Orangutan Trekking in Sumatra

After a great three days of trekking up Mount Rinjani, an active volcano on Lombok, we were heading to the largest island in Indonesia, Sumatra, to try to meet some wild orangutans. Sumatra is generally considered to be the sixth largest island in the world, and is nearly twice the size of the entire United Kingdom or New Zealand, among other countries. Orangutans are only found in two places in the world, the north of Sumatra and on Borneo, and are critically endangered on both islands.

Orangutans are critically endangered and can only be found on two islands in the world.

Getting There

We flew from Lombok to Medan, the largest city on the island and the gateway to Gunung Leuser National Park. Our flight to Medan landed at night, so unfortunately the inexpensive bus services to the small town on the edge of the park, Bukit Lawang, weren’t running again until the next morning. The hotel we had booked offered to send a driver to pick us up from the airport for a hefty fee of 550,000 rupiah ($40 USD) which was almost three times the price if we had gone by bus the next day, but we were eager to get out of the big city and maximize our time in Bukit Lawang so we took them up on the offer.

Although Bukit Lawang is only 130km from Medan Airport the trip takes around four hours, which meant we got into town shortly before midnight. Our driver stopped at what looked like a deserted alley and led us to a ramshackle basic suspension bridge that crossed a large river. The uneven wooden planks under our feet groaned as we crossed the bridge and checked into the hotel. The manager/owner’s son Bob (his English name) warmly greeted us as his friends played guitars and sang in the restaurant on the edge of the river.

Wisma Leuser Sibayak
The bridge leading to our hotel by day.

Bukit Lawang

At 100,000 rupiah per night ($7.45 USD) the hotel was surprisingly nice and Bob was more than happy to share as much information as we wanted. He told us about the orangutan rehabilitation center that people used to visit just up the river and how it had closed its doors to visitors years prior due to the rehabilitation effort being hindered by throngs of tourists showing up to see the apes. Bob also told us about a great flood that we weren’t familiar with that all but destroyed Bukit Lawang in 2003. The flood was said to be a massive wave that flowed down the river, described as 20 meters tall (66 feet) that killed hundreds as they slept and displaced over a thousand people. He sadly told us about the impact it had on the community, families, and business for the years to come. Tourists avoided Bukit Lawang for the next four years, and when we visited he said the industry was finally beginning to recover.

Bukit Lawang
The town exists primarily as a starting point for visitors to go orangutan trekking.

A point of interest near the town that we decided to check out before heading into the jungle was a cave that was a short 20 minute walk from our hotel. To get to The Bat Cave, which it’s called due to the winged inhabitants inside, we walked along the river through a rubber plantation and past an orphanage. This was our first time seeing a rubber plantation and noticed that the trees were all cut and bleeding white sap along a hand notched path and dripping into empty coconut shells. After the shells were full people would come and collect the now congealed rubber, stack it on the back of a scooter, and drive down the path toward town. We saw plenty of locals driving their rubber away and were told that they typically can expect 7,000 rupiah (52 cents) per kilogram when they sell it.

Rubber Tree
The slow process of bleeding rubber trees to produce rubber.

The Bat Cave

Once we arrived at The Bat Cave we were met by two young guys, one of which would be our guide. We paid 15,000 rupiah each and set off into the cave. We were glad to have listened to Bob’s suggestions of putting on plenty of mosquito repellent beforehand since rubber trees attract tons of mosquitoes, and wearing close toed shoes since some of the cave is relatively tough to access. We switched our headlamps on and headed into the cave entrance where a huge chamber met us.

Bat Cave Bukit Lawang
The path into the cave was a bit tough and we were glad to have shoes on, even if our guide didn’t.
Bat Cave Bukit Lawang
Sissy admiring an opening in the top of the cave.

The cave had portions of the roof that had collapsed long ago and plummeted into the ground beside where we stood, and had plenty of stalactites and caverns to keep us interested. Our guide pointed out small and large bats along the way, and took us to a chamber that reeked of bat guano and was filled with the creatures.

Bat Cave Bukit Lawang
The bat lined ceiling in the cave.

From when we left the hotel to when we returned was probably an hour and a half or two hours, and visiting the cave was well worth the trip as it was among the coolest caves we had seen in a long time. Back at the hotel we sorted out some trekking with Bob. Unfortunately since we were visiting in low season we could either trek for one or two days without any problems, but three or four days like we had intended to go for would cost significantly more since there didn’t seem to be anyone else in town that wanted to go for that long. We decided to go for two days and one night which was 80 Euro per person since we would have had to pay the price for three people if we wanted to go for any longer.

Orangutan Trekking

On our first day heading into the jungle we walked from our hotel for a half hour until we reached the entrance gate to the national park. Our park fees were included in the 80 Euro fee, along with food, an English speaking guide, and a tent. Our guide explained that all of the orangutans we could see were free roaming, however some were fully wild, and some were semi wild. Semi wild orangutans were raised at, or cared for by the rehabilitation center and had become accustomed to humans before being released into the wild. While they still roam the national park, semi wild orangutans can typically be found in certain areas and are almost guaranteed to be seen. Only fifteen minutes into the park we were told to stop and look up.

A baby orangutan was climbing through the trees above us!
It used all four appendages to climb from tree to tree. Orangutans never jump, instead they keep a grip at all times.

Climbing from tree to tree above us was a baby orangutan! Not far away his mother was roaming from branch to branch as well. The baby was clumsily swinging from vines, grabbing tree branches, and crashing around above us when his mother came near. Orang utan in Indonesian translates to forest people or jungle people and the name is two separate words. A favorite saying in Leuser is that as soon as trekkers go into the jungle they also became orang utan, or jungle people. Sissy and I were the only two in our group to this point, as we were meeting up with another four people somewhere in the jungle, but the people who were on the single day walk had begun to congregate here to watch the baby and take pictures. Suddenly the guides around us told us we needed to move, and quickly.

The large mother wasn’t happy to see us.

The mother of the baby came down from the trees and seemed less than happy at the amount of people in her area. Our guide warned that orangutans are much stronger than people and although they generally aren’t aggressive, some can be, and this particular one was. The mom began to chase people wherever she could find them, and the guides were telling people to run to keep her away from them. There didn’t seem to be much real danger as long as you ran when the guides said, and eventually the mother climbed back up a tree and observed as everyone walked on, either back to Bukit Lawang, or onward deeper into the jungle.

She was less aggravated once everyone began to file onward down the path.

The large group of a few dozen hikers began to taper off the further we went along the path, and we met up with our group not long after meeting our first orangutans. Hiking along was easy enough, with small hills being the only change in elevation, but it was hot and humid in the jungle, so we were constantly drinking water and sweating it back out again. When we stopped for a break our guide brought out tons of different fruit, from rambutan to dragonfruit to mangosteen. Sissy spotted a large bird in a tree nearby, which turned out to be an amazing looking hornbill.

Over a few more hills we came across a group of hikers that were stopping for a fruit break as well. They had spotted a young female orangutan swinging a short way above them. They were enjoying some sliced up pineapple when the orangutan quickly descended from the tree it was on and grabbed the pineapple away from one of the hikers!

The hiker looked shocked as the orangutan ran away with its prize.

Just past the pineapple thief we came across our first close encounter with a stylish monkey that lives only in north Sumatra, the Thomas Leaf Monkey. We had seen a couple of Thomas Leafs from afar in Bukit Lawang and thought their mohawks and overly long tails were pretty awesome. The monkeys are medium sized, larger than macaques and with much more style. They eat almost nothing but leaves, which means they didn’t have as much interest in humans as macaques and orangutans, who were constantly trying to steal food.

Thomas Leaf Monkey
The friendly Thomas Leaf Monkey sitting on a tree wasn’t bothered by our presence.

After a nice lunch of mie goreng (fried noodles) that our guide had brought up we were told we’d be hiking up a bigger hill to find an orangutan named Mina who was famous for her aggression. Mina was raised in the now closed rehabilitation center and has been known to open people’s bags to steal food and attack people if she doesn’t get what she wants. Our guide, and virtually every other as we would later learn, had been bitten by Mina in the past while trying to keep a hiker who lingered too long safe. When we got to the top of the fairly steep hill we were greeted by a mean looking large orangutan who was staring at us from her spot on the ground. We were in the presence of Mina.

Mina staring at us as she prepared to come closer.

Mina was placated by the guides doing something they shouldn’t have, which was to feed her fruits to keep her distracted. It’s apparent that Mina acts the way she does and is so aggressive due to people feeding her and enabling her aggression, however with tourists wanting to get close to orangutans, the practice is unlikely to end any time soon. When Mina was between fruits she stalked angrily toward us until the guide lured her away again with pineapple or bananas. Her gaze and body language lent truth to the guides’ stories of her temper, but as we left her and her baby I felt bad for enabling the cycle of irresponsibly feeding her against park regulations.

Pig Tailed Macaque
A pig tailed macaque that we spotted while walking onward from Mina toward our campsite.

When we reached our campsite after a brief stop to watch a large pig tailed macaque in the bushes, we found small wooden structures with our tents set up underneath near a river. Another couple we met were on a three day trek (too bad we hadn’t met them before!) and were staying under the basic wooden covering without tents to their surprise. Mosquitoes and macaques were the main reason we were happy to have a tent, and as we later learned rats were also abundant in the jungle.

Leuser National Park
Our campsite was by a river with macaques and Thomas leaf monkeys through the trees.

We all cooled off from the hot and humid hiking by swimming in the river, and just after we got out a pair of monitor lizards swam by. Sissy noticed something on her sock just before jumping in, and on closer inspection she had a leech trying to suck her blood through her sock! I pulled it off but as soon as I did it sucked onto my finger and didn’t want to let go. I rubbed it off on a rock and watched it squirm and contort itself as it wriggled away. We had an entertaining night as the couple’s guide, Berlin (his real name according to him), told terrible jokes and shared riddles and brain teasers.

Leuser National Park
A millipede crawling around in the jungle.

The next day we ate breakfast by the river while watching the troops of monkeys jump through the trees above. We hiked further into the jungle to visit another orangutan, Jackie, and her son. Our guide told us that we didn’t see male adults because typically one controls a large area in the jungle and has around ten females within his domain. He explained that Jackie had also lived in the rehabilitation center and liked to grab people and use them as a bargaining chip for food. We were told that if Jackie grabbed us to stay calm and do what she wanted. If she pulled us we should sit down and expect her to come and wrap her arm around us as we sat.

Jackie and her son sitting around.

When we approached the area that Jackie normally stays she seemed to appear from nowhere. Our guide asked us to move back down the path and away from her, but I wasn’t fast enough and she grabbed me from behind and dragged me to the ground. We were told that her son could be a bit “cheeky” and I soon learned that meant he liked to pinch really hard as he did over and over along my arm, and bite just enough to sting but not to break the skin. Jackie was smart and grabbed my hand, putting my fingers near her teeth and staring at our guide. He relented and gave her some fruit, which prompted Jackie to release me after a few minutes of holding me hostage.

I may have been happy to be so close to an orangutan, but I was not free to go by any means.

The ethical dilemma of humans touching wild or semi wild orangutans and the problem of them being fed are major issues. Since we share roughly 97% of the same DNA, orangutans often get sick by interacting with humans, catching diseases the people may have. We heard stories while trekking with gorillas in Rwanda about how the wild mountain gorilla population plummeted in half due to human disease years ago. Rwanda has toughened up on how people can interact with their gorillas and have been known to stop people from going if they appear to be sick (sneezing, coughing, etc). Although being held by a semi wild orangutan was an amazing experience, it’s not something that is good for the survival of the species and isn’t a practice that should be continued by the guides.

Jackie and her son about to enjoy the last bit of their fruit.

The rest of the day led us past fully wild orangutans, which stayed as far from people as they could, turtles swimming in the rivers, and another encounter with a leach and my hand. We reached a big river late in the afternoon where a nameless orangutan and her son were perched in a tree, keeping watch over a couple of basic wooden structures. A group of people went by, rafting down the river on inner tubes that were strapped together, hitting some rapids along the way.

The mother and son that watched over the river.

Our return journey from the jungle would be on a similar raft, and as construction was finished and the tubes were all tied together, we hopped on and said goodbye to the orangutans and the jungle. The raft trip back was fun, bumpy, and plenty wet! Our backpacks were sealed inside of large plastic bags that our guide brought along, and after 45 minutes on the river we were dropped off right at our hotel.

Leuser National Park
Our raft being assembled.
The final orangutan baby we would see before heading back to Bukit Lawang.

Back in Bukit Lawang

Over the next few days in Bukit Lawang we attended an Indonesian wedding, explored up and down the river in the town, and headed to the countryside. We saw the massive palm plantations that we had missed on the way in due to darkness, and saw the berries lining the roads in all directions outside of town. Palm oil, and to a lesser extent palm kernel expeller, also known as palm kernel extract are directly causing deforestation and habitat loss for orangutans, Sumatran tigers, wild elephants, Sumatran rhinos, and many other unique animals. These massive palm plantations stand in every direction around Bukit Lawang and unfortunately serve a much larger industry than the tourism to see the orangutans does.

Bukit Lawang
Palm berries being loaded into trucks all along the roads just outside of Bukit Lawang.

When we went into the countryside we visited local brown sugar makers, tofu makers, and rice fields. Seeing tree sap being drained and boiled into brown sugar was a really interesting process for us. The tofu being baked and stored in used paint cans was also interesting and kept us eating nasi goreng instead of tofu over the next few days!

Brown Sugar
A tree being bled to produce brown sugar.
Tofu being baked before going into paint cans filled with water to be sent to town.

After an amazing week in Bukit Lawang we sadly had to move on. It was time for us to leave Indonesia, one of our new favorite countries, and head to Vietnam!

Mekong Delta
Saigon and the rest of Vietnam were next!

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