Bukit Lawang and the rangtans

I arrived in Medan at around 2pm on a hot weekday. I was picked up from the airport and taken on a 4 hour and 15 minute ride all the way to Bukit Lawang. As you leave the crazy city of Medan with its car horns, speeding motorbikes and daredevil jaywalkers, you start realizing the amount of jungle North Sumatra has. Or rather, used to have.Miles before you arrive in Bukit Lawang, the last stronghold of the Sumatran orangutans, on both sides of the road you can see palm trees that extend far beyond the horizon. The greed of humans and the blatant disregard for our planet or other species turn this place into a dark and morbid sight, because you know behind all these trees lies the palm oil industry and the destruction of a large part of the rainforest.Where before you could see jungle and rubber trees, now you see only blue marked palm trees. On the way to and from Medan you can also see trucks and trucks loaded with the heart of the palm trees, from which the oil is extracted. It really breaks your heart.

A few miles away, the scenery slowly begins to show a little more green, smaller leaves and intertwined roots. You are approaching Bukit Lawang. This small, sleepy town lives mostly off the tourism the orangutan treks bring. They know they have to protect these animals in order to maintain their own way of life. Maybe that’s why usually the tour guides that are originally from Bukit Lawang never leave food behind in the jungle, even if it might feed animals – because they know that interferes with their feeding habit, and may even affect their behavior for life. This has happened with a couple of orangutans who grew up in the rehabilitation center, surrounded by humans, and although they have been put back in the wild and are thriving (they have even bred in the wild); guides will call out to them using specific sounds and they will show up expecting food. One of these innocent-looking females is out for blood, Mina has bitten or fought every single tour guide at one point or another.

Everyone talks about this, and every single post and comment I have read online mentions: THE FOOD!! The fruit in Indonesia is amazing, there is no going around that. Then again, I’m a big fan of tropical fruit, so of course I would think that!But even the lunch that gets taken on a ride through the forest with your guide, is amazing. Locally made, locally cooked, the nasi goreng with chicken, veggies and the traditional chips really hit the spot when we sat down to eat.

The first few monkeys I saw were the long-tailed sort, and it happened while I was sitting in the jungle waiting for my guide, who was looking for orangutans less than a 10-minute walk away. A whole family of long-tailed monkeys showed up and walked all around me, not minding me but wary of my presence. It was amazing, especially since many of the females had babies hanging on to them.

Next, I was greeted by the tell-tale call of the gibbons. I could hear a couple of them, but it took a little longer to find them. Finally, up in a tree, I was able to make out their white faces and hands and enjoyed watching them scavenge for food. As we walked around the forest, I could tell my guide was getting a little nervous that we had yet to see orangutans, and I reminded him that the jungle would show us what it wanted to, not what we wanted. After a few minutes, we finally ran into a couple of semi-wild orangutans. Seeing them in the wild was truly amazing, and in their faces you can tell that the link between us (we share 96% of the same DNA) is very intense. Their gaze penetrates you, as if they can tell what you are thinking. To know what we as humans have done to their habitat and that they are on a very real road to extinction, is a very eye-opening thought as you stare into their eyes.

Tips:

  • Look for local guides, who will take care of the jungle environment and not feed the animals, unless absolutely necessary
  • If you have the time, stay for a couple of days and walk around the town, talk to locals
  • Getting there takes a while, it is quite a journey, so take an extra day (or at least a night) to settle in.

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