Tag Archives: rafting

INDONESIA – Hanging with orangutans in Bukit Lawang

Welcome to the jungle…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

“Welcome to the Jungle, eh.”

It was a phrase we were to hear repeatedly over the next three days, along with “lovely jubbly”, “easy peasy lemon squeezy” and “owight maaay” (think cockney impersonations). It appeared we weren’t the first tourists here. In fact, one of our guides, Bobby, had been doing this for 15 years.

My first encounter with an orangutan was not in the wild, but rather in a zoo in Spain. I can’t remember how old I was, but my elder sister was being passed off as under 12 by my mother, who only wanted to pay a child ticket for her. My mother, the serial age deceiver: honest to the core…except when it comes to child fares. It must be why I always think I’m younger than I actually am. Anyway, back to the orangutans. Holed up in a large (but not nearly large enough) wire cage, a small baby had poked its head between the bars and got it lodged there. The mother was frantically trying to free her baby by pulling its legs, but this only caused the baby to scream in distress. Eventually the mother was shot with a tranquiliser gun until the baby could be freed, but the whole thing made a huge impression on me. I wanted orangutans to be free and I wanted to see them in the wild.

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In 1973 two Swiss zoologists, Regina Frey and Monica Boerner, came to Indonesia to rescue orangutans that people had kept as domestic pets. A law was passed banning this kind of activity, but what of the animals already raised in captivity? Regina and Monica opened up a rehabilitation centre where the animals stayed before releasing them back into the jungle – the jungle of Bukit Lawang. Fast forward however many years, and we were here to see these awesome beasts in their home territory…and definitely on their terms.

We had only been climbing, albeit it steeply, for about 10 minutes when we came across a mass of tourists. More than we had seen the entire time being here anyway. The object of their affection was a semi-wild orangutan, who had thoughtfully come down to visit them. I was happy enough to watch from a distance, not wanting to crowd her or feed her unnecessarily. Some of the guides had given fruit to their guests to feed her so she would come close, but the point was to try and keep them as wild as possible, so I was glad when our guides said they didn’t  feed the orangutans unless absolutely necessary. It wouldn’t be long before we found out what they meant…

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With a reputation that preceeded her, Mina, the oldest of the semi-wild orangutans, was one to watch out for. Many a guide carried the mark of her teeth on their bodies through one altercation or another. The story goes that one of her babies disappeared in the wild and since then she has been very aggressive towards humans. Face of a mafiosa, when we saw it, there was no mistaking it was her. She had positioned herself in the middle of a small clearing. Some tourists had passed by her and were on the far side. We were approaching on the other. I could see how uneasy she was about being surrounded, but there was no doubt about who would come out on top if it came down to it. As we tried to creep past, she started to come towards us. The guides were taking no chances; they pulled out some bananas, which they passed to her from as far away as physically possible, as we slipped away.

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After a slow but arduous climb and equally steep decent, we reached camp. Here we were met by Rahim, our jungle chef. Hungry and tired, we wolfed down the amazing selection of food cooked for us. How on earth did he manage to get all the supplies here to the middle of the jungle, we wondered. “Short cut.” Looking at the phone’s GPS, we could see we were suprisingly near where we started our trek. Seems we had been taking the scenic route, but we certainly weren’t in the middle of the jungle. We hung out our stinky wet clothes and tucked ourselves into bed, drifting off to the sounds of nature.

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“Mr Ant.”

The next morning we were unsurprised to find that our clothes were still soaking wet and just as smelly as we remembered. Reminding ourselves we would be just as wet within about 10 minutes of hiking, we forced ourselves into the same clothes as the previous day and set off on what seemed to be an even steeper path through the jungle.

Maybe it was that the hike was harder today, or maybe just that we didn’t see any animals, so we had no reason to stop, but we were feeling it. This was especially true of the girl of the couple we were with, Mylan. Afraid of insects and struggling with the ascent, she was certainly not in her element. Nick, on the other hand, was absolutely loving the insects, particularly the ants. The day before he had actually missed the entire approach, hangout, and disappearance of several orangutans, because he was taking photos of ants. It was on this day that he received his nickname, “Mr Ant.”

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“Keep moving, keep moving.”

We were nearing our camp for the second night, resigned to the fact that we would not see any animals that day (bar the ants), when we saw a flash of orange up ahead. I checked to make sure Nick hadn’t gone ahead. No, it wasn’t his beard; it was pure orangutan and it was headed our way. In fact, as the orange got closer, we saw there were three of them – the mother was Jackie and she was accompanied by one large baby and one tiny one.

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This was the moment we had been waiting for all day, but the guides seemed intent on moving along quickly. Hang on a minute, we thought. We hadn’t seen any animals all day, and here we were being rushed away from these three. Jackie landed and Heri, one of our guides, went to distract her so we could pass. Reluctantly, we kept moving, but the Canadian couple hung back to take a photo just a few seconds longer. Before we knew it, Jackie was on the path with me and Nick ahead, the Canadian couple behind. As Mylan tried to walk past, Jackie’s hand was already firmly around her wrist. Ha.

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So, what to do now? Jackie wasn’t aggressive, but she knew what she was doing, and that certainly didn’t involve letting go. As we continued along the most difficult part of the path yet, Mylan was led by Jackie, who at times, politely signalled her to go first. Unable to free Jackie’s firm grip, she did as she was told, although trying to keep at an orangutan’s pace through the jungle was no mean feat. Hurried along the path, we reached a flat bit of land and Nick, Mylan’s boyfriend and I were instructed to carry on the path out of sight. Selfish as we both knew it was, we admitted how much we would have liked to be the one being latched onto by Jackie. However, the reality is, this kind of contact passes bacteria between the two and can be very harmful for both human and animal.

Finally Mylan caught up with us, Heri the guide still out of sight. As Heri had passed her some sugar cane, he had managed to distract her enough to prise Mylan’s arm free and tell her to leg it (probably followed by “take your time – you’re on holiday”). Jackie had got what she wanted all along. Mylan was her hostage and sugar cane her ransom.

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Take your time, hurry up, choice is yours, don’t be late…

If I didn’t know better, I’d have said that it was not Kurt Cobain, rather our other guide Heri that had written this. The next morning Nick and I opted for a couple of hours trek before meeting the other guys, obviously out-jungled, at a waterfall.

“We’ll have to leave at 8am,” Heri decided.

By 7.55am we had shoes on and were raring to go. No sign of Heri. At 9am I found he had returned and was, surprise surprise, smoking a fag in the kitchen.

We had been waiting for him for an hour, but we bit our tongues at his suggestion that we should “take our time, relax, no worries, you’re on holiday.”

We hadn’t been walking long when we came across a big group of long tail macaques. Good news. This was why we were hiking after all – to experience the animals in their natural habitat. Naturally we stopped to take pictures.

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“Ready? Are you ready? Mr Aaannt..?”

Nick had no sooner got his camera out than Heri was rushing us on. Fags were obviously higher up the food chain than monkeys. We made the decision there and then to skip the trek and instead opted to stay and watch the monkeys, Heri’s incessant chatter about relaxing bubbling away in the background.

We watched them for a good half an hour, the dynamics of each group giving new interest: two tiny babies wrestling in the trees, tumbling down and crashing into a preening session, whilst close by the alpha male did his best for procreaction, although his best was a few seconds at most.

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Even when we got back to camp, the fun was not yet over. We had one important part of the journey left – rafting on the river to get back! It was a fitting end to an unforgettable three days.

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NEPAL – Rafting the Kali Gandakhi part 2

It turned out that our campsite for the night was close by and within sight of the beach-come-graveyard. The guys put a tent up for us on a perfect sand beach and set about preparing starters, popcorn and spaghetti. Candles were dotted around camp and a toilet set up. The stars were bright and we could see the Milky Way fairly clearly.

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Our first campsite

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The next morning on the river we were approaching some rocks when a few young boys sitting on them waved at us and motioned us over. We couldn’t stop and thought they were just curious to meet us. We found out later that one of the boys who had been swimming had drowned half an hour before and they were trying to find his body. Even one of our guides admitted to us he had lost two friends to this river. It was to be feared and respected in equal amounts.

Not long after, we passed a river bank where a jubilant crowd was gathered. They seemed keen to say hi to us, and the younger ones were taking photos of us drifting by, so we shouted back our own greetings. We wondered whether it was some sort of party.
Then we noticed the pile of rocks.
And the fresh bamboo.
Oh. It was a funeral and a fresh grave.

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Steph fetching water for the cooking and washing up
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Bored of Nick's banter, this guy tried to hide

That night Steph and I decided to sleep in the open air rather than in a tent. The setting was stunning, and it was certainly an experience, but I don’t think either of us had a full sleep. Giant ants were everywhere and the scorpion we found earlier may have made us jumpy.

The trip was such a exhilarating experience and a huge amount of fun. We absolutely loved it. It was a true adventure with some unexpected and revealing moments. It made us respect the power of the river, respect nature, and respect life in general.

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Our bed on the second night
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Scorpion

NOTES:
The trip cost 16,000 Nepali Rupees ($160 or about £100) for everything. We used “Adrenaline rush” I think. The staff said they were mostly freelance and work for many different companies, so the reputation of a specific company is hard to guarantee, as your experience will depend on who is working on that particular trip.
The private bus took about 3h at the start and 5h to get home. The food was mostly western, so that part wasn’t so exciting, but being cooked for in that kind of situation was pretty impressive.

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This is the 20km we did before lunch on day 2. In total we paddled from roughly Kushma to Harmichaur, about 50-60km

NEPAL – Rafting the Kali Gandakhi

A three day journey down the holy Kali Gandakhi river.

(Written by Nick)

I had heard that Nepal was famous for white water rafting, but it wasn’t until we walked into the rafting shop in Pokhara that we realised the scale of it. The image in our heads of a couple of hours on the river was quickly washed away as we learnt of the possibilities of much more adventurous options. This was to be one of those rare instances where an organised trip in South Asia turns out to be better than you imagined.

We booked onto a 3 day, 2 night trip on the Kali Gandakhi river. Neither of us had been rafting before. The closest we’d got was paddling our tiny 2-man dinghie down the miniscule and very calm Itchen river in Winchester, England. The only possible dangers were from swans and angry land-owners, one of whom threatened us, quite unnecessarily, with a theoretical shot gun. The man was both an ex-soldier and an ex-policeman, which may go some way towards explaining why he had issues.

Anyway, the logistics of this trip were as follows:
Six of us would paddle the raft with a guide steering at the back. A separate raft would follow ours with the staff, food, tents and our luggage in waterproof cases. The only other guests were a surprisingly young family of four from Australia, who we fortunately got on well with. The parents Rick and Julie had a love of Nepal and had given their children the Nepalese names of Sunita (15) and Malik (10).

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Our team

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My camera is not waterproof, and although I could have stowed it on board in a waterproof box for retrieval in the evenings, I decided not to risk it. So, unfortunately the only photos I managed to get were on my phone…and of times when we weren’t on the boat!

The fun started immediately as we set off down the wide, roaring river at a decent speed. Even before we reached the first rapids, the power of the river was palpable, and it made you realise just how dangerous a place it could be to swim, or to fall overboard. That hadn’t prevented a few foolhardy children from challenging themselves in the strong currents, though.

By the first rapids we had all been completely soaked by waves that came crashing over both the bow and the sides, and we were all laughing hysterically. Our guide took great pleasure in ordering us to paddle straight into the largest and steepest waves and that anticipation of riding down one side, into an inevitable drenching, never got boring. It often felt like the whole boat would capsize. The only thing better than getting hit by a wave was when it was only Steph’s side of the boat that was hit.

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Riding in the raft and paddling around rocky outcrops and through multiple rapids (grades 3 – 4+ apparently) would have satisfied me even without the view. But the scenery – oh my days! The raging river cut its way through steep, narrow mountain valleys, covered in jungle and dotted with houses made of bamboo. We’d round a bend to see the glowing bright greens of terraced rice fields following the gentle contours of the ridge and then spot a solitary house above a sandy beach. This was one of many dream homes we fantasized about owning.

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A birds-eye view of the river

For some of the journey we were lucky enough to have a clear view of a couple of snow-clad peaks looming over us. Dressed in shorts and T-shirts, and covered in sun-cream, it was both stunning and surreal, and I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

Throughout the trip, we passed no towns, and when there was a road, it was free of traffic and the sound of horns. Far more common than roads were foot bridges, dangling precariously over the river. There were so many of them, and whenever anyone was walking across, they would stop and wave enthusiastically.

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The calm section at the end near a dam

In the afternoon the sky turned an unrealistically deep shade of orange. “Damn. I wish I could take a photo,” I thought for the hundredth time that day.
In fact, the reality wasn’t as natural and serene as it looked. A new road was being cut into the mountain and pneumatic diggers were levelling the way.
They were simply bulldozing everything in their way off the side of the road to roll down the mountain and into the river. It was this that created the browny-orange haze in the valley. Our guide, Gotam, whistled loudly to let the workers know we were approaching and they did what any considerate fellow human would do – carried on regardless! The river was far too powerful to paddle upstream, so we had to attempt to steer away from the river’s edge and hope we weren’t hit by the boulders rolling down the mountain and crashing into the water.

The road building was interesting to see. The boulders took out the trees on their way down and all other vegetation was covered in a blanket of soil. Previously a lush green jungle, now everything below the road was a brown or grey scar.

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One of the pedestrian bridges
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Steph overlooking our camp site which is on the right side

Normally the staff take kerosene to cook with, but because of the problems with Nepal’s fuel and gas supply, following the signing of the new constitution, we had to improvise. Gotam had us try to moor the raft on a bank so that we could look for firewood, but we didn’t paddle hard enough and ended up landing on a different riverbank on the other side of the confluence of the Modi river. This seemed like as good a place to seek wood, but the Nepalese guys were acting strangely. As we set about the rocky beach poking around for timber, they warned us not to take any bamboo we found. Ok, fair enough – I guess it doesn’t burn so well. Anyway, I was one of the first to find a decent lump of wood, so I was keen to find more.

“Where did you find that wood?” I was asked.
“It’s ok – it’s dry,” was my reply.
“But where did you find it?” He repeated suspiciously.
“Just over there; it’s the remains of someone else’s fire.”
Silence.
It was at that point the explanation for the change in atmosphere was revealed. It was not what I expected.

“This river, the Kali Gandakhi, is a holy river, and where two rivers meet is a sacred place for us. It is our custom to bury people in these places.”

I dropped the wood and immediately stepped back. The rock pile I was approaching had two lengths of bamboo emerging from it and some rags amongst it. I was looking at a grave on the river bank. The bamboo poles were the edges of a stretcher used to transport the body, and the “rags” were the materials that person was buried in. I lifted my head and looked around. With fresh eyes I now noticed there were 8 graves on our one small beach.

Then I noticed the smell. Certainly enough to ward you off if you’re downwind. If you’re curious like I was, it was fishy and putrid, exactly like a rotten animal or fish.
Before we got back in the raft I went for a wee and had to avoid, first a pelvis, and then a shin bone.

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This is a pelvis right?
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And this a shin?