Meeting the Forest People – Sumatra’s Orangu-tans

In today’s blog we find ourselves in Bukit Lawang, a small village 60 km away from Indonesia’s city of Medan. Located on the edges of the Bahorok River in North Sumatra, Bukit Lawang is home to the Gunung Leuser National Park and is where you will find the beautiful Forest People – commonly known as orang-utans.

There are 14,000 Sumatran Orangutans living in the rainforest just above this small village, and in April 2019 I had the absolute pleasure and honour of visiting this place, and seeing these majestic creatures firsthand.

Before starting out on the trek, it was necessary to travel from Medan to Bukit Lawang. Let me tell you, it was not a smooth ride. Four hours of potholes and intense humidity ensued, all experienced whilst packed into a somewhat battered people carrier. But it’s all character building stuff and it isn’t something I will forget – with a friendly driver, interesting travellers to chat to and endless sights out of the dusty windows to witness, I was always engaged.

Upon arriving in Bukit Lawang, the Bahorok River was a captivating sight. The water roared through the centre of the small, rural village and colourful guesthouses and hotels adorned the banks, whilst little children played and shouted in the shallows. It was a sensory overload in the best possible way.

After a night’s sleep in a local guesthouse (where I was serenaded by the owner and his friends dulcet tones over dinner) I awoke and set out with my tour group. Tour guides Jo-Jo and Anton were keen to say that even though groups often do see many orang-utans, there have been times where none appear and because they are wild animals this is just the way it is.

Their warnings made my stomach sink, however it wasn’t long before the first sighting. As I hiked up the first hill on route into the National Park, reclined in the trees ahead of us were two beautiful orang-utans. Eating and relaxing, they nonchalantly looked down on us and I had my first glimpse of these incredible creatures. Sharing 97% of their DNA sequence with humans, orang-utans are our closest living relative and their intelligence and beauty was plain to see from this first meeting.

It wasn’t long before we saw more. The second encounter is perhaps the most memorable for me and will stay in my heart forever. My group and I trekked a little while longer, further down into the national park; traversing a narrow path. I was looking from side to side in the hope of seeing something special , when all of a sudden, high up in the canopies a mother orang-utan swung down into view. Gripping on fiercely to her mother’s shaggy orange fur, as they swung from tree to tree up and over our heads, was a tiny, tiny baby. With a gasp escaping from my mouth and my eyes fixed on them as they moved gracefully above my head, I was inspired, overwhelmed and tearful all at once. They took my breath away. Perfect in every way.

As the mum stopped to eat something from a nearby tree we were able to see the baby more clearly. Gangly, shaggy fur and huge eyes – beautiful. From there the pair swung across the walkway above us and deftly used surrounding vines and trees to cover large distances in a few swings. They quickly disappeared out of view; with a rustle and a grab – they were gone.

Wow! If those had been the last orang-utans that had appeared I would have been content. I had been in the presence of greatness in that moment and had witnessed something so precious that I remained in awe the whole two days I was in the rainforest. After witnessing this incredible pair and having been moved to tears I was promptly moved to laughter as I turned around and was greeted by an incredibly characterful Thomas Leaf Monkey. Perched behind the group casually and loftily, he had propped himself up on a nearby tree and was surveying us.

I had never seen such a cheeky creature! The way in which he had just appeared when everyone was transfixed by the mum and baby really amused me.

Later on that same day we took a break to eat and our tour guides made us some lovely fresh food to tuck into. However, we had visitors who also wanted to partake in the feast, in the form of a pigtailed macaque monkey and a gibbon. The tour guides warned them off with a stick but the macaque was harder to scare away. Keen to get involved with our lunch and outraged that he wasn’t allowed he ran half way up a tree and pummelled the trunk with his feet defiantly. Known as the mafia of the monkey world macaques are definitely intimidating and so there was a sigh of relief when it exited our vicinity and we could continue with our meal in peace.

I had plenty of run-ins with macaques during my year of travel – one encounter in a national park in Thailand sticks out particularly, which involved a very brave young chap running into a café and retrieving a Magnum ice cream from my hand just before I placed it into my open mouth!

After the excitement of the first day’s trekking came to a close the guides lead me and my tour group to our night’s shelter. A rudimentary hut with multiple tents within was to be where we would lay our heads for the night, but not before a refreshing dip in the Bahorok River and a filling, freshly cooked meal by the lovely guides, followed by some games.

Sleeping in the middle of the rainforest was an exhilarating experience. Although I was alert and didn’t really sleep, upon rising in the morning I still remained energetic, excited about the day ahead and grateful to be in the presence of the beauty of Nature. It is a place so very alive, it hums and buzzes and squawks and rushes all around you. I felt invigorated just to be within it, irrespective of the testing elements.

The second and final day’s trek was another awe-inspiring day. Our tour guide changed our route as he told us that he thought he had heard the call of a male in a different direction and so the day was spent following the calls. And my my, I was not disappointed!

Today was the day I would see not one, but TWO male orang-utans. One of which was a young male, beautifully coy and so incredibly human like in the way he looked down to the ground from his perch. Nestled in amongst the dense greenery his eyes found us, quickly perused the group and then rushed heaven-wards as if to pretend he hadn’t noticed us.

The guide told me he wasn’t the alpha male and was a young solitary male and so the alpha wouldn’t be far away. Witnessing said alpha male was an incredible and much more intimidating experience than this young chap. With a rustle and a deftness that was surprising considering his sheer bulk and height, he swung out from the centre of the trees above where we were standing and stepped onto a tree trunk a few metres in front of the group. I was breathtaken by his size, power and agility.

Clearly not impressed we were in his space and ready to assert his authority he leant across to a rotting tree to the left and started to wrench it in two. The tour guide said quietly but firmly, RUN RUN, and we ran as fast as we could, just as the alpha snapped the tree in half and threw it in our direction, missing us by just a couple of feet. Landing with a cacophonous thud nearby it was a real reminder that this is the orang-utans domain and they rule here.

Having escaped in one piece, just about, myself and my group began our descent out of the National Park and down towards the river. Waiting for us on the banks was a special mode of transport to allow us to rest our weary feet and to whizz us back to the guesthouse in a minimal amount of time – a tyre raft!

Hopping aboard and zooming down the rapids was incredibly exhilarating and cooling. A beautiful way to complete my experience!

Visiting Bukit Lawang and coming face to face with the People of the Forest was such an incredible gift. I can’t entirely put into words the way these animals captured my heart and reignited something in my soul. I will always be grateful for this experience and hope that in spite of being critically endangered these animals will thrive in their habitat, where they belong, for as long as possible.

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