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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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INDONESIA – Back to Nature in the Sumatran Rainforest

River deep, mountain high, yeah, yeah, yeah…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

“You do know you have to cross the river TWICE, don’t you?”

He was about the third person to say this to us, and we were starting to wonder if this really was a line to get us to stay in their own guesthouse or if crossing the river was actually as dramatic as they made it sound. Either way, Nick was determined that we go to the furthest away guesthouse from the bus stop. So far away that the last hour had to be walked along side the river. The river that you had to cross…dun dun duhhh…TWICE.

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We had emailed the guesthouse with the normal amount of warning that could be expected from us contrary Marys – all of a few hours. Needless to say, we hadn’t received a reply.

“It’s ok – they’re my friends. I’m going that way anyway.”

A local not only lent us his phone, but also offered to accompany us. For free..? Apparently so. We were waiting for Jeremy Beadle to jump out of the bushes shouting, “Fooled you!” but that moment never came. Laos, where no one does something for nothing, had obviously made us cynical. How refreshing to be on the end of genuine hospitality, and this was only our second day in Indonesia.

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We weaved our way along the river until the path abruptly stopped. Aha. This would be the first crossing then.  Shallow, but wider than we had first imagined, we shuffled across the fast flowing water, trying our best to avoid the slippery stones and maintain our balance with our big bags. It was fun, but nothing we couldn’t handle – we watch Bear Grylls, doncha know.

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Arriving at Back to Nature, I was most put out. It was amazing, and that meant I would be having hat for dinner again. When we hadn’t got a reply from the guesthouse, I had wanted to grab a spot nearer the town. All the guesthouses overlooked the river and had looked pretty good to me, but Back to Nature was something else. It really was right in the jungle. No WiFi, no toilet paper (apparently this is a leading cause of deforestation – up there with palm oil) and owned by a man kean on taking the protection of the severely threatened rainforest seriously. It was just where we wanted to be, and we weren’t the only ones…

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“Where are all the other guests?” we wondered. There were only four rooms, but no one was around. Probably out trekking, as was the thing to do here. Sitting down to a ‘jungle tea’ (delicious!), we were joined by a dude who, based on his haircut, was into punk. His name was Thomas, and he was a Thomas monkey. Cool as a cucumber with a mohawk, Thomas came and sat on the table, turned his back on us…and weed. Thanks for that hearty welcome, Thomas.

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“She is sad because she can’t cross the river.”

That first day we also saw a couple of orangutans across the river in the jungle. One of them had apparently slept on the sofas of Back to Nature for a while, but had been moved across the other side for her safety and to prevent her relying on humans. Even though that was a while ago, the orangutan could still be spotted trying to work out a way across the river. Ahh, how sentimental, I thought. Turns out there are good fruit trees on our side of the river. Motivated by food, it was easy to see that we share 96% of the same DNA.

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We did two treks that took us further into the jungle while in Bukit Lawang, but without moving anywhere, we saw so many animals – large groups of macque monkeys, 3 Thomas monkeys, 2 orangutans, a hornbill bird, massive black bees, a multitude of different butterflies, and some very hard to spot gibbons. Oh, and a few cockroaches. Where was my bottle of hairspray when I needed it? Unable to blow torch them like the good ol days, I set Nick on them. Turns out that he is an awesome cockroach killer. They do say that travelling gives you important life skills.

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As well as getting to know the animals here, one of the most fascinating things was getting to know the people. Each one of the workers did so for free, only wanting experience and a roof over their head, and each one of them had an incredible story – leaving home at 11, living on the streets of Medan, busking for a living and getting in fights with the mafia who were trying to get a cut of their earnings, living and surviving in the jungle for 6 months…each of these guys were only 23. What a different life they had led. All at once I was amazed by their survival, admiring of their lack of want, and envious of their simple life.

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Every evening we all came together to jam. They sang and played like it was an ourpouring of their souls, and I was hypnotised every time. What, I wondered, would it be like to be near the jungle everyday, to spend the days carving, painting, playing music. Then again, would that really be enough for our digital brains? Would we tire of the peace and quiet eventually? Would we manage to survive the jungle if it came down to it? The thing we would likely struggle with most would be the river.

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After returning from our survival trek in torrential rain, which didn’t pause for a full day and night, the river had doubled in height and width. The once clear and mildly white-water was now a raging torrent of opaque brown. Not a raft on the waters was to be seen.

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“Too dangerous”

What about crossing the river…TWICE? The capital letters were now warranted. A German couple we had befriended had a flight to catch and we were also planning on leaving.

“Too dangerous,” they said.

Now I had seen the locals in the river in the deep parts with the strong current, and they rocked it. Even the littlest of the dudes could handle it, so if they said it was too dangerous, it was too dangerous. What if it didn’t stop raining?  Hundreds of streams ran into the river, making it quite easy for the water level to increase dramatically. They had experienced major flooding on more than one occasion.

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Tara honing his carving skills. He also had the most amazing voice and sang us all Pearl Jam songs.

Luckily, as you have probably guessed, we did get out alive. The rain stopped and the river level dropped, although the flood took out one of the bridges and the river was still fierce. But we got by…with a lot of help from our Indonesian friends.

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The Floods:

The most dramatic flood happened in 2003, when logs falling in the river had caused a kind of dam. The water built up and up and up…until the dam broke and all that water burst out like a giant wall. Suria, one of the guys working there, told me about his experience of it. Their only option was to run away as fast as they could. They couldn’t run up the steep slopes that border the river as the river was already higher than them, and there was no time.  He was only 10 years old as he watched houses and people alike swept away by the river. Around 1,400 people lost their homes and 239 people died in that flood.