Jungle trek, jungle trek
In Bukit Lawang
See the monkeys, see the birds
– To the tune of Jingle Bells
There isn’t an inch of me that isn’t drenched in sweat by the time we slump down on a half-rotten log atop the umpteenth hill we’ve scrambled up that day.
The four of us – Richelle, myself, and a pair of German girls – are painted with mud from the waist down. There isn’t a one of us who isn’t glowing red with exertion and shining with perspiration.
The jungle around us seems to breathe heat and humidity, but it’s undeniably beautiful. The rustle of wind in the leaves and the insistent twitter of birds in the trees is every bit as intoxicating as the thrill of expectation that grips each of us whenever we hear movement in the undergrowth.
We are deep within Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park and we’re hot on the trail of the orangutans who call the jungle home.
Arriving in Bukit Lawang
When you first step off the bus in Bukit Lawang, you’re immediately swept up in the romance of the place.
This isn’t just some tourist town clinging to the fame of the national park – it’s a truly enchanting jungle village complete with suspension bridges, a churning river, and wild animals that clamber over rooftops and onto balconies.
The winding path that traces the banks of the frothing river that bisects the town weaves in and out of tiny shops and restaurants.
Here and there, swaying rope bridges of dubious quality span the river. Hand-written signs on torn sheets of cardboard list the price of passage at less than $1, but I don’t see anybody on hand to enforce the charge.
It’s low season in Sumatra, and the village is more alive with locals than it is with elephant pants wearing tourists.
Our lodge, the Lawang Inn, sits back from the river. Our private room is almost comically large, and the two of us rattle around in it like it was built for twelve.
We enjoy delicious Indonesian food on a balcony upon which we’re outnumbered by curious monkeys driven under cover by the driving wet season rains.
In breaks between downpours, we wander the town and fall just a little bit in love with the place.
Naked kids leap fearlessly into the churning waters in pursuit of rubber tubes while their grinning mothers scrub laundry in the shallows.
Shirtless men wade through the water pulling tubes laden with rocks to be used farther down the river.
Civet cats and monkeys tip-toe along uneven railings looking to snatch a bit of food from diners in sleepy restaurants.
The river’s soothing purr is the central soundtrack of our time in Bukit Lawang, interrupted only by the distant throaty growl of thunder and the occasional wild squeal of excitement from a kid playing in the water.
We might as well be in another world out here.
Bukit Lawang is every bit the attraction that orangutan trekking is.
Trekking into Gunung Leuser National Park
Our day of orangutan trekking starts after a rushed breakfast of banana pancakes and acceptable coffee.
Joined by a pair of German backpackers, we’re soon trading the dazzling morning sun for the dappled, humid heat of the fringes of Gunung Leuser National Park.
While at first we’re vying with a half-dozen other small groups for our patch of the forest, soon enough we’re finding our own paths through the dense undergrowth.
The path is muddy but relatively easy going, and everybody is in high spirits as we pass through rubber plantations and begin our ascent into the jungle proper.
It doesn’t take us long to encounter our first orangutans. It seems almost criminally easy.
On one side of the path, a serene mother perches in a tree and gives us her best cold shoulder.
Opposite her, intent on making up for his mother’s recalcitrance, a younger orangutan puts on a show as he alternatively swings and climbs along the tangle of vines he’s claimed for himself.
He’s not shy at all, and we’re all able to snap plenty of photos before he gets distracted and trades his audience for a little peace and quiet.
We’ve been in the park less than an hour, and we’ve already had the chance to interact with two of the park’s famous residents.
See Amina – Everybody Run!
Jungle trek, jungle trek
In Bukit Lawang
See the monkeys, See Amina
– To the tune of Jingle Bells
The hike intensifies as the day continues.
Soon enough our enthusiastic conversation has been traded for grunts of exhaustion and the steady in-out of laboured breathing.
We eat a snack of fresh fruit in near silence, save for the cheery singing of one of our guides.
The catchy tune, sung to the tune of Jingle Bells, soon infects our minds like some virulent jungle virus. We’re all humming along even though we don’t know who this “Amina” is.
We learn soon enough.
“You can take one photo, but then we need to move fast” our guide says with uncharacteristic solemnity, “Amina will chase us”.
One of our braver guides goes forward with an offering of fresh fruit to distract the park’s most infamous resident, we snap our photos, and then it’s time to move.
“She is chasing us,” our guide insists as he picks up the pace. There’s no time for photos or taking in the scenery as we push onwards.
As we walk, he regales us with the tales of Amina’s aggression towards visitors. She’s not only been known to violently snatch away backpacks, but he’s able to show us a nasty scar on his arm where she took a bite out of him years ago.
(And this is why you buy travel insurance)
We don’t need much encouragement to keep up our pace.
None of us much fancies being attacked by an orangutan that outweighs me.
The Hard Slog
Soon enough, it becomes clear that we’ve lost Amina’s interest.
We’ve got new concerns ahead of us: a series of steady, uphill climbs that are going to take all of our focus.
I’ve been gorilla trekking in Uganda, and while that hike is a more intense one, this comes bloody close.
Some of our uphills are more climbing than hiking – clinging to hanging vines and whatever clumps of undergrowth present themselves to us.
My legs tremble whenever I stand still and I’ve long since stopped caring about how I might look or smell.
We’re in the jungle, and the jungle doesn’t much care about such niceties.
At the end of every uphill, we’re assured it was the last hard one.
Only to be presented with another one soon after.
We eventually stop for lunch – nasi goreng and prawn crackers eaten from oily newspaper. It might as well be caviar. We’re famished.
Despite the intensity of the hike, it’s a good kind of exhaustion I’m feeling.
The sweat on my body is a healthy sheen.
The aching in my legs and arms is that of muscles being pushed and finding that they have the strength needed to get the job done.
It’s hard not to smile an idiot grin and feel unmistakably, appreciatively alive.
It’s late in the afternoon by the time we begin our descent towards camp.
If we’d thought the uphill climb was challenging, we’re in for a special kind of hell on a slippery downhill.
Like the orangutans we came here to see, we end up swinging our way down using overhead branches and vines.
Sometimes, when the going gets tough, we scoot downhill on our asses like naughty house dogs.
Other times, it’s a matter of a controlled fall as the mud beneath our feet basically does the work for us.
Whatever the method, we eventually manage to make our way down to solid ground.
Our reward for nearly seven hours of trekking? The gentle rill of a river and the cool that washes off of its surface.
We round one last corner and trade muddy undergrowth for a tumbledown path of river rocks.
While longer treks might need you to bring your own camping and hiking equipment, our guides have our backs in this regard.
We arrive to find yoga mats laid out beneath mosquito nets in simple but sturdy shelters made from wood and black tarp. A little fire by the river holds a kettle boiling water for tea.
All about us, other groups are arriving at the conclusion of their own trip.
Anaconda has mountains of gear for this. Backpacks are thrown down, cups of hot tea are enjoyed, and stories of the days sightings are exchanged.
But not before we have the chance to wade fully clothed into the icy waters of the river and wash away a day’s worth of sweat and dirt.
A Night in the Jungle
Our night in Gunung Leuser National Park is one of the more memorable nights of our trip to Sumatra.
We enjoy a delicious feast of local food by candlelight, washing it down with beers cooled in the river.
We play silly drinking games and puzzle out riddles set to us by our guide.
We stumble through darkness to make use of an open air toilet set behind our camp.
We fall asleep to the lullaby of tree frogs, cicadas, and the river ceaselessly reshaping the rocks over which it tumbles.
A Waterfall Escape
We start the next day with a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit and nasi goreng before making our way to a nearby waterfall for a dip.
Our guide, showing supreme strength, tows us across the wild river with a rope and a rubber tube.
At the waterfall, we alternate between posing beneath the falls and getting our faces painted in the shade.
It’s an entirely serene experience, totally at odds with the day of exertion and exhilaration that prologued it.
Rafting Back to Bukit Lawang
Back at camp, we pack up our things and tuck them into waterproof bags sealed with tape.
We then clamber into a strapped together raft of inflatable tubes and set off for Bukit Lawang.
Our seven hour hike is condensed into a considerably shorter thirty minute raft ride back to civilization.
With the previous night’s rain swelling the river, it’s a fast and refreshing ride that sees us bounce off canyon walls, tear past idyllic mountain lodges, and finally settle back on the river bank opposite our hotel.
Sandy, sunburned, and still a little tired – we complete our Sumatran orangutan trekking adventure and make a bee line for the shower.
Arranging Your Own Orangutan Trekking Experience
Bukit Lawang is heaven for those wanting to try their own hand at orangutan trekking in Sumatra.
With an abundance of tour operators on site to offer packages that range from half day treks to week long excursions into the deepest, darkest sections of the jungle – you’re really spoilt for choice.
My advice? A two day/one night trek is a perfect option. For around $100 USD per person, you spend a day trekking for orangutans, enjoy a night out in the jungle (with all of your meals), and come back with a thrilling whitewater rafting ride.
Have you ever been primate trekking?