Chinese New Year has quickly rolled around again, and it has given us another excuse to explore a different part of Asia. This time Indonesia has been our host.
We decided to break our 18-day holiday into 2 parts, adventure (Sumatra) and relaxation (Bali), as we are slowly learning that experiencing a few places in detail is more satisfying than making whistle-stops in several places.
Upon arrival in Medan, Sumatra we were taken on a 4 hour journey by car towards the jungle. The roads were both busy and bumpy for long stretches and we had our first encounter with the Sumatran rainy season as sheets of rain fell onto (and into) our car. We were excited and apprehensive about what lay ahead as neither of us really knew what to expect from our jungle plans.
We needn’t have been, however, since our jungle base in the village of Bukit Luwang was both accommodating and comfortable. We were given a luxurious room with a jungle view and a porch way with our own hammock. This gave us a good night sleep before our jungle trek began the next day.
The primary purpose of our jungle trek was to try to track down some Orang-utans. Nicki and I had decided not to buy each other Christmas presents this year, but instead treat each other to a couple of days in the Sumatran jungle with some orang-utans. We set off across the bridge that separated Bukit Luwang from the jungle and began our walk into the depths of the jungle. Our guide handily pointed out different plants, insects and animals that only a trained eye would spot and normally had a story to tell about everything.
The initial stages of our trek were not difficult and before long we found ourselves eating tropical fruits whilst sat on a wet log. In fact, rain was incessant throughout the day, but it didn’t dampen any spirits. The natural umbrellas of the trees above prevented us from getting soaked, and the cooling of the rainwater made the sweat from our bodies less noticeable.
We soon came across our first Orang-utans. We were surprised to see them so soon since we were warned that rain could prevent the orang-utans movements and so we were asked to be prepared not to see any at all. We stood gawping and taking photos of mother and baby as the mum sat lazily in the tree as her child swung playfully between the branches.
After a jungle lunch lunch, freshly prepared by our guides, we came across another Orangutan, and the most famous one among the guides: Mina. The guides seem to know all of the Orangutans and we had already heard many legends about Mina. One of the guides had a bite scar on his leg to prove his life-long relationship with the most aggressive orang-utan. When word spread about Mina’s presence close by Nicki went into Fight-or-Flight mode as her own survival instincts kicked in. And then, when Mina bound into sight ahead of us, Nicki took off in the other direction. She basically legged it.
Mina carried her twin babies (whom she protects even more vehemently since the death of her previous child) and occupied a tree in front of us. We backed away to a safe distance. I then noticed that Nicki was not in sight so I called out for her. ‘I’m here’ was her reply from the considerable distance. We were then all instructed to cautiously walk past Mina without making eye contact whilst the guides occupied her attention. Thankfully Nicki made it back in time to experience the sight of this great ape up close. It was amazing to see such a majestic animal in the wild, and within feet away from us.
Back as a group we continued our trek up steep hills, and then back down them. The early part of our trek had left us complacent and we now had to be more sure footed and aware of the ground beneath us as the rain was starting to take its toll on the ground. Not only was it getting steeper but it was also getting muddier and a little less easy to navigate through. Nicki was amazing throughout.
As we continued our trek deep into the afternoon we came across more orang-utans and we were starting to feel very lucky to see so many. Additionally we were given glimpses of other primates, including black gibbons and macats.
The hardest part of our trek was the last 40 minutes where we had to sharply decline towards the river. At one point we had to toss a rope down the path and almost abseil down the muddy path, such was the gradient of the hill.
However, we were eventually victorious in our mission to reach camp. As we did so we noticed that another orang-utan was knocking about near our shelter. We had come all of this way only to find an orang-utan at our camp anyway.
For the rest of the evening chilled out in the river, ate nice food, and drank a beer with our head torches on before retiring for a night under a shelter in the jungle.
We were asleep pretty early, which meant for an early start the next day. We embarked on a 2-hour trek up and down the hillside, which made for a completely different exercise given that the equatorial sun had replaced the previous day’s rain. As much as we loved the previous day’s adventure and all the thrills it brought, Nicki was not having any of this. She wanted to be back at the shelter, and I don’t think I was being too helpful by acting like I was having the time of my life. Sorry Nicki.
However, there was a sense of achievement when we made it back to camp, drenched in sweat and new memories. We were then able to walk slightly upstream and cross the strong current to bathe and massage in the natural waterfall feeding the river. It was a nice way to unwind and reflect on an eventful couple of days.
Our final couple of our in the jungle featured a jungle fruit salad before rafting the aggressive river on a raft made of rubber rings (probably wouldn’t pass any health and safety measures back home). We travelled quickly down stream, picking up pace where the water was most angry, and got very wet on our way down. We were back within half an hour. In fact, the rafting was a real highlight, bringing us all the way back to our lodge for a well-earned shower.
A few achy muscles and dirty clothes were ample cost for an incredible 2 days in the jungle. It may have been a bit of a struggle, but seeing orang-utans in the wild is something we will never forget. An amazing Christmas present.
We returned to find out that it was exactly 2 years since I saw the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda, so who knows what 25th January 2019 will bring. Chimpanzees maybe?
The next day we decided to have a nice rest, remembering that we are on holiday. So we woke up late, had a big breakfast and sunbathed beside our jungle view with a beer. We were on holiday, after all.
The next stop was Berastagi, a 4 hour drive from our luscious jungle retreat. We left early in the morning after consuming the fruit platter provided for us at breakfast and checked into our hotel before midday. Berastagi is at a slightly higher altitude that Bukit Luwang or Medan so it had a slightly cooler feel to it.
We walked around the town throughout the afternoon and realised that we were the only tourists about. It was quite apparent that Berastagi isn’t as well equipped for foreigners as other aspects of Asia but that made it a little more authentic than we thought it would be. We eventually found a nice roadside café that provided us with a delicious Nasi Goreng (the most popular dish here: a mix of rice and other nice stuff).
That evening we hired a guide for our volcano trek the next day as we were for-warned about the risks of going it alone. In fact there was a list on display of all the foreigners who had perished on the volcano because they went up without a guide: the perfect advertising.
To my surprise one of the volcanoes erupted in front of my eyes (Nicki was unfortunately napping). I was amazed by the nonchalant reaction of all the locals. They told me that it frequently erupts and that everyone who used to live on the mountain has been relocated. Thankfully, we were climbing the more peaceful volcano the next day.
We set off at a sociable time in the morning (choosing not to get up early for sunrise) and began climbing the mountain. It turned out that we were hiking on one of the most popular days of the year, since locals were also on holiday for Spring Festival and it was a weekend. However, it was nowhere near as crowded as China.
Several things became apparent quickly: our guide wasn’t quite physically fit enough for walking uphill, foreigners were walking safely without a guide, and littering was accepted. It was shocking to see plastic bottles, wrappers and other rubbish distributed carelessly all the way up the mountainside. This was completely in contrast to the attitude of everyone in the jungle.
It was quite a steep climb until we reached the unmistakable stench of sulphur which indicated our approach to the volcano crater. Many locals had camped at the summit over night to celebrate the arrival of the new Lunar year. There were several sulphur vents producing dangerously hot steam from deep within the earth. Our guide informed us that these kept the volcano calm as it literally ‘lets off steam’ all the time rather than let it build up inside.
We were able to walk around the crater and enter the middle where a pool of rainwater formed a lake. The colour of the water apparently discoloured by the chemicals in the earth below it. Thankfully there was no eruption whilst we stood in the crater. It really was a spectacular sight and it really reminded us of a scene from Iceland…or Mars.
From there we began our decent down a much more tricky root. But our guide was more nimble with his feet going down. We did not see another soul on our 2 hour trek down but we did have to slide down a mud-‘slide’ and negotiate our way across fallen trees on a less well trod path.
Eventually we reached some for of civilisation in the form of some hot springs. Only, it was more like a children’s swimming pool than the romantic mountainside Jacuzzi we had envisaged. Still, we got into our swimming gear and bathed with the locals (all of whom were fascinated with our whiteness and made no excuse for staring incessantly at us). As we were preparing to leave an old man made some comment in Indonesian about me, which made the whole pool laugh. They didn’t laugh quietly. Everyone in the pool was laughing hysterically and the old man made more comments, which made them cackle even louder, like a comedian at the top of his game. We had no idea what to do as we stood there being laughed at. I ended up nervously moving around the corner but could still hear the roaring laughter. Then, having left the scene in a haste, I realised that I left my swimming trunks beside the pool. I couldn’t go back out of fear of further ridicule so I left them there. It has to be a low point.
We were soon over the embarrassment and clear of the smell of sulphur. Our final challenge of Sumatra was to get back to Medan for our Bali bound flight. We decided to go back to public buses so made our two-hour journey crammed in the back of a colourful old bus beside a breastfeeding old lady.
Having got back to the airport at a tenth of the price of a private bus, Nicki decided to should spend our winnings on a Starbucks Coffee.
Our Sumatra adventure was over. It is an amazing island and one that I thought I’d only visit through David Attenborough and a TV screen. Seeing Orangutans was the real highlight of the trip and well worth effort needed to find them.
We are now onto a new experience and test for us: rest and relaxation in Bali.