We decided to take a couple of days away from the kampung to head out to the jungle. Bukit Lawang, approximately 2 hours drive from Medan is one the edge of Gunung Leseur National Park and is one of the few places in the world where it is possible to see orangutans living in the wild. It began as an orangutan rehabilitation centre in the 70s and evolved into a tourist destination. It is also a very special place for us because it is where I met my husband and where we got married.
The tourist village is spread mostly along the sides of a single path that runs alongside a beautiful, fast flowing river. I’ve walked that path many times as when I met him, my husband worked at the top end of the path. Sadly the guesthouse he worked in when we met (and which he had helped build) burnt down not long after we started going out. Even more sadly in 2003, when we were living in the UK, a horrific flash flood wiped out much of the village, including our little bookshop/cafe that my husband had built himself and much much more tragically, more than 200 people perished.
So I am sure you can see, this is a place of very mixed emotions for us. We have been back to visit several times since then and we have watched the village re-emerge – mostly at a safer distance from the river and great attempts being made to improve the eco-tourism status of the area.
And on this trip, 2 years since the last, we have seen the most significant changes yet. Everything really does look greener and cleaner and there’s a lovely relaxed air about the place – despite us arriving on one of the busiest days of the year being Lebaran. We passed lots of trucks, their backs loaded with locals from Medan heading to the jungle to sit by and play in the river, on our way along the very bumpy road from Medan (though it is muchly improved from 10 years ago when there were more potholes than road!). Much damage is done to the road by the large trucks carrying oil palm fruit from the (far too many and ever expanding) palm oil plantations along the road.
After we arrived in Bukit Lawang we had that same long walk along the path to the top of the river – though I can definitely vouch for it being significantly harder carrying a young child (and for my husband who carried 7 y/old S, even harder again).
We stayed at the beautiful Sams Bungalows, run by the lovely local Sam and his wife. Our gorgeous room with a large balcony and hammock and huge 4 poster bed, overlooked the river and huge wall of jungle trees on the other side. Though it was not a haven for access. We had 15 stairs up to our room and inside, our bathroom was downstairs – another 15 stairs again. There are rooms with better access in the village, but as I’ve said we arrived on one of the busiest days so needed to take what was available and we know Sam and that room access issues aside we would have a lovely stay. And we did.
Highlights included playing in the river and trekking up to see the orangutans feeding (the boys loved the boat ride across the river!). Access wise – there are no short cuts here. It’s a real jungle path that winds mostly uphill over uneven steps and tree roots. My husband carried S the whole way up and down and was absolutely exhausted afterwards. Undoubtedly there would be some strong jungle lads who you could pay to help Carry someone up to the feeding platform. It’s probable that’s what we will need to do next time.
And yes, despite that difficulty of course we’d do it again. Watching those beautiful graceful creatures lope in from the jungle to get bananas and milk is a sight I would never get sick of. They are truly amazing and gorgeous and seeing them there, IN the jungle makes your heart break with the knowledge that their habitat is being so terribly misused and destroyed by man and that their numbers are ever dwindling. S is determined to start campaigning for orangutan awareness and jungle protection when we get home.
Other highlights included the beautiful array of fresh fruit juices and spectacular fruit salads, a brilliantly serious rain storm that literally looked like buckets were being thrown down from the heavens and of course for us the chance to catch up with many old friends from our ‘jungle days’.
Another unexpected highlight was the boys all waking before dawn. Doesn’t sound much like a highlight I know (and definitely isn’t when it happens at home!) but here, we all climbed into the hammock together on the balcony and chatted and laughed and then just sat in awed silence as we watched the amazing colours as the jungle emerged into the dawn. It was a very very special experience and I was glad to share it with my lovely boys.
I am sure the biggest highlight aside from the orangutans for the boys was the monkey mayhem we watched from our balcony the next morning. Cheeky monkeys bounded along the roofs next to our room, chased away a cat resting there and walked along the power line right in front of our balcony. It was all good fun and great photo opportunities until one super cheeky monkey jumped right on to our balcony – and the super brave (not!) mum that I am screamed and grabbed all 3 kids and retreated inside from where we watched the monkey (unsuccessfully) look for food. We were under monkey siege for about 20 minutes. And we laughed about it all the way home.
We hope we will have time to stay longer in the jungle when next we are here. It was a lovely reconnection with a place special to us and with the beautiful nature that is the Sumatra jungle.