I’m getting behind on blog… so much to write about. We’ll get back to Aceh soon, but now I’m backtracking to writing about Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra, where I went searching for Sumatran orangutans in the wild.
It’s easy to arrange a hike in Bukit Lawang… people start trying to coerce you into one the minute you arrive in the little jungle town because its one of the main ways for locals to make money. Everyone who comes to Bukit Lawang comes for one reason alone — to see orangutans. Anything else, like the relaxed charms of the little place, are just a bonus.
There’s two ways to spot orangutans in the Gunung Leuser National Park, which the town is surrounded by. An orangutan feeding centre (with a viewing platform) gives meals of banana and milk twice a day to help semi-wild rehabilitated orangutans if they are having trouble finding food, or you can go on a hike and see them in the wild.
When I visited (only a week or so ago), everyone was saying there wasn’t much action at the feeding centre, because at this time of year, there was a lot of fruit in the jungle for the orangutans so they didn’t need any help. I’d been delayed in Medan for two days by a really nasty flu and was only just regaining my strength, so even though I wanted to go on a full day hike, I decided to just try a three hour hike and hope to see some.
It was so hot in Bukit Lawang and the jungle was super thick and humid. I would say its the hottest place I’ve been so far in Indonesia, it that was bad. The track was hard and steep. After only half an hour, I looked like I had taken a bath in my clothes, they were just drenched in sweat. I had my pants tucked into my socks to avoid leeches and stank like sweat and DEET. Not pretty! My legs were holding up OK, but it was the heat that was killing me.
But my guide and I pressed on. We saw several Thomas Leaf Monkeys, which are unique to Sumatra, a freaky spider and trillions of huge ants… and lots of leafy thick old growth jungle with super tall trees. Then another guide further up the track called out… and off we went at speed, scrambling over tree roots, getting brushed by sticks and prickly plants and then…
Our first glimpse of an orangutan! They were up very high in the trees… I had to use my 300mm cheap zoom lens to capture them and the pictures aren’t great… the jungle was thick, so hence dark, and the orangutans had a habit of posing in spots with a strong backlight which was not helping the situation! So pics are not great I’m afraid.
But we were lucky… there was a mother and baby as well as an adult male in the area, which is unusual as orangutans don’t hang out in families or groups… there must have been some good food around there… then another female appeared and she and the male disappeared up the top of a very tall tree… we couldn’t see anything really except shaking leaves.
‘They make love,” said a deadpan guide.
“Really? Go endangered species, reproduce, reproduce!!” I responded. I felt like bringing a sign to cheer them on.
We followed the orangutans around and watched them for a while. They stayed up high in the trees the whole time, doing their own thing, but that actually made me happy — it was good to know that they weren’t becoming reliant on begging food from tourists or anything and weren’t disturbed by our presence, despite some of the guides making all sorts of orangutan noises to try and encourage them to come down.
We’d already been out in the jungle for more than three hours, and still had a fair hike back to town, so then we left. I wanted to see more, but my hands were literally shaking… my body really did not enjoy the heat. I was not the only one fading… a guide had pulled out emergency Pocari Sweat to help a girl on the day hike group we had run into.
But it was cool to see them in the wild and worth the disgusting sweatyness (I could literally wring sweat out of my shirt when I got back. SO DISGUSTING!). On the way back to Medan later that afternoon, the rows and rows and rows of palm oil and rubber plantations made it pretty clear why these amazing creatures are so threatened.
Enough talking! More orangutan pics:
Nom nom! Young tree bark is a favourite snack of orangutans… they don’t drink a lot of water, but can get liquid from the young bark and leaves.
A mother and baby. The babies stay with their mothers until they are 6 or 7 years old, then they strike out as independent apes. This is one of the reasons why orangutans reproduce so slowly. People visiting the park have to be careful because the young orangutans can catch human diseases. If the babies get sick and weak, they can lose grip of their mother and fall from the trees. One of the guides told me a sad story. The orangutan mothers love their babies so much, that if the babies die, they throw them over their shoulders and keep carrying them as if they are alive. They often stop and howl and try to shake the baby awake again. They will sometimes carry around the carcass of the baby until it starts to decompose and limbs fall off 🙁
Mmm. More bark.
Leaves! Another tasty treat! Did you know orangutans mostly eat a vegetarian diet?