Finding Adventure This Summer
Yes, I know that the leaves are changing and summer is a hopeful dream on the other side of an impending winter.
But British Airways recently asked me to recommend some favorite places to go in July. The recommendations for each month will be put into a Year-Round Travel Guide on their High Life Blog.
After mulling over the options while sitting here surrounded by Bangkok’s gray concrete, a beautiful and mysterious mistress comes to mind: the jungle.
What is it about the jungle that just takes you over?
The jungle is a place where the unknown and unidentifiable surround you. It takes you into a wet embrace that entangles all of your senses – demanding full attention. Just the smell of the jungle is enough to make neck hair stand straight. Even the equatorial sun is barely welcome beneath the canopy.
It’s the potential that grabs hold and floods your veins with a powerful lust to go father and push deeper. Spend one hour in the jungle and you’ll be terrified. At first, it appears that everything wants to trip you, cut you, or taste you. But spend an afternoon, plodding along with sacrificial sweat dripping, and I guarantee that you’ll be hooked.
Once you make the transformation from unwelcome outsider to lover, you’ll dream of getting back under the canopy long after you’re gone.
July is one of the best months for visiting one of my favorite places to tangle with the jungle: North Sumatra. While there’s still some rain – things are as green as the eye can see for a reason – July brings the least amount of humidity of all the months. An important consideration, given that you can’t possibly carry enough water to replace losses dripped along the way.
If you ever want to feel what it’s like to drown on dry land, take a stroll in the jungle during peak humidity.
Sumatra, the sixth-largest island in the world on the very western edge of Indonesia, is a place where you’ll actually meet the grandsons of former headhunters. The indigenous people once removed – and still have – the heads of a few unlucky villagers, colonists, and missionaries. But don’t worry, the practice is long over and now tourists are welcomed warmly for more than just trophies.
North Sumatra is the most popular part of the island for visitors. And while tourist numbers are down significantly, you’ll still find plenty of infrastructure and transportation for getting into the wild. Along with getting to experience the raw beauty, Sumatra is one of only two places in the world to still see endangered orangutans in the wild before they are gone forever.
Getting into Sumatra
All points in Sumatra are usually accessed via Medan, Indonesia’s third-largest city. You’ll find good deals on flights to Medan from major hubs throughout Asia. If Medan is your first stop in Indonesia, you can pay for a visa on arrival in the airport to receive 30 days.
But a sprawling, polluted city isn’t the reason you came to one of the wildest islands on earth. Get out quickly by grabbing a four-hour bus to the peaceful, riverside town of Bukit Lawang.
Gunung Leuser National Park
North Sumatra’s crown jewel is the easiest way to taste the jungle and see both wild and semi-wild orangutans. Using Bukit Lawang as a base, you can arrange single-day excursions and multi-day treks into the adjacent Gunung Leuser National Park.
While Mother Nature never makes guarantees, you’ve got an excellent chance of spotting orangutans in the national park. Along with the fuzzy primates, you may luck upon a rafflesia – the heaviest flower in the world. A myriad of other flora and fauna can be found in the national park including 600-year-old gum trees, endangered hornbill birds, and even wild Sumatran tigers!
When you’ve had your jungle fix, grab a minibus to the most popular attraction in North Sumatra: Lake Toba.
Roughly the same size as Singapore, Lake Toba – the largest volcanic lake in the world – was formed by a cataclysmic eruption that changed earth’s climate forever. But the volcano wasn’t finished; a new island, Samosir Island, was pushed up by pressure all the way from a depth of 1,666 feet!
It’s an eerie feeling standing on a populated island that is actually the cone of a volcano inside of a volcano.
Samosir Island is the epicenter for tourist activities and home to the friendly Batak – a former-headhunting ethnic group. Volcanic activity keeps the water warm for swimming, despite the extreme depth, and well-priced resorts line the picturesque lake. Grab a scooter and buzz around the island, enjoying spectacular views and greenery along the way.
Standing on Samosir Island is one of the few places in the world where you can claim to be on an island that is on an island.
Climbing Gunung Sibayak
If you’ve still got time for one last adventure, divert to the grungy little town of Berastagi on your way back to Medan. Along with an opportunity to see indigenous Karo tribal life, Berastagi is the launching point for climbing either Gunung Sibayak – Sumatra’s most accessible volcano adventure; or Gunung Sinabung – Sumatra’s meanest and most challenging volcano. Sinabung recently made world news with an unexpected eruption in September 2013.
While both volcanoes can be scaled without technical experience or equipment, you’ll definitely need some guts and stamina. Gunung Sibayak, the easier of the two options, can be climbed on a day trip with or without a guide. Walking through the caldera is an other-worldly experience as vents roar like jet engines and blast steam around you.
The earth actually rumbles and tremors beneath your feet.
Adventure in Indonesia
Sumatra never fails to satisfy cravings for fresh air, adrenaline, and stories to tell. And July is the best month to visit. So whether you get your kicks staring down orangutans in the jungle, swimming in the world’s largest volcanic lake, or standing in an active caldera, there’s no shortage of adventure to be found.
A lion’s share of Indonesia’s international visitors only go to Bali, while just a brave few travelers return home with Sumatran stories to share. Enjoying umbrella-adorned coconuts by the pool is nice, but doing so after leaving the jungle makes them taste that much better.