there's nothing for it. This is where sympathy can get ya!
So I sit and start shovelling the gastronomic napalm down my gullet whilst Sarah, a 28 year old mother of two from the town of Berastagi pulls up a chair to tell me her tale of woe.
As I ladle another spoonful of hot liquid magma into my mouth a light bulb, driven to despair by Sarah's sorrows throws itself from its socket in a suicidal leap to the restaurant floor and we are plunged into semi-darkness as Sarah turns her eyes to the skies and expresses a hope that God will 'make good luck' for her 'next time around' and openly requesting 'please next time may I never come to Bukit Lawang!' Oh dear.
The next morning I'm scheduled to head out into the Gunung Leuser National Park for my two day jungle trek but a guilty sounding knock on the door from Amri leads to an apology through the wooden boards that the rest of my group have cancelled and so 'no trek possible today'. This suits me just fine as, as expected, my innards melted from over-chillification during the night and I spend the entire morning trekking only back and forth between my bed and the bathroom. When I limp into 'town' later with a red-raw behind, Guru Tony is only too amused at my condition of having a 'sakit perut' [ 'sick stomach/ stomach ache'] which I explain is more like a 'sakit pantat' [ 'sick bottom/arse'].
But finally the day dawns to shake of the yawns and to strap my hole-ridden trek shoes on and head into the jungle with guide 'Jungle Eddie' and Sinnead (UK) and Gabrielle (Argentina) the couple who are to be my co-trekkers. Two day/ one night treks are the standard fare for tourists passing through hoping to snap a few ginger apes swingin' in the trees. Three day treks are not uncommon either offering greater potential for photographic monkey business. The costs for trekking are set at a standard rate by the National Park authority whom the guides (in theory) are accountable to - that rate being 300,000 IDR ( £21) per person per day. This includes your guide, all food, drink (though you should start with 1.
We are lucky to have close encounters with many of the Park's main inhabitants very early on in our trek into the jungle.
Our early efforts are very soon rewarded though as the sight of another, larger trek group stalled up ahead and craning their necks and cameras to the jungle roof can mean only one thing.
Looking up into those glassy black, soulful eyes one is quietly challenged to deny that most distant of ancestral links that - at moments such as this - would seem so clearly to exist between we two species. Statistics on the DNA are liable to send you doolally if you're in search of hard facts and truths. We supposedly share 98% of our DNA with our 'closest cousins' the chimpanzees (99% with all other human beings and 99.5% with our parents) and 96.5% with orang-utans. But then we are said to share 60% with fruit flies, 50-60% with bananas (oh yes, it's a precise science alright!), 40-50% with cabbages and probably at least 0.001% with former Pres. of the United States George W.Bush. So where do you go with all that? Nowhere I guess. So let us move on :)
Again, though it's not guaranteed, orang-utan sightings within the fringes of the Park are not rare.
One infamous inhabitant who you will hear about, if not meet in person, is Mina. A fearsome, territorial matriarch who breaks all the rules of convention and will pursue trek groups on foot for potentially long distances to both scare them off and get them to shed any food they might be carrying in the process. Our now collective super-group of about 15 people is unfortunate enough to run into her and when we do she has a baby clinging to her chest meaning extreme caution is to be exercised. Various local myths exist, ranging from the sad to the absurd as to what happened in Mina's past to turn her into this mean tourist-terrorising machine (she has bitten guides and guests alike which requires hospitalisation for rabies security jabs) but whatever the cause she's one mad momma these days so be wary! The guides get horribly panicky and over-excited by her presence and have to hold her back with offerings of propitiatory bananas whilst we are all hurried along out of her domain.
The trekking itself varies in intensity but only happens in short bursts so, provided you're prepared to make like an orang-utan and utilise all four limbs to grab, pull, balance and ease your way through the sometimes challenging terrain, you shouldn't struggle. Actually the greater shame, because of all the up and down careful foothold requiring topography is that you may spend most of the trek time with your eyes to the ground rather than casting them around to take in the true magnificence of your natural surroundings.
The first days trekking is over before you can say 'unzip a banana', as we all carefully descend with the assistance of handy vines to a creek bottom through which a shallow stream curls and where our camp for the afternoon and night is to be found.
After breakfast the next morning it's time to strike camp, chuck a few rice balls and chicken scraps to Godzilla and bid our jungle base farewell. Though nominal attempts to locate further ape action are made by our guides who 'whooooop!' loudly into the great green beyond in imitation of the orang-utans (though I hold a theory that actually they're only calling to one another to rendezvous for their next cigarette break), we sadly never meet any of my ginger brothers and sisters again.
A heavy-going ascent of the main hill in the region is rewarded only by a piercing of the clouds above which commence reminding us precisely why such territory is referred to as 'rain forest' and throwing their soggy loads down upon our heads! The waters bucket down and refuse to let up for a second, our guides getting increasingly nervous about the proposed means of our return to Bukit Lawang - a rubber-tube rafting ride back down a river that is now rapidly swelling with the deluge. But the river's a long way back down yet and a challenging, muddy, slippery descent has to be negotiated before we reach the now turbulent banks of the Bahorok. At one point, slightly crazed by the rain, my lack of vision owing to bespattered spectacles and the fun of the chaos of it all (extreme weather conditions having played such a rare part of my great journey) I throw myself into a wild abseiling arc down one particular slope using a jungle-vine as my grip and inevitably end up horizontal in the mud but laughing anyway.
At the river bank all possessions are packed into water-tight sacks and strapped into the rubber-tube caterpillar craft (two of them) that are to take us home. Makeshift rubber straps are knocked up to hold the glasses of I and another four-eyed friend in place on our faces. The river is rising and the rain unrelenting as our guides shout and hustle to get us arranged onboard. No room for a small one such as I in one of the tubes, so I have to somewhat precariously perch over the divide between two of them and cling on to ropes for dear life... and then, with several of the group mouthing nervous exclamations about the condition of the river...we're being pushed off by Eddie with his long bamboo steering pole, one at the back for his co-pilot too.
As 'Captain' Eddie's tire bursts leading us to start to nose-dive into the tumultuous waters we are frenzidly, but expertly manouvered over to the far bank by him and his pal. The raft is strapped to the bank, the five of us descanted into the shallows, to scramble along the riverside soaked to the bone as the rains re-intensify. The plan is for a spare tube to be acquired and the co-pilot dashes off to a nearby village to facilitate this whilst Eddie, waist deep in river water as a monitor lizard slips into the torrents, proceeds to disentangle the rubber and rope wreckage. Some of the gang are getting increasingly nervous about the rising river and the fact we're expected to get back into the maelstrom shortly but I'm still completely enervated by the whole experience and happy to kamikaze back out into the rapids when the call finally comes from the river through the wall of water now built from the ground to the misty cloud ceiling above.
Take two. Lots of shouting, screaming and swearing as we careen along the river. Bobbling, bouncing and twisting our way downstream. At one point we become grounded in the middle of the river's concourse on unsighted rocks that normally would have been above the waterline. This requires that we all get out of our tubes again, this time to stand - if possible - right in the middle of the river whilst Eddie & Co work our craft free. A nervous moment. To be washed downstream right now would be like throwing a cat into a washing machine. As we thunder down river Eddie and his partner scream out to one another 'KIRI KIRI KIRI!!!' [ 'LEFT LEFT LEFT!!!'], 'KANAN KANAN!' [ 'RIGHT RIGHT!' ] and 'SIIIALL!!' [ 'SHIIIIT!'] as requirements demand.
Eventually, as we drift around the final bend, past the line of guesthouses and besides Jalan Orang Utan into Bukit Lawang village the waters calm a little and we're able to steer into the shallows and so end our little jungle odyssey. Soggy, exhausted, relieved survivors. We sit and sip hot, sweet teas kindly provided by a riverside hotel and chow down on plates of fried rice.
The following day is all about relaxing and recovering. Shoes and clothes draped under the sun to dry. I have an Indonesian cooking lesson with another of the village legends, Nora.
Unexpectedly reunited with two good friends from my time diving in Pulau Weh, Charlie and Adam, the next morning we get our kit together and decide to head out of town en masse to our mutual next destination, the volcano fringed town of Berastagi. Heading out in a sweat along the riverbank I stop to offer farewells to struggling Sarah and to Tony my teacher and his wife whom I hope to stay in touch with for their kindness.
It is only some days later, upon arrival at Lake Toba that news finally catches up with me and I learn that the night following the morning of our departure a devastating fire erupted in Bukit Lawang village, commencing in one of the riverside restaurants and ripping through a long strip of neighbouring businesses and family homes. Fifteen or more properties razed to the ground. Fortunately nobody was seriously hurt though of course uninsured homes and livelihoods; businesses with all their stock were completely destroyed. Another disaster for poor ole Bukit Lawang. One I hope they recover from swiftly and full of spirit as they always admirably have done so in the past.
'Welcome to the jungle'.
[ Afterword : Though he's not on the internet or a phoneline I was able to confirm through relatives of Tony I hunted out in Tuk-Tuk, Lake Toba that though it was a close call, his business and home (my school!) narrowly escaped destruction though a sister-in-law did lose her property.
* 'Cinta monyet' : Monkey Love - I have since had this dubious sounding practice explained to me and far from unnatural unions with animals it is actually the Indonesian vernacular equivalent to what we in The West commonly term (in an equally inexplicable manner) 'puppy love'. The act of youthful, cute, possibly misguided romantic feelings.
** For more information see www.IUCN.org and www.wwf.org.uk