Throw in some lyrics about monkey’s and orangutan’s, about smiling and laughing and “everything” together in Bukit Lawang, and you’ll have the theme song for the hip little tourist village along the Bahorok River.
We sang it once with our guide, a 49 year old Indonesian man who has been giving guided tours through the jungle for as long as I’ve been alive, and I didn’t think much more of it. Then later, while enjoying a cold Bintang from a bottle! (only cans in Aceh) with a group of long-haired, tattooed locals with a guitar, we heard it again. It was part of their act, we came to realize, to lure us in to their establishment. But seeing as how we escaped unscathed both physically and in our wallets, I’ll call it a successful musical communication exchange, as I responded with some music of my own.
We took a seven-hour trek up into the jungle to visit with semi-wild orangutan. The weather could not have been more perfect, sunny, warm and dry. I had one of the best nights sleep in a long time the night before. Our cozy room at Garden Inn had a small spiral staircase going to the front porch equipped with hammock and lounge chairs, overlooking the rushing river below. We went down for a quick breakfast of rosti and black coffee….
But before all that…
I think it’s important to begin from the beginning, on the bus from Banda Aceh to Binjai. The trip, which we weren’t exactly how long should take, ended up being a 364-mile, 12 hour bus ride leaving at 10pm and arriving in Binjai at 10am. We slept most of the way, despite the nagging tick-tick-tick of the hi hat from the Indonesian house music.
Once in Binjai the driver’s helper kindly told us it was our stop…which was more the side of the road than a bus stop. We barely got our bags out from the cargo hold when the bus took off, leaving us in the blistering heat of Binjai.
If you’ve ever been to Indonesia you’ll know what happened next. Immediately out of nowhere there was someone asking us if we needed a becak, also called a Tuk Tuk. Stranded with no other option, we told the man “we need to get to the bus station to get a bus to Binjai.” He responded, “OK, you go Binjai OK come.” Close enough. We piled into the small becak and took off down the busy street.
The Becak brought us not to any sort of bus station, but to a small white van on the side of the road that looked like it could hold 7 or 8 people. Of course, we fit 12, plus the driver. Legs cramped, sweat dripping, we bumped down the road, finally on our way to Bukit Lawang. Looking it up on the phone told us we’d get there in a little over one hour…
Two and a half slow, rocking, bumping hours later, feeling the sadness of driving through miles and miles of cleared forests turned palm oil tree plantations, we arrived at the bus station in Bukit Lawang. It was another 1km becak ride to the entrance of the tourist area, and a 10-15 minute walk to Garden Inn where we’d be staying. Now you can see why we slept so well.
‘The word “orang” is Malay for “person” whilst “utan” is derived from “hutan” meaning forest. Thus, orang utan literally translates as “person of the forest”.’
Most people go to Bukit Lawang for the same reason: jungle trek! Bukit Lawang roughly translates to ‘the gate on the hills’, aptly named for its location at the entrance to the Guning Leuser National Park, home to many monkeys and apes, most famously for the orangutan.
The first orangutan we saw was a lounging male in his nest, trying to get a nap in while all the humans stared, having been up all night in the rain trying to stay dry. He was very uninterested in us, lazily relaxing his head in a bed of leaves and branches. He was alone, and didn’t do much of anything but rest. I can’t blame him, the rain was pretty intense the night before, and we had the luxury of a roof over our heads.
The next few orangutan we saw were more lively. Each of the female we saw had their own baby. The babies were really adorable, and extremely playful. They were definitely putting on a show for the tourists. Our guide told us to be careful with one particular baby orangutan. It would hold out it’s hand, so cute and innocent, to try and lure you in. But then, our guide warned us, if you went too close the mother would grab you and they would together steal your backpack or try and grab you. Once your in the grasp of a full grown orangutan, there’s no escaping. The guide knew immediately which orangutan were friendly and safe and which to stay away from. Glad we had him there, they looked all the same to me.
This snapshot is one of my favorites. Our guide told Jade that this particular orangutan was friendly, and handed her a small branch broken off from a tree. Jade reached out with the branch, and the ape took it from her and immediately smelled the part of it that she had been holding.
After 4 hours or so we were tired and hungry so we took a break for lunch. The guide and another man with a backpack prepared our food for us; a huge portion of fried rice and egg wrapped in banana leaf with cucumber and tomato slices and fried chips. For dessert there was pineapple, banana, orange, and rambutan. By the end of the meal I was so full but it felt so good. We really needed that fuel, and it was fun to sit around in the jungle and chit chat over lunch.
So most of the pictures that we took with the orangutan and us in the same shot were lame and touristy, but I want to show you this one because it’s proof of how close we got to this aggressive Mina. The group guide saw it from far off, and told us that this Mina was known for her aggressive nature, and told us some facts like 95 people already have been reported to have been grabbed or bitten. He follows up immediately with, “so, you want to see Mina?” How can I say no?!
We retraced our steps with the young man who carried our lunches and went to flank the ape from the left side as the experienced guided went up the middle to try and lure the Mina down from the trees. When we got to the top of the hill, we met up with another group of trekkers curious about the same orangutan. As we approached their guide ordered us to stay behind him at least 5 meters. My heart was bumpin’ at this point because I’m thinking, what’s going to happen?
We mount another small hill and round the bend to see her coming down from the trees onto the ground. The other guide shouted for us to get back, run, go, go, go! Another food runner told us not to move to fast. The guide shouted GO! It was very mixed messages, and you could see the fear on the locals faces. Suddenly as I turned to retreat from threat, I hear my guide yelling my name, telling me not to run, to come closer. For some reason I trust this guy, he was very calm. Our guide gave the Mina a few oranges and some sticks of sugar cane to calm her down. She peeled them all and scarfed them down like they were butter.
At that point things had calmed down enough for me to approach her in a tree and snap a photo of the three of us (her baby was with her too). The guide explained that there was another orangutan, this one fully wild, that had the Mina scared. I looked over my right shoulder and there it was, another female and her baby, high up in the trees. How they could tell a semi-wild from a wild orangutan is beyond me, but these men are in the jungle every day and have been their whole lives, so who am I to question it? All I know is that we got a thrill from being so close to being chased by orangutans.
The trek ended with a final ascent down to the river, where some river tubes were tied up waiting for us. We stuffed our backpacks, cameras and shoes in a few plastic bags, tied them tight, slapped on some over-sized life-vests and took off down the raging river, guided in front and back by two men with bamboo poles. The waves were huge, splashing and drenching our tired bodies. People took photos from the river banks. We bumped, smiled and laughed our way back down the river to Garden Inn, where the complete tour was wrapped up. A bit touristy, but fun nevertheless.