Jungle of Gunung Leuser National Park
February 9 -16, 2018
Medan and Bukit Luwang
After an overnight bus from Mandalay to Yangon, (See previous post) flight to Kuala Lumpur and then to Medan, we attempted to get as much cash as we could from the airport ATM’s. 3 machines and 5 million rupiahs later we got a taxi to the Kno Hotel. Simple, clean and friendly with a working air conditioner and we enjoyed a great night’s sleep before our jungle adventure.
Our driver picked us up an hour early so we scrambled to finish breakfast and last minute pack. We picked up a young couple from England in Medan and they too were told an hour later. Oh well. We had a coffee in their hotel while we waited.
The 5 hour drive was interesting as we passed plantations of palms grown for palm oil and many villages. Traffic was crazy the whole way with lots of big trucks and motorcycles everywhere. Few stretches of road were good. Most had lots of potholes and rough patches.. I was surprised at how built up Sumatra is!
Upon arrival in the village we said goodbye to our driver and a young man loaded our bags on a motorcycle while we walked. Bukit Lawang is a pretty village on the side of a river with one narrow road up the middle for motorcycles and pedestrians.
The Eco travel Bukit Lawang hotel was a pleasant surprise. It’s set on the river bank and the rooms are large, clean and very comfortable. We were greeted with a glass of cold ginger juice and a cool, scented wash cloth. Perfect on a hot, humid day!
After settling in, settling finances and trying to repack for our trek the next day, we set out to explore. Further up the path in the village we found steps to the river bank and followed the path for a while. Across the river we saw a big group of macaques and a huge monitor lizard. That bodes well for wildlife sightings!
Back at the hotel we enjoyed happy hour of more ginger juice for me. Then dinner at a restaurant up the road. Mei Goreng is the thing to eat in Indonesia. It’s still new.
Harry, our guide, said we’d take it slow and easy and at first I thought it was a little too slow. The trail was well used and fairly easy to follow. After about an hour it got serious. Apparently Orangutans don’t stick to the main trail. Bummer. The deeper into the jungle we got, the tougher the trail. We climbed uphills and down, over rocks and tree roots, climbing over logs and ducking below them. I’ve never perspired so much in my life! I understood why we needed to carry 2 litres of water each.
By 10 am we’d already encountered our first orangutan. Wow!
We’d been told not to get too close to the orangutans but they’re not afraid of people at all so we had to really follow the guides directions to stay out of the way.
Throughout the two days we saw 14 different orangutans, each with it’s own personality and different looks.
I thought the trail was difficult and with my pack of just personal items, a sleeping bag and water but the guides also carried in all the food as well. They all smoked too. They’re acclimatised to the heat but still, it’s a tough walk.
The last hill going down to the camp was the worst. It’s incredibly steep and took about 45 minutes to pick our way down. I clung to liana vines, trees, roots and sometimes just crept down on my bum
It was almost 5 pm by the time we arrived and the first thing I did after being shown my tent was to strip down to my swim suit and get in the river. The water was COLD but oh, so refreshing.
Our guides from Bukit Lawang Eco Travel outdid themselves on the food. Lunch on the trail was nasi goreng in a banana leaf with cucumbers and tomatoes and a quarter pineapple each. It was delicious! Dinner at camp was a smorgasbord of dishes including pumpkin curry, chicken, potato patties, sweet potatoes, etc as well as more fruit. We enjoyed passion fruit, rambutan, pinapple, watermelon…..such an assortment and decorated with flowers too.
The next day was much more leisurely. We had the option of anther jungle walk but that involved climbing UP the hill we’d come down…..etc. I was done with mountain climbing. I went for a swim, watched some monkeys, sat and read my book for a while, watched an orangutan and enjoyed the “music” of the jungle. After a while we went up river to visit a waterfall and then back for another amazing lunch. Then it was time to pack up for our transport back to town which involved floating on tubes down river. That was great fun and certainly much easier than the trek in.
Thomas leaf monkeys
Orangutans. If you look closely you can see that they’re all different orangutans.
Monday, February 12
The journey is often an adventure and today was no exception. We walked to the pick up point just outside the village and climbed into our chariot which today was a suzuki pick up with bench seats. Two of our rafting captains chose to ride on the roof. 20 minutes in we stopped at a village where they ordered food for lunch and Sue and I went for a walk. Back in the truck for the next two hours and the roads got progressively worse. The driver was quite skilled as there were mud bogs that I’m sure mired many a vehicle
After the safety demo we headed down the Wampu River over class two and the odd three rapids, through beautiful canyons, a stop at a bubbling hot waterfall, then a cold one and through lots of jungle. There was some hard paddling but it was fun and pretty easy. Then came the big one. Harry warned us that there was a good chance of capsizing so I attached my camera to my life jacket and prepared. We paddled hard over the first waterfall and then came the second. I saw Sue slip out from the corner of my eye and tried to counter balance but next thing I knew I was flying over the raft. I ended up under it for a bit eventually came to the surface, got my bearings and looked for the rest of the crew. They were all downriver, obviously looking for me so I quickly waved a “thumbs up” to show them I was fine We managed to salvage most of the stuff on the raft other than one guy’s flip flop, our hats, sunglasses and the hair ties had been ripped out of my hair. Our crew seemed very concerned. Later we found out none had them had ever capsized before. I thought it was great fun and wanted to do it again. Sue was a trooper but said once was enough. Haha!
The funniest thing was later finding the blue flip flop floating in the river. Yay! Now he had two shoes.. Unfortunately hats and sunglasses don’t float.
Lunch was amazing as usual. We stopped at a beach with a waterfall and a young man had carried everything down and set it up for us. So much delicious food!
The rest of the day seemed idyllic. The rapids were all simple with lots of rest periods between. At one point we got out and swam for a while to cool off. We passed lots of fishermen and the odd time had to dodge lines. On the dark sandy areas there was equipment set up for getting gold out of the sand. At one point in the river they were doing serious mining for gravel.
All in all it was a great day and we were good and tired by bed time.
Tuesday, February 13
There was nothing on the agenda so we were going to spend the day “chilling”. After breakfast and enjoying a nice call to my grand daughter, we decided to go for a walk. On the way we stopped for a swim and ended up at the “Back to Nature” guesthouse, about 3 km up river. By the time we got back it was early afternoon and really hot so we spent some time relaxing, reading and taking the odd dip in the river.
Our chariots today were two ‘bataks” or tuk tuks. They took us on a tour of the rural areas surrounding the village of Butik Lawang where we learned a lot about the people, their way of life and some of their struggles. It was interesting seeing all the canals and irrigation ditches; a remnant of the time the Dutch spent in Sumatra. They’re still being well used today.
A major problem is the oil palm plantations. Big companies have started them and local farmers got into it too as it’s easy work for good return. The trees are very hard on the environment though as they suck up so much water (40-50 litres per tree, per day!). Streams have dried up and the ecosystem is changing.
We had lunch in the home of a local family who explained what he’s doing to try to change it, offering farmers alternatives. He’s planting fruit trees in the buffer zone between the farms and the jungle.
When he moved into the country from the village after the devastating flood of 2003, he couldn’t sleep because of the mosquitoes. His home is surrounded by rice paddies which grow in standing water which breeds mosquitoes. He tried the recommended planting of lemon grass around his house among other things. Nothing worked. He decided he needed to encourage a predator so built fish ponds on three sides of his home and stocked them with various varieties of fish, all of which eat mosquito larvae. Within months his mosquito problem was seriously diminished PLUS the added benefit of a new food source. Win / win!
Over rough roads, wooden bridges and some that looked like goat paths, we drove for 2.5 hours before reaching the village and river. We crossed a rickety swing bridge and down a path to the river where I swam to the other side for the “hot spring”. It was just a hole in the rocks with warm water in it. It was a nice swim anyway and good diversion.
We carried on to the Takahan Elephant park. I was sceptical as the in thing right now is to be against all elephant riding. I wanted to check it out for myself.
A couple of elephants came up the hill with the mahout leading them and two people riding. One was on the elephant’s neck and the other in a seat. It looked well designed in that it was rounded so that it doesn’t touch the elephant’s spine at all, with padding on either side to hold it up. As soon as the girls got off, the seat was removed, the elephant hosed down and led off to get something to eat.
We walked down to the river and waited for the mahouts to bring the elephants from the other side of the river where they spend most of their time in a natural jungle with lot of trees, shade and food plus access to the river.
After being given brushes we all found an elephant to scrub as they lay on their sides in the shallow water, like kings waited to be bathed. The mahout had them roll over and we did the other side. Later we were each given a bag of bananas and other food. I ended up being one of the last with food and was slightly mobbed by hungry elephants. They’d have food in their mouths and trunk and STILL be looking for food. There was one baby elephant that we were told to watch as he was very “naughty”. The little guy was everywhere, sneaking food where ever he could.
These elephants were originally used in the illegal logging of the jungle. Once that was controlled they had no job and no jungle left to release them into. A couple of them came from Northern Sumatra where they too had been worked. The only choice was to let them starve for find a job, a way for them to earn their keep. Tourism works and it seems very ethical and well run to me. Make your own choice but it looks like everyone’s making the best of the situation to me.. They aren’t asking elephants to do anything they don’t expect humans to do. I’d seen men carrying 100 kg loads strapped to their heads and shoulders for 2.5 hours up river so the tourists can stay comfortably in the jungle.