The Wild(er) Side of Sumatra

Wild, rugged and adventurous are the words often used in the same breath with Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world. It is the place touted as the last sanctuary for wild orangutans. 
We found that the Northern half of Sumatra (Sumatera Utara) was certainly much less populated than Bali or Java, but not really that wild. Our first foray into wilderness was Bukit Lawang on Bohorok River. After a very long ride from the airport in Medan on very bumpy roads and a short walk through the village we got to our aptly named Hotel Orangutan’s beautiful room high up, overlooking the river and green trees. Wow, fantastic, but wait, where is the air con? Sorry, this was the best joint of all for $35! It does cool down in the night, they say. 
Waiting for the relief of the evening, sweating profusely, we decided to cross the river by one of the pedestrian suspension bridges. Something wild was awaiting us on the other side – no, not this monkey, but a wild human party, that ended in the wee hours of the morning. Turns out that the wilderness of Bukit Lawang is a popular party spot for the city rats from Medan. Or should I say lady rats? Hordes of women immediately descended upon us, wanting selfies and photos with us, but mostly with my delightfully obliging husband! Soon they dragged him onto the improvised dance area next to the picnic site where live music was playing. Wild dancing and hooting ensued, occasionally paused, so more ladies could take selfies with Mirek. 
I had a hard time extricating him from the crowd of adoring fans. Walking down the river we came to another bridge and crossed over for our return back to the guest house. 
“Don’t leave the door to the balcony open,” the staff warned us, “or our resident monkeys will steal whatever they can.” True, every morning and evening the cheeky monkeys came over, cavorting on our roof, climbing onto our balcony and looking in through our windows.

But it wasn’t those monkeys we were after. It was the big fuzzy orange orangutans. We were told in order to see them in the Gunung Leuser National Park one had to book an expensive hike with a guide. You could choose a camping overnight, a day hike or an early morning encounter. Lazy old farts that we are, we choose the easy way out.

We had two guides waiting for us at 7 am. They admitted to being a bit tired as they partied the whole night, but their enthusiasm was unabated.

“We will do our best to track down some orangutans for you,” they assured us. We crossed the river over the same bridge as the day before, but everything was blessedly quiet. We were the only people on the jungle trail going up into the National Park. It was green and steamy. We were sweaty and tried to keep up our enthusiasm, though our expectations were down around our ankles. Our guides kept reminding us that, of course, this was wildlife and we had to be lucky to find it. But they were the best in finding it. They took us up and down and around, stopping now and again, making orangutan sounds. At the highest point we took a break and had a variety of fruits: bananas, watermelons, mandarins cut up for a snack. We could only eat a few, so the rest were packed up and then one of them took us on a side track while the other went scouting. Soon we found ourselves back on the path we came up on.

Well, I guess we are going back, I thought to myself, and we found nothing.

Just then our guide said, “Hurry up, I think my friend found one!”

We scrambled up the slope and there in a small clearing was a young mama orangutan with a little baby, hanging off the tree. She looked us straight in the eye with her little one hanging on tightly. The baby orangutan was just the cutest little thing ever. Despite anticipating and looking forward to this encounter we were totally overtaken by surprise, intense feelings and joy!

She climbed down and tried to get close to the scout, but he jumped behind a bush. Then she slowly ambled back to her tree and climbed up, looking back at us. We could not tear our eyes from her. When she settled in the crook of a branch, we craned our necks to see the pair up in the canopy. The little one was practicing how to climb on his own, and we watched with batted breath, worrying he would slip. I could have stayed the whole day and watch them, but the guides suggested we go look for some more. As we walked down towards the river we started encountering the other people coming in with their guides. In an area close to the path there was a crowd of foreign tourists gathered with a few orangutans in the low branches. I could see a big bunch of banana skins on the ground by the tree. Officially there was no orangutan feeding in the park, but I realized it was our leftover fruit offered to our mama orangutan by the scout, that brought her down from the tree. After all, these were not really wild orangutans, they were the released orangutans from the former, now closed, rescue and rehabilitation center, and their offspring.

Still relishing our special personal encounter, we left the group and bypassed the local Indonesian tourists that were now waking up after their partying and heading in droves into the park. They had no guides and there was no one collecting park fees.

I have to give our guides credit for taking us in a different direction, where we were lucky to encounter some interesting primates. The funny black and white Thomas monkeys immediately got a nickname Punky Monkey because of their hairstyle. They also had babies and those are always fun to watch.It was the endangered white handed gibbons whose territory protecting calls we were hearing the whole morning that were even more exciting. When we finally saw them, we were suitably impressed. They are quick, nimble swingers and it is quite strange to see their white furry hands grasping the vines. Returning to our jungle outpost we agreed that after all, it was worth spending the money and generously supporting the local economy. We left the river to drive to the Karo villages of Berastagi through vegetable and coffee plantations on the Highlands, fed by the ashes of volcano Sinabung. It was very easy to see the proof of the devastating 2014 eruption down its sides. We enjoyed the sunset view, “enhanced” by numerous flower and wooden Instagram frames, popular with avid selfie takers. We skipped the sunrise volcano climb, pressing on to the Sipisopiso waterfall. One does get a bit jaded after seeing a lot of waterfalls traveling the world, many endowed with superlatives. But 120 m (400 feet) tall Sipisopiso (translated: Like a Knife) did not fail to impress. Unfortunately the effect was marred by the really badly maintained trail with huge amount of trash lying everywhere, despite the abundance of trashcans provided. As usual there were many, more or less dilapidated shacks selling bottled water and junky snacks and souvenirs, whose owners did not care to pick up the rubbish. As usual there was also a bunch of guys lolling about and demanding an entrance fee. I got so riled up that in my head I started writing letters to the Ministry of tourism. Little did I know that I will soon get to meet the honchos from the ministry in person.

But first let us visit the enormous and very deep Lake Toba. It is fitted by a few green islands, but Samosir is the inhabited one. To get to and from Samosir one has to contend with local ferries, running on unpredictable schedules and engines. The mesmerizing ever changing views and the play of light, water and clouds help you forget their unsafe track record. We lucked out with the choice of a wonderful, intelligent local driver with a wicked sense of humor, that we hired for the day. He quickly understood our interest in traditional villages and the roads less travelled and took us all over the island, showing us some special hidden treasures. This might not have been the tallest waterfall, but it was beautiful, for our eyes only and immaculately clean.If anything I am besotted with Asian rice fields and here we could see both, just recently harvested and newly planted, tended to by beautiful, friendly, hard working women. We also lucked out at our third Sumatra destination – Nias Island. David, the driver/guide/owner of our little Oseda Nias Surfhouse was originally from Lake Toba, but married a local Nianese woman. We quickly became friends and together explored the island. It always gives us a special pleasure to get the locals to take us to some places they haven’t been to and we so smartly managed to discover in some travel article or blog.

Nias has a specialized claim to fame amongst Australian surfers as one of the better locations to surf. While we are certainly no surfing experts we didn’t find the Sorake surf particularly exciting, especially compared with Australian beaches and their enormous waves. We figured it must be the extreme affordability of guest houses and the constant warm weather.

We were really taken aback with the lack of sand on Sorake beach. We were told the latest earthquake with tsunami pushed up the coral. But there is another reason sand is disappearing from many Nias beaches. It is indiscriminate digging and bagging of beach sand for construction purposes. Mirek was quite horrified, not only by the disappearance of beaches, but also by the fact that sea salt infused sand is unsafe for construction. Our David and his other guest houses owning friends were very upset about all this and even more so with the the lack of concern and action from the government.

Well, here I got my chance to step in and shoot off my big mouth. Knowing my keen interest in all things traditional one early morning David told me he heard there would be a special dance performance for some visiting dignitaries at a small hotel nearby. Of course we headed right over and after taking some wonderful pictures of the dancing students (shared in the previous blog) and listening to some long boring speeches and watching the photo op for all the big shots (the regional assembly rep and his wife, plus Indonesia Tourism ministry rep from Jakarta) I asked for an introduction. Seeing that I was the only western person far and wide I was granted an audience. After expressing my undying admiration and love for the beautiful Indonesia I then gave them my list of grievances. I brought to their attention in particular the sand stealing and the safety issues in construction and suggested they constitute large financial penalties for the act and make beach restoration their priority and legacy, if they want to see any foreign tourism. With the elections right around the corner, my words might or might not have had any impact. Nevertheless I was treated to an official portrait with the big wigs, but more importantly earned undying admiration of David and his island friends.

To show us what a truly beautiful Nias beach looks like he drove us over an hour away for a sunset on Moale Beach. Why has nobody developed such a spectacular sandy beach? Ah, an investor did buy the beach front property, but failed to investigate the sea conditions. There was such dangerous undertows that plans for development had to be abandoned, so the beach remains pristine. Unfortunately even here we encountered some local boys digging the sand and stuffing it onto sandbags and transporting it away on motorbikes. How sad! We bid a fond goodbye to the wild Sumatra, knowing that we only saw a small part. Indonesia as a whole is inexhaustible source of travel discoveries and the list of places we want to see keeps on growing.

10 thoughts on “The Wild(er) Side of Sumatra

  1. As always, your photography is amazing!!! Spectacular!!! Are you just using your cell phone??? Unbelievable!!! And Merik…. great sport being the party animal and photo op!!!! Safe travels!


  2. I am so profoundly proud of you for taking a stance and letting them HEAR you. I can just visualize now. I just wish I could have stood next to you and offered my 2 cents 😘
    Love all your posts and especially your vivid details you both provide
    Stay safe and know we are with you and Mirek in spirit.
    Our Love,
    Cindy and Family


  3. How lucky that you got to see not only so many adult monkeys but also their babies!

    Crazy about the sand being taken off the beach. I never thought a beach could run out of sand!

    I love this last pic of the airline propeller overlooking the river lands – beautiful!



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