From Medan, we took a minivan to Bukit Lawang, a small tourist village on the Bohorok River at the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park. Bukit Lawang has been a popular stop for tourists in Northern Sumatra for at least a couple of decades.
It’s a trekking base for those wanting to explore the rainforest of the park and see what’s left of the endangered Sumatran Orangutans at the nearby orangutan rehabilitation center. Bukit Lawang is set up 100% for tourists, but for a tourist trap, it’s a very laid back place. Locals say “hello” and “good morning” when they pass you on the trails and unlike most of Indonesia, there aren’t any aggressive touts. There are dozens of little guesthouses and restaurants, and each night as the sun goes down it is hard NOT to find a bunch of happy-go-lucky locals sharing a few beers and singing songs with the young backpackers who are the main visitors to the area. If you visit, I guarantee that you will hear the “Bukit Lawang Song” (aka the “Jungle Trek Song”) at least ten thousand times!
Bukit Lawang is inland, far from the coasts of Sumatra, so it was not affected by the 2004 earthquake and tsunami.
Ironically though, hundreds of people were killed and the village devastated by a flood in 2003. Here’s a photo and a snippet from a BBC news report at the time:
Another 100 people are missing after the disaster, which is thought to have been made worse by extensive logging removing cover that once retained rain.
The minister, Nabiel Makarim, blamed corrupt officials and business people for the practice.
The search for bodies continues around the worst-hit village of Bukit Lawang.
“These illegal loggers are like terrorists,” said Mr Makarim, after talks with the Indonesian President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, in Jakarta.
But he said: “It is difficult to combat illegal logging because we must face financial backers and their shameless protectors both from the Indonesian armed forces and police, and from other government agencies.”
Not only did the illegal logging exacerbate the flooding of the river by creating massive run-off, but there were also thousands of logs which came crashing downriver, smashing into homes and bridges, destroying much in their path. Horrible, but sadly, typical.
One of the reasons we came to Sumatra was to see firsthand the rainforest ecosystem, how people live with it, and the effects of man’s actions on it. In Singapore we choked on a smokey haze blowing over from the fires in Sumatra – fires which were started to clear land for palm oil plantations. On the drive from Medan to Bukit Lawang we saw, yet again, just how massive the palm oil plantations are and how little natural rainforest is left. In this area it was slashed and burned years ago and replaced with thousands and thousands of neat rows of oil palms, and in some cases, rubber trees. It would appear that about the only rainforest left in the area is the park itself.
When the rainforest is cleared, long drainage trenches are cut. This dries out the soil of the forest floor, killing or weakening the plants and making it easier to burn and clear the land. Once cleared, young oil palms are planted in neat rows between the trenches. They will mature and produce oil bearing fruit for about 30 years. Don’t ask what happens to the thousands of species of plants and animals that lived in the rainforest.
I won’t go on about deforestation and its effects here. Suffice it to say that it is shocking what has been lost, how much (and in some ways, how little) things have changed since I was last here 23 years ago. According to this recent study, primary forest has declined by 40% in the past twenty years and 92% of Sumatra has lost its virgin forest. Nothing good can come of this in the long run, and the local people have profited little from this great loss. Quite the contrary.
Anyway, we arrived in Bukit Lawang and checked into a nice little guesthouse along the river in the main part of the village. It was one of the cheaper places, but quite comfortable, and their little restaurant had great food. To Jette’s delight the family that owned the place had a couple of kids, and a new puppy.
I didn’t get any photos of them, but there were mischievous macaque monkeys around who would swing down from the surrounding trees and steal food and other things. One afternoon I was sitting on the porch reading. There was a plastic bag with some fruit sitting on the table in front of me. As I was reading, I saw a movement in my peripheral vision. I looked up from my book and there was a monkey hanging from the side of the building at the edge of the patio about 10 feet in front of me. We locked eyes for a moment and then he suddenly leapt from the wall to a nearby column and from the column to the edge of the table in front of me. Still making eye contact I leaned forward and hissed loudly, fully expecting to scare him away. Instead he opened his mouth and showed me his teeth, calmly reached over and lifted a star fruit from the bag on the table, and stuck it in his mouth. He paused for half a second to glare at me, then leaped back, bouncing off the column up to the wall, disappearing up and over the edge of the roof. One of the ladies that works at the guesthouse appeared with a slingshot and started shooting pebbles at the monkey, who was sitting at the peak of the roof enjoyed my fresh starfruit. Lesson learned. Stupid humans making hissing noises doesn’t frighten Sumatran monkeys. If anything it just amuses them.
The locals in the village told us that the orangutan rehabilitation center was now permanently closed. We asked why and were told that all of the orangutans had been “successfully rehabilitated” and so there was no longer a need for the center. Hmmmm… We booked an overnight “jungle trek” through our guesthouse. The next morning we threw a few things in a backpack and headed out with our guide. We walked through the village, along the river, and into the forest.
We followed narrow, but well traveled paths through the forest. It was quite hilly with some very steep and slippery sections. There was no technical climbing, but we were sometimes forced to climb or descend especially steep or muddy sections on all fours.
It was hot and so humid. We were sweating like crazy. As we hiked through some of the wet valley areas there were swarms of mosquitoes, but on the hilltops there were very few. There were some really fantastic, giant old trees, lots of vines that tempted me to play Tarzan, and some critters along the way.
After a few hours, we stopped for a snack of fruit. It was quite a spread.
After the snack we pressed on, and came upon another lady and her guide feeding a Thomas Leaf Monkey, a species found only in Northern Sumatra.
Sadly, this was a scene that was to be repeated throughout the day. Now we understood why the guides had brought so much fruit – they were feeding the animals! Before we left on our trek we made very clear that while we were eager to see orangutan and other wildlife, we wanted to see them from a distance. We did NOT want to get too close. Alas, that was not to be. We had read that some of the orangutans could be quite aggressive, particularly an adult female named Minah. Throughout the day we crossed paths with other groups and guides, and in every instance they were feeding the orangutan and monkeys. Quite clearly this was standard practice. The animals had learned that humans on the trail meant a yummy snack of fruit. They showed no fear of people, on the contrary, they approached people knowing full well that they would be rewarded with food. We can only assume that the rehabilitation center was closed so that the tourists could feed the animals on their “jungle treks.” Yep, it appeared that we were now part of the problem.
One we went, and before long we saw our first orangutans, up towards the top of some nearby trees.
We hiked a bit more. We followed the trail up a hill and emerged into a small clearing at the top. The trail continued on the other side of the clearing. Standing on the far side by the path was one of the orangutans, Minah, with a baby on her back. Another tourist and guide were standing in the clearing and the guide was getting fruit out of his bag to feed Minah. Our guide urged us closer, but we refused, reiterating that we did NOT want to get close to the animals, especially the orangutans, and we certainly didn’t want to feed them. He said that we had to go past her to follow the trail, and again we refused. Clearly frustrated with us, he had the second guide lead us down a smaller trail to the side of the clearing, allowing us to keep our distance from Minah.
When he rejoined us down the trail, we told him again that we did NOT want to get close to the orangutans, and we questioned the wisdom of feeding them. He told us that they had to feed them, otherwise they will get aggressive, especially Minah. He showed us some fresh scars on his forearm and told us how, about 5 weeks ago he had encountered Minah on the trail. He was reaching into his bag to get some fruit for her, but apparently she got impatient, grabbed his arm, and bit it. He said that while he was punching her three other guides were able to pull him from her grasp. He seemed quite proud of this, and told us with a smile that the treks were boring if they didn’t see Minah, and that the local guides had a saying: “No Minah, no fun. No Minah, no run!” So much for rehabilitation, eh?
We hiked some more and again as we crested a hill, we crossed paths with another orangutan – one of Minah’s older children. Mila was a minute or so behind us, and I don’t think she realized that the orangutan was there as she came up the path.
Regardless, the guides led her behind the orangutan as one of them made an offering of fruit.
We hiked on…
On one narrow, sloped section of trail we encountered Jackie, another orangutan.
Thankfully, that was our last encounter with orangutans. This was just too close, and the conditions too sad. We came to see and understand their plight, and ended up feeling like we were contributing to the problem. Guides feeding them for the entertainment of tourists simply seems to create dependencies and encourage interactions which are risky for both sides. On the other hand, without the tourist dollars and interest, I also wonder if they would still exist in this area at all. No doubt orangutans are beautiful creatures, but they face a dim future. Their habitat will continue to be destroyed and they will likely continue to be under threat. “Critically endangered” is not a good thing to be, and from what we saw, I doubt conditions will ever improve for our sad cousins the Sumatran Orangutans.
So, with those cheery thoughts, on with our story. We hiked on and before long the river came into view. Our campsite was on the bank of the river and other groups and guides were arriving too. Those who were not spending the night were wrapping their bags in plastic and getting into tubes to go back down river.
While the guides prepared dinner, we cooled off in the river with a group of noisy French, Moroccans, and Algerians.
Our jungle bath complete, we dried off and went into our shelter for dinner. Jette was not feeling well. All of our bottled water was gone, and the guides were boiling and serving smokey tasting, slightly cloudy river water. Jette took a sip, but no more. She was exhausted and I think dehydrated. She didn’t want to eat, and laid down on her pallet. Mila and I ate a little bit and laid down too. We were tired and with Jette not feeling well, we wanted to keep a close eye on her. I talked for an hour or so with our guide then we all tried to sleep. The French group in the shelter next to us were sitting around a fire playing drinking games and singing. I tired to listen to the sound of the jungle, but they were drowned out by their shouts, songs and antics. This continued for almost SIX HOURS until the last couple of them stumbled off to bed around 3:30 a.m.
In the morning, Jette was feeling better. We had a good time watching the water monitors swim in the river, and troupes of monkeys along the banks. Some of the monkeys were quite aggressive and would come into camp to try and steal things. We had fun throwing rocks at them to scare them off. Of course we never hit them, but when a throw got close the monkeys would scamper away.
I don’t have photos as the camera was stuffed in a waterproof bag, but after a while it was time to pile into a raft made of inner tubes lashed together and float down the river and back to our guesthouse.
We spent another day in Bukit Lawang, and since we had been eating all of our meals and spending most of our time at our guesthouse, we walked a little further down the main path to explore a bit and had lunch at the Jungle Inn. The guys there were really nice, and it looks like it would be a fun place to stay too. They have one “cabin” that is two stories with a balcony overlooking a private waterfall. Nice.
On one of our days in Bukit Lawang, we walked from the main tourist area along the river, back through the palm oil plantations to the market area of the village. One day a week, Friday if I remember correctly, is market day and folks from all around come to stock up on what ever they might need – chickens, fish, produce, clothing, soap, you name it. Goods are laid out on the ground, or in simple stalls, and the sometimes muddy paths between them have a constant stream of local shoppers.
At one end of the market, there is a large, open area that was filled with men making deals and large, rectangular bundles of what looked like big mushroom tops. The smell – a rancid, earthy, fermented odor – was intense.
Every once in awhile a man would pull out a parang (machete), chop into a bundle and inspect it. We couldn’t figure out what these things were, and my gosh the smell! I walked over and asked one of the men, “Apa ini?” (“What is this?). “Karet” was his answer. Rubber. Of course! To harvest the natural latex sap from rubber trees, strips of bark are cut forming a channel, and half a coconut is hung to collect the latex sap which oozes out. These odd bundles of mushroom-shaped things, were the half-coconut shaped lumps of latex all pressed together! Recently, rubber prices have dropped by 50% so what was once profitable is now not so much. One of our taxi drivers started driving taxis because he could not longer make a living with rubber.
Here’s a video that shows the rubber tapping and processing as it is done in Thailand. At this market the raw rubber is just bundled and sold, presumably the later stages of processing are done elsewhere.
Alas it was time to move on, so from Bukit Lawang and took a minibus to Berastagi. But that’s another blog post…