From Yogyakarta, Java we flew to Medan, Sumatra. When we landed we had good first impressions, we were helped by some friendly locals to get us on the right bus to Binjai. However, once we got into the city itself on our way to Bukit Lawang, we were dropped off in an unusual looking side road. It was away from any other buses with a guy eagerly waiting with his tricycle saying that it would cost us 20,000 rupiah to get to the bus terminal. This was just confusing, as we knew it wasn’t far away. He exclaimed very firmly and quiet aggressively when challenged that it was 30-40 minutes away which we knew it wasn’t! He dropped us off where the mini-vans were stopping and it ended up only being a 5-minute drive. We then met a young local bus dealer who wanted us to pay a premium of 300,000 rupiah compared to the 30,00 rupiah we were supposed to pay on an already full mini-van! We tried to negotiate the price and immediately the bus dealer started to get aggressive and couldn’t care less whether we got on the bus or not. Jonny couldn’t help but get a little annoyed at this point after we tried to negotiate the price within reason. We looked on uber and found we could get a private car cheaper than the price given by the bus dealer and the seats would be more comfy and our bags would be inside. When our driver came and saw where we were standing he was a little bit anxious and we realised it was because of the intimidating bus gang. When he pulled over the members of the bus gang immediately surrounded his car and he gave them some money so he could pick us up. It was a shame to see this happening and that the local people were fearful of these local mafia who didn’t care who you were and knew you needed to get from A to B and pay regardless. Not a great experience and at this point we were a bit fed up of always being over charged, as we are foreigners and having to pay foreign prices. Now hear me out, I don’t want us to sound like we are ungrateful for what we have and not appreciate how easy we have it compared to many we have met in this country, but it doesn’t seem fair to be treated differently and dismissed for not wanting to pay 300,000 rupiah compared to the 30,000 it should have been! After our experience we had a look online and found that there is clearly a massive problem with the local bus mafia over charging tourists and travellers in the area.
There were rows after rows of palm oil trees making up huge plantations that were never ending it seemed! The roads were pretty rough and were mainly dirt roads with bits of tarmac and we couldn’t imagine what it would have been like in a rickety bus. We were told that the roads had been improved recently so we were lucky! The sun was starting to set and dark black clouds came rolling in. It was heavy tropical rain that just bounced off the ground and ran off onto the roads. The palm oil plantations acted as massive waterways for the huge amount of water and flooded the ground and road very quickly, which made it quite dangerous to drive in. At first it was very exciting to watch but also heart breaking to see what the palm oil plantations had done to the natural ecosystem and broken the natural water cycle. Our driver started to get a bit nervous as he kept falling into pot holes that you couldn’t see because parts of the road were flooded by the fast flowing brown muddy water. Our driver could also not speak English, which made things difficult when we were close to Bukit Lawang and were trying to find where we were staying with loud thunder and lightning making us jump every couple of minutes. In the end we stopped to ask a local for directions who was very helpful and we had to jump out into the pouring rain and walk down to our place, which felt like a real adventure! It was amazing just standing under the canopy of a local street shop watching the lighting and looking at the dramatic steep hills covered in tropical rainforest ahead of us. Arriving somewhere in the dark makes the morning all that more exciting and waking up to somewhere completely different from anything you imagined. The sound of the rushing water from the river meandering around the large steep hills felt like a dream!
We were a bit reluctant at first to get a guide into Bukit Lawang to Gunung Leuser National Park to see the orangutans as we were on a tight budget. We spoke to another traveller who had been to other places in Sumatra and did it himself and saw orangutans in the wild. In Gunung Leuser National Park there was previously a rehabilitation centre and feeding platform so that you could get up really close with orangutans but this has since changed (for the better) and there are still some that are semi-wild (used to humans). There is a semi-wild orangutan called Nina who is apparently quite aggressive. Our guide had been attacked by Nina and had a scar on his belly from where she lunged at him! It just goes to show how important it is to let animals be wild and let them be in their natural habitat.
After the rain from the previous couple of days we woke to a beautiful sunny day, which was perfect for trekking in the jungle to see orangutans. Apparently they don’t like rain and would hide making it difficult to spot them. Hannah had a bit of a sore knee and we were worried how it would react to some pretty tough hiking conditions. The jungle itself is on a mountain range and is very up and down mostly in the mud. We decided to just do a one day hike and we were very lucky with what we saw.
Not long after getting into the jungle we saw some Thomas monkeys who were very curious and came to say hi and pose for some photos. We also found a very poisonous snake that was slowly climbing a tree. It had a fairly large triangular head, which was a sign of how big its venomous fangs were. Not long after this we were treated to our first sighting of what we came to see, a female orangutan and her baby who was happily swinging in the trees above our heads. The little one was being fairly adventurous and swinging from tree to tree quite far from its mother who was relaxing before her baby came swinging back again. Jonny really wanted to see a large male, which are rare to see, as orangutans are solitary animals and one male will cover the range of several females. Our next sighting was a curious female who was showing off and coming close to the ground before showing us her acrobatic moves. We were then told that there had been a sighting of a large male just ahead, which we hurried to. We found him relaxing in a tree with his head on his forearms staring at us. One of the rules is that when near orangutans you don’t open your bag as they might think you are getting food out and they will end up just grabbing it and potentially you. A girl came around the corner and must have been reaching for her camera from her bag. The male orangutan saw this and moved incredibly quickly for his size towards her. It was scary but exciting as he was now very close to the ground. Luckily some guides managed to move the girl away before the orangutan could get within striking distance. He was magnificent and we were so happy we got to spend time watching these incredible animals in the jungle. We spent about 8 hours hiking in the jungle and were so lucky to see 8 orangutans in total, 3 babies, 4 females and 1 male. This was the highlight of visiting Sumatra. Luckily these rainforests are now protected but the pressure from Palm oil plantations to expand and the destruction of orangutan habitats, will most likely lead to their extinction.
It really brought to light the issues that these animals and many others are facing. We are passionate about conservation and the environment, it is important to be aware of how fragile our natural world around us is. If we don’t look after this earth that we all live on, it eventually will not be able to look after itself and all that live on it. Unfortunately for many orangutans in Sumatra their homes and lives are being destroyed and threatened from deforestation and poaching. Can you imagine your home being destroyed without any control over it?! The really sad thing is that Sumatran orangutans can’t cope with habitat loss and many of them get stressed and unfortunately die from this trauma thrust upon them. Despite the large scale deforestation happening to the jungles of Sumatra there are pockets of forest which are now protected ensuring the safety of many animals and allowing them to be wild.