My friend and I invited our new English acquaintance on the next leg of our trip. We were going to the jungle to see orangutans. The other friends we met up with on Samosir had just come back from their jungle trek and highly recommended the company and the guides. We decided to take the recommendation to heart and booked 3 days in the jungle.
We took a shared taxi to Bukit Lawang, a town close to the jungle, and the starting point and for our trek. We stayed one night in very simple accommodations before heading into the jungle the next day. Our guides were very friendly and professional. The trek included breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Breakfast and dinner we had at camp. Lunch and a fruit break we enjoyed on our way through the lush green trees.
Overall, I enjoyed the trek a lot, but my feelings are a bit mixed. I relished slipping through the muddy rainforest. Some parts were particularly challenging and required a lot of focus—especially when it rained, which it did a lot—but it was the fun kind of focus. The most challenging trails led us up and down, and then up and down again. The tree roots that kept the soil from washing away also created stairs for us to climb. When there were no stairs, strong vines or branches helped us ease our way down the steep, slippery hillsides.
I also loved seeing the jungle wildlife. Everywhere we looked, there were giant ants and other crawling things. I didn’t love the leeches, but what doesn’t kill you… During one lunch break, a butterfly joined us and wouldn’t leave us alone. It kept landing on us and showering our hands with some liquid. I’m going to pretend it was magical fairy water. We saw monkeys and birds and heard many more animals than we saw.
Of course the stars of the show were the orangutans. Orang means person in Malay/Indonesian, and they really are like people. Unfortunately, they lack a few advantages that humans have. They’re outnumbered, and their homes (the utan part, or hutan: forest) are disappearing. All over North Sumatra we saw enormous, water-guzzling oil palms. They covered giant swaths of land that used to be home to many animals. Farmers—not just oil palm farmers—see orangutans as pests, and so they have no problems dealing with them in their own, not always humane way.
Being among the most charismatic endangered species, orangutans are also tourist attractions. All year long, our guides bring tourists into the jungle to see the great apes. Some of the orangutans around Bukit Lawang in particular are semi-wild and quite used to humans, having a long history with them. In fact, they get fed by the guides, thus almost guaranteeing sightings for tourists. Here’s where the mixed feelings come in. I loved seeing the orangutans. As a mother and baby walked past us, the baby reached out and grabbed my arm. I don’t think these semi-wild animals should stop getting fed. For them it’s too late. They almost rely on tidbits from tour guides, but the practice could stop with animals who aren’t so reliant.
It’s well known that wild animals’ behavior changes when they get fed, and almost never for the better. Two of the orangutans that we met were particularly comfortable around people. They both had names—and reputations. One called Jackie was known to be very gentle, the other, Mina, quite unpredictable and aggressive. We met both on our trek, several times each. Jackie was happy to pose for photos while she ate her snacks, but Mina wanted everything we had. She attacked and bit one of our guides, who protected us from her. (Happily, he was fine. The bite was not nothing, but also, thankfully, not gravely serious.)
No one can blame Mina. Humans have an even worse reputation than she does. On the one hand, feeding is better than massacring entire forests full, as has happened before, but orangutans need room to do their own thing. Much easier said than done, I know. Farmers, though they receive a pittance, have also come to rely on palm oil, and so have consumers. It’s in everything. As with so many difficult issues, this situation requires critical thinking, education and investment in sustainable alternatives. Development shouldn’t mean expanding the world we have, but rather building the world we want.
I’ll be including a few other anecdotes among the photos I’ve posted to flickr. Don’t miss the descriptions!