Our plane arrived in Medan, Sumatra 30min late. We headed to the toilet (“Wait, so the bucket and the…” “Yep, it’s a squat toilet. And no toilet paper.” “This is an airport; I’m sure there will be toilet paper.” “This is Indonesia. I doubt we will find it in any bathrooms the rest of our journey. Or hand soap. Bring your sanitizer.”) and then outside into a crush of people, where I heard a man say, “Sara? Jungle Eddie.”
“Jungle Eddie! I’m so excited to meet you.”
He nodded and walked away, a stalky, silent man. I wondered what my friend Marnie had been so excited about in this guide…
Once we got in the car, the man handed me his phone with Jungle Eddie on it. “Sara! You made it. Are you hungry?” Ahhh no wonder this guy had seemed both confused and disinterred. The driver took us for Indian in Medan (I had been missing quality, inexpensive Indian food in Bali), which we got as take-away, since we had another 2+hrs in the car to Bukit Lawang. Eating Indian food in the car without plates is tricky, but we managed to devour mutton masala, chicken samosas and palak paneer without spills.
Our driver kept trying to get gas, but everywhere we went the attendants would shake their heads and send us off. At the 8th stop, he started explaining desperately that we needed to get to Bukit Lawang, but with no luck. He even stopped at a roadside vendor who kept gas in clear liquor bottles, but they were out. At our 13th gas station, there was a huge crowd lined up for gas, men and women pushing motorbikes or holding empty cans. Finally, we were able to get fuel.
12:30am we arrived in Bukit Lawang. Jungle Eddie, a serious, solidly muscle Indonesian man greeted us, leading us to our second floor hotel room with a fan. As is mostly true of Indonesia, there were no sheets on the bed, no towels, no hand or body soap, no hot water, no toilet paper, no flush handle on the toilet but instead a bucket. There was a fan, which was a treat. “See you at 8am.”
At 7:30 we rose to pack for our trek and watch the river race past our balcony.
Jungle Eddie met us downstairs and talked us through the trek preparations. 2 days. Tubing to get back. Bring water. And he needed to leave in the afternoon to attend a wedding, so we would continue with his friend.
After a breakfast of fried rice, we started walking from behind the restaurant up into the mountains.
First we hiked through a rubber plantation, which provided a buffer zone between Taman Nasional Gunung Leuser and Bukit Lawang. The buckets on the rubber taps were emptied 3-4x a week from each tree and sold in town to men with rubber factories.
There was a large information board to demarcate the dividing line between the rainforest and the plantation, and then we were hiking up and in. First we rounded a corner and saw a troop of funky monkeys with adorable mohawks. Then up in the trees, the brown bodies of gibbons were just visible in the emergent layer.
Then we saw our first orangutan, a seven-year-old female in her nest high above the forest floor. She got out briefly to snag more branches and then lowered herself back into her nest away from view.
There was a group of maybe 20 tourists attempting to snap pictures and watching the nest intensely while our guides squatted and smoked cigarettes together. When we had had our fill, we grabbed Jungle Eddie and continued our journey, stumbling upon another group whose guide was feeding an orangutan pineapple. Both Jungle Eddie and the guidebook espoused the importance of not feeding the orangutans, yet here was a guide doing just that. We were able to get really close to this one, watching it swing through the branches, beneficiaries of a broken system.
We joined this new group to share snack: fresh pineapple and delicious bananas whose remains were left in a pile on the forest floor. Jungle Eddie explained to all those gathered, “I see these new things—these newspapers but with the…”
“Ink?” a Dutch guy offered.
“I think he means an ipad,” corrected a girl from Hong Kong.
“The ipad—this very good. Then you don’t need to go to forest to cut down trees. If you can afford it, buy an ipad.” At this point he started laughing hysterically, “I should tell the companies that idea. ‘Jungle Eddie says Save Trees—Buy an ipad.’ I could be rich!
You are all superheroes. By being here with us, you not only support us, but money goes to pay for the national park, too. You are helping save the trees, so you are all fucking superheroes!”
At this point, Jungle Eddie headed back for his wedding, and we continued with this new group on a more arduous trek to get to Mina’s domain. Mina is a large orangutan famous for being aggressive, having attacked a number of people. When we found her, the guides immediately approached with fruit to supplicate her. There were three other orangutans up playing in the trees behind her.
Our last orangutan spotting was a pregnant female with her five-year-old. The momma watched us quietly while her little one swung from far off to come join mother. When he tried to come closer, curious about us, mom pulled her baby back.
We stopped for lunch of nasi goreng (fried rice with eggs and veggies) wrapped in a banana leaf. At this point, another group passed, with a ten-year-old girl wearing a leaf crown proudly leading the way.
The next round of hiking was extremely arduous. Intense uphill stints followed by slicker downhill plunges.
The final leg actually required us to carefully lower ourselves down a rock ledge on a waterfall before we arrived at our camp. Tarps had been set up to make a sleeping space and a kitchen with three gas burners. Four-foot monitor lizards patrolled the river while long-tailed macaques flitted about in the trees overhead.
We rang our shirts of sweat, and it poured off as if they’ve just been washed. We went to play under the waterfall and sit in the cold river water while dinner was prepared. It was sweet relief after the hot, exhausting hike.
It is amazing how cards create connection and build community. As soon as all of us were sitting down playing 3 man and 7 diamonds, teasing and laughter and comfortability ensued.
Dinner was delicious veggie curry, curried chicken and a spicy tempeh/tofu dish. Fireflies emerged. One of the cooks showed us matchstick tricks—brain twisters which made him laugh in delight when they couldn’t be solved. Late at night, the nearly full moon emerged from a canopy of trees, illuminating the forest. Sleep was tumultuous. The thin mat on the hard earth required me to wake every hour to turn acheily to the other side.
In the morning, the long-tailed macaque were more aggressively approaching camp. They sat on our “drying” clothes strung on a line (a rain during the night having left everything more wet than the day before), creeping towards our breakfast of tea, biscuits and a veggie omelet between two pieces of disgustingly-sweet white bread, finally successfully stealing our sugar bowl and devouring it. When they approached and we tried to scare them off, they would bare their teeth and hiss. David returned the posture, effectively squashing their bravado, but I was surprised to find myself terrified of those bared teeth (all the diseases swirling in my head that had been transmitted from monkeys to man).
Most of the last mile or so to camp we descended by sliding over the slick, muddy ground on our butts. In the morning, we had to ascend it again.
It was steep, slippery, dirty journey and my legs were sore from the day before. We reached the top of this mountain and there was a nice, flat stretch where we could look down at the forest canopy extended out as far as the eye could see. An eagle soared below.
The final stretch of the hike is crazy-rainforest-trekking at its extreme. The descent required us to use vines like ropes to slowly walk ourselves down. Or cling to tree roots while lowering ourselves from ledge to ledge. It was exhausting and exhilarating; I felt like Indiana Jones.
We arrived at the river and collapsed totally soaked in sweat and mud. Here the river was wide and fast. There was a massive, 10ft high boulder perched along its edge which a couple guys jumped off, crawling out on the fallen tree perched across the top to cannonball into the water below. It was cold and refreshing. I jumped in wearing only a sports brae and shorts. The girl from Hong Kong looked me over and asked, “Do you think that’s okay? I don’t want to be offensive.” I realized that being so removed from cities and mosques, I hadn’t even considered that I was in a very Islamic part of the Indonesia. The guides were working to lash intertubes together and prepare lunch, seemingly not noticing me. As soon as I was done with my swim, I threw on a shirt.
We had mie goreng (fried noodles with veggies) for lunch and then jumped into the intertubes that have been secured together to “raft” back. Our guide with a big, beautiful, afro who smoked weed the entire journey and mostly refused to talk to any of us except to show us the quinine plant, which we each tasted (extremely bitter), is the lead paddler for this leg of the journey, using a bamboo pole wedged against rocks to help navigate the class two rapids. It’s funny rafting in Indonesia; in the States and Argentina, the guides moved with the clear purpose of trying to avoid rocks, but here there is apparently no equivalent desire, so a lot of time is spent pinballing against rock walls. There were beautiful views of deep, thick rainforest accentuated by flowering trees and massive ferns in all directions.
Our other guide, a kind-hearted guy with a huge smile and only a little English, started singing (to the tune of Jingle Bells) “Jungle trek, jungle trek in Bukit Lawang. See the monkeys, see the birds, see the orangutans! Hey!” We all sang along as we paddled into Bukit Lawang, suddenly back in the thick of it with hundreds of families on the banks of the river enjoying their Sunday.
*Many thanks to David Blatt for all these photos!