SOUTHEAST ASIA, 2003
Chapter 4: Bukit Lawang and the Orangutan Sanctuary
We were on the fabled island of Sumatra, having been carried across from Malaysia with great speed on a loud, smoke-belching passenger boat, now heading inland about 75 kms. as a crow might fly west of Medan or about three hours uphill by rough road into the rainforest at the southern boundary of Gunung Leuser National Park.
The tourist bus bringing us to the jungle was operated by employees of a local hotel, one night's lodging included with the fare. It took us past a well-worked countryside of logging operations, rubber plantations and small farms.
The makeshift village of Bukit Lawang is where the road ends and the wilderness begins. Going deeper into the town means following a two-metre wide path on foot up river between slapped-together business structures and patchwork dwellings. The result is a charming ambience, like navigating the world's most elaborate tree fort.
One quickly adapts to the campground atmosphere. Lodgings are cheap, the food is fresh and good, the locals are constantly smiling and the setting is wondrous. A happy jumble of commerce along a tropical river, jungle rising up both sides on steep slopes. The water has plenty of twists and turns, where deep swimmable pools form, allowing impromptu dips from nearby patios.
When we weren't trekking in the jungle, days were spent relaxing in the shade with a book, meeting new European friends or tubing down the wild Bohorok River from upstream of the village. (Danger warning: keep your rear end elevated while negotiating the rocky passages.)
At the end of the main path is the canoe-ferry, where a guide will operate ropes to bring you across to the orangutan rehabilitation center. The picture below is a view of the town from the trail leading up to the feeding platform. The building with the long balcony in the middle left was where we stayed.
Deforestation in Sumatra and on the island of Borneo is having devastating consequences for their orangutan populations. As these remarkable primates migrate from their now-compromised forest homes to nearby plantations in search of food, the adults are often killed by protective farmers while the infants are either left to die or are sold illegally to traders for reselling as pets in the cities of Asia. Animal rescue groups, when they can successfully recapture these orphan orangutans, work to reaquaint them to their natural habitat. It's not a simple process, though, as the apes must undergo an indoctrination of sorts into the ways of the jungle. For this, rehabilitation centers have been established. Bukit Lawang is the home of one of these.
In fact, the village sprung up in response to the Center's popularity. Western travellers come for stays at the facility, which offers the best and most expensive lodgings in the village or they stay across the river where local Sumatrans have built tourist facilities to handle the overflow. Visitors help with the upkeep of the program by paying for 'feeding time' hikes. These are short, uphill climbs above the center's buildings to a platform where rangers bring food to the orangutans who aren't quite ready to make it on their own. Although these apes, when wild, with their incredible strength, can be dangerous when angry, the ones we met had been raised with people and were very gentle.
One silly woman ignored the regulation against bringing food and subsequently had her backpack snatched away from her body in a lightning-fast manouever by one of the apes who dropped down from the trees unseen. She wasn't hurt, fortunately, so we didn't have to feel bad about laughing at the sight of the triumphant ape eating her cookies high above us.
We spent one hot morning visiting an open-air market on the highway side of town. An old gentleman insisted I take his picture and I was happy to capture the solemn pose. Further down, peppers and peppercorns.
If you spend any time in the village, you will be hounded by local youth until you agree to let one of them take you on a jungle trek. Fair is fair, it's just business, and not a bad hike once you're signed up, although with some staggering climbs. There are no switchbacks here, just straight up or down when confronting elevation.
More monkeys: macacques who followed us, and one of the beautiful Thomas Leaf species, who are shy but will come close enough when enticed by a banana.
Special note: I would feel disingenuous describing this paradise without mentioning the great tragedy that struck Bukit Lawang eight months after we were there. In November of 2003, a flash flood brought hundreds of thousands of logs from unregulated upstream logging operations crashing through the town. About 300 people were killed and most of the buildings along the river were destroyed. From what I can gather the center is operating again and the town has recovered somewhat. If anyone reading has a story about the aftermath or knowledge of how things are now, please leave a comment.
This post is dedicated to the victims of the disaster.