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An encounter with the orangutans

October 14, 2013

I was already thinking this jungle trek wouldn’t be quite like my rainy ordeal in Cambodia. It was the night before we set out into the jungle near Bukit Lawang, Sumatra, to see the semi-wild orangutans and we were sitting in the guest house bar, drunk on dodgy Indonesian vodka and singing along loudly and badly to Hotel California. Our Guide, Eddy, had already told us he was bringing a kilo of ‘wacky backy’ on the trek, and, hey, it wasn’t raining! I’d met my drinking friends, Aussie Callan and Germans Martina and Chris on the bus here from Medan, which is a dump of a city but they did serve very nice Gado Gado at the Podonk Angel Guest house.

The next day I had to procure a pair of one dollar, comically ugly rubber shoes CSC_0409in which to trek in as my hiking boots got wrecked in muddy Cambodia. The Indonesian guides all wore them and they actually turned out to be comfier than my hiking boots, but still, they looked bloody awful and I was feeling pretty bloody hungover as we headed off into the one remaining Sumatran forest where orangutans live. On our two day trek we only hiked around the edges of this forest and the orangutans we would encounter were semi-wild – they have been rehabilitated, or some have been born in semi-captivity. The truly wild orangutans live deeper in the forest and are much shyer.

It wasn’t long before we came upon another gaggle of tourists, all stood still looking up into the trees, and sure enough, there was that fiery orange fur, and there was a mother with a tiny baby, and a bigger youngster, nonchalantly staring back at us. The guides produced bananas and the orangutans began to trapeze down the branches towards us. Because they are semi-wild they will accept food from DSC_0380humans. I wasn’t sure of the ethics of this, as surely the best thing is to make these beautiful creatures as scared of us evil humans as possible, but I couldn’t resist taking a turn and giving a piece of banana to the youngster who was holding his black hand out. We briefly touched as he took it. His skin was rough, like an old person’s hand, and was freakishly human-like. It felt as epic as Michelangelo’s God’s finger touching Adam’s though and it’s an encounter I’ll never forget. I thought we were lucky to see the mother, baby and youngster, but we encountered many more of the little orange ‘people of the forest’ as we trekked on. It was amazing to watch them doing their topsy-turvy acrobats through the trees. But I also have to say, we also encountered many more touristy people of the backpacker type as well. Bukit Lawang has made a whole industry out of these orangutan treks and sometimes it feels like you’re not really in the wild jungle, so populated are the routes with other people. The forest here though is well populated with lots of other primates. We also saw a young gibbon who had ventured down from the canopy to watch a raucous rabble of Leaf Monkeys who were

David Beckham Monkey

David Beckham Monkey

playing around on the ground. These monkeys are also nicknamed the David Beckham monkey as they have little quiffs like their less-intelligent namesake once sported.

There’s a notorious female orangutan here called Mina who has a penchant for biting tourists – understandable as we’ve destroyed almost all her jungle and replaced it with palm oil plantations, but the funniest part of the trek was when Mina was allegedly spotted and the whole tour party began to move as fast as we could away whilst the suspected ape lazily watched us whilst chomping on some pineapple. I don’t know if it was the real Mina, but she’s a bit of a celeb-spot if it was, as she is so famous she’s mentioned in the Lonely Planet and the Indonesian girl I sat next to on the plane out of Sumatra asked if I’d seen her.

In the late afternoon reached out camp-site by the river, which we were all DSC_0412very grateful to take a dip in. No one dared smoke too much of the wacky backy. Then the guides produced a full-on Indonesian banquet of spicy curries, rice and nibbles, then a huge plate of fruit. It was a bit strange having to bed down in a polythene long house next to everyone else in the tour group, but we were all so tired no one minded. In the morning we awoke to the all-too familiar sound (for me at least) of heavy rain, and we had to wait until it cleared before we could ‘tube’ back down the river to Bukit Lawang. I have to say, I wasn’t that keen on the tubing and I’m convinced that whilst I was screaming with fear as we careered around the rocks protruding from the fast-flowing river, I ingested some bacteria-infested water which subsequently led me spending most of the night throwing up back at the guest house. I’d been travelling seven months, and this was my last stop in occasionally-hygenicly-challenged South East Asia, so I knew I was going to get ill. It was sod’s law.

Lake Toba

Lake Toba

The five hour journey along Sumatra’s bad roads to Lake Toba the next day was not pleasant at all, even though Martina had given me a lovely German tablet called ‘Vomex’. It was dark by the time we reached Tuk Tuk on Samosir Island on the lake and I was so grateful to find you could get a decent room with hot water for very little money. The lake is massive, Samosir island itself is as big as Singapore, and it was really beautiful, although the rainy season had caught up with me again and it rained most of the time I was there. Still, there was some great Indonesian food to be had in the deserted restaurants. It was the end of the season and sometimes felt like you were in a weird film where something ominous was about to happen. I’d decided to spend a few days there anyway in order to work on my novel, but Callan, Chris and Martina and other Europeans we’d befriended left after a few days, so the place felt even more deserted. I was glad to get back onto the mainland by the end of it, even though I ended up spending a night in the worst hotel ever in Parapat. My Indonesian trip was far too short and I don’t feel like I saw much of this fascinating, diverse country at all, but I had a flight back to Bangkok and then onwards to the big bright lights of Tokyo.

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