Sumatra and the Old Man of the Forest / by Tyler Wood

Lake Toba

My friend and I were up early to catch the first boat off Samosir in Lake Toba to get back to the mainland at Parapat. Crossing the still early morning waters surface it felt as if we were leaving a childhood vacation. It feels like we will never see this again. We left our new found friends and our room with a view over the lake to press further into the jungle's of Sumatra.

We left Parapat by a packed, and extremely smoky, bus for the five hour trip over the winding road to Medan. We made it with no trouble at all, unless you count our future lung cancer. We got out of the bus at the southern station and had to take a mini-bus across town, that broke down. So we had to get into another one, with Muslim school girls, with their head scarf covering their hair and designer jeans that still showed their crack, in tow. We packed our huge back-packs into the next mini-bus, having the ladies coming home from work step over them as they crouched into the side door and sat on the wood shelving pinned to the side of the van.

We showed up to the north station and I bought sandles to replace the ones that were, literally, falling off of my tan-linned feet. We had some pasteries and borded the large bus to Bukit Lawang. It wasn't as stuffy or smoky, but my legs were in my throat, so it had that going for it. The countryside was beautiful, however, and I got very excited to see the jungle up close and personal finally. We had been in S.E. Asia for months now and hadn't had a very good chance to just see the jungles in all its thickness and allure. I assumed I would see monkeys the whole time, but that wasn't exactly true, though not exactly false either. They were around, but usually in cages as pets, or chained to a tree they would later climb and gather coconuts from. Most of the animals we would see were chickens, pigs and cows wandering about, including in the roads.

The road was half-dirt and half-cement, and not in the way it would be if it were being built. The roads had washed out in the flood that reduced this town from twenty-seven working guesthouses to just seven. There was a truck stuck in the dirt potholes that we had to skirt around in our bus on the way. The road was lined with palm trees, they harvest for palm oil, and rubber trees, the reason for those - obvious. Motorbikes shuffled past our large bus frequently.

We pulled into the bus station in Bukit Lawang, but it was still about 15 minutes from town, so we hired a motorbike with two seats attached to the front to get to the river and the main drag of Bukit Lawang's tourist area. Our hotel, the Jungle Inn, was another twenty minute walk. The sun was going down as we hiked along the river. We passed boarded up old (but not that old) guesthouses and restaurants. It was quiet and dark.

The electricity, so it turned out, was only used by some of the residents and even they would get it for the evening (Our hotel was from 8pm to around 10 or 11 depending on the people there). As we walked up the path we could see the faint glow of candles (They hadn't turned the electricity on yet). It was dark now, and we walked into the side of the building, a covered restaurant that opened on all sides. It was still very hot, but the mosquitoes were getting worse now, and it began to rain. We were welcomed and my friend went to check out the rooms while I sat in the restaurant and ordered some much needed food. I ordered spaghetti. It was pretty good, but we were spoiled by the food in Lake Toba. The only sounds were the wind and a white mother cat whining for her lost kittens. The guy there said they hadn't seen the kittens in a few days.

We ended up in the honeymoon suite (with its own private waterfall!). It was dark, so we couldn't really see it that well, but it indeed had a large rock with a trickle of water rolling over it, in the room. But we had a private deck overlooking another, more elegant (read: real) waterfall outside. The room was very bizarre, but we thought it would do. In the bathroom (which was a small room with a toilet and showerhead), it had a tiled heart on the wall. We went to bed.

I didn't sleep. There was a foreign dust substance that stuck to my humidity induced sticky skin that kept me awake. I wasn't sure if it was dust, or something that I won't mention, falling from the shelf above the bed. The room smelled funny (like a cave, in a bad way) so we changed rooms the next day.


Since I was already up, I decided to walk out into the restaurant that overlooked the river. It wasn't long until it was worth the hassle to get there. I saw, in the trees across the river, an orangutan climbing down the tree. I rushed out, with camera in hand, to the pebbled river bank to get a better look. It wasn't hard to figure out why they are called the 'old men of the forest'. His orange fur was easy to spot when he came out from the leaves, but it was nearly impossible to see him when he was in the bushes. Little did I know this sighting was not a "good one" but just normal.

Jungle Inn sits just across the river from the Gunung Leuser National Park that rehabilitates orangutans and reintroduces them into the wild. The orangs that live close to the river are what they call "semi-wild", meaning they were raised by humans, but live in the wild. They are the ones the park rangers feed once a day. They forage for the rest of their food. Further into the forest the wild orangs live. There are also gibbons, macaques, Thomas monkeys, elephants, jungle turtles, and many other wild animals. They all live in different habitats, but they can all be seen if you stay there long enough, and hike far enough.

Where we ate lunch

We only did a full day trek into the high elevation habitat to see gibbons and siamangs (my favorite). We didn't see the siamangs (black gibbons) but we did catch a good glimps of the white-faced gibbon. They are orange with a black face outlined in white fur. They also don't stand still, I couldn't get a single picture of them. We could hear the siamang's loud calls echoing through the forest the whole time though, but their calls can be heard up to 5 miles away, so that made it hard to figure out if we were close or not. For lunch our guide brought us to a wonderful spot (not unique however) where there was a waterfall in a creek. We could swim below the waterfall and it was the best time I had swimming. It probably had something to do with the fact that we were so hot from the trekking and the humidity. Our guide would turn into the bushes (no trail) and make us climb (no joke) to get to where the gibbons were at, but it was worth it in the long run. You don't have to do the harder treks if you don't wish, there are trails back there too. We ended up stumbling onto some wild orangs too, a baby and its mother, and it was amazing.

The kittens

After the trek we rested at the restaurant again (try the fruit plate) until we went to bed in the new room. It was cheaper and smaller, but cleaner as well. Although we had residents that wouldn't leave. Two kittens were hiding out from their mom in our room. We found them! We tried everything to get them out and off the bed, but they wouldn't budge. They kept finding ways into the room again, so we gave up and had kittens join us sleeping, which I actually did that night.

The next day we took a walk into town. We saw in the daylight what was really happening in the town. Half the buildings were boarded up, but they were rebuilding further up on the hill (the houses anyway). The restaurants that were open, were still empty. This was a familiar sight after having been to Lake Toba. We bought some food and drinks and continued walking around town, and then decided to go back to our hotel and hang out.

Orangutans hanging out on the riverbank

When we got back we saw two orangs playing by the river bank. We slowly walked down to the river bank on the opposite side and sat on some smooth rocks. They were about 30 feet from us, just across the river. We sat there for over a half hour just watching them play. The male didn't seem interested in playing, he sat and watched us. The female was busy putting rocks on the back of her neck. They would fall off when she moved and she would put them back up there. She must have been bored because she then tried to get the male to play, but he just kept moving away from her. They acted like an old married couple. She ended up rolling around on the banks. Just then a group of tubers came bouncing down the river. They were 10 feet from the orangs as they passed by on the tubes. The orangs retreated a little, and then it started to rain. Although it felt like it, we weren't alone in the Jungle Inn, another couple just arrived from their trek and we mentioned the orangs were just at the rivers edge. They braved the rain to get their glimpse.

The next day, our last day there, we were going to go to the feeding. We were waiting for the rangers, sitting in the sun on the rocks by the river, when the usual suspects came marching by. Every morning a troop of about 30 macaques came down from the trees and walked along the river, then went back up into the trees. There were many little ones that used the time to play and wrestle each other. There was always a male (probably the Alpha Male) that stood guard on a high rock looking up and down the river bank for danger. We felt like part of the family at this point, watching this every morning during breakfast. This day, though, there was danger as the troop was moving into the trees. There was only a couple macaques left to go into the trees when we noticed something moving on the rock. It turned out to be the second largest lizard in the world, the monitor lizard, about 8 feet long. It was hobbling along the rock with its long tongue guiding its way. Suprisingly, though, the macaques didn't make noise, they just walked up the rock futher to get out of the way. It turned out to be no big deal. They must know each other,

"Morning, Bill."

"Morning, Dave."

Crossing the river

The real danger was to come. A British couple had crossed the river earlier, using the canoe and rope crossing they had just fixed. But the guys that ran it weren't running it now until the rangers showed up. They came around the bend of the river and sat on the path leading to the lodge after having taken a hike. They didn't even notice it, since she was in the bushes, but there was an orang sitting about 20 feet from them in the bushes. The orang had a baby with her. She exited the bushes towards them, we were all a bit nervous for the couple, waving our hands like lunatics and pointing. There was about 15 people on our side of the river, but no way of getting over there in time if something were to happen. The orang walked up to the guy and grabbed at his shirt and took his hand into her mouth. He was motionless, as she just barely bit his hand. Realizing it wasn't food she put it back down and walked away. He later told us that he had never been more scared in his life and he was nervous about moving and setting her off. She didn't break the skin and he got a crazy story to tell, thats it - luckily.

Momma and her baby

The rangers showed up and we all crossed the river and were faced with the same situation. We had to pay to go, and we were all lined up at the lodge when the female with her baby walked right next to us to sit on the porch. She later almost grabbed me too, but nothing happened. We left her to herself and hiked up the hill to the feeding area. The rangers called for the orangs and one came swinging into the area within minutes. This one walked right in front of us to get to the feeding area. They fed them bananas and powdered milk that they loved. We got to get within inches of them as they were busy eating. These were the semi-wild ones that were used to humans so there is no reason to be too freighted. They are, however, very strong and still unpredictable so don't get too close for too long. They can kill you very easily, but there are rangers there so that is less likely. I will tell you that it is worth the risk, but that is my opinion.

After that there was nothing else we could do but another trek, which we couldn't afford at that time, so we were ready to leave. Although we would never forget the absolutley wonderful time we had in the jungles of Indonesia. We traveled all over South East Asia, and this was one of our favorite spots. There are only two places in the world to get to see wild orangatans, Sumatra and Borneo. We talked to people that had gone to Borneo and they took a long boat ride and hike to get a possible glimpse of them there (not that Bukit Lawang is luxurious) but here you can sit in the restaurant and see them. It doesn't get any better if you love seeing animals without bars around them.

It also doesn't hurt to spend money in the worst hit area of the tsunami (By that I mean Sumatra). Bukit Lawang is still struggling from the lack of tourists because they are scared of Indonesia or Sumatra or tsunamis (whatever the case may be), then they had a flood and it added insult to injury. It would be a great loss to the world of travel to have this town dry up and boarded up.