trek in the jungle bukit lawang

Sumatra: 3 days in the jungle to observe the Orangutan

We spent 3 days in Gunung Leuser National Park, in the north of Sumatra in Indonesia, and it was an incredible experience! It’s one of only two places on Earth where it’s still possible to observe orangutans in their natural environment. Even though there’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to cross paths with these wild (and semi-wild) animals, we wanted to experience the thrill of spending 3 days in the jungle in search of wild animals. So this is where we ended our 2-week trip to Sumatra (read more here). To enjoy this unique experience, we chose to go through an ethical and sustainable agency, Sumatra Orang-Utan Explorer, whose values we share and which supports the local populations. I’ll tell you all about the 3 days and 2 nights we spent in the jungle and our incredible encounter with the people of the forest… 

In this post
Day 1 in the jungle
Day 2 in the jungle
Day 3 in the jungle
Orang-utans: in danger of extinction ?
All infos

Sumatra orang outan

 

Bukit Lawang: the starting point for treks

To set off into the Gunung Leuser jungle, we had to reach the village of Bukit Lawang, 120 kilometres from Medan in north-east Sumatra. It was a nice surprise when we arrived: the village is so cute! It really is one of the cutest villages we’ve seen in Indonesia. It has a mountain atmosphere, with wooden houses that look a bit like chalets. We make our way along the main alleyway. It’s narrow, which gives it a very cosy feel and means that there are no cars on the road – which is great when you’re coming from Medan. The village is also full of flowers. It lies on one side of the valley and on the other side is a wall of vegetation: the beginning of the jungle. And in the middle flows the river. In short, we found Bukit Lawang to be a real haven of peace.

Welcome to Gunung Leuser National Park

After a good night’s rest and a delicious breakfast in the Sumatra Orang-Utan Explorer accommodation, we’re off! Our group is made up of 5 people led by 2 guides. We start by passing through the charming village before crossing a small, shaky bridge over the river to get to the other bank and head into the jungle. First we pass through rubber tree plantations. The “condom trees”, as Bob, our main guide, calls them, were imported from Brazil by Dutch colonists. We then take a short break at the entrance to the national park, during which we are given a little more background on the park and the species found there (more on this below).

 

Our meeting with the orang-utans

After a good hour’s walk – and already avoiding our first leech – we arrive at a crowd of tourists: there’s no doubt about it, there’s a Forest Man (in Bahasa/Malay, Orang = Man, Utan = forest).
The excitement is overwhelming! We try to catch a glimpse of them, but they’re high up in the trees! Their movements seem super slow (like a cosmonaut in his spacesuit) but they move super fast. The jungle is dense and you never know when they’re going to move and in which direction, so it’s a real game of hide-and-seek!

We spent 1.5 hours in almost the same spot. First we saw a group of 3 orangutans, then a little further on a mother with her calf who passed very close to us. Crossing paths with one of these creatures will stay with us forever. It was incredible! They may not be able to speak, but you get the feeling that they’re communicating something to you through their eyes. This is probably because they have facial features very similar to humans, with whom they share 96.4% of the DNA (hence their name Forest Man).

To be completely transparent, it was magical, but we still found it hard to ignore the 20 tourists and their guides (including ourselves) with whom we were experiencing this encounter. Fortunately, the second and third days were very different. Our 3 companions had chosen the 2-day trek, so we spent the second half of the excursion alone with Bob.

sumatra Bukit Lawang orang-outan

Sleeping in the jungle

The first day’s walk ended just before 4pm. The last 100 metres before reaching camp were spent barefoot walking up the river. This first camp is very intimate. It is located at the bottom of a very narrow valley, on the bank of a tiny river where we bathe to cool off and “wash off” all the day’s perspiration. The whole camp is sheltered by the foliage of huge trees, giving it a cocoon-like atmosphere.

Our camp is made up of several huts: one that serves as a kitchen, two that are dormitories and two others that were unoccupied during our stay. Finally, a little further on, there’s the toilet block.

The dormitories are simple but effective: mattresses placed on a tarpaulin and protected by mosquito nets. We were provided with a blanket and even a pillow! We slept very well! It has to be said that after 60 days in Indonesia, we could live with the most basic standards. I’m not sure that the Dutch couple in our group, who were just starting out on their trip, felt as comfortable as we did (especially the guy who’s 1.90m tall).

Night falls early (6pm): the darkness and the tiredness of the day mean that we already want to rush off to bed. To keep us awake until a decent time, the guides keep us busy: we spend the early evening chatting, showing each other magic tricks or riddles with matches and playing the “Orang outan” game (the equivalent of the louse but renamed to fit the theme of the trek). We’ll last until 9pm, a more convenient time to crawl under the mosquito net and crash for the night.

 

Day 2 in the jungle: meeting the monkeys

The second day was a real sport! I can guarantee that we were sweating it out with the steep climbs and the humidity. This day was a great experience in terms of jungle trekking and we were lucky enough to come across several animals. We spotted Thomas Leaf Monkeys with their distinctive crests, a species of monkey that is also in danger of extinction and can only be seen here! We also came across baboons, pig-tailed macaques, gibbons and giant ants (they really are immense). We also unwillingly fed a few leeches. But no forest humans on the horizon. No problem, we loved being alone in the jungle for hours. It was a steep descent down to the camp for this second night: a dream location (personally, I loved this second camp).

It’s at the bottom that we get separated from the 3 other people who were with us because they had left for 2 days and 1 night. So this is where the adventure ends if you’re only staying for two days… Finally, the adventure continues a little longer as we return to Bukit Lawang aboard a buoy (we’ll tell you about our experience on day 3 below).
We were lucky enough to have very good weather, which allowed us to make the most of the place: swimming in the river, a view of the canyon, sunset over the jungle, monkeys on the trees opposite…
I could have spent hours observing nature and the green spectacle before us… The day ended with a delicious candlelit meal that we shared with our guide. The atmosphere was just as good as the day before, and before going to bed we had a chance to look at the starry sky. Another magnificent day!

 

Day 3 in the jungle: a unique moment

We wake up on the banks of the river in an enchanting setting. The atmosphere is even calmer than the day before, as there are far fewer of us. We enjoyed the river and the superb camp until 10am. The place is so beautiful that I could have stayed there all day. We left the camp on a doughnut-shaped buoy and sailed down the river. We set off for 30 minutes of tubing under a magnificent sun that illuminated the canyon’s “green walls”. It looked like a big tourist thing on paper, but we really loved the experience!

We asked our guide Bob to end the day with a final walk through the jungle to reach the village of Bukit Lawang. This was our last chance to see some orangutans… So we set off for another 2-hour walk. Once again, we loved having the jungle to ourselves. We passed the ruins of the former rehabilitation centre, including a platform from which tourists could feed the animals (we can confirm that it has been abandoned for several years now, given the ruins).

Suddenly… a huge tree collapses in the distance with a huge crash that echoes through the valley. We heard a male orangutan start to bellow in the distance, very close to the fallen tree (we later learned that it’s a cry to mark its territory). In response to this distant sound, another roar was heard, this time very close to us. Hurry! We turned back at full speed, making as little noise as possible, and Romain soon spotted the tuft of brown hair in a tree: it was a male, right in front of us at the top of a huge tree! We spent a quarter of an hour spying on his every move, and we couldn’t believe it! What a magical experience. We couldn’t have wished for a better encounter to end our trek… My eyes are still full of stars!

 

 

 

Gunung Leuser National Park & the extinction of the Orangutan

Many people dream of trekking through the jungle to see orang-utans in their natural habitat…
But then again…
These “men of the forest”, who share 96.4% of their DNA with human beings, are threatened with extinction due to deforestation. The number of orangutans on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia has fallen by 80% in 75 years, largely because of palm oil cultivation!

According to Greenpeace, 25 orangutans disappear around the world every day. The island of Sumatra in Indonesia is no exception. Today, there are around 7,000 individuals left in this immense natural park. Unfortunately, the park is becoming smaller and smaller as it is devoured by palm monocultures, which are used to produce the palm oil used in most supermarket processed foods, the best known of which is Nutella.
What is less well known is that it was originally a place where Dutch colonists started rubber plantations (trees imported from Brazil), which are now less developed because they are less profitable than palm oil. It’s all about money.

Following WWF intervention in the 1970s, the local people were banned from keeping domesticated Orangutans. A rehabilitation centre was then set up to allow the domesticated individuals to rediscover the natural environment. The centre closed in 2002 because it had in fact become a centre where tourists could come and feed them, and had therefore lost all meaning. This is why, at Bukit Lawang, you can observe wild specimens as well as some that are semi-free-ranging, as they are used to their human cousins.

Orangutans are now in danger of extinction not only because their natural habitat is shrinking, but also because it takes 6-8 years for a child to become self-sufficient, during which time its mother devotes all her time to teaching it how to survive in the jungle and has no time to reproduce.

Gunung Leuser National Park is home to more than just orangutans. You’ll come across black gibbons, white gibbons, Thomas Leaf Monkeys, macaques, etc.
The jungle is home to many species of birds, including hornbills (we saw some in Tangkoko, in North Sulawesi). We heard their noisy wings beating but didn’t see any, as they were probably well hidden high up in the trees.
And much rarer still: elephants, tigers and the Sumatran rhinoceros, of which there are only 25 left… I recommend the Netflix documentary “National Parks”, with Barak Obama himself on commentary, which devotes an extra episode to Gunung Leuser. It’s best to watch it after the trek, to avoid spoilers and false expectations.

Practical information for a trek in Bukit Lawang

To get to Bukit Lawang, the nearest town is Medan, 120 kilometres away (around 3 hours’ drive).
From Medan, you can choose between:

  • By bus (mornings only)
  • By grab (600 to 700k IDR)
  • Shared taxi (ask the trekking agency for advice)
  • Private taxi (idem)

There are several accommodations in Bukit Lawang where you can sleep the night before the trek.
We stayed at the Sumatra Orang-Utan Explorer accommodation, with whom we did the trek. It was really perfect! The rooms are spacious and comfortable, with balconies and lovely views. The breakfast is copious and very good… In short, it’s well worth the money (see on Maps).

There are also other accommodations, ranging in comfort from the most basic to the most luxurious.
Find them on Booking here.

We were delighted to be away for 3 days. It gave us the chance to spend some time alone in the heart of nature, and we had this incredible encounter on the last day. I should mention that we were spared by the weather: we didn’t get a drop of rain. The adventure would have been different in a downpour.

It’s up to you to decide, depending on your budget, the time you have to travel and your lucky stars when it comes to the weather and the people you meet.

We set off in collaboration with the Sumatra Orang-Utan Explorer agency, which offers an ethical and responsible approach to jungle trekking, while working with local stakeholders. Their approach seeks to respect the eco-system and biodiversity of the Gunung Leuser National Park, but also to protect the orang-utans from human germs, for example.

The agency is run by a Franco-Indonesian couple and they were very attentive from start to finish.
What attracted me to Sumatra Orang-Utan Explorer were their values, which I fully share. Their eco-responsible excursions and activities aim to support the local population and traditional activities, as well as empowering women. They try to promote eco-responsible tourism by minimising the impact on wildlife and the environment and maximising the positive impact on communities.

I also loved their accommodation in Bukit Lawang!
The accommodation is at the very end of the village, so you can soak up the great atmosphere all along the main alleyway that you pass on your scooter to get there. We were very well received: the rooms were charming and comfortable, the restaurant menu mixed local cuisine with a Western touch, and during the trek briefing we received goodies made by local craftsmen. They say that first impressions are important, and well, they won us over right from the start. The balconies of the rooms are veritable observation platforms towards the jungle on the other side of the river.

As mentioned above, we started out as a group of 5 travellers accompanied by 2 guides: one to open the walk and the other to close it. The meals were really delicious given the conditions (we were in the middle of the jungle after all) and more than sufficient in quantity. Special mention for the fruit breaks between meals: very refreshing and thirst-quenching.

Sumatra Orang-Utan Explorer aims to be sustainable. A “leave no trace” concept: no plastic and no abandoned rubbish. Of course, they don’t feed the animals. Nor do they call them (unfortunately, we heard several other less scrupulous guides imitating the noises/shouts to attract them…).

Our guide Bob (a real cream, by the way), who grew up in the village, was full of praise for them and the way they work with the local population. We didn’t try out any other agencies, but we can’t recommend them highly enough, as they were perfect in every way.

For more information, check their website: Sumatra Orang Utan Explorer
Or their Instagram @sumatraorangutanexplorer

 

There are two entry points: the villages of Bukit Lawang and Ketambe, a 3h20 and 7h drive respectively from Medan airport.

Ketambe seems more authentic and unspoilt by tourism. On paper, it looked like a more suitable destination for us, but as our visa expiry date approached (and our fatigue mounted after 60 busy days in Indonesia) we opted for the ‘easy’ option with Bukit Lawang, which is de facto the busier of the two… As mentioned above, we weren’t alone in the jungle!

Note that the chances of encountering Orangutans are close to 100% in Bukit Lawang (with the semi-wild animals), which is not the case in Ketambe. Ketambe will also be a little more expensive because the road to get there is longer.

It’s up to you to decide, depending on your budget and your schedule. And to put it bluntly: whether you want to be almost certain of seeing some (but in the company of 20 other tourists) or to rest on your laurels and try Ketambe, even if it means not seeing any or seeing them from a great distance.

Essential equipment list:

  • Hiking shoes or a good pair of trainers: this is essential for me
  • Rain gear (rain ponchos are sold in the village before the start)
  • Water (1.5 litres recommended by the guide)
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Hat or cap
  • Flashlight/frontlight
  • Power bank (this will be an experience without electricity)
  • Pair of flip-flops for moving around the camp in the evening
  • Roll of toilet paper / handkerchiefs
  • Warm clothing for the evening

If you have room

  • Spare socks
  • preferably knee-high socks: to protect yourself from leeches, you’ll need to adopt the Tintin look
  • 1 pair per day will be appreciated, especially if it’s raining
  • Swimming costume and microfibre towel
  • Preferably dark clothing (better camouflage to avoid being spotted by the animals)
  • A pair of binoculars (we didn’t have any)

Don’t take your favourite outfits. At the end of these 3 days, we came away with our heads full of images. Living in the jungle, even for such a short time, transformed us. It also gave us a new level of ‘personal stink’ hahahaha. Whether it was our clothes, our rucksacks or ourselves, the smell was firmly anchored. We were quite happy to move on to accommodation with a washing machine to do the necessary laundry.

And yet it didn’t rain. The humidity is everywhere, so nothing dries. On the contrary, the clothes we hung out on the washing lines in our dormitories tended to come out more soaked in the morning than the night before. The solution we found (for our socks in particular) was to put them by the fire. Or on the stones in the sun on the 3rd morning.

We had three very intense days. It’s very hilly: some areas were more like climbing. The humidity level in the jungle is very high, so you’re sweating after 2 minutes of effort. So you need to be in reasonable physical condition. Because of the leeches and the uneven terrain, I wouldn’t advise going there with small children. Or check with the agencies for a tailor-made programme.

 

If you’re at all aware of environmental issues, you’ve probably heard about palm oil and the deforestation it causes. The reason is economic, as it is one of the cheapest oils on the market. This is at the expense of the primary forests of Malaysia and northern Sumatra in particular. I had a knot in my stomach every time I flew over Medan and Kuala Lumpur, with palm trees as far as the eye could see… The same goes for road trips.

The jungle is burnt and razed to the ground to grow these palm trees.

You have to look in the mirror, it’s not much better in the West where the forests were razed much longer ago. Our guide Bob pointed out that we’re no slouches when it comes to monoculture in Europe.

 

To discover our itinerary in Sumatra (only in French for the moment)

Sumatra: Notre itinéraire de 2 semaines

 

Any questions about this special encounter?
Leave me a comment 🙂

 

More from Florence
Belgium: A weekend in Leuven
Streets full of bicycles, café terraces full of students, this is the...
Read More
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *