Chased by an Orangutan in North Sumatra

Orang-utan!I have to admit, I got a bit of culture shock when I arrived in Medan airport, Sumatra. In comparison to its close neighbour, Singapore, Indonesian Sumatra is a WORLD apart. My Tiger Airways flight was only one hour but it felt like a long ways away. I was headed to to Bukit Lawang, where I planned to do a jungle trek and hopefully spot some orang-utans! To say that I was hoping on spotting some jazzy, swingin’ Jungle Book-style primates, is a bit of an understatement.

Our close relatives, the orange haired orang-utans, can be found in the Sumatran jungle and in Bukit Lawang there is a rehabilitation centre, so when you are trekking nearby you can be (almost) sure to spot a mix of semi-wild and wild orang-utans.

The trek from airport to Bukit Lawang was a long ‘un. I arrived into the airport about 11.40 and didn’t get to BL until about 6pm that evening. Firstly by bus, followed by a taxi, I was then crammed into the back of a rickety 12 seater mini bus full of locals many of whom were smoking on the bus (ICK) but in general it was a fine journey.

At the bus terminal, Aris a local guide helped me get a becak (a motorbike with side car) down to the village and then helped me with my bags to get to Green Hill, the guesthouse I’d booked for a couple of nights either side of my trek. It was a bit of a slog, up and down very steep and slippy steps, to get there and I was very thankful when Aris offered to carry my bag! I have been lucky enough to be able to wheel my Osprey Meridien backpack most places but so glad it can be converted to a backpack – I needed it there and I’m sure will need it again!

The guesthouse was nice but basic – bucket shower! I haven’t seen one of those since I was in Guinea in West Africa! And the squat toilet…oh the joy. The room was private with double bed and mossie net, a steal at 65,000 IDR which is the equivalent of about 4 euros.

Mina!I booked a two day jungle trek (720,000 IDR) at Green Hills, which took us through Gunung Leuser national park. The trip included one day hiking and orang-utan spotting, camping overnight in the jungle followed by a hike to a waterfall and then tubing/rafting down the river back to Bukit Lawang.

Bloody hell, it was TOUGH. We hiked for about 6 or 7 hours the first day, which wasn’t too bad in itself but for the fact that we were constantly going UP and DOWN very steep hills filled with muddy rocky ledges, abseiling down the sides of hills using vines, and generally clambering and climbing around the place. The SWEAT, oh the sweat. Even my earlobes were sweating.

Near enough to the beginning of our trek, we spotted a few orang-utans hanging out in a tree. They were a bit away but we could see them and especially one of them who was frankly a bit of a show-off. It was pretty incredible to see them up close like that, and just wonder at the beautiful creatures they are. There was a mother and child together, and the mother was teaching her baby how to swing from the branches. I didn’t realise this before but orang-utans only breed every 6-8 years, giving  them enough time to teach their young how to survive and live in the jungle.

After a while (of slogging our way through the jungle), our guide got a call – I seriously couldn’t believe he had a signal in the jungle,  I barely had one when I lived in Clontarf – from another guide who told him that ‘Mina’, a quite aggressive 45 year old female orang-utan, was spotted near to where we were hiking. We were told to be on alert and if we see her, one of our guides will distract her with some fruit while we walk the opposite direction. She attacked a group a while back and when the guide tried to protect the tourists she broke his finger, so since then she has been very wary of groups passing through.

Mowgli climbing trees

We did stumble upon her but our guide’s assistant ‘Mowgli’ played distraction. She stared at us for a while, so we didn’t really have much time to take a look and were hurried along our route.

We were almost at the end of the hike for the day, when our guides noticed another couple of orang-utans in our path. They were a bit ahead but the guides knew that one of the orang-utans was also quite aggressive. We had to be very quiet and were literally waiting on tenterhooks to find out if Mowgli could distract him while we took another route. It seemed that no matter what direction we took, we could see the orang-utan following us from a short distance away, the treetops ruffling as he swung from branch to branch. We turned back the opposite direction and our guide told us to be quick, as we didn’t have much time. Mowgli was still behind trying to distract the orang-utan while we made our way down a very very steep jungley hill which seemed to never end, full of muddy leaves, trees and roots sticking out of the ground.

Aris was telling us to be quick and then suddenly we heard Mowgli shout ‘RUN!’ Alexandra and Webo, a Dutch couple, were just behind me and the orang-utan was right behind Webo chasing us down the hill! He said he turned around at one point and looked the orang-utan straight in the EYES! They (obviously) panicked and slid down the hill, the rest of us trying our best to go as quickly as possible downhill without tumbling over face first. I was saying over and over again ‘It’s okay, we’re gonna be okay!’ to the guys behind me but also to myself for reassurance. Jesus, it was SCARY. With a serious case of the leg wobbles and heart rate through the roof, we scrambled downhill until we made it to a clearing and Aris said it was okay, the orang-utan had scooted back up the hill…we survived!

Campsite on the banks of the river

There was quite a bit of a hike to go after this, and when we finally arrived at the riverside campsite it was such a relief! The hike was really tough, but being chased downhill by an orang-utan on top of that? Insane.

The next morning after breakfast we hiked upriver and tubed across to a beautiful waterfall before making the journey back by tube-raft to the village. We were all floating along on these tubes while two of the guides steered and rowed the raft through rapids downriver. At one point, in one of the stronger rapids, our raft almost toppled over – on my side, of course – Aris fell in, and I almost did but managed to grab on. I mean, on any normal day, that in itself would have been slightly traumatic but compared to the orang-utan incident it was graaand. I think that will be my marker for comparison to all things now. I shall ask myself, when in a moment of panic or distress, ‘Is this worse than being chased by an orang-utan?’ I’m hoping, in a lot of cases, the answer will be ‘NO’.

Oh and if you find ever yourself in Bukit Lawang, be prepared to hear a constant reminder of the Christmas song ‘Jingle Bells’ …

“Jungle Trek, Jungle Trek, in Bukit Lawang,

See the monkeys, see the birds, see orang-utan

Jungle Trek, Jungle Trek, in Bukit Lawang,

See the monkeys, see the Mina, everybody RUN!”


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