Mentawai, Jungle Trekking in Sumatra

Mentawai, Jungle Trekking in Sumatra

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was sold on Siberut the moment our guide Marwan showed me the photos from the last tour he led there. Marwan was a tiny man with a wispy moustache and dress sense that was more Blacktown than Bukittinggi. But his photo album was stacked with snapshots of near naked natives hunting monkeys in the jungle.

They were the Mentawai, a primitive people who lived pretty much like we all did a couple of thousand years ago. They were at one with the land and didn’t have a problem with near nudity. And according to Marwan, if we played our cards right, they’d let me and three of my mates join in. To prove his point, he pointed to a picture of a gaggle of fluorescent Swedes in tiny, poorly fitted loin clothes.

Yep, we were off to the jungle to find our manhood, Mentawai style. While I was a little concerned about Marwin’s qualifications for such a sacred duty – the guy’s business card rather disturbingly featured a pair of ‘hang ten’ surfie feet, after all – I had no fears about entrusting my inner male to the Mentawai.

You see, the Mentawai man is a bloke’s bloke. He lives in the jungle, wears a bark loincloth and hunts monkeys with bows and arrows. He has tatts all over his arms, legs and over most of his body. And he can have as many wives as he damn well likes. He also likes a smoke. “Aka Rokok?” (Roughly translated: “Got a ciggie mate?”) is a traditional Mentawai greeting. Hanging out with them in the jungles was a bit like having Colin Farrel officiating at your Bar Mitzvah.

The first test of our manhood came early and involved us actually finding the Mentawai. They don’t live in villages as such. They live in clan houses or umas. The umas are the centre of all social and ceremonial life and are basically big, open sided longhouses. The Mentawai, however, have a penchant for building them in the most inhospitable and inaccessible parts of the island.

It took us eight hours of tripping over submerged logs, falling down ravines and begging to be put out of our misery to even reach our first uma. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that it was actually Uma Thurman that lay at the end of my trek, not a thatched hut built over a pigsty. We arrived wet and homesick. And we stank.

That didn’t stop every young buck with an hour or two of the clan house coming to arm-wrestle us. The Mentawai are avid arm-wrestlers and I’m proud to say that even after the kind of day that made me curse the moment I was born, I was able to win 3/2 in a torrid best of five against a muscley guy with tatts and a ponytail. To be honest, though, I put my victory down to his poor diet and my poor hygiene.

Next on the agenda was a night of traditional Mentawai dancing. For a carton of Orange Rooster cigarettes our host, Danyuk, agreed to reveal to us secrets of the Mentawai that had been passed down from generation to generation through song and dance. The special feathery headdress was dusted off and a chook was sacrificed especially. There was a catch though. We had to wear a loincloth for the occasion.

We were each handed a long strip of bark and ushered into a small room to change. I spent ten minutes just looking at it, trying to figure which end was which and generally despairing at ever fitting it correctly. It was then that I first suspected that the only reason the Mentawai allowed us to use their island as a male bonding stamping ground was to have a laugh at our expense.

I was rather pleased with my first attempt. I simply looped the strip of bark between my legs and then round my waist. But when I tried to relieve a rather persistent itch caused by the rough fiber of the bark the whole thing collapsed leaving me standing stark naked. Thankfully, Danyuk came in and fitted the thing properly. It may have looked like little more than an environmentally friendly g-string, but at least it felt secure.

Out in the main room, half of Siberut had gathered to see us. Every one of them – man, woman and child – sat sucking on roll-your-owns as big as cigars and laughed out loud when they caught sight of us. Danyuk and two of his mates performed three dances – the chicken dance, the monkey dance and the pig dance – that seemed to consist of nothing more than two blokes chasing another bloke around a room and pretending to smash his head into the floor. I thought it was a good show, but the crowd’s minds were elsewhere. They wanted us to sing them something from our culture.

Sadly, all we could remember were beer commercials. I reworked a few couplets of the VB (Victorian Bitter) ad – adding a line or two about how you can get it falling down ravines – and my mate Sean led us in a few stanzas of “I feel good”. Danyuk and his family went away that night believing that the height of Australian culture consists of self-consciously holding your hand over your crotch and singing “I feel like a Tooheys or two”.

I don’t know whether our performance had anything to do with it, but the next day Marwan took us to a longhouse a few hours’ deeper into the jungle.

Mentawai man

This uma belonged to Magwa, the guy I had beaten arm wrestling. It was the largest we had stayed in and was set in a prettier spot closer to the river. The inside of the thatched roof was decorated with the skulls of all the pigs, monkeys and small birds his family had ever killed and eaten. Obviously Magwa was a man of importance in these parts. His wife was also the first woman I had seen on Siberut whose breasts didn’t sag.

Magwa was also a man with a rather keen sense of humor. It was his idea that we should try and get in touch with our primitive selves by putting on our loin clothes and hunting monkeys. We spent the afternoon shooting ourselves in the foot and being stung by stinging nettles in places that stinging nettles should never have access to. Magwa thought it was great. He enjoyed an afternoon’s worth of entertainment watching four silly Australian men trying to live out their Tarzan fantasies and got a carton of Orange Roosters to boot.

And if a monkey had come along I’m sure Magwa would have made it look easy, taking one last drag on his ciggie before disappearing to a vantage point hidden from both sight and scent. In his jungle hide he’d silently pull an arrow from his quiver and deftly put in place,waiting until he got a clear shot of the king monkey, the biggest of them all, still scratching his balls after a quick shag. With a click of his tongue he would catch the monkey’s attention, and for a moment they’d look each other in the eye, unmoved. And then…the kill.

But that didn’t happen. The monkeys proved a lot smarter than us and ran off chattering into the jungle on hearing our heavy foot (and occasional body) fall. I never had to ask that dark moral question of whether to let loose my quiver and the monkeys were left without facing the dilemma of whether to hang around that split second longer after we fired off a shot to make us feel like we got close. I’d like to think the monkeys were the losers though. If they had decided to stay they would have been treated to the spectacle of three unfit Australian men with a flimsy piece of bark wrapped around their wedding tackle trying to figure out how a bow and arrow works.

After ten days of this self-inflicted torture I am sad to report that I still hadn’t contacted my primitive self. But I was aware of every other muscle in my body. And what’s more, I had also come away with a unique insight into Mentawaian culture. Cigarettes will be the death of them. If they don’t die laughing at silly tourists in loin clothes first.

Peter Moore is an itinerant hobo who is lucky enough to be able to support his insatiable travel habit through writing. He has survived a shipwreck in the Maldives, a gas heater explosion in Istanbul, student riots in Addis Ababa and rates his first encounter with an Asian-style toilet as one of his life’s defining moments. At last count he had visited 93 countries and written five books. To find out more visit his web site at

Photos are courtesy of Brian Nevins, by way of Saraina Koat Mentawai, the only surf charter company registered in the Mentawai Islands. SKM is dedicated to supporting the local Mentawai economy by employing Mentawai residents and guides, locals who are dedicated to protecting the well being and natural environment of the Mentawai Islands.

Kayaking around Sumatra

Kayaking around Sumatra

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On September 20, 2012 by admin

In 2011 two young Dutchmen, Robers Versprui and Joost Bienenmann, set out to paddle their kayaks around the world’s 5th biggest island, the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Goal of this 4250km kickass pedalling journey  was to inspire people and get more attention on biodiversity, in particular local indigenous communities and nature. For this they will visit different conservation and social projects around the coast, to help and get more attention for these initiatives.

The four month long trip consisted of a daily paddle between 40 and 60 kilometer. Being completely self sufficient definitely made this trip even more kickass.


Surf Exploration In Northern Sumatra

Surf Exploration In Northern Sumatra

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I recently published my account of a surf trip to Northern Sumatra aboard the Mikumba run by Sumatra Surfariis, a great charter operator for Indonesia, in Everywhere Magazine. Everywhere Magazine is part of 8020 publishing that also publishes the photo-focused magazine JPG Magazine, filled with user submitted and voted on content. They’re both great magazines, check them out. Here’s the full pubished account below (link to story an Everywhere Magazine). Check out my photos at JPG Magazine. Incidently, the photo at the header of this blog is from this boat trip to Northern Sumatra without a doubt one of the last great unexplored areas of surfing. Unlike the Mentawais, there are only a few charters that operate in the area.

Points North – Surf Exploration in Northern Sumatra

We plan for months. My packing list is two pages long. There are of eight of us, surfers traveling from New York, California, and Hong Kong. We are embarking on a two week excursion on a converted Indonesian freight boat to remote tropical islands to explore and surf. We are going to surf waves that most surfers only see in magazines and videos and will have these waves to ourselves.

We start in Sibolga, Northern Sumatra, Indonesia after over 30 hours of flights and an overland trip across Sumatra. Sibolga is the last port before Banda Aceh, the northern most province of Sumatra and the one hit heaviest in the 2004 Tsunami. From the dirty anonymous port, we chart a course west. The islands where we will be searching for surf are so obscure and unexplored that after the 2004 Tsunami the Indonesian government relied on the help of the handful of surf charter operators in the area to chart courses to the isolated villages to bring relief supplies.

[Continued after the break]

Our boat, the Mikumba—a sturdy, 80 ft, wooden, converted freighter—lacks luxurious accommodations, but she makes up for it in space. There are two open decks above the main deck affording us a comfortable place to take in the stunning coastline. The crew cooks, cleans, and works hard at keeping her in shape. The engineer of the crew spends the night in the hot, stuffy, loud engine crawl space to make sure the engines don’t fail under passage.

sumatra 05 Adventure Story: Points North   Surf Exploration In Northern Sumatra

Our energized young guide, AK, relates the story of a surf break in the area called HI’s or “Head Injuries.” Surfers name the break after the captain of another surf charter fell on a big wave and came up with a large chunk of coral embedded in his skull from the shallow reef. The message is clear: though beautiful, these waves have real consequences and help is a long way off.

30 years ago surfers first started exploring the area. In 1975, three adventurous surfers hacked their way through the jungle on the island of Nias and discovered what would become the world-class surf break at Lagundri Bay. They stumbled upon every surfers’ dream: a beautiful, secluded, unknown surfbreak. Nias at the time was untouched by exploration. The jungle harbored dangerous malaria and indigenous tribes still practicing cannibalism. Their discovery of the wave opened a gateway that would change surfing; however, it came at a cost as one of the three adventurers died shortly afterwards of malaria.

Word soon got out of the wave at Lagundri Bay, and rumors spread of waves better than anything anyone has imagined in the islands south of Nias—the Mentawais. Intrepid surfers started exploring these islands by hiring rickety local fishing boats. Sleeping on planks and eating rice, they would spend weeks at sea for the chance to surf the best waves in the world and discover new ones. Eventually, a nascent surf charter industry built up around exploring these islands. What started with fishing boats became a competitive industry complete with luxury charters and over 60 boats competing for surfers’ business. Now there are a half-dozen land camps on the Mentawais, hundreds of documented and surfed waves, and legal battles over the rights to these waves.

Because of the open-ocean crossings and exposure to heavy swells and currents, exploring the islands to the North of Nias requires larger, more seaworthy boats. This means that only a few companies operate charters to “the North.” We encounter few boats or fisherman as we explore hundreds of miles of coast. Destruction from the 2004 earthquake and subsequent tsunami is evident everywhere. The earthquake caused massive uplift in some areas, up to 15 ft on some reefs.

On our fifth day, we find out first hand why only the sturdiest of surf charters makes their way up this far north. An afternoon squall turns into a storm. 10 ft waves pound the Mikumba at anchorage tossing her bow violently up and down. The captain and crew walk about restless and uneasy. We do everything we can to avoid getting seasick.

The storm abates by daybreak, and already we are motoring again in search of surf. Though no one slept much, the crew and our guide seem unaffected by storm. It’s clear now why the engineer of the crew sleeps in the engine room: there’s no one to help us if we founder.

The swell finally arrives. We wake up at dawn at a renowned surf break, a “secret spot” our guides insists that we keep unnamed. We are mesmerized by surf perfection. Waves start more than a mile out from our anchorage, open up wide on the shallow reef in a blue barrel and reel across it in beautiful groomed lines. There are few waves in the world that break with this consistency and length.

For the next two days we surf until we can’t any more. The wave has broken two of our boards and torn the fins off of two others. We’ve been spun on wipe-outs to the point of not knowing up from down and been dragged across the sharp reef. We are sunburned, chafed, and exhausted. By the time the swell subsides, we’re too spent to surf anymore. It’s everything we’ve traveled across the world for.

The swell fades and we motor south. The next day we surf a break in front of a tiny fishing village on Nias. As we surf, a crowd of locals gather on the beach in front of the wave. The children shout and cheers us on. The spectacle of foreign surfers dancing across waves in front of their homes is as exotic and exciting to them as it is for us to surf here.

We explore an island without surf. Populated by just a few fisherman, the island is stunning and pristine. We snorkel out in the current and watch a torrent of tropical reef fish of all colors swim below us. I’ve never seen a reef so alive. There’s nothing between us and Antarctica thousands of miles to the South, just open ocean and long lines of inexorable swell.

On our last night, our cook prepares a feast of lobster bought from the local fisherman. Clouds ring the horizon, and the sun seems to set everywhere in fiery colors of exuberance. We eat on the top deck of the boat looking out on hundreds of miles of open ocean and all begin planning our return.

Mount Sibayak

Mount Sibayak

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Drops of rain the size of teacups emptied on my head, my camera, and down my boots, drowning the blood-sucking leeches that had put Dracula to shame. On this wild, wet side of the volcano, drenched frogs ducked for cover and birds took a welcome break from their frenzied twittering. The emptying sky pelted the leaves, bounced off sodden rocks, slid down my neck and pounded the earth. Mistaking a puddle for a hidden step, I sank to my ankles in mud. The red tide gathered its resources behind me, and before I knew what was happening, I was slithering down the slopes of Sibayak on the seat of my jeans.

Annette and Stefan, who’s fault all of this was, were nowhere to be seen. Life was bouncing along quite happily before they came along. I’d spent the last few weeks on Sumatra muttering the Holy Rosary as we hurtled down mountain passes in candy floss mists. I’d narrowly missed being sniped by arrogant cocks in wicker baskets, leapt from under the wheels of ramshackle bullock carts and avoided the sting of vendors.

Then I met the people who were scheduled to climb the volcanoes with me. Armchair travellers we definitely were not – but neither were we turned on by the thought of balmy nights around a pool. What drove us were the adrenalin pumping climbs, the light in the eyes of a close up orangutan, the Indonesian abdominal roulette of each meal. I thought I’d seen and done everything, and at the base of this volcano, I had no idea that a couple of cigarettes would wreak so much havoc.

But then, I haven’t told you about Stefan, a French god with a chiselled chin and seductive eyes, tight little backside and an accent cultivated in French Caledonia. He was mooching around the lobby of our no-star hotel, waiting for the rest of our group, when I first saw him. To hell with spine-chilling adventure I thought – for this chic dude I’d trade adventure for the option of lying under coconut palms exploring French turns of phrase and teaching him our Great Australian Bight.

Neither have I told you about Annette, a lithe young woman from Holland – a total stranger until we were told to share rooms. She extended this to my toothbrush, my perfume, my hairbrush, and when I wasn’t looking, my diary. She decided to share Stefan too, from the moment she laid eyes on him.

That I was older by five years, and half as beautiful didn’t stop me being mortified. That is, until he lit up a Gitane under my nose, and all my dreams of swinging around Indonesia with this chiselled chin went up in smoke. Instead of a nicotine stained hand landing in my lap, I prayed for a fire extinguisher. And Annette? She too, wrecked my dreams of living an emphysema free life when she lit up her Gauloise as we were watching the sunrise over a silver lake.

Theirs was a match made in heaven. They hid behind their smoke screen, improving French/Dutch relations. Soon they’d disappear into rice paddies and behind erotic temples for a quick one. As for the rest of the group, had the film director Fellini been on the group, he would have a full supporting cast. In starring order, there was the anorexic guide, the fat heiress whose heart threatened to conk out every hour, the dyslexic scientist, the hyperactive diabetic, a mute computer programmer, and myself, a radical anti-smoker.

It was the two fireballs who made me fume more than any of the others. While they were determined to keep tobacco prices at an all time high, I decided it was my responsibility to clear the planet of smokers. They had each other, but my only ammunition were ten kilos of camera gear and a lot of lip. The climb up sulphur-puffing Gunung Sibayak in Northern Sumatra promised to be a breeze, compared to the ride up to it in the decrepit bemo whose sides were illustrated with an exploding volcano and a naked woman. It was packed beyond the cracked windows with fifteen sweating locals, a live chicken and our resident fumigators, Annette and Stefan.

Looking up at the wide, gravelled road that wound around the mountain, we were convinced the climb would be easy. It was holiday time, and part of the ritual was to spend a night on the mountain, unchaperoned. As testimony, every young Indonesian plus ghetto blaster were on their way down, barely rumpled after a night on the summit.

“Selamat pagi!” Good morning! “How you, why you fat, where you come from, how many children?” they exclaimed in their hundreds, yanking wildflowers, dropping cigarettes and chocolate wrappers, and kicking stones. We climbed steadily for hours, until the road narrowed and forked. The guide had sprinted off to find the dyslexic, the fat one was last seen panting against a rock, and when I asked the mute for directions, he just smiled. Annette and Stefan had scuttled into the trees ahead of me. I was alone.

To my left was a steeply excavated path of ash-white sand that rounded the volcano and disappeared into a pall of steam and smoke. On my right a track meandered into a tangle of jungle, from where I could have sworn I smelled a Gauloise. Thinking it was the lesser of two evils, I lunged into the dense undergrowth, ripping yards of thorns like velcro strips from my skin. Within minutes the thick vegetation disorientated me. Brambles scratched and grabbed, things squelched in my boots and spiders hung in hammocks across my face.

Annette and Stefan were nowhere to be seen, but I did notice a burned-out cigarette balanced in the fork of a stick. Visions of pythonesque snakes and leeches helped me fight my way out, and I rued having left my Rambo knife at the hotel.

When I finally emerged into the hot, pale sun, my hands and legs were bleeding, and I was no closer to the summit of the volcano. It loomed far ahead of me, mocking my ineffectual attempts to scale its yellow slopes. I waited, quite miserable, on a white rock until the guide found me, and then I followed her meekly, panting and sweating along a ridge of soft black rock and white ash, until we were walking on what could have been the moon.

Gunung Sibayak – the venerated volcano in Sumatra – appeared suddenly behind a curve in the path, its jagged black crater squatting in the middle of the lunar landscape. It puffed, spat, bubbled and steamed, spewing noxious plumes of sulphurous white smoke heavenwards.

The air was putrid and difficult to breathe, yet the total image was one of surreal beauty. The surrounding walls of the caldera were striated in metallic greens and ochre and yellow, interleaved with gleaming solidified lava. Occasionally a desiccated bush hugged the ground, waiting for the apocalypse to be over. My eyes stung, my nose burned, my lungs rebelled in short acrid coughs. I walked the final two hundred yards very slowly, so I could savour the astonishing primal beauty of what life must have been like in the Beginning.

I wasn’t the first to arrive. They were all there ahead of me – the dyslexic, the scientist, the mute and even the fat one – lined up on the rim, a jagged cutout of odd shapes illuminated in the strange light. They were shouting and eating their packed lunches of nasi goreng, squashed bananas and boxed lychee juice.

Annette and Stefan, babes out of the woods, lit more cigarettes, and made a place for me beside them to watch the spectacle. I’d had enough lung poisoning to last the day, and instead, scrambled down to the bottom of the crater where a milky lake bubbled, the colour of precious turquoise, surrounded by spitting fumaroles that globbed pockets of sulphur, which when dry, resembled gold nuggets on the wet, grey ground.

Sticking out of the ground beside popping fumeroles, looking just like miniature grave markers, were dozens of forked sticks supporting burned cigarettes. I told Annette I’d seen the same thing in the jungle.

“Ah!” she said, smiling. “It’s a ritual to ensure your safety down the volcano!” She squatted down in front of the fumerole and held her lit cigarette over it. “If it flares,” she explained. “You’ll have a safe journey. If it dies, you’re in for trouble.”

Hers flared like a firecracker. Mine blew out faster than you could say “Got a light?”

“Bloody superstitious nonsense…” I muttered, and stomped away.

We’d decided to come down the wooded side of the volcano, because it was cooler, greener and the few hundred excavated steps were am easier descent, or so the guidebook promised, before the jungle eased out near a sulphur processing plant and a hot spring.

Stefan and Annette advanced to test the terrain, so to speak, and for a while I was able to follow their nicotine trail of forked sticks, comforted by the distant booming of the processing plant and the cacophony of the jungle. I had, for company, some large flapping butterflies, the whooping of gibbons, darting lizards and bleating frogs. I was happy, sauntering down the jungle, singing some Amazonion flute music from the movie The Mission.

My mudcaked boots grew heavier with each step and there were times I doubted that I’d be able to lift them from the mushy ground. Then the sky opened on my head. All the water of the earth fell at my feet, and secure footings were washed away in a rapid river of mud. In the blinding deluge, I grabbed a thin poncho from my pack and tried to cover my cameras and my body, but the poncho clung to me as if it was made of plastic wrap. Protecting my cameras was more important than being able to move, so with my hands restrained at my sides, I began the gingerly descent.

Until I mistook the puddle for a rock.

So there I was, having the ride of my life, grabbing onto roots that left their moorings as I hurtled past, getting slapped in the face by lunatic lianas, slamming into rocks soft with moss, and praying that my cameras were sufficiently insured. The rain came in solid sheets, frogs rode tidal waves of mud, and I was covered by a bodypack of marinated leaves, a health treatment I didn’t need right at that moment.

The equatorial roller coaster did, eventually, cease, and I, bruised, bleeding, and in tears, checked to see that I hadn’t left some vital parts of my anatomy behind.

A cigarette in a forked stick mocked me from a cave shelter. “Annette?” I called as bravely as I could, but there was no human reply. “Stefan!” I was so keen to see them I decided I’d even settle for their smoking. All I got for my efforts were replies from a couple of screeching parrots and the resumption of the cicadas’ chorus.

Through the noisy dripping, I was cheered by the booming of the plant that sifted through the dense trees. I limped and slithered for a very long, aching time. Mosquitoes zeroed in on my scratches, and the stinging of nettles ceased to matter. Every now and then I’d scream the names of my compatriots, only to hear the echoes bounce off trunks and rocks and get lost in the wet symphony of the jungle.

I dripped and sniffed mud-coloured tears of self-pity, relying on gravity to steer me downhill to safety. I resembled someone who’s idea of having fun was mud-wrestling in cellophane. Finally, at a clearing in the rainforest, I saw the monstrous processing plant, growing like some awful edifice to technology in the next century. It clanged, snorted and bellowed, and breathed noxious fumes, a hideous structure in this wild part of the world, but for me it signalled rescue. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Harrison Ford sauntered out to greet me, holding the script from the Mosquito Coast in his greasy hand.

“Nice girls this way”, instructed an arrow, and my swearing disqualified me immediately. Some saturated workers sat under a leaking roof, not in the least surprised to see this bizarre apparition emerge from the forest. “More down, more down” they said, pointing down the hill.

I sloshed down a washed-away road past a village, pyramids of soaked pineapples, and a drenched dog. Some women deloused their naked kids from blue plastic buckets under a canopy, and shouted “Selamat Datang” as I limped past.

Then the rain stopped, as suddenly as if a hose had been turned off. There was a wooden fence behind which a woman sold tickets. There was laughter, and rising steam and clothes draped over the fence.

“Come in!” called two uncomfortably familiar voices. “The water c’est magnifique, lekker!”

When I opened the gate, Annette and Stefan were in a bubbling hot sulphur spring. Their ecstatic faces seemed to float on the milky surface. There wasn’t a bruise or cut in sight, and most odd of all, their hair was dry. When they saw my bleeding legs, my smashed camera, and my mud stained face, they got out of the water, wiped my face with a towel, and peeled off my tattered clothes. They laid them around the altar of two smoking cigarettes that were balanced on a forked stick under a shelter.

“Got a light?” Stefan asked, and winked at Annette. At that moment, I could easily have taken up smoking.

* * * * *

Published on 11/19/01

Lake Toba

Lake Toba

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Clouds of clove-scented cigarette smoke, diesel fumes, second-hand air: it takes a few gusts of fresh air off the mountain waters to dispel a fug like that. The four-hour ride from the steaming Medan had dealt me a blinding headache by the time the bus began to weave through the hairpin bends down to the world’s second-largest lake.

Spiritual home to the Batak people, northern Sumatra’s Lake Toba has been a stepping stone on the backpacker trail across Asia since the old Flower Power days. In 1975 I followed the flow to the island of Samosir, across this immensely deep, volcanic lake, where the Batak operated bungalow-style guesthouses, cooking up banana smoothies, pancakes and fried rice for a couple of dollars a night.

On Christmas Day we feasted and that evening I joined the local lads in their time-honored rituals: sniggering in the back row at church then calling on girls in their sitting rooms, the parents not-quite-asleep upstairs.

Two decades on, but my journey from Medan remained true to time-honored form, departing from a torrid, oil-soaked bus terminal only after several false starts. Halts to tout for passengers were soon followed by a half-hour lay-over for noodle soup and a fan belt or two.

The simian ancient seated in front chain-smoked as the woman beside him retched onto the floor. My knees were jammed in at an impossible angle. Our driver’s aggressive overtaking was excusable because other motorists anticipate such recklessness. And this was the deluxe, three-times-your-basic-fare coach service.

With my headache now slowly easing, I raised my skull off the bench on the ferry deck as we chugged in to land at Samosir’s Tuk-tuk Peninsula, the visitor enclave.

Tuk-tuk was unrecognizable.

Shoulder to shoulder, glossy properties lined the shore. Steeply-pitched Batak roofs capped many cabins but other units could have been transplanted from Majorca or the Canary Islands, enclosed in manicured gardens, sheltered by their own embankments and breakwaters.

I had been sweet-talked into putting up at Samosir Cottages, a me-too jumble of cabins tumbling down to the shore. The restaurant’s menu promised – and delivered – club sandwiches, spaghetti and milkshakes, but as of old, I inscribed my order in an exercise book.

What one adventure tour company calls “middle-class backpacking” had clearly arrived. At an establishment called Carolina’s, fancy landscaping seemed to justify upping the ante to eight dollars a night. Although comfortable enough, my first night’s lodgings had been strategically positioned behind a rubbish pit.

A few glimpses of Lake Toba’s old beauty began to reappear: the blinding emerald of the rice paddies, the clusters of prow-shaped roofs (echoed right across the Indonesian archipelago by other fragments of a once-widespread culture), the dugout canoes gliding through the shallows and the interplay of clouds on the hillsides out across the water.

Today’s travelers are still offered the pancakes, tours and money changing – as well as pizza and direct-dial calls home. Instead of woven matting, bed bugs and tubs of stagnant water they get glazed tiles and recognizable plumbing. Electric light has replaced the sputtering candles, and the old hand-painted signboards are giving way to the bland, neon-lit plastic jobs sponsored by Bintang Beer.

It’s not too hard to take: wallowing in a real bathtub – mounted on its dais like a throne – instead of flinching as I tip the dipper over my head.

At dinner I arm myself with a book but am soon interrupted by a plate heaped with (more or less) what I ordered. No more hour-long waits for a simple omelette to be prepared by untrained cooks.

No more of the old instant camaraderie with the other diners, either. What few there are, are engrossed in the CNN news.

Times are tough in Tuk-tuk. Up and down the road, restaurants, shops and guesthouses stand pathetically empty, night after night.

An hour down the coast lives Frans Manurung with his widowed mother, brother and great-aunt Marta. Their 200-year old timber house on stilts is entered by climbing up a stepladder and through a hatch into the sooty gloom. Frans speaks fair English, but it’s wasted in his present job shovelling sand. He lost his old job at a resort when the pall of smoke from the 1996 forest fires across Borneo and Sumatra scared everyone away.

Carolina Cottages seems to have the resort recipe just about right. The grounds are meticulously landscaped with hedges, huge shade trees and planter boxes. Cabins are scrupulously-clean and bright, well-plumbed and painted. Most impressive is an eerie absence of noise: no squawking chickens, no tear-jerking music at 6:30 a.m., no motorcycle engines.

A spacious dining room and lounge provide soothing views over the bougainvilleas, across the lake. My only gripe is with the banal menu, on which omelette, pancakes or cheese toast are the most challenging options.

It’s too easy to forget which country this is. I have to look up to see the ferries painted that ubiquitous Indonesian blue-green chugging past, their sterns enlivened by the flapping red and white flag. I might just have to slip out the gate for a cultural refresher, an authentically Sumatran Padang-style roadhouse dinner of fly-blown fish heads with chilli, greasy curried chicken and rice.

Samosir exerts its old pull only as my ferry pull away from the landing. The soft light of morning plays across the dappled greens of the escarpment soaring up behind the coastal plain. Church towers flash like mirrors as the villages recede. The lake stretches far off to the south, the blue-grey cliffs merging into the sky.

Fact File

Review government advisories before planning travel to Indonesia e.g. US Dept. of State at However, very few private travelers so far have encountered difficulty.

Most travelers require no visa to enter Indonesia for sixty days. SilkAir, an affiliate of Singapore Airlines, operates direct from Singapore to Medan. Jakarta is served by many international carriers, including the national carrier Garuda, which also services Medan and other long-haul domestic destinations. Domestic carrier Merpati Nusantara now operates an extensive domestic network independently of Garuda and separate ticketing is required.

Medan is reached from Penang by a short flight or ferry ride. Prapat on the shores of Lake Toba is a four-hour road journey from Medan’s Amplas Terminal via the Trans-Sumatran Highway. Railroad enthusiasts can ride third-class as far as Pematangsiantar, then continue by bus. Cash machines exist in Medan and foreign currency can be changed in Prapat or on Samosir, which is readily accessible by ferry.

Lonely Planet and Moon Publications guidebooks provide comprehensive logistic information on travel throughout Indonesia.

Samosir / The Old Batak Society by P. Leo Joostens is a locally-published paperback available on the island.

Published on 3/23/01



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Berastagi, usually pronounced Brastagi, with an elevation of 1220m, close to Lake Toba is a small, normal busy Indonesian town. Berastagi is located 70km from Medan. It does not rely on tourism so you’ll get to see the locals getting on with their lives rather than hassling tourists to make a living.

View over Berastagi town

There are some great day trips to be done from Berastagi. The area around is the main fruit, vegetable and flower growing area for North Sumatra.

There is 2 active volcanoes close to Berastagi. Sibayak, closest to town, 2100 meters high and fairly easy to climb and a great place to view the sunrise. And Sinabung, 2400 meters high, quite steep and difficult to climb, often getting on your hands and knees to climb at times.

Sibayak Volcano in Berastagi

Sibayak Volcano

Recent eruptions of Sinabung Volcano

7th September 2010 – Sinabung Volcano erupted today pumping black smoke 5km into the air, the most violent eruption since it became active again over 1 week ago after laying dormant for over 400 years. The eruption could be felt up to 8 kilometers away. Sinabung Volcano had 24 smaller eruptions the day leading up to this mornings eruption. 30,000 residents around the surrounding villages have been evacuated to camps.

Sinabung Volcano erupted on the 29th August 2010 and again on Monday 30th August 2010 spewing smoke and ash 2 kilometers into the air. This is the first time Sinabung has erupted in over 400 years. The second eruption on Monday was larger than on Sunday with possible increased volcanic activity.

An exclusion zone of 7 kilometers has been setup around the volcano though the smoke has been causing respiratory problems to locals around the Berastagi area. Some flights into Medan airport were delayed or re-routed on Monday though all flights are normal into Medan now. – last updated 31st August 2010.

12kms south of Berastagi is Kabanjahe, from where you can walk 4km to the ancient, traditional village of Lingga where the design of the houses with their horn-shaped roofs has remained unchanged for centuries. Five or six families (or from the Karonese perspective, one extended family) live in each house, but each has its own family stove.

Right next to the centre of Berastagi is Bukit Gundaling which is a hill overlooking Berastagi, Gunung Sibayak and Gunung Sinabung. At the top of the hill are some food and coffee stalls with excellent views over the town. There are also horse riding available up and down the hill.

Day trips out of Berastagi

Tahura National Park is a beautiful spot for exploring the jungle. There is a good waterfall and many clear and easy paths. You will almost certainly see wildlife a short walk into the jungle, gibbons or other primates, and have a good chance of seeing a hornbill or some other exotic birds. The Park also offers rides on Elephants and horses.

Hot springs are located at the base of Mount Sibayak with a variety of places offering pools for therapeutic bathing. Admission is generally 5000Rp.

40 minutes from Berastagi is the Sipiso – piso waterfall (‘like a knife’) on the northern edge of Lake Toba. The waterfall is 120m high and is formed by an underground river which flows out into the Toba caldera.

Sipiso-piso Waterfall, close to Berastagi

Sikulikap Waterfall around 30m high is 20 minutes from Berastagi. To get there catch any bus from Berastagi going to Medan and ask to be dropped off at Sikulikap. It should cost about 3000Rp for this trip. On the main road there are a series of basic food stalls with great views out over the gorge where the waterfall is located but you are unable to see the falls from there. At the bottom of the hill near the road bridge, on the right there is a path that leads through the rainforest to the falls. Should take about 15 – 20 minutes to walk to the falls. There is a good chance you will see monkeys within the rainforest.


The Sibolangit Botanical gardens are on the road between Medan and Berastagi, about 20km north of Berstagi. The botanical gardens contain giant ferns and moss covered trees.

How to get to Berastagi

Berastagi is 2 hours by bus from Medan. Local buses costs 7000Rp. Go to the Padang Bulan Bus terminal in Medan are there will be plenty of different buses to catch to Berastagi.

Accomodation in Berastagi

Sunrise View Hotel (2 review) is a great budget hotel with 8 rooms from 60,000 – 100,000Rp per night. Located 5 minutes walk from the town centre. Just up the hill on the way to the top of Gundaling Hill. It over looks Berastagi and as the name suggests has a great vantage point for the sunrise. For pictures, prices and contact details click here.

Danau Toba International. Rooms from 255,000Rp. For pictures, prices and contact details click here.

Mikie Holiday Resort (reviews) a 4 star holday resort hotel with large swimming pool with poolside bar, free in room internet access, WiFi internet in public areas, restaurant and 24 hour room services. Room prices start from US$33 per night (around 315,000Rp). For more photos, online booking and hotel reviews for Mikie Holiday Resort click here.


Berastagi Cottages (1 review) offer very nice clean cottages spread out around a peaceful garden environment. 1.2km from the centre of town. Cottages from 450,000Rp. For pictures, prices and contact details click here.

Hotel Sinabung is a fantastic 4 star hotel, one of the best hotels in all of North Sumatra. Located about 1km from the centre of town. Rooms from 700,000Rp. For pictures, prices and contact details click here.

Hotel Sibayak International (1 review) is a 4 star hotel, located about 1km from the centre of town. Rooms from 700,000Rp. For pictures, prices and contact details click here.

Berastagi 5 star accommodation

Mickey Holiday Hotel

Berastagi 4 star accommodation

Mutiara Brastagi Hotel

2 star accommodation

Rudang Hotel
Jl. Sempurna No.3,
Phone: (0628) 91579, 529717

Bukit Kubu Hotel
Jl. Sempurna No. 2,

Phone: (0628) 91533

Hotel Rose Garden
Jl. Piceren No.30,
Berastagi 22151
Phone: (0628) 91777

Bere Karona Hotel
Jl. Pendidikan 148
PO.Box 15
Berastagi 22151
Phone : (0628) 20888, 91488

G.M.Panggabean Int. Hotel
Jl. Merdeka No.9,

Berastagi 22151
Phone: (0628) 91667

Elshaddai Hotel
Jl. Veteran 65/66

Berastagi 22151
Phone : (0628) 91023
Fax : (0628) 91513

Latersia Cottages Tel (0628) 91027 – Around 20,000Rp per person

Last updated 30th August 2012

Tangkahan, Elephant Trekking

Tangkahan, Elephant Trekking

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Tangkahan is a small village on the border of Gunung Leuser National Park located in North Sumatra. It is situated at the junction of 2 rivers, the Buluh River and the Batang River. Tangkahan specialises in eco-tourism activities like jungle trekking and Elephant trekking.

There are 7 trained elephants at Tangkahan which are available for jungle trekking though their primary role is to patrol and protect the National Park from illegal activities like animal poaching and illegal logging. These elephants were original troublesome elephants that were involved in destroying fields and houses in surrounding villages. Now they serve to protect not only the villages but other elephants in the wild.

Tangkahan Elephant

When you arrive at Tangkahan you need to pay 2000Rp at the Visitors Centre to go down to the river. Then to cross the river it is 10,000Rp per person for 3 days, you can cross as many times as you like.

Tangkahan river crossing

Tangkahan River Crossing

Elephant camp at Tangkahan

The Elephant camp is a 15 – 20 minute walk up river from the visitors centre in Tangkahan. They bathe the elephants everyday at 9am and 4pm. You’ll need to purchase a ticket at the visitors centre for 20,000Rp per person before you go to the elephant camp. The elephant camp now has a new additional. A baby elephant about 1 year old comes down every morning and afternoon for wash with all the elephants.

Elephant trekking

There are various options for experience trekking in the jungle on the back of an elephant. There is a minimum of a 1 hour trek up to a 4 day trek through the Gunung Leuser National Park to Bukit Lawang.

In 2012 they changed the price of the Elephant trekking and removed the option of 2 and 3 hour treks. Now only a 1 hour trek on the elephants is available and the cost is 650,000Rp per person.

For more information and prices for longer tracks contact the Elephant Jungle Patrol via their website Trekking to Bukit Lawang is possible and will take 4 days.

For more information about how you can help save the Asian elephants check out the Elephant Family webpage. They are raising funds to help elephants all over Asia and Sumatra Indonesia. They currently have a veterinarian onsite in Medan, Sumatra who is helping to ensure the health of elephants all over Sumatra.

Hot spring

Just across from the Jungle Lodge is a small cave with a hot spring pouring hot water into the river. There is a large log tied up at the river bank which allows you to lay back and enjoy the mixture of the hot spring waters and cold water flowing down the river.


Just before the Buluh River meets the Batang River there is a small waterfall. You have to walk up a small creek about 100 meters to reach the waterfall. Great for sitting under to get a jungle massage!

There is also another larger waterfall about an hours trek up the Buluh River. Most of the way you need to walk in the river as there are no jungle trails and some sections you need to swim up river.

There is also the waterfall picture below. This waterfall is located in the direction of Pantai Salak. You first have to cross the river then walk around 4 kilometers. The waterfall is located behind the river Salak. You can get a guide to take you for around 150,000Rp or less if you bargain nicely. At the bottom of the waterfall is a beautiful pool of clear water, excellent for swimming. Be careful on the rocks of the waterfall as there is alot of moss so very easy to slip.

How to get to Tangkahan

There are 2 ways you can get to Tangkahan. From Medan there are only 2 buses a day leaving from Pinang Baris Bus Terminal, leaving at 10am and 1pm and taking around 4.5 – 5 hours (longer if raining). The cost is 15,000Rp per person.

Buses leave Tangkahan at 7.30am and 2.30pm to go back to Medan.

You can also get to Tangkahan from Bukit Lawang either on the back of a motorbike, a very bumpy 3 hour trip or hire a 4WD to take you. Prices for a 4WD can be up to 1,000,000Rp (US$83) for a one way trip.

Accommodation in Tangkahan

List of Hotels and guesthouses in Tangkahan

Jungle Lodge (8 reviews) is probably the nicest place to stay. Located 10 minutes walk from the river crossing. For pictures, prices and contact details click here.

Jungle Lodge accommodation Tangkahan

Mega Inn (7 reviews) located right at the river crossing. Prices from 50,000Rp – 85,000Rp per night. For pictures, prices and contact details click here.

Mega Inn Tangkahan

Green Lodge is located right at the elephant camp. Prices start are 85,000Rp per night. For pictures, prices and contact details click here.

Bamboo River Hotel (3 reviews) located right next door to Mega Inn. Price is 100,000Rp per night. For pictures, prices and contact details click here.

More information about Tangkahan

Recently a lot more information is being released on the internet about Tangkahan. Here are some of the better websites for more information about Tangkahan as well as organised travel there:

Organised travel to Tangkahan:

Information sites about Tangkahan:

More great photos of Tangkahan contributed by Pamela from Australia

Last updated 4th April 2013

Bohorok, The Great Apes of Sumatra, Part III

Bohorok, The Great Apes of Sumatra, Part III

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Republic Day in Bukt Lawang. Many visitors from Medan and surroundings refreshed themselves in the Indonesian holiday in Bohorok river in …

By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –

When we left the story last week, Dean and I had just come face to face with an extraordinary creature named Abdul.  A free, but not yet wild male orangutan whose eyes shone with an intelligence and knowing that was both unsettling and revealing.  Just as we turned to hike up the mountainside towards the feeding platform a female orangutan named Jackie came into the clearing walking upright on two legs and waved at us.  Instinctively, we all waved back.

She seemed to smile at us as she continued her rather quick approach.  Everything about her radiated happiness and her gaze was directly focused on our guide, Dharma.  After a cursory glance at us, she walked past the male orangutans eating their bananas, up the stairs to the porch, past all the other rangers and directly to our guide, Dharma.  Within moments we realized that  she cradled a small infant in her arm.

Jackie immediately took Dharma’s comparatively small hand in hers and stood quietly by his side.  He quickly introduced Jackie to us and explained the situation.  “She doesn’t want the food, she just wants to visit.” he said.  “We have been friends for a long time.”  The baby, he said, was a little male who was also named Dharma.

The other rangers insisted on this name because he and Jackie had spent so much time together that it was as if they were related.  It was obvious that this was not Dharma’s idea, but that he was quite flattered by it because it honored the long hard road they had gone down together and celebrated Jackie’s successful return to the wild.

We oohed and ahhed over the spindly little baby orangutan from a few feet away.  We all wanted to see more of him, but he was shy and kept his face tightly tucked into his mother’s protective arm, peeking out once or twice to get a little look at the pale strangers before him.  After a few minutes of peek-a-boo, Jackie tugged gently at Dharma’s hand and they turned in unison towards the jungle. We followed behind, still smiling from ear to ear.

As we began our trek up the muddy, slippery path toward the feeding platform, some 30 minutes away, Dharma explained over his shoulder that Jackie had been successful in the wild and that this was her first baby.  He pointed out that female orangutans begin to have young at around the age of twelve and that the gestation period was exactly the same as it was for humans; nine months.  Orangutans have one infant every seven to eight years.  Twins do occur but it is very rare.  Mother orangutans will breast feed and carry their babies everywhere for the first five years of their life and sometimes as long as eight years.  Even after the  mother has weaned her baby, it may stay with her for as long as ten years.

Orangutans are semi-solitary animals.  Breeding males are more independent than females, who often travel in small groups of other females and their young.   Unlike gorillas, orangutans spend most of their time in the trees.  Their powerful arms are much longer than their bodies and can reach between 7 and 8 feet across in mature animals.  Orangutans also have opposing thumbs on both their hands and their feet and can walk on all fours or upright as they desire.

Though they tried to follow us up the trail, the two males we first met were made to stay back at the center because they are not quite ready to make that big step into the wild.  Jackie led the way towards the jungle trail, walking upright on two legs.

For over thirty minutes of what I thought was a rather slippery, steep hike, Jackie walked upright all the way – holding baby Dharma with one hand and human Dharma with the other.  It seemed to us that she had the two most important things to her, quite literally, at hand.

With her friend and trusted teacher on one side and her infant on the other, she seemed willing to do whatever she had to do to hold on to both of them all the way to the top of the mountain.

As we hiked closely behind the leading pair, it was all we could do not to reach out and touch her long rusty fur, or the now wildly waving baby Dharma who kept reaching out from under his mother’s arm to grab my shirt or anything that got within reach.  It wasn’t hard at all to see the playful toddler in him – eyes glowing with laughter at the game.

I had a sense that Jackie wouldn’t mind if we touched her or the baby, but we had been told explicitly not to.  Not because she was wild or protective, but because we humans could infect her and the baby – and perhaps all the wild orangutans – with our very human germs.

Because orangutans and humans share around 98% of our genes, it makes sense that the illnesses that humans have can infect them as well. These illnesses, particularly viruses, spread like wildfire through orangutan populations that have no antibodies with which to defend themselves. The result of transmitting an illness to just one of these animals could be disastrous for them all.

So we walked respectably close behind without touching.  And we took turns walking behind Jackie so that everyone could get a better look at her and the baby in her arms.  It was among the most magical thirty minutes of my life and it left  me with the indelible fact that these animals not only think and reason and equate, but they love, too.

Once at the feeding platform, mostly overgrown with vines and covered in moss, two other young orangutans came to sip whey from day-glow pink cups and eat as many bananas as they were offered. These orangutans were shy of us and tended to seep back into the tree branches as they ate, just as they had been taught to do. Dharma explained that occasionally during mating season, large males would come in from the depths of the jungle in pursuit of females, but that otherwise, most of the apes that came here were young mothers and recently released orangutans.

Once the feeding was over the orangutans, including Jackie and baby Dharma, slipped swiftly and silently into the jungle without so much as a cracking a twig. Off to build a day-bed in the branches of some tall tree, or to browse for fruit or insects, or perhaps to sunbathe on the large flat rocks beside the river.

As we were left to wonder, a long-tailed Macaque who had been hanging out on the fringes, moved in to clean up the few bananas that had not been entirely eaten. “Cheeky monkey!” said Dharma. “You have to watch that one. He likes to steal bags and cameras”.

Before the words were out of his mouth, the Macaque slipped in between our feet and grabbed one of the ranger’s backpacks and scurried up the nearest tree. We laughed as he rummaged around in the pockets and opened all the zippers looking for food or shiny things, and once he realized there weren’t any bananas, the bag became worthless and was left hanging in the fork of the tree, completely out of our reach. The rangers just laughed and said, “We’ll be back”.

We turned reluctantly from the platform and made our way down the mountain again. As we descended, we caught a bird’s eye view of the valley below. Such a beautiful and far away place would surely remain a safe-haven for these wonderful beings; for who could destroy it knowing what lay at stake?

Our visit to the Bohorok Rehabilitation Center was an awe-inspiring experience. It made us look at our humanness in a way we never could before. To understand with such profound clarity how closely related we are to them, as with the other great apes of the world, is what you might call an epiphany. They are not merely similar to humans, they are kin.

It was love that made Jackie smile when she saw her human friend, Dharma, and it was love that shone in her eyes when she looked at her baby.

To stand beside these magnificent creatures and look into their eyes only to see ourselves reflected in them is a life-altering experience.  So if you are lucky enough to be trekking along a mist-shrouded trail on the island of Sumatra, perhaps you, too, will see it for yourself.

If you want to learn more about orangutans and the ongoing efforts to rehabilitate them to the wild, check out the Orangutan Foundation International.

© 2013 Jill Henderson

Bohorok, The Great Apes of Sumatra, Part II

Bohorok, The Great Apes of Sumatra, Part II

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By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –

(If you missed it, you can read Part I here.)

After walking through the jungle mist along a narrow foot trail that followed the Bohorok River upstream, the narrow dirt path suddenly vanished into an impressive wall of giant rocks that had obviously fallen from the surrounding bluffs thousands of years ago.  Although we were alone at present, this was obviously the place where we were to meet our guide for the trip across the river to the Bohorok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

In no hurry to end our little hike, we stood for a few moments enjoying the jungle sounds and a particularly nice view of a long sparkling waterfall across the river.  Playing hide-and-seek amidst the thick jungle foliage, it fell in a thin, silent ribbon from some high unseen place.

Suddenly, a slim young man was standing before us as if he had materialized from the surrounding fog. He greeted us with a warm smile and bade us to follow him to the shoreline where an unpainted, hand-hewn dugout canoe lay swamped in the river. Without a word, he waded into the water and began bailing.  He must have done this a million times.

The canoe was so narrow and so shallow that I could hardly understand how we were supposed to sit inside of it. But more alarmingly, it also appeared to be tethered to a rather thin overhead cable that spanned the width of the rushing river.

After a short wait, the rest of our party arrived – another couple and eight rangers.  It didn’t go without notice that there would be two rangers for each visitor on this trip to see one of only three great ape species in the world.

The first trip across the river was made by six of the rangers who gracefully filed onto the canoe and easily squatted on their heels while steadying themselves with one hand on each side of the boat.  The ‘captain’ stood upright at the stern and leaned hard against the taught vertical line that connected the boat to the overhead cable.

By applying his weight on the line, he was able to steer the canoe leeway across the current.  The trip that ferried the rangers over the river took less than three minutes and all landed safely on the far bank. When the boat returned, our little group climbed aboard just as the rangers had and the boat swung into the current with a steady, easy grace.

Once again on dry land (and not having flipped the boat upon exiting) we focused our attention on a large wooden building set in a small clearing at the edge of the jungle. One of the rangers stepped forward and began to explain what the center did and how the orangutans were rehabilitated.

In 1972, two Swiss zoologists, Monica Boerner and Regina Frey, with help from the Frankfurt Zoological Society and later the World Wildlife Fund, established the center to help rehabilitate captive orangutans and teach them how to live on their own in the wild. Most of the animals that were lucky enough to make it to this emerald green heaven had been rescued from illegal game traders, private zoos, circuses, and freak shows.

Orangutans that make it to the center are initially quarantined in one of three very large steel cages located in the center of the compound. Isolation helps prevent potentially deadly viruses from spreading to those orangutans already released. Once the quarantine period is complete, the orangutans are then taught how to make sleeping nests of natural materials, first in their enclosures, and later in trees around the compound.

Through the long process of rehabilitation, rangers slowly reintroduce each orangutan to their new home in the jungle, teach them which wild foods to eat, and how to find bedding materials. They also teach them how to avoid predators – including humans. While orangutans can easily walk on two or four legs, they are primarily arboreal and spend much of their time in the jungle canopy.

Once an orangutan has learned everything they need to know – which can take several years for each animal – they are encouraged to leave the center and live in the jungle full time. Sometimes that final step is a difficult and emotional one for both men and apes.

The first step into the wild comes in the form of a feeding platform located deep in the jungle. From this point on, the orangutan will only be given food by the rangers at this place and this place alone. Rangers hike up to the platform twice a day and hand out cups of milk whey and bananas to any orangutan that shows up. While these foods are very nutritious, they are also relatively bland and monotonous compared to the natural fare found in the jungle.

Dharma tells us that at the present time, there are approximately two hundred and fifty orangutans living wild in the jungle. Only 25 or so orangutans come to the platform for food and most of those only come once in a while.

Just as he finished his talk, two very large male orangutans emerged from behind the main building.  Apparently these two orangutans were free, but not yet ready to be alone in the wild.  Currently, they lived in the trees around the center and had been waiting for us to show up so they could receive their morning meal.

Abdul, the oldest and largest orangutan, came within several feet of us, while the younger orangutan scampered up a nearby tree and hung by his long lanky arms and legs in ways that seemed to defy gravity.

Mature male orangutans can live to be 55 years old, have a standing height of up to 6 feet, and can weigh up to 265 pounds.  Although Abdul is almost 13 years old and still a teenager in orangutan years, to a human like me, his height and obvious strength is more than impressive.

When Abdul decides to move in to have a closer look at us, I am suddenly more than aware of his size and strength.  There is nothing menacing about his curiosity and I am compelled to return his intense and direct gaze – yet, every hair on my body is standing straight and my heart is thudding in my chest.

Within moments, the rangers deftly lure him away from us by tossing a couple of bananas towards the tree where his younger friend is still goofing off.  I realize I have been holding my breath.

In few more years Abdul will be ready to mate, but he will have to compete with much older and much larger males already in the jungle. Even as he munches on the unpeeled bananas, his very human eyes stay fixed on mine.

I can’t explain what I saw in his eyes except to say that I recognized something in them that I never expected to.

Just then another orangutan appeared from the edge of the forest some thirty feet away, walking quickly and confidently towards us on two legs. In a quick and practiced gesture, she waved at us. Without thinking, we all instinctively waved back. We laugh a little nervously at her very human gesture and our immediate response to it.

I think that at that very moment we all understood – without any doubt or reservation – that these great animals were most definitely related to us.  But we were soon to witness a more profound trait that we humans share with these magnificent great apes.

Check back next week for Part III, the final chapter…

© 2013 Jill Henderson

Bohorok, The Great Apes of Sumatra (A Travel Story) Part I

Bohorok, The Great Apes of Sumatra (A Travel Story) Part I

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By Jill Henderson –

In the half-light of a misty dawn, we walked quickly down the narrow jungle path that wove its way along the high banks of the rocky river below. The thick morning fog oozed slowly down from the mountains all around us, shrouding its highest points in a mysteriously gauzy veil. We had only been walking for fifteen minutes, but already we were soaked in minute, iridescent beads of moisture.

We walked without speaking, each of us lost in the wonder of this magical place and our reason for being here. The rushing river below drowned out the softer sounds of billions of droplets of water falling from the lush canopy, but not the exotic bird songs or the gentle murmurs of waking monkeys hidden in their tree-top refuges. I wished that I had time to stop and absorb the feel and sound of this fantastic place, but we were in a hurry to reach our destination, for today, we hoped to come face to face with one of only three species of wild great apes left in the world.

As we walked, I was thinking of how lucky we were to be in Indonesia at all. This was the sixth Southeast Asian country we had visited since we left our home in the Missouri Ozarks back in February of 2006. Dean and I had been to Asia many times before, but on each of those trips we ran out of time and money to make it to the far-flung and enormous island nation of Indonesia. This time around, our entire journey would last for six months – plenty of time to get to Indonesia and do some exploring.

Indonesia is made up of over 18,000 islands and choosing which one to visit was definitely a daunting task. We finally decided to focus on the northernmost island of Sumatra because it is one of only two places in the world where orangutans exist in the wild.

The Malay words orang hutan translate into English as person of the forest. Originally, these were the words the native peoples used to describe themselves. It was European explorers who bastardized the native people’s chosen name, applying it to an animal that they both feared and respected. The native Malays did, and often still do, refer to the great apes as mawas or mawais.

Before colonization, orangutans were very rarely hunted by local tribes for food or ornamentation. But in general, the large, powerful, and very intelligent orangutan was both feared and respected. For thousands of years the orangutans lived in peace and the mist-covered jungles in which they lived remained relatively untouched.

The status of the orangutan changed most dramatically during the period of colonization, which began in the early 16th century. Later they became targets for big game hunters and were exploited as curios, circus acts, zoo animals, and trophies for the rich and powerful.

Wild orangutan populations also came under increasing pressure from logging, mining, palm oil plantations, and the ensuing encroachment of settlements filled with humans hungry for land.  By the middle of the 19th century, it was rare to see an orangutan in the wild.  More recently, illegally obtained orangutans taken have been used as side a show attractions in which the animals are forced to box one another in a ring.   Over the last 200 years, the few orangutans that managed to escape humiliation and slow death at the hands of humans did so only by withdrawing into the deepest reaches of the jungle.

I was fully awake by the time we arrived at the dugout canoe that would take us across the rocky Bohorok River, which cuts the small mountain village of Bukit Lawang in half.  Just two years before, this small community was nearly wiped off the face of the earth when the river jumped its banks during a fierce rainstorm in the middle of the night.

The muddy torrent made its way swiftly down the narrow canyon at the head of the village and in only a few short moments, swept away nearly everything in sight, including 400 houses, 8 bridges, and 239 men, women and children.

Even as we arrived, the town was still being rebuilt. The depth of their sorrow was visible in every face, no matter how big the smile. As the locals told us their stories of that horrendous night, all pointed to the lush jungle-covered mountains and said that illegal logging in the jungle preserve was to blame for the terrible flash flood.

The entire country had been so focused on the aftermath of the recent tsunami along the Indonesian coast, that the little village of Bukit Lawang, which was hit by the flood less than 10 months later, was little more than a blip on the radar. With tourism all but dead prior to the flood, all the town had left was the strength and resilience of their community and the largely abandoned orangutan rehabilitation center on the edge of town.

All of this was on my mind as I walked silently down the narrow jungle path to the waiting dugout amidst the sounds of cascading water and birdsong. Although I hoped to see orangutans in the wild on this journey, at this very moment, I was completely satisfied just to be here in this stunning place with these incredible people and adding my small sum to the recovery of a community still struggling to survive.

Tune in next week to catch Part II of The Great Apes of Sumatra (A Travel Story), and our close encounter with wild orangutans!

© 2013 Jill Henderson