Searching for the Man of the forest in Sumatra

Bukit Lawang Travel Blog

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Female Orang and baby

We boarded the rickety old bus to Bukit lawang and due to the various holes which lined the ceiling of the rusted bus, hoped that the rain would hold off until we reached our destination which was 3 hours away. Our journey took us through various bustling towns, sleepy villages and vast palm oil plantations. Of course the inevitable happened and we ended up having a slightly damp bus journey but our spirits were high and we were excited about what lay ahead.

  By the time we arrived darkness had set in so we caught a Bachak (a tuk tuk like vehicle) from the bus station to the village. The Bachaks are really only made for small framed Indonesian/Malay people so our larger proportioned bodies were jammed into the steal frames and our ridiculously huge backpacks hung onto the front of the frame and the back.

The Infamous Mina and baby
This at first I thought to be an ingenious solution to the problem of space until I realized that the backpacks were absolutely soaked from every puddle which we sped through so by the end my rucksack and most of its contents smelt of cats piss, great.

  Due to the narrow pathway which led along the river through the village to our guest house we had to walk the last 20 minutes of our journey, by the end of which I thought my shoulders would never work again due to the stupid amount of things I have accumulated in my back pack. Finally we arrived at the Green Hill guest house tired and broken, but as soon as our stuff was dumped in our rooms and dinner had been ordered spirits were once again raised.

 The next morning we were up early and headed out on a trek to some bat caves.

Thomas Leaf Monkey
The trek took us through a rubber plantation and a small patch of forest and after about 15 minutes we reached the cave. Inside the cave we found a couple of species of bat, a very creepy looking centipede and a few strange crickets, the cave seemed to go back for quite some distance but we didn’t have a guide and therefore weren’t feeling too brave so decided to head back out and find somewhere for lunch.

  Bukit Lawang includes part of the Gunung Leusur  national park which is home to an array of wildlife, one of the main animals known to the park is the Sumatran Orang Utan.

Punky hair!
Part of the park at Bukit Lawang was chosen to run a re-introduction programme for the Orangs. The programme rescued Orangs which had either been injured by poachers, snares etc or kept as pets. These animals were re-habilitated at the park were they were taught over a course of approximately 6 years how to be wild again. Once individuals were ready, they were then released back into the wild. The programme was stopped about 10 years ago in Bukit Lawang and over 100 orangs were re-introduced back into the wild. However, the park rangers still use and area called the feeding platform which is a small area that tourists can get to have a closer view of the orangs. At the feeding platform guides offer bananas and milk to any orangs who still need the supplement. Apparently 15 orangs still use the feeding platform as they have not adapted as well into the wild as the others who no longer need to be supplemented by people.
Posing Thomas Leaf monkey
However, weather this is necessary for the Orangs or simply a way for the rangers and guides to keep tourists coming is another matter.

   To get to the feeding platform we had to cross a river on a little old canoe and then walk through the jungle for about 15 minutes up a series of steep steps. On our way, the guides suddenly came to a halt and told us that Mina her baby were up ahead. Everyone in Bukit Lawang knows about Mina, she is a large violent female Orang who has been known to attack people. She was huge and very intimidating but we were told to ignore her and keep walking, we did and luckily no one lost any limbs. We sat patiently at the feeding platform for a few moments before a beautiful Thomas Leaf Monkey came bouncing through the trees, perching right in front of us and then proceeding to make a purring sort of noise.

Pretty frog
She was stunning with her punky silver/white hair and graceful long limbs. Suddenly we heard some crashing coming through the jungle and loud cries, it turned out 3 females with babies were heading our way, one of whom was Mina and she was terrorizing the other 2 females. The guides were screaming at us not to panic, which suddenly instilled fear where there was none as we slowly stood up to try to move away from the noise that was making its way closer from behind us. We all stood like statues, fixed to the spot with a mixture of awe, excitement and fear as the orangs appeared and proceeded to walk very casually right in front of us, literally stepping over our feet to make their way to the platform to get food. They are such strong, proud animals it was very humbling to be so close to them and to have a small glimpse into their lives, an experience which will remain with me forever.
Agamid Lizard
A small male also arrived, dangling in the trees and being intimidated by a pig tailed macaque which was actually quite amusing seeing as he was twice its size! After about 15 minutes when they had all had their fill they were gone as swiftly as they had arrived and it was time for us to make our way back to the guest house. Ben had arranged to go on a night walk (Frog hunt) with one of the guides from the guest house so we had an early dinner, marveled over our afternoon, and then as Ben headed out to look for amphibians, Cindy, Will and I headed out to find some booze. We ended up in a place called Jungle Tribe which was the only restaurant/bar around. It had an extensive cocktail menu which we spent a few hours sampling.

The next morning we headed out on a jungle trek.

tree snake
We were all reasonably fresh and looking forward to hopefully seeing some wildlife as well as the beautiful forest. The trek lasted for about 7 hours and consisted of walking constantly up and down steep, muddy tracks, through small streams and battling the vast number of attacking mosquitoes. Along the way we saw a couple of white handed gibbons, who look just like big fluffy gremlins (except more attractive) and are true acrobats of the trees, swinging from branch to branch with such ease and speed it was a fantastic sight, we then caught a glimpse of the stunning great argos pheasant and also spotted an Orang and her baby in a nest so we sat quietly and watched them for about 10 minutes. Just like any cheeky child the baby was testing its mother’s patience and wanting to play, it was fantastic to see them in the wild, in their natural surroundings, it is sad to think that so much of their home has/is been destroyed to make way for prawn farms and palm oil plantations, and that so many have been killed and orphaned because of our greed.
Chilling out by the river we sunk in
Hopefully these pockets of forest will continue to be protected and the wildlife can continue to cling on, as to lose these species and the forest which supports them would be a loss which we truly could never get back.

We made our way to the river to cross from the forest back to the village. We all clambered into the canoe and set off across the river. As I sat taking in my surroundings, I suddenly realized something wasn’t right. Water started gushing in to the front of the boat, where I was lucky enough to be sitting. As the thought “Its Ok, we wont sink, it’ll stop in a minute” was stupidly going through my head we hit the river bed and the canoe had well and truly sunk. As we were all carrying our beloved cameras, phones and money in our bags we all in unison let out a series of groans and whimpering sentences like “No, not my camera!” we were being swept down the river, caught in the strong, fast flow.

You cant see me :)
Luckily we were swept to the bank and a bystander grabbed us and helped us to our feet. Our guides looked mortified that we had sunk on their watch and just stared at us in stunned silence as we settled into slight shock and panic that our cameras had been damaged. Luckily, somehow everything was Ok, and then we all burst out laughing at the thought of what had just happened and what a picture our faces must have been. We all walked back to the guesthouse, leaving a watery trail as we went. We had a shower and then headed to Jungle Tribe for dinner and cocktails as it was the last night we would be spending with Cindy and Will. Before the celebrations started and we reflected on the past 5 weeks together we met up with a local crafts man that we had bumped into the previous evening. We bought a couple of carvings from him which symbolized the Batak tribes ancient use of witch men and witch women. The Batak tribes each had witch doctors who used various medicinal plants and spells to cure the sick, they also held great belief in spirits and magic and it was really interesting to hear about the local history.

  The next morning we said goodbye to Will and Cindy and had a day of relaxing and catching up with everyone back home on the internet. Sadly the heavens opened and we were stranded at the internet café for quite some time. Eventually it was safe for us to head home where Ben got ready for his final evening of frog hunting. I opted to stay at home as I didn’t really fancy getting soaked so got ready for bed and had an early night. Ben arrived back at about 11 and had found about 12 species in total in Bukit Lawang so was a very happy bunny which was great. The next day we had a lie in and then headed back to Medan at about mid day. Sadly it was a Sunday which meant market day. The bus was crammed with ladies pushing boxes of goods onto the bus, as we were sitting at the back of the bus all of the boxes got crammed on top of us and we were crushed like sardines in a tin. Inside the boxes were some fluorescently dyed chicks, mainly blue, pink and yellow and then various fruits, vegetables and my biggest food phobia, dried fish. Luckily the dried fish didn’t stay on the bus for very long and in no time we were back in the crazy city that is Medan.

We got a taxi to the hotel, dumped our bags and then headed for the Sun mall. The mall was amazing and not what I expected to find in Medan. It was huge, modern and would have slotted perfectly into London. Thankfully we managed to buy a replacement charger for Ben’s camera as he left it in Bangkaru, and then headed to Pizza Hut for dinner (I know, tut tut). The next day we headed to the Yayasan office to meet Angke to talk to her about our time on the island and then Ben had a presentation to show and a meeting with Ian at an organisation called Pan Eco. Ian runs a programme just outside Medan rehabilitating injured, seized and orphaned Orangs and then releasing them back into the wild (where possible). After Bens meeting and presentation Ian took us to see the center. It was great, very clean, modern and efficiently run, the orangs all looked healthy and we felt very lucky to have had the chance to see some of the great work which is being done in Sumatra. Sadly they have some Orangs who can never return to the wild for various reasons, one of those is a big male who is blind due to the fact that he was shot 66 times with an air rifle, 47 of the bullets remain in his body as they cannot be removed.

After seeing the center Ian then took us to see a snake farm in Medan. The farm was recently been set up for the production of rat poison pellets which are made from a parasite which naturally occurs in reticulated python feaces. It was really interesting to see and not what I expected to find in Medan. The snakes were kept in reasonably sized enclosures which were really clean, the man who ran the farm also bred various vipers to sell to the pet trade. To be honest I don’t usually like to see animals kept in cages but they were actually looked after very well and he had some absolutely beautiful snakes. Our time in Sumatra had sadly come to an end and it was time to head to Sabah, Borneo. Very exciting!!   

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Female Orang and baby
Female Orang and baby
The Infamous Mina and baby
The Infamous Mina and baby
Thomas Leaf Monkey
Thomas Leaf Monkey
Punky hair!
Punky hair!
Posing Thomas Leaf monkey
Posing Thomas Leaf monkey
Pretty frog
Pretty frog
Agamid Lizard
Agamid Lizard
tree snake
tree snake
Chilling out by the river we sunk …
Chilling out by the river we sunk…
You cant see me :)
You cant see me :)
Bukit Lawang
photo by: vidalibre