Orangutans are the worlds largest living arboreal animal and can only be found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, Indonesia. These two islands have been logged extensively which has endangered the orangutan population.
The North of Sumatra has seen less logging and palm oil/rubber plantation development thus has a the largest orangutan population in Sumatra.
One of the best places to see the Sumatran Orangutan is in Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra. This little jungle village made the news in November 2003 when a flash flood swept though the town, killing 280 people. Today the town has recovered its tourism facilities and is welcoming back visitors.
The guesthouses where tourists stay is upriver from the town itself and has a footbridge and new embankments along the river along with basic tourist amenities.
Visitors can see the orangutans by visitng the rehabiliation centre or by trekking in the jungle to see them in the wild.
While most people come here to go for a trek to see the orangutan in the wild, visiting the rehabilitation centre will at least guarantee that you will see an orangutan on your visit to Bukit Lawang.
[Orangutan Drinking Milk]
The rehabilitation centre is part of the Gunung Leuser National Park. The orangutans are fed twice a day which is when you can see them. They are fed a simple diet of bananas and milk, which encourages them to eventually go into the wild to look for more diverse foods.
[Orangutan with bananas]
[Thomas Leaf Monkey]
Treks to the jungle range from 3 hours to 3 days and must be done with an official guide. I took a 3 hour trek because, while I love walking, I’m not a sleep in the jungle kind of guy. I was told their was no guarantee of seeing a wild Orangutan on the trek, but luckily we saw one in our first hour of walking.
The guides are locals who love their home that is the jungle. Our guide for the day is probably the coolest looking guy in Bukit Lawang. With his tattoos, long hair and jewellery he looks more like a rock star from Jakarta than a jungle man from Northern Sumatra.
[Gunung Leuser National Park Tour Guide]
What I loved about him most was his trekking gear. You see the western trekkers on these tours in their North Face/Colombia boots and pants developed by NASA that wick away sweat, and here was our guide in shorts, singlet and no shoes! At one point he stopped and showed us his bloody toe. He said with pride that a leech and been and gone.
At one point someone commented on the density of the forest, to which the guide replied in song: “You know where you are?”
No one else seemed to know the words, so I replied: “you’re in the jungle baby”.
I refrained from finishing the sentence: “you’re gonna die”. This of course is from Welcome to the Jungle by Guns N’ Roses.
Guides often bring an apprentice with them as well. In this case his brother. They bring a bag of fruit for the trek break and learn the ways of the guide along the way.
[Guide and brother]
Tourists as a tourist attraction
Returning from a jungle trek in Bukit Lawang our tour party passed a family swimming in the nearby river. The family saw us and ran up to us to say hello. They all wanted photos with us, which they used their mobile phones to take pictures of us with them.
[Tourist Attraction Tourists]
I asked for my picture as well. At the last minute the dad thought it would be a good idea if I held the young daughter, and he put her in my hands just before the photo was taken. As you can see I am not versed in the ways of holding children. I more look like I am holding a prize chicken at the royal show.
Our Indonesian tour guide told us that the family were from a town that doesn’t see any tourists, so we were something of a novelty.
Getting to Bukit Lawang
Bukit Lawang is four hours north of Medan, the biggest city in Sumatra. Medan airport has connections to cities across Indonesia and Southeast Asia. It’s also possible to ge to Medan by ferry from Penang in Malaysia.