Thursday, 9 February 2017

On jungle trekking in Sumatra and ending up being chased by an Orangutan !

We were  already three weeks into our indonesian adventure when Meghan asked if we could perhaps go to Sumatra to see orangutans in the wild.

To be honest, it was not something that I felt I needed to do on this trip...already feeling  a little tired, the thought of traveling to the chaotic city of Medan and then another 4 hours to Bukit Lawang....just exhausted me...- but it turns out I was wrong: Actually I DID need this,  very much, but wouldn’t realize it until days later when I came face to face with the man of the forest.

Meanwhile  Meg had made an emotional plea; Worried that with their current rate of disappearance,  this might be her only chance to see orangutans in the wild before it was too late !  This was enough to convince us.  Mark and I made the necessary arrangements. Upon our arrival to Medan, he and Matthew would make their way down to Lake Toba and Meg and I would go the opposite direction to Bukit Lawang.

 Now, Bukit Lawang is a treasure of a little town....with a river flowing right through it. I counted at least 5-6 make shift suspension bridges connecting the two sides of the village. 

Macaque monkeys abound, keeping the tourists entertained as they walk, jump and leap their way around the village buildings. 

The hotel where we stayed had a lovely atmosphere (and a restaurant that had burgers on the menu!). 

As we watched the local young men gather around a small volleyball net, we learned about a new sport called “Takrau”  (sp?). Popular in all of South East Asia, we are told, it is a mixture of soccer and volleyball.  Players volley around a small ball (about the size of a grapefruit) which is made of rattan. They use their head, knees and feet to get it over the net. They have three hits on their side of the net, but unlike volleyball, the same player can hit the ball up to three times. Watching the pliability of the young bodies as they bent in every which way.......making “raising your foot above your head while still standing on one the other” look easy. 


Kids swimming under the bridge, Bukit Lawang

The next morning, as we woke up under our mosquito nets, I exclaimed excitedly, “Today is the day you get to see orangutans !” (Maybe... there are no guarantees in the wild!)

The start of our trek

A tapped rubber tree 
We set off with our new friends, a family of 4 from Denmark, and our two friendly guides. “Welcome to the jungle!” declared Jimi, one of our we scrambled up hill, over and under an extensive network of tree roots and vines, up steep cliffs, which were rendered sticky and soft from the rain the night before....In places the mud reminded me of dijon mustard, and my new shoes, would never be the same again! 

We heard Thomas Leaf monkeys in the distance, we saw rubber trees which had been tapped by locals, saw centipedes, 

and then…. as we rounded a corner... I saw a familiar and definitively RED fluffy shape in a tree....I looked up and saw the adorable face of a baby orangutan…...My eyes instantly swelled up in tears...what a sight to behold !

Photo by Meghan

photo by Meghan

 We soon spotted her mother, casually nestled in the fork of the same tree. 20 minutes just flew by as we marveled in their majestic presence...and tried to angle ourselves to get the best shot of them, from behind the leaves. 

Mother came out of her seat, to follow her baby down...

With the mother being semi wild (she had been rehabilitated and released into the wild), they were not bothered by our presence. I was surprised at how happy I was to learn that, although the mother had a human name, the baby did not: as she was born in the wild, she was not named. As the guide says, “she represents freedom from the world of men, no name is necessary”.

Photo by Meghan

This Orangutan was directly above us….dangerous unless you don't mind a hot, stinky shower !

 Over the next 6 hours we had 4 similar encounters with wild and semi wild orangutans ( seeing 8 orangutans in total)...we learned that the national park had in recent years closed down their feeding platform, as it was no longer needed, since all of the re-introduced orangutans had become independent and successful in taking care of themselves in the wild. This paired with the experience of seeing them in their natural habitat, simply  made my heart sing !

We learned that there were approximately 20 semi-wild orangutans in the park, and that there was only an estimated 7000 orangutans left in the wild in Sumatra. The rest of the world’s orangutans can only be found in Borneo (Kalimantan and Malaysia).Through our guides, we learned a great deal more about these wonderful primates, but I will stop here, as you may want to go and meet them and learn about them on your own one day !  

The story of Mina :

”Have you heard the story of Mina?” Jimi asked us as we stopped for a break and a serving of beautiful fresh fruit. None of us had, and this surprised Jimi. “She is the most beautiful orangutan here, but also the meanest!”. “She was sold as a baby and abused and left to die in a garbage can....she doesn’t trust humans much” (No wonder!) “She has bitten over 130 people, including my friend (another guide) a week ago”. 

As we had been trekking for about 4.5 hours, the guides became increasingly preoccupied by where Mina was that day...I was wondering why we would want to meet Mina in the first place...having had a hairy encounter with another mean primate in Panama back in 2015, we were not particularly interested in meeting her!  

But then I understood; the guides wanted to find out where she was so that we would not be ambushed by her, on our way back down to the river. At one fork in the path, Jimi left me at the front of the group and put me in charge while he went one way down the path to check to see if he could see her....he said to me :  “ I will be right back, but if you see an orangutan walking on the ground towards you, yell as loud as you can and we will come running towards you”......(very comforting!)...”Okay”, I said with a gulp....while the 6 of us stood there, looking up and down all around us, eyes and ears wide open....I tried to break the tension by making a joke : “Meg wouldn’t it crazy if you ended up having been bitten by a monkey AND an orangutan?!”  ( I know...I am not a contender to win Mother of the Year Award am I ?!) ....Jimi heard my comment as he was walking back towards us “ Don’t say would be a nightmare for you if you were bitten by Mina!” 

Up until now, our guides had been so jovial and care free, but this sudden change in seriousness made me pause....we went on for a little while further and then we got a call from our second guide, he had found Mina ahead of us on the path....he took out some mushrooms he had picked for this purpose. He later told us that they do not feed any of the orangutans, except for Mina.  This is simply done to appease her if she is encountered and as a ‘payment for passage’ into her territory.

We got our instructions:  Follow Jimi on the path, we would walk right by Mina -who unlike most orangutans, stays close to the ground instead of in the trees-, and do not stop or take pictures, do not make eye contact and just walk quietly and quickly past her. We all looked at each other...yikes...okay! Off we went like obedient little children, single file, looking at our feet as we walked past her (she was within arms reach) as our guide hand fed her mushrooms, which I could see from the corner of my eye, she was avidly accepting...phew....we all breathed out when we were past her, about 30 feet away.  Then Jimi offered to take my camera back and took a few photos of her for me, as she was still eating....then he returned and said “Okay, right, follow me and don’t stop...she may still decide to follow us”....he sounded a little bit we kept on trudging forward, Jimi  kept calling back to the guide at the back...keeping track of where Mina was.....turns out she HAD decided to follow us.....and, you can imagine, with her ability to travel through the trees at exceptional speeds, we couldn’t really outrun her on the ground.

Mina, the 40 year old who gave us a run for our money !

....the guide at the back was running interference for us...just as our path began to descend a very steep incline...we heard the loud CRACK of a branch breaking and the guide at the back yelled out....  Through the indonesian words that were yelled back and forth between Jimi and him, I gathered the news wasn’t good...Jimi looked at me and saw Meg coming down behind me and he said: “Do you think that Meghan could go just a little bit faster?” and then called aloud: “Could someone please pick up Michael (the 8 year old Danish boy) we need to move NOW!”......  This was so unlike Jimi and he looked so alarmed that we didn’t need any more convincing....we picked up the pace, down the impossibly steep and slippery slope....Jimi put me at the front of the line and  told me to keep he went back to help the other guide distract Mina....his parting words were: “Do not panic, but move as quickly as you can!”   As I was calling encouragement back to Meg and the others, it was “every man for himself” as we all partly ran, partly slid down the hillside...catching trees to steady ourselves in our 20 minute mad dash....I can’t tell you how many times I fell, but the thought that was mostly in my mind was: what a great story this was going to make! 

I felt quite confident that our guides would protect us and that we would all make it down in one piece...but still...there was an underlining fear that was present and I managed to run head first into a tree branch which knocked me down on my feet. 

The pathway down the hill…just before  the chase really began!

As we finally emerged down at the waters edge, our clothes were muddy and wet..... we were wild eyed and physically exhausted. There, the sight of a lady tourist, dressed in a pristine white dress, a flower in her hair, sipping a drink by the waterfall with her guide...relaxed and carefree in the middle of the jungle, was such a contrast to the situation we had just lived, it made a few of us burst out laughing....

Meghan didn’t find it quite as funny until she felt completely safe.  After lunch, as we ate our nasi goreng (fried rice) surrounded by cute little Macaque monkeys at the river, she smiled and laughed as she relaxed. Still, for the first 15 minutes after we had arrived at the bottom, our guides kept their eyes on the forest...and then they relaxed too.  I was elated of made our jungle adventure all the more thrilling! 

The return to Bukit Lewang was made via a home made raft. As we giggled while being sloshed around and bounced in the cool water, we saw a whole group of Thomas Leaf monkeys who had gathered by the rivers edge to watch the show: “Humans floating by”... We were their entertainment for the day! 
Thomas Leaf monkeys on the rivesr edge

We are now all back together, at Lake Toba, a beautiful crater lake in Northern Sumatra. We will will rest our sore muscles here for a few days before saying goodbye to Indonesia and make our way to Singapore. 

I will try to compile a blog to describe our full Indonesian Adventure soon.

Until then, stay warm and safe everyone !

Sending you all lots of love

4Ms in South East Asia

Meg sporting a jungle crown and charcoal decorations made for her by Jimi.

Jimi, the orang-utan !


  1. Wow! That was an exciting story. I'm so glad you made it down safe and sound. I do feel sorry for Mina though. We humans can be so cruel to animals and each other! :(

    I continue to enjoy your blog and FB entries very much. Living life vicariously through you.

    When do you plan to be back in Calgary or is your schedule flexible?

    1. We should be back in Calgary sometime in May/June….we will make sure to catch up with you, that is, if you and Bill aren't away sailing !!!

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