A trip to the jungles of Northern Sumatra brings travellers in touch with the men of the forest.
Our guide Ricky, the Indonesian version of a Rastafarian with dense knots of hair reaching down to his lower back, hushes in the direction of the jungle: “Please hold still. Don’t move.”
His quirky style would be reason for a collective raise of eyebrows in most places. But here in the depths of Gunung Leuser National Park’s thicket, what’s happening before us is far more unusual.
My girlfriend, a petite Malaysian Chinese who dared step a bit too close for the sake of a picture-perfect moment, is crouching next to an orangutan twice her size. The primate hovers in mid-air, three limbs clutching a web of rattan lianas, his right hand held around her left thigh. His facial expression remains unchanged besides the intermittent flinch of his black lips.
“Fantastic, don’t move” – Ricky’s voice sounds as calm as the surface of a swimming pool on closing day, but we can all surmise that he’s hoping for this to end without a fractured femur. The air remains dense with anticipation until the bemused monkey releases his catch and slowly lifts his arm back up into the vegetation. My girlfriend remains still for a few long moments, and it’s only when the orangutan takes his gaze off her that she slowly retraces towards our group, moving away as swiftly as she can. Indeed, these are beautiful creatures; but they can also tear a human limb apart very easily. Don’t get me started on the bites.
“Who’s up next for pictures?” Ricky asks, smiling. In our group of six, some fiddle with their cameras, but no one dares step forward.
I know. It’s completely silly to get that close to orangutans in the wild. But it’s also true that besides Bukit Lawang in Northern Sumatra, Indonesia, there are very few other places in the world where one can get up close and personal with the semi-wild men of the forest. And that’s exactly why we decided to visit and hire guides to trek into the park, an experience that rewards those who want to rough it for a night in the jungle with incredible encounters.
Situated 86km northeast of busy Medan, the village of Bukit Lawang has been home to Swiss-managed and WWF-funded Bohorok Rehabilitation Centre since 1973. Foreign funding stopped in 1980 when the Indonesian Government took over and by 1996 the centre stopped admitting orangutans as it no longer met the standards of species re-introduction.
Besides deforestation and lack of resources, the orangutans continued to attract tourists and provide vital lymph to the village until a flood tore it down to its foundations on November 2, 2003. Bukit Lawang was re-built by foreign aid in 2004. Today, the new village is a stitched-up collection of thatched huts and concrete guesthouses lined at the two sides of the Bohorok river. The swinging bridges that connect the two embankments give the place an eerie atmosphere, as if someone had taken out the batteries from its wall clock and pushed its hands back in time.
The day before, we arrived on a bemo – standard Indonesian ramshackle mini-van – and lodged at a simple guesthouse. We came all this way to see the orangutans, but didn’t want to do so artificially from a feeding platform. We didn’t have to wait long before Ricky approached with a broad smile and a swing of his long, curvy hair: “Please give me some business, or I’ll have to go back to work at the rubber plantation.”
We couldn’t refuse such an utterly honest pick-up line so, the next morning, Ricky and two other guides lead us and four other travellers through a rubber estate and deep into the jungle. Less than two hours into our morning slog, we have our first encounter. Perched in the midst of lianas which tickle their way down to the ground, our first sample of orange-colored fur doesn’t panic as we surround it. Observing the animal’s relaxed movements is mesmerising; but when it reaches out and grabs my girlfriend’s leg, everyone’s hairs raise.
After the monkey lets go, we continue deeper into the jungle on our way to the lunch stop, and the canopy ahead of us starts rumbling. Ricky and his friends hold us back.
“It’s Mina. She’s got quite a temper as she recently delivered her baby,” Ricky says. “Just stay back and still.”
He barely has time to finish speaking before the canopy shakes apart and a big orangutan rushes toward us. Its grin is filled with a mouthful of angry teeth; clinging under its armpit, a baby scans the scene with awkward curiosity. Mina stops a few metres ahead of us and a thunder rumbles inside her ample chest. It’s only when Ricky takes out a bunch of fruit and offers it to her that she retires back into the thicket: she’s appeased with our token, and we are free to move on.
By the time we reach our campsite next to the riverbed, we get to know that besides orangutans, the jungle wriggles with black gibbons, black leaf monkeys and a few emerald-coloured snakes we take care not to touch. In the pitch-black darkness that follows a glorious sunset, the sound of the nearby river and the hoot of monkeys fill the night with jungle awe. We gather round a fireplace as our guides serve dinner: once they take out the guitars, it’s a mix of reggae and canopy clatter that drift us into sleep, as it’s pitch-black outside our tent and nobody wants to risk coming face to face with an orangutan in the dark.
The final surprise comes in the early morning: as we wake up and reach for the river for our ablutions, we notice that something is waiting next to the campfire’s remains. I can’t help but laugh when I see a smaller orangutan pour liquid from a condensed milk can into its mouth. It looks exactly as if it were a human sipping the last water drops from a cup.
“You are very lucky today… this is Jackie,” Ricky explains as he tries to catch the monkey’s attention. Like two friends who haven’t hung out in a while, man and beast cross gazes until the latter drops her makeshift cup and comes closer to our encampment.
The other guides, toasting some bread over the fire, quickly reach for the food supplies and stash them out of orangutan reach.
But Jackie seems more amused by men than food and comes very close, her steps slow and her eyes timidly fixed on the ground before her. It seems like she’s silently asking to be allowed to sit among us humans. We take turns to stand inches from her and admire her closely as shutters flicker madly.
It’s time head back – via the river. Sitting inside inflated tractor tubes, we float all the way back to Bukit Lawang until we stop at a bay nestled below the swinging bridges.
“Come back again soon,” says Ricky as he collects the tubes and puts them on a canoe, preparing to tackle an upriver trip. As the sputter of his boat’s engine fades behind the furthest river bend, I wonder if his next batch of tourists will be as lucky as us, or if it’s all part of the business deal he sealed with the men of the jungle.
By Marco Ferrarese