In three wide swings with its massive arms, the orangutan I had been observing from a distance closed the gap between us and landed in the tree beside me with a thud.
It was so close, I could hear it breathing.
Just as when I encountered the backcountry grizzly bear in Alaska, I backed away slowly while holding down the shutter button. Death is temporary, but photos last forever (assuming, that is, that a pissed off orangutan doesn’t dismantle your camera).
And so, suddenly the overpriced trek I had taken in Bukit Lawang was worth the exorbitant price. The orangutan staring me in the face happened to be a mother holding an infant, so I got a two-for-one deal.
The baby was cute enough to make me forget the notion that its mom could grab my arms and turn me into a Stretch Armstrong doll in a matter of seconds.
These two orangutans were semi-wild; they mix freely with wild orangutans and can go at will, but they generally stick around the same places. The jungle guides typically have an idea of where to take tourists for a little bedazzlement.
This was not my first orangutan encounter. Last year I managed to spot wild orangutans from a boat adventure along the Kinabatangan River in Borneo. This encounter, however, was certainly the closest and most intimate.
I can honestly now say that I have smelled an orangutan.
Later we did manage to spot a family of wild orangutans in the distance, but they bailed out as we made our way up the steep path to intercept them. Sweat was dripping from my nose as I made my way through Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National – a safe haven for monkeys, tigers, and endangered animals that have suffered brutal habitat loss to palm oil plantations.
Ahhh, the jungle. Damn — it feels good to be back!
The smells, the sounds, the giant ants, the pure thrill of spending time in such a shadowy place where even plants want to do horrific things to your body can only be described as one of the greatest pleasures still available on this Earth. If you’ve never been in a jungle, get to one quick; you’ll be addicted.
At least, for now. Sumatra has lost 50% of their rainforest in the last 35 years. So, within my young (ahem) life, 50% of the cover for so many brilliant animals has been lost to palm oil plantations.
The next time you buy cosmetics, chocolate, soap, shampoo, or a multitude of other products, check the ingredients for palm oil. There’s a good chance that you’ve got a pantry full of palm oil — most of which may have come from Sumatra or Borneo.
Interestingly, as I did my best to slip and stumble along the muddy paths cut through the bush, I noticed blood pouring out of the vent on my Keen sandals, but I felt no pain.
I didn’t even have to look to know that I was now hosting a leech dinner party.
I had a few on my feet in Borneo last year as well. This year’s bloodsucker managed to gorge itself to a fattened state, then dropped off and I subsequently stepped on it and it burst. My shoe was slippery with blood (my blood) inside!
Although the trekking and time in the field was superb, I can’t really say if I liked the little base village of Bukit Lawang or not. The tiny village is spread along a river with many restaurants and guesthouses. There weren’t many travelers at all, but the place is ready for a horde of tourists. Long-haired jungle guides who fancy themselves as Rastafarians patrol from morning until dark for Western women and opportunities to make money. Some are nice, some are annoying.
Bukit Lawang makes up for the hassle with incredible scenery and green jungle smells; the sounds of the rushing river and monkeys permeate the night. I had chills at night just knowing that not so far away, Sumatran tigers were hiding in the blackness. Or maybe the chills were just malaria from one of the 500 mosquito bites I sustained.
The call for prayer echoing from the mosque across the river was a constant reminder that I was back in Indonesia. Memories of my trip here in 2009 were pervasive, as were memories of Elin. We had listened, trembling in awe, to the call to prayer from a nearby mosque together — only days before her young death. I was nervous about even coming back to Indonesia after what happened, for fear that I couldn’t handle the memories. So I went to the farthest corner away from Lombok that I could find: Sumatra.
Sumatra truly is one of the last wild places left on this planet, but it is also quite accessible. The roads suck, but hey — at least there are roads! The trans-Sumatran highway is a relatively new addition. The Batak and Karo indigenous people who live here are mostly friendly to visitors.
That’s a good thing, as not too long ago they once beheaded – and ate – white people they didn’t like!