• Laura the Explorer

Monkey Business in Bukit Lawang

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

Following my somewhat-eventful trip to Borobudur, Java (if you missed it, then check out my previous post), the next item on my Indonesian bucket list was a trip to Bukit Lawang, Sumatra. This small tourist village, located along the banks of the Bahorok river on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park, draws thousands of visitors every year with its star billing - the endangered Sumatran orangutan.

The Sumatran orangutan are now critically endangered, with a key factor in their decline being the catastrophic level of deforestation of the Sumatran rainforest. This is largely due to the clearing and burning of land to create plantations for the palm oil industry, with Indonesia being the world's largest producer of palm oil; in the last twenty years alone, nearly 26 million hectares of rainforest has been lost. The widespread decimation of the natural environment has had devastating consequences for the many species of flora and fauna that inhabit the jungles of northern Sumatra, with the native orangutan being the hardest hit.

Sadly, this tragedy became all-too apparent during my four-hour journey from Medan airport, as the drive passed through seemingly unending miles and miles of palm oil plantations. Looking out onto the dull, uniform rows of oil palm trees, it was heart-breaking to think that once this landscape would have been dominated by towering tropical trees and lush vegetation, teeming with life. The driver and I chatted about the situation, and he informed me that over his lifetime he had seen much of the natural landscape steadily eaten away over the years to make room for the plantations, with the main impetus being the money gained from the palm oil trade.

The good news, he informed me, was that the Indonesian government had grown to realise another way of making money from their natural resources - ecotourism. The national park of Gunung Leuser protects a vast range of ecosystems and was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004 due to its incredible level of biodiversity. One of only two remaining habitats for the Sumatran orangutan, the area has seen a steady increase in tourism with visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of this remarkable primate. Initially, people flocked to visit the orangutan rehabilitation centre situated on the outskirts of the jungle, where displaced and injured orangutans were nursed back to health before being released back into the wild. The project proved so successful that the orangutan population increased to the extent that the centre was no longer needed, but the area remains a popular base for jungle trekking that offers the chance to see the orangutans roaming free in their natural environment.

I had booked an excursion with a company called Sumatra Orangutan Backpacker and was met by my guide, Anton, upon my arrival in Bukit Lawang. The main road ended a little way before the location of my accommodation, which was further upriver, so my travel-case and I were transported for the remainder of the journey on the back of Anton's moped. We trundled along the single-lane track that ran along the banks of the river towards the outskirts of the village, until we reached the guesthouse. It was basic, but the views were absolutely breath-taking. The guesthouse was right on the riverfront; that afternoon I revitalised myself after the long journey with a refreshing dip in the coolness of the river, and that night I was soothed to sleep by the constant sound of the running water. Magical.

The next morning was an early start as Anton and I headed out into the jungle. As a solo female traveller I was met with curiosity by many of the other guides we came across, who would ask Anton 'Dia sendiri?' (is she alone?); this was usually followed by surprise and then laughter when I would respond with 'Iya, tapi pacar saya di Inggris' (yes, but I have a partner in England). Anton took great delight in the reactions of the other local guides when they realised that I could speak Indonesian, sometimes playing along, and we had a laugh every time this kind of encounter took place.

He began by taking me to the feeding platforms from the days of the previous rehabilitation centre, informing me that this was the best place to find some of the orangutans. Situated close to the edge of the jungle, it was the first place on our trekking route. Despite the feeding platforms no longer being in use, and a strict no-feeding policy in place within the national park to discourage interference with the wildlife, old habits meant that the now-wild orangutans keep returning to this place - often bringing their offspring along. True to Anton's word, I was not disappointed.

I caught my first glimpse of a wild orangutan as we approached the platforms. It was a young male who was playing amongst the branches of the nearby trees, and we soon realised that he was accompanied by his mother. I couldn't believe how lucky we were to come across a sighting so quickly, and to see two of them! I was immediately struck by how at ease they were with the presence of humans - they would not come too close, but they were definitely not phased by the small group of tourists who had gathered there. The younger one, in particular, seemed to enjoy the attention and played up to the crowd, showing off with his nimble and agile climbing skills. His mother was a bit more nonchalant, watching his antics from a distance. We had been observing them for a few minutes when another appeared, this time a mother with a young baby in tow; a truly beautiful image.

However, this part of the jungle being so close to the village and easily accessible meant that it was relatively busy with other trekking groups, so after a while Anton approached me and said that a fellow guide up ahead had let him know of a quieter spot where some more orangutans were to be found. We broke away from the main congregation and began our trek in earnest, walking through overgrown and uneven terrain. It amazed me how Anton knew his way through the maze of trees and undergrowth when everything looked the same to me - I could see why entry to the national park is only permitted in the company of an expert guide. Partway in, we teamed up with another guide that Anton knew and a young couple that he was leading and continued as a smaller group for the best part of the morning, being fortuitous enough to spot a few more orangutans along the way.

Being deeper in the jungle and away from the crowded spots afforded these sightings a much more intimate feel and I felt incredibly privileged at the opportunity to witness these wonderful mammals in their natural habitat. They were smaller than I imagined, even the adult males, and their docile nature highlighted their vulnerability and reinforced to me how desperately in need they are of the protection offered by designated national parks like Gunung Leuser. I was glad that, in taking my trip with a local company, I was contributing in a small way to their continued conservation.

We had not long stopped for our midday food break when we had a close encounter with a different kind of primate - an uninvited dinner guest in the form of a Sumatran baboon. He was hovering around the vicinity of our chosen resting place, feigning disinterest by sitting with his back to us whilst yawning or picking at his belly; occasionally he would turn to look at us over his shoulder, before returning to his grooming. His act didn't fool anyone though and we all knew what he was really after - our picnic lunch. This made me slightly uneasy, given that I had had plenty of chance to witness his enormous canines every time he opened his mouth to yawn! It also perturbed me somewhat to know that we were completely defenceless; I felt like he knew it and he was just biding his time, toying with us.

Sure enough, a few minutes later he made his move. Quick as lightning he pounced into the midst of our circle and grabbed the freshly-cut pineapple we had laid out, tucking into it with triumph. This was not ideal - our guides had made it very clear that feeding the wildlife was strictly prohibited and I could see that they were completely dismayed by the situation. But, powerless as we were to stop it, what else could we do but let the greedy little monkey have his way? Every time we tried to approach him to take back the food he bared those threatening teeth at us, and we had to admit defeat.

The guides had been debating how to put a stop to the baboon's insolent behaviour for several minutes before we were finally forced into taking action. The baboon had begun tucking into the rice packets so the guy from the young couple decided to take the opportunity to try to move his bag away from the scene. As soon as he picked it up, the baboon went to attack him. It turned upon him in an instant, running towards his leg with its jaws wide open and emitting a menacing screech. Instantly his guide reacted, stamping his foot and shouting whilst picking up a stick that was close to hand - thankfully, this was enough to deter the baboon from his course of action and he retreated. This gave us a few minutes to gather our bags and what remained of our food, all the while keeping a lookout for the baboon who was still loitering nearby. With lunchtime brought to an abrupt end, Anton and I parted ways with the other group and continued on our trek.

Throughout the remainder of the trek we encountered yet more orangutans as well as a stunning array of other wildlife, including the elusive leaf monkey that I was lucky enough to catch on camera (for more pictures from this trip, see my photography page). The trek was arduous in places but nothing that someone with decent fitness levels can't handle, and Anton's familiarity with the terrain was reassuring. Best of all, the day's trekking culminated in a ride back down the river atop makeshift kayaks made from inflatable tyres tied together with rope - a fun way to get back to the guesthouse! Another evening swim in the river followed by a delicious dinner and live music at the guesthouse rounded off the experience in the best way imaginable.

It has been an all-time dream of mine to see wild orangutans in their natural habitat. Literally meaning 'people of the forest', the jungles of Sumatra are truly where the orangutan belong - during my few days there I was heartened to see the efforts of the local people of Bukit Lawang to protect and preserve these amazing primates. Hopefully I will be able to return one day to see how the wildlife has continued to flourish in the Gunung Leuser National Park. This time, though, I'll be a bit more careful about where I leave my lunch!

**PLEASE READ** Due to Covid-19, many of the Bukit Lawang tour guides have been without income for several months now. With no financial safety nets offered by the Indonesian government, this means that times are hard for guides like Anton and their families. If you are able to offer to support to the guides at this time then please check out this GoFundMe page: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-the-people-of-bukit-lawang-during-covid19

Sumatra Orangutan Backpacker's website can be found here: https://www.sumatra-orangutan-backpacker.com/About-us.php

More information about conservation efforts for the Sumatran orangutan can be found here: Sumatra Orangutan Backpacker's website can be found here: https://www.sumatra-orangutan-backpacker.com/About-us.php

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