Just the twenty two hours to Bukit Luwang via Medan. After various changes of vehicles we arrived, just about in one piece surrounded by the lush jungle of the Gunung Leuser National Park. Bukit Luwang prides itself on being one of the most accessible places in the world to see orangutans. For a number of years now it has been rehabilitating orangutans back into the wild; a project which has been recognized by the WWF as a total success.
Arriving in the early afternoon we made our way up to the feeding platform where twice daily they provide food for the semi wild orangutans, yet to take the full leap to independence. We had met a guide called Eddie on the mini bus in and had agreed to go on a trek with him into the jungle for the following day along with two other people. Somewhere along the line in our conversation with him both Paul and I left with the impression that the feeding started at two in the afternoon despite everything else saying three.
The walk up the hill was pleasant. Huge numbers of locals from Medan tubed down the river and ate food next to it. There was such an un-spoilt atmosphere to the place. Everyone was out to enjoy themselves against a backdrop of spectacular dense jungle. After a short walk we came across a canoe tied to a zip line. The entrance to the park lay across the river. A couple of people hung around but there seemed very little activity, strange considering we were so close to feeding time. We got in the canoe and started to pull ourselves across. A local jumped on and helped with the work. He then paddled back.
We wondered in through the gates and past the park rangers office. Two men lay asleep in hammocks. We didn’t wake them up. We were in a rush to get to the feeding deck in time after all. Another short walk up hill and a couple of turnings later and we arrived at what we assumed was the feeding area except nobody was there. We sat on a log and waited.
After a while I got bored and headed down another path to see what was around the corner. I returned shortly after and Paul pointed up into a tree. There above sat a mother and her baby. It was a special moment seeing these incredible creatures up above us. We watched for a long time before Paul decided he’d go and find out what was happening about the feeding time. He returned to see me in a state of laughter pulling poo out of my hair. After a steady stream of urine minutes earlier that I had successfully dodged, I was caught by surprise by the dropping of excrement from above. It sure did smell.
It was then that we turned around and saw a large adult male sat on the feeding platform with a bunch of bananas in his mouth. I didn’t know that orangutans could grow so big, he was massive! The facial expressions he pulled as he watched us, the mother and baby and the bananas he was trying to eat was hilarious. Minutes later a local guy appeared and the male went back into the overgrowth.
Shortly after that the hundreds descended on us. Led by a number of park rangers it was time for the feeding circus. The lead guide walked up to the platform and looked back on the watching crowd. Seconds later he was running back towards us as the male orangutan crept up behind him. It took a long time and a lot of negotiating before he went back up to drop the food!
As this was going on another guide sat down with us and expressed surprise as to how we got there. Telling him we navigated the canoe over the river seemed to confuse him even more. After a short lecture as to how dangerous it was to be alone in the jungle with the orangutans we went back to watching the chaos of dozens of locals in a peaceful jungle. Not that I would ever want to encourage people to flout the parks rules but the feeding time was a nightmare, whilst the hour before, magical. A few bananas later and we left back down towards our hut to prepare for the following day.
We awoke early and wondered over to where we had arranged to meet Eddie and the other two in our group. Unfortunately Sumatran journey time had not been to kind to the other two who had to postpone their trip due to arriving so late in the evening. Instead we were palmed off onto Erwin and Johnny. We joined with a very brave French family, taking their kids out of school for six months and navigating a six year old through the terrain! There was also a couple of Australians which provided plenty of banter on route.
Within the first two hours of trekking into the jungle we had seen eleven orangutans. Of all different sizes and plenty of mothers and babies it was wonderful seeing mans closest relative up close in their natural habitat. Normally animal sightings are fleeting but not these. The orangutans seemed just as interested in us as we were in them.
Not long after that we came across ‘white gloved’ gibbons high up in a tree. Huge ants ran across the floor (and sometimes in Erwin’s mouth) the jungle was full of life. It was all going perfectly to plan until Erwin stopped us in our tracks. He uttered one word, “Mina”. Almost as soon as you step foot in Bukit Luwang you hear about her. Responsible for sixty five attacks on tourists and guides she truly is the queen of the jungle. As our guides rushed ahead to divert her we eventually had to change our route and crossed the small river at a different point. Soon after we settled down for a snack and began to come to terms with how lucky we had been with the animal sightings so far.
“Quick, Mina, go!” the guides suddenly shouted and everyone grabbed for their bags. In the distance branches moved. An orangutan and its baby were swinging in from the distance. It was a majestic sight to see how quickly they can move when they want to. As it landed in front of us you could feel the relief as Erwin identified it not as Mina. Everyone could relax. Except some relaxed too much, choosing to ignore the whole, keep your distance, they are wild animals. I stood a distance away, hesitant to get as close as some of the children were. Next thing I knew, I had a orangutan running at me. I grabbed my bag and moved out of the way as it charged on through and into the bushes. There wasn’t a lot of time to think before we were moving again as the real Mina had found us and we needed to get going. A short flash of orange was all I saw before being motioned up the hill and away.
The rest of the day was uneventful, but thoroughly enjoyable, if a little tiring in the heat. We admired centuries old trees and enjoyed such ‘delicious’ snacks as jungle ice cream. In the late afternoon we arrived at camp. Sitting alongside the river, it was a simple set up with a mat to sleep on and some tarpaulin over the top to keep the rain off. Our guides started to cook up tea and we all went for a swim in the river, battling against the strong currents that attempted to pull us back down stream. After another superb meal we played various games with matchsticks into the night. Erwin and Johnny win the prize for the most amusing and entertaining guides I have had. They have provided plenty of games to take back into schools when I return.
We awoke to monkeys looking down upon us and enjoyed another morning swim. A little later we went up and visited a couple of waterfalls, set back within the jungle. Then it was time to return back to base. A large monitor lizard made its home in our camp whilst we attempted to get our belongings in order. Eventually it moved on and the guides began to strap together four rubber tubes to form a raft. Armed with two wooden poles we rafted the rapids back to town. It was a great way to end a very special and memorable trip.
Docking on shore we made our way up to the so called bat cave. It was amusing trying to find it, passing the swallow cave, the new cave etc. Success followed slowly and we went in with one fading head torch. The cave itself was fairly uninspiring but for the gaps where sunlight filled the cavern and everything became very green. That was all rather Indiana Jones.
After another well deserved sleep we left the following day for Berastagi. Bukit Luwang was one of those places that will stay with me for a very long time. So far Sumatra is outdoing herself.