The drive from Medan to Bukit Lawang is only about 90km. In just two hours you’ll witness the urban sprawl of Medan’s concrete jungle recede as the hot and heavy air of congestion begins to thin, giving way to a cooler climate and scenes of rural life in the thick of Sumatra’s elevated rainforests. And soon, as you pull into Bukit Lawang, you’ll sense you’re on the edge of where civilisation meets the wild.
I arrive just before sunrise to meet my licensed guide, Ipol, in front of Ecolodge Bukit Lawang Cottages, where I have arranged to stay. He tells me to drop my things in the room so we can immediately hit the trail and start trekking, as the animals are most active early in the morning. I’m a little tired from the drive but eager to have an introductory stroll through our surrounds. “It started in 1973 when [a] Swiss NGO set up an orangutan rehabilitation centre here in Bukit Lawang,” explains Ipol. “The rehabilitation centre helps boost the dwindling population of the Sumatran orangutan by teaching once captive orangutans the skills they need to survive in the wild. The centre also quarantines injured orangutans and helps the primates to readjust to their natural habitat before being released and reintegrated into the semi-wild population in the vicinity.”
The short distance from the capital city of Medan and the increasing population of rehabilitated orangutans had quickly made Bukit Lawang a popular tourist destination by the 1990s. Because of the rapid tourism growth, in 1996 the centre was moved to a more remote location and closed to the public. With the move, the centre was able to focus its rehabilitation efforts, while visitors enjoyed glimpses of Sumatran orangutans from the comfort and convenience of Bukit Lawang.
Bukit Lawang is the main gateway to and part of the vast Gunung Leuser National Park. The rich tropical rainforest is regarded by many experts as a complete ecosystem laboratory because of its diverse range of forests and animal species. In addition to spotting Sumatran orangutans here, expect to see playful Thomas leaf monkeys, gibbons, peacocks and hornbills. Other large mammals like sun bears, elephants, the endangered Sumatran tiger and Sumatran rhino are known to inhabit these forests too, but a sighting is unlikely for the average trekker as they’ve made their homes deep within the near-impenetrable heart of these jungles.
Every visitor has to have an official guide accompanying them at all times, as the dense forests are very easy to get lost in. “Don’t ever get too close or try to feed any wildlife since it will harm them more than help them,” Ipol emphasises. There have been many cases where animals, including the orangutans, get sick or poisoned after consuming human food offered by unlicensed guides or visitors. He advises me to always keep quiet and respect the animals as they are very sensitive to sudden sounds and movements.
“Be very still,” instructs Ipol. Alpha males are very powerful – possessing the strength of six adult men – and can get very aggressive. The orangutan is busy collecting and eating fruit. At one point he pauses; he looks at us dead on. I make eye contact with him for a moment – he decides we’re not important and continues on with his day, his orange fur vanishing into shades of green as he swings gracefully from tree to tree. Incredible! We spend a good 15 minutes there afterwards, simply enjoying the symphony of bird calls and absorbing the unique vibe of the forest.
Even though we don’t spot any other ‘hero’ animals after the orangutan for some time, there are signs and sounds all around us, reminding us we are never alone trekking through the forest. Ipol shows me scratch marks on collapsed tree trunks, indicating sun bears had clearly been scratching to find honey. Then we come across a huge anthill, which is the main source of protein for orangutans, who use sticks to reach the insects inside. Suddenly, I hear an odd sound from the back of the bushes in front of us, and again Ipol signals me to stop and prepare for an encounter. This time, it is a wild peacock. I’m thrilled! They are so beautiful; the colour of the feathers and the blue head really stand out against the green surroundings. Seconds later the bird is scared off by an approaching group of raucous.
Thomas leaf monkeys above us. Endemic to North Sumatra, these monkeys are known for their rather stylish Mohawk hairstyles which are typically white, silver or grey. After about three hours of trekking, we find a place to sit and rest for a while, drinking water and tucking into some fresh fruit – bananas, oranges and pineapples – to fuel up for the journey back. During our break Ipol tells me it’s very rare to see an alpha male so close to the park entrance and that many visitors he’s guided before often have to come back several times in order to spot one in the wild. “You are extremely lucky,” he says. There’s no guarantee what you’ll encounter here in the wild and when.
On our way back, we bump into a group of young French visitors who’ve encountered a female orangutan and her baby. The baby orangutan is busy playing around on her mum while she rests on a tree branch and looks on with what appears to be a calm and loving expression in her face.
If during your visit you aren’t lucky enough to see them in the wild, visit the Orangutan Viewing Platform back in Bukit Lawang where daily feedings take place from 8am to 3pm. The platform is designed to provide supplementary food for the semi-wild population until they become fully self-reliant. The feedings are attended by knowledgeable rangers and park staff who happily answer questions about the primates, the project and the rest of park. Best of all, the orangutans tend to stick around while they snack on their bananas. Perhaps, for them, this is a Human Viewing Platform. It’s fascinating to see them in their natural habitat, to look in their eyes and wonder what they might be thinking. They might be thinking the same of us!
As I retreat to my lodge to call it a day, I smile, remembering that this is only day one at this wonderful nature reserve. Already I’ve adopted a new appreciation for the wild and a deeper understanding of the value and fragility of our rainforests and its complex ecosystem. I can’t wait for tomorrow…