North Sumatra: Jungle Hiking with Wild Orangutans

Situated just inside the eastern entrance of Gunung Leuser National Park, Bukit Lawang is one of only two remaining natural habitats in the world for wild orangutans.

10th August 2016 | Words by George Bell

I was born in London and have spent my whole life there; it’s an amazing city but a very big bubble that is difficult to escape from. After realising the ‘London dream’ of working in the city was not for me, I quit my job, booked a one-way flight to Indonesia and didn’t think twice.

Cafe in Ubud, Bali

I spent all of January and most of February flitting from hotels to coffee shops purely focused on my freelance writing work. I soon realised that I had left London to escape that working life for a bit and hadn’t experienced any real adventures since landing in Bali. There had been the bike tour up to an active volcano called Mount Batur, the visit to Ubud Monkey Forest and the two weeks on the tropical island paradise of Gili Trawangan, but I wanted to do something different than the usual ‘top things to do in Bali’ list.

Medan, North Sumatra capital, Indonesia

Bukit Lawang is a small village on the banks of the Bahorok River in North Sumatra, Indonesia. It is one of only two remaining natural habitats in the world for orangutans. My friend and I booked the next available flight to Kualanamu International Airport in North Sumatra. We arrived the next evening into the capital city Medan.

Busride from Medan

We slept badly and checked-out early to make our way to the local bus station for the three-hour journey to Bukit Lawang. There are tourist buses for 80,000 rupiahs (~£4), but we decided on the more authentic and adventurous option: a local bus. The strange looks from locals were intimidating at first, but soon they began asking us about our lives and what we were doing so far from home.

We booked ourselves a double room at the well-reviewed Junia Guest House in Bukit Lawang. Located on the banks of the Bahorok river at the rainforest edge, with huge rooms and large, stone bathrooms and freshwater showers, Junia Guest House was a very good choice. After settling in we headed for the bar. Sopy, one of the guesthouse workers, stopped by to chat and discuss jungle hiking options. We booked a one-day, seven-hour hike the next day with Sopy as our guide. We grabbed an early night.

Rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis

Next morning we set-off equipped with insect repellent, plenty of water and an open mind – there was no guarantee of seeing orangutans. It was likely we were told, but the jungle covers thousands of square kilometres and there is no telling exactly where the orangutans might be. Hiking into the rainforest we noticed a drop in temperature. Not too far in, we stopped next to rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) oozing their thick yellowish-white liquid into coconut bowls attached to the bottom of the tree.

Bukit Lawang Orangutan with baby

Walking further into the jungle we came across a small group with cameras raised - we straight away realised we had come across our first orangutan. This one was with her baby, and apparently has a habit of trying to grab anyone that comes near her. One of the local guides walked around her to have the orangutan swing back and forth trying to grab him, no doubt a ‘do not try this at home’ stunt. Moving deeper into the jungle we passed peacocks, ants the size of my thumb, lizards, geckos, birds and plenty of small monkeys.

Mina, The Aggressive-One
Mina is one of the oldest and largest orangutans in the jungle, and has a habit of biting tourists that come near her.

It wasn’t long before we entered what Sopy described as ‘Mina territory’. Mina is one of the oldest and largest orangutans in the jungle, and has a habit of biting tourists that come near her. We hiked around slowly in absolute silence, as we came into a clearing and headed down a corridor where the trees and bushes were bent over. Like a scene from a horror movie, Mina emerged through the side of the bush. We locked eyes as she quickly began walking towards us with her baby clinging to her chest.

The tone of Sopy’s voice made clear that we had to move quickly. We ran back down through the clearing while Mina followed us, making our way to the bottom of the hill we had just hiked up. Mina stopped at the top. She held eye contact the whole time - it was fascinating as you could sense the intelligence and human-like emotion behind those big black eyes.

Orangutans, Bukit Lawang

Another guide, Axel, eventually enticed Mina away with bananas, allowing us to continue our walk. We stopped for lunch at a clearing further up. Sopy and Axel prepared nasi goring, a local fried rice dish. After lunch we hiked further through the jungle, passing various types of monkeys. We heard branches snapping above us at one point, and looked up to see two bright orange orangutans swinging through the trees; another fascinating sight.

Eventually we emerged from the rainforest, having seen four orangutans and countless other wildlife. Locals in rubber dinghies guided us on the short ride down river back to Junia Guest House.

Bukit Lawang town

We bought a round of beers for everyone while we sat on the guesthouse deck talking easily with the locals. They have very little material wealth, but are some of the nicest, most grateful people I have ever met.

George Bell is freelance writer & mental health blogger.

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Images: 1: attiarndt/Adobe; 2: Dan Nguyen/Flickr; 3, 6, 8: Rene Passet/Flickr; 4: Joe Coole/Flickr; 5: Banana Republic/Adobe; 7: Scott Rotzoll/Flickr; 9: Abdul Rahman/Flickr

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