Orangutans in the Mist: Jungle Trekking in Indonesia
Featured destinations: Asia
Published 24 June 2016
I could see the whites of his eyes. Well actually that’s not strictly true, unlike us, orangutans have dark brown eyeballs – something I learned as a huge 150kg male hung motionless in the trees a few feet from me. His faced turned towards ours, just watching...
Earlier that morning I met my jungle guide, Ketut, in a tiny town named Bukit Lawang deep in the Sumatran rainforest. Nestled along a river, Bukit Lawang has no ATM, few guesthouses and can only be reached by an arduous, pothole-plagued journey by road.
In the early hours the breaking dawn signals the call of the jungle. The screeching cries of wild primates and the vibrant birdsong resonates through the valley, bringing with them a sense of lingering expectation. Here the trekking guides gather, the walking boots are laced and a short walk away a simple stone rises out of the vegetation, stoically marking the boundary of the national park.
I opted to spend three days trekking through this alien ecosystem, praying it would be long enough to spot an orangutan (or two!) from afar. Sumatra has made its name as one of the few remaining places in the world that you can still see wild orangutans in their native jungle, and without which no trip to Indonesia would be complete. So focused on catching a glimpse of the great ape, I almost forgot that the rainforest would be home to a multitude of other captivating creatures and nearly fainted with excitement when within ten minutes, we found ourselves surrounded by a 70-strong family of long-tailed macaques. Curious and unfazed, they continued their journey through the bush around us and I found myself face-to-face with a new mother who had her tiny, hairless baby clinging to her chest, its big unblinking brown eyes looking right at me.
We pressed on through the muggy undergrowth and I tried my best to ignore the sweat clinging to my back. Ketut’s pace quickened and we soon saw a group of other hikers with their faces turned up to the skies. We followed their gaze and there it was, our first orangutan! Peering back at us, bemused, a mother sat high up in the tree canopy as her young son played with the vines, learning to swing between trees. He also learned to throw sticks, it seemed, and we moved on as broken twigs rained down on our heads.
The lunch we were given was simple but utterly glorious; warm spicy rice wrapped in banana leaf was eaten with our hands, followed by fresh passion fruit, rambutan and sweet pineapple. Just as we were about to throw away the pineapple rinds, Ketut motioned for us to look behind the log we were using as a seat. He had spotted it a while ago, but with his wicked sense of humour had decided to let it get unbelievably close before he pointed it out. A large male baboon silently crept up behind us, eyeing up our fruit before scurrying away into the undergrowth with some leftovers.
That night we descended into the valley and walked barefoot through the river to reach our shelter for the night. I took the coldest, yet possibly the most welcome shower I have ever taken in a natural waterfall to wash away the day’s grime. It took only a few seconds before I was lost in my thoughts, just watching the stunning natural world go by from my refreshing vantage point. Dragonflies landed on my outstretched arms as the last of the afternoon sun fell through the leaves onto my skin, and I felt completely care-free.
During our trek we barely saw another living soul, Ketut liked to stay away from the other trekking groups for a more authentic jungle experience. He broke his rule once more, though. The guides would fill their lungs and bellow out loud calls that to the untrained ear, sounded like any other wild primate call, but signalled to each other the presence of something worth seeing. One day he heeded the calls and that’s when we came within a few meters of one of the largest male orangutans in the forest. He hung low between two the trees, huge and proud, his unmistakable round face slowly rotating to make direct eye contact with each of us in turn.
When you find yourself so close to any of these amazing creatures, it’s easy to see why they are so loved by researchers and are the source of such intrigue. Instantly, it felt as though we were staring into the eyes of another, albeit slightly hairier, human. There was a common understanding; a mutual acceptance of intelligence and an unspoken agreement to keep ones distance in order to happily coexist.
Nothing showcased the intelligence and learning capabilities better than an orang-utan affectionately-named Jackie, though. The following evening we arrived at our second camp to meet her, a female orangutan with two children in tow; one tiny baby and one cheeky youth. This family was far from domesticated or tame, but had on occasion ventured down into the camp to steal biscuits from the hikers. Orangutans are incredibly observant animals and from her previous visits Jackie had learned that, much like the humans, she too liked to dunk her stolen biscuits in a mug of tea.
While we were distracted, baffled even, watching her on the edge of the river, the older of her children made a swing for my raised camera but missed, grabbing instead my ponytail for a (slightly painful) memory that I will never forget. He later scampered into our tent, stealing loose items of clothing and handkerchiefs to take with him as he rushed back into the trees, only to rip up and drop them once he’d had his fun.
The three days spent in the jungle were exhausting but utterly exhilarating. We made our way downstream back to Bukit Lawang, clinging onto a raft made from huge air-filled tyres, recounting stories and marvelling at how spoilt we had been with all that we had seen. It may have been the first, but it certainly won’t be the last time I set foot in a rainforest.
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