Butic Luwang is located in Northern Sumatra, in a jungle clad valley with a raging river running through it. One side of the river is a very idyllic town, on the other side Genung Leuser National Park. The main part of town juts backwards into the forest, but along the river there is a nice trail with numerous guest houses and bungalows. We stayed at the Garden Inn, a lovely spot near the end of the path, with an outdoor restaurant and many multi-level bungalows with verandas. I spent many an hour swinging in my hammock watching nature do its’ thing. Most of the people who live in town work in the rubber and palm oil plantations, but around twenty percent earn their money from tourism. It’s a little ironic, palm oil and rubber plantations are one of the main causes of deforestation, but there is a truce here, where so much money comes in from tourists wanting to see the national park and it’s animals.
The guide problems never end over here, and if they really want tourists to be happy, and not stressed, they need a better system. After choosing Adie as our guide, I had not less than three people come up to me telling me that he was a bad guide, that he often subcontracts out the work, and that he is fat. Now, compared to me, that’s like calling the kettle black. People, it’s a done deal, the money has been exchanged. This was a major dream of mine to come out to the jungle and see animals like the Orangutan in the wild my whole life. You are just leaving a potential future reference pissed off and annoyed. End of story.
My slight sore throat developed into a full-blown flu with fevers, aches, wrenching coughs, and all the other symptoms that make life exciting. So based on my doctor’s advice, (Yvonne) I started on an antibiotic regiment hoping to beat this before it got worse. We were set to leave the next morning and I was worse, and Yvonne got a touch of something so she was puking also. So we felt we had no choice but to cancel. Adie was semi-understanding, considering we really gave him no warning. He charged us for lunch and scheduled for the next day. He probably thought we had too many Bintangs, but that was not the case. I spent the rest of the day sleeping in the hammock.
At some point I switched to the bed. I don’t know how you can go from being on top of the world to in the gutter, but that’s how I felt. While I was sleeping some more, Yvonne woke me up saying there was a monkey on the veranda. Excited we got up and grabbed the camera to take some pictures. Well this goofy little monkey took a long look at me, then grabbed my antibiotics. Cheeky Monkey!
I started yelling at him and he jumped on to the roof and I kept swinging my flip-flop at him, till he dropped them. They slid down the metal roof with a clang, and plummeted off. The monkey looked to go for them so I ran down three flights of stairs hollering at him, then around the building. There was a whole troop of them there in the trees, giving me nasty looks. But I found my drugs in the drainage ditch. As far as excitement goes, that was about it.
Next day I had gotten worse, and we contacted Adie again. Well everything was set, so we would not be able to go for three more days, cause he had five people ready to go. We completely understood. Knowing that this might be the end of the jungle trip, I decided to push through and go. We quickly packed and headed out.
The beginning of the hike was not too strenuous, which I was thankful for. Adie gave me some plants that you pinch and then smell that are supposed to help with the flu. I noticed no change but kept sniffing for a half hour more. He kept asking if I was good, which I always gave a thumbs up. What was I supposed to do, head back home. Besides, quite often if you ignore the fact you are sick, work through it, you tend to get better quicker. That’s my theory anyway.
We spotted a striped tree snake, probably about three feet long, non-poisonous. The humidity in the jungle is high, and during the rainy season even worse. People thought we were nuts to even bother trekking during this time. It rains about half the day, and every night. On the outskirts of the park are palm oil plantations and rubber plantations. We passed a lot of rubber trees where they have multiple grooves cut into the wood angled downward, leading to a small capture pan. A milky white substance filled most of the pans, which is rubber.
Then we passed the entrance sign for Genung Leuser National Park, and a few beat up concrete posts that designate the edge of the park. Once in the park the foliage around us changed drastically, filling in between the trees with all kinds of ferns, vines, and undergrowth. The route was steep, often having to grab roots and vines to drag us up. Sweat coated every inch of me, forming on my cheeks like oozing geysers. There was no escaping it. The excitement of being in the jungle overrode my immediate illness, though I could feel it bubbling under the surface.
We were not more than two hours into the trek when another guide signaled that they had spotted orangutans in the trees. There were two, way up in the canopy. One was snoozing away, in her nest. The male was busy building a nest, and at various times we would have to dodge branches and canopy debris falling down. It was very difficult to get a good view, but was exciting watching the canopy rattle and shake. Overall our group was quiet and respectful hoping to catch a glimpse of the wildlife, without causing any disturbance. At some point though we heard a new group of tourists coming, chatting about weather, bugs, tea, what ever came to their mind. They were so loud in fact, that we could here them for ten minutes before we even saw them. They walked right through the middle of us without even breaking their conversation, let alone noticing that we were actually doing something.
We rudely interrupted their conversation to point out the orangutans above, and the girl literally goes “Oh” and then continues her conversation. Damn, are the orangutans not the whole reason for being here or not? And the wildlife too, not according to this girls social schedule. Then her guide, who was a young hot-shot, started making hooting noises and shaking the vines that lead up to the nest. After some time this elicited more sticks being thrown down by fuzzy red arms, and then nothing. Not getting the Disney Land experience the group desired, they move on chatting away. They were not there more than five minutes. Our groups patience was awarded though when the male decided to swing out of the nest to gather more materials. He swung through the trees, shaking the whole canopy. At one point he sat still and stared at the tourists below, providing us with an excellent photo opportunity. There’s nothing like meeting eyes with a great ape on their own turf. I did not know it at the time, but after zooming into my photo later, I realised he was actually eating rambutans. They are a round fruit that has red hairs sticking out of it, looking very much like a Velcro ball. You break them open and they have a sweet white pulp surrounding a pit.
Things were going well, and we saw two more in the trees, nesting. It’s hard to believe there is such a concentration of them in one area. I think by lunch time we had seen five different orangutans. Most ignored us completely.
Lunch was stir fried rice wrapped in paper and fresh jungle fruits. Of course there was egg too, which I am highly allergic to. I think it’s hard not to find eggs in anything in Indonesia, they add it to everything. But over all the meal was really good for being in the middle of nowhere.
Then we started the real work of the trek. What we had done earlier was nothing to the afternoons climb. It was more like scrabbling up and down cliffs, using thin trees as ropes to repel down or climb up. It was exhausting and fulfilling at the same time. The flu was catching up to me, so I was wandering more in a drunken haze more than anything else. We just reached the top of a hill, when I look up and I see the guide backing up quickly, and a bit of a commotion. Theres a flash of orange amongst us, walking on the path. I get my camera up and start taking pictures excited for this chance to get such great shots. But the guides were not happy. Mina was back, and extra bitchy.
They screamed for us to get back, but I was starting to get that whole BS feeling, like this was a set up. So I decided not to scramble quite so fast, and get some good shots. I still had them between us, and they pulled this one the other day. But Adie was adamant, and seemed truly afraid, so I moved cautiously back. But once again, it was like a cliff that everyone was scrambling down, dangerous in its own right.
Apparently we got enough space between us, and some of the younger guides had bananas out that they were feeding her, placating her. Her little one showed up and took a bunch again and scrambled up the vine again. Well ok, the all clear signal again. Though you won’t see Adie next to her, because he had a bite from her years before, and clearly was petrified of her. But now comes the weird part, apparently, it’s ok for us to approach her now, and get good pictures. Only in twos, and leave your bags. So our group, which at this point had expanded by three additional girls and their guides, start to head over. Yvonne and I volunteered to go last because we had already met Mina. Well after a bit it was our chance, everyone was coming back thrilled, and a bit shaken too. By time we headed over, climbing under a tree trunk, Mina had decided to take off in the direction of our bags. Great, she loves bags. Two guides follow her, and we wander along a parallel path to her. We could see her stomping along a trail about twenty feet above us, right to our bags. We rush back to find all our stuff gone, as well as everyone who stayed back. Mina was down the trail with a guide on either side of her, offering her bananas.
“Come over and take a picture with her, she is fine now.” So we get with in ten feet and try to snap our “Oh look at us with Mina” pictures, and we were up for it too. We got some good picts with her behind us. Then I notice another orangutan up in the canopy, not her kid. Well this is when the guides wanted us rush again, but this guy was literally swinging through the vines like Tarzan, and huge. How could I ignore something so utterly primal. I was like a deer in the headlights.
“Move Quickly, Mike Move NOW!”
Yeah, I am usually the slacker, but the view of this guy was just awe-inspiring, and I know, I am repeating my self, but DAMN. Whole trees with the diameter of twenty inches and probably thirty feet high were bending over left and right. branches and leaves were falling every which direction, then with gap in the canopy, his whole body would soar across the gap, leaving no question to how big he was. This guy was on a mission, and I think it was some orangutan tail he had in mind, specifically Minas.
Once again we are falling down a cliff, slipping and sliding, but this time there were trees swaying every which way by three orangutans chasing us. I think even the young guides were nervous. A mother with a child could be unpredictable, throw in a male with his testosterone on high and you have a perfect storm. But still, how could I miss a chance like this. Even with out a camera it would be hard not to watch. For more on Mina check out my illustrated blog or
We made it down to the bottom where there was a stream and apparently the three orangutans had lost interest in us or found some other thing to do, hint, hint, cause we were safe now.
Another great thing is we were close to camp now too. We just had to climb down a waterfall, and we would be there. The safety standards here are non-existent, the waterfall climb was along some really slippery rocks, where one stray step would have you plummet into the pool below.
Swimming in that very same pool under the water fall after climbing out of some of the most disgusting clothes in existence was pure heaven. It’s amazing what the cooks made up in the jungle, we had Coconut chicken, Pumpkin Curry with jungle vegetables, and a chilli tofu plus rice. All of it made over the camp fire with iron woks. It was the best meal I had in weeks. Afterwards we had a great dinner and played cards. There were two monitor lizards walking around eating left over stuff thrown in the river from dinner, chicken skins and things like that. One lizard was about four feet long. Plus our friends the Macaques showed up, looking for any chance to get some food. We were so lucky with our day, the rain held off till nine, not bad for the wet season.
I was a frightful mess all night, coughing up my lungs all over the place. I was at the end of the tent but was terribly aware how loud I was being, and as often happens to me my imagination started getting the better of me and I saw the germs filling the tent, infecting everyone. Really, I see little germ molecules, usually looking like green little limbless goblins, filling the air, then being sucked into everyone elses mouth while they sleep. It’s horrible. Well after a very sleepless night, the rain petered off, and the sounds of the jungle came alive. It’s very magical hearing the sounds of monkeys, birds, bugs, and lizards echoing across the camp.
Well with breakfast over, mmm, yep, eggs, decision time had come. Adie was clearly hinting pretty hard that we just raft back now, which was pretty damn annoying. We had signed up for a three-day hike which became a two-day, and now he wanted to shorten it to a day hike with sleepover. Well thankfully everyone felt this way so off we went. It was straight up for us, literally. This peak was much higher than any we faced before. We went up for an hour at least, but the view at top was worth all the work. A stunning view of the surrounding jungle. We rested at top then made our way down. Near the bottom I was waiting for Yvonne to scale down a slippery bit, so I grabbed a branch to steady my self. Next thing I know I am getting shooting pains all over my arm. I wrench my hand off the branch and my arm is covered in black, biting ants. I took great pleasure in killing every one of those buggers. It took a week for those bites to go away.
After a bit of fruit and lunch we are ready to raft down the river. Did I say raft, well I use that term loosely. It was four black tubes tied together. It reminded me of my younger years when my dad would blow up car inner tubes and drop my cousin Jimmy and I off at a creek and then pick us up miles down stream. The tubes they used were old tractor tire tubes. The river runs really fast and muddy here. So off we went, bumping into things and careening off that. Normally a completely enjoyable experience except when feverish. I was so chilled that all was a blur and I could not wait to get out.
Once back at our guest house I was thrilled to just get under the blankets and sleep for a few days. But the monkeys had a different idea. A troop of thirty of them started going nuts. Five of them were harassing me on the porch, trying to get the fruit I was eating. When I grabbed my camera they got the whole bag. But that was not good enough, we watched them break the window in our room. I ran there hollering at them and they got out, but not before playing in a scarf and my swimsuit. After getting them out of our room we heard a Spanish guy hollering at them. Apparently they stole his joint when his back was turned. He was chasing them up and down the hill. Ahhh, life in the jungle.
One note on the guides, mixed with the environment. we were really shocked by the feeding of the animals by the guides, and also the shaking of vines to get their attention. I think it’s a bad precedent to feed the animals in any way. They say that Mina would bite if they did not do so, but to me it is only encouraging the behavior, and training her young orangutans also. In Yellowstone they used to feed the bears, so of course they would all stay near the lodge. But this encouraged the animals to be too near people, and after some time, the bears lose their fear of people. Then people got bit or killed. I see this happening here. Already Mina has bit over eighty people. Mainly guides. In the U.S. they would have shot and killed her already, or at least transplanted her deep in to the jungle. In addition to that, throwing the kitchen scrap food into the river had monitor lizards and macaques in camp, looking for hand outs. This could backfire with people being bit too. I strongly believe that wildlife should be left wild, with as little human interference as possible.