I’ve been back from Sumatra a month now, and finally written up some blog posts (delays caused by unidentified illness caught in Indonesia, general mountain of work to catch up on, plus the unexpected MASSIVE effect this trip had on me and my brain being unable to process it all). If you don’t know by now, I went on a 2 week volunteer trip to work on a project called Orangutan Health Project (OHP) in North Sumatra, followed by a brief few days in Malaysia. It was pretty much the most incredible thing I’ve ever done, its been hard to know how to write about it but I’ll try and keep it fairly brief (well, to 4 blog posts anyway).
My trip started by being slightly traumatic – nothing in particular happened, its just the hugeness of going all the way to Indonesia on my own didn’t really hit until I was saying goodbye to my boyfriend at 5.30am outside Gatwick airport, and promptly burst into tears and begged him to come with me. He pretty much told me to man up and go get on a plane, so I did, and after about 30 hours of travelling (I had some rubbish flight connections) I made it to my hotel in Medan, the biggest city in Sumatra (itself one of the biggest islands in Indonesia). I then spent another 24 hours not leaving the hotel (due to lack of things to do in Medan, feeling too self conscious as a white non-Muslim girl, and the oh-so-lovely jet lag) until I got picked up by one of the Project Assistants for OHP. I instantly relaxed, and along with the 3 other volunteers, we headed off for the 4 hour journey to Timbang Lawan – a collection of bamboo houses in the middle of a large area of rice paddy fields, and the base of OHP, aka Coconut Island (there was a coconut tree, and when it rained the fields flooded for the rice and so our bamboo buildings on stilts became islands).
We all settled into life at Coconut pretty easily. The humidity took a bit of getting used to, but using a bucket to get water out of the well and throwing it over yourself at the end of the day felt like the most natural thing to do. As well as me, there were 3 other volunteers here for 2 weeks (Lucy from London, Hayli from America and Nathan from Australia) plus 2 Project Assistants, also volunteers but here for 6 months (Ellie and Tom, both from the UK). We all had very different backgrounds but had so much in common, I had some of the most inspiring dinner conversations I’ve ever had. It felt incredible to meet a group of strangers who I instantly felt like I’d known forever. Anyway, I’ll try not to get too soppy. Tasks at Coconut included: drying out the plant collection (plants used or eaten by Orangutans – theres hundreds – are collected on the treks and then dried before being sent to the lab for testing and further research into what these plants contain), creating a herbarium page after collecting plant sample on the trek, solaring the floor boards (an unpleasant job of painting all the floorboards in petrol to stop the termites eating them), cooking up silica (to help keep the herbariums and electronic equipment from being destroyed by the humidity), taking weather data 3 times a day, and looking at data collected from the orangutan research project in Borneo. We also had time to relax, explore the local area and chat to each other.
We were between 2 towns – Bohork and Bukit Lawang. BL is the most touristy place around, sitting right next to a large river and on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park, its full of guest houses, little restaurants and shops. In 2003 a huge flash flood swept down to the town, bringing with it trees and debris. Within 3 hours, the town was destroyed and over 200 people had lost their lives. Every single person in BL today has lost at least one close family member, most lost their homes and businesses. The government rebuilt the town further away from the river so thats where the locals live now, but the guesthouses, restaurants and shops have sprung up again by the river for people to take advantage of the tourism, hoping and praying (literally) every night that there won’t be another flood. We spent a few hours one afternoon in a lovely guesthouse in BL as the rain lashed down. Drinking gallons of iced tea and playing jenga, we had a nice afternoon – but looking out the few metres down to the river, you could imagine just how terrifying a flash flood would be, and how hard it would be to get out its way.
Bukit Lawang became popular with tourists as it used to be the site of a large orangutan rehabilitation centre, where orphaned orangutans would come to be looked after, showed how to survive and get released back into the wild, with the continued support of a feeding platform. The centre is now shut (the risk of taking diseases from humans back into the wild was too high, although there are other rehab centres elsewhere in Sumatra) but there is still a population of semi-wild orangutans in the area, partially dependant on food from the feeding platform, and so easy for tourists to make a quick day trip into the edge of the park and easily see the animals. We did this twice during our stay, as seeing them out in the proper wild during our longer 5 day trek isn’t guaranteed, so this was an easy way to at least make sure we’d seen semi-wild orangutans.
Our first half day trek with Wanda (who was to be our guide for the 5 days as well) we went through a large rubber and palm plantation (more on that in another blog post) just outside Bukit Lawang and into the edges of the National Park. Here we had our first experience with an orang-utan, two in fact – a mother and baby! We’d been following a group of Thomas Leaf monkeys into a small hidden gully behind some large rock formations, and suddenly there she was, calming high up in the tree, gorging on fruit (it was fruit season, her belly was huge!). We watched her for ages, taking observational notes every 5 minutes, until we noticed that there was an infant as well. These were technically wild orangutans, but being so close to the plantations they were used to people, and the mum certainly didn’t seem worried by our presence. After an hour or so watching them, the mother moved on to another tree and started to build a nest (they fold down branches and leaves to make a small cosy platform), attempting to encourage her baby to stop swinging on the trees and come join her for a nap. Eventually he did, and we headed back to BL for lunch and a swim in the river.
We went back to this area of the National Park again on the morning before we began our trek deeper into the jungle. This time, we had a more surreal encounter. Even though our first sighting had been close to human settlement, she was still a wild animal and there were no other tourists around us. This time however, it felt like being at a zoo. Within a few minutes of entering the park, we were a couple of metres away from the largest male orangutan I could possible imagine, complete with flanged face and vocal sack and piercing eyes. We had already joined a couple of other people with their guide to watch him, and as we did, their guide started breaking branches from around the orang-utan’s face so the tourist could get a better photo, and then started shaking branches at him to get a reaction. We all felt incredibly uncomfortable at this interaction, partly because this orangutan could crush you if he wanted (there is a female orangutan who lives in the area who is very aggressive and has attacked hundreds of people who get too close), but mostly just the complete lack of respect for him. But it was incredible to be this close to such a stunning animal.
We moved on, and within a few minutes we were standing amongst an even larger group of tourists watching a female orangutan. As soon as we arrived we saw what was going on – a guide had given some food to one of the tourists, who was passing it directly to the orangutan. This is absolutely something that should not be done, the rules of the park forbid it and the guides are meant to stick to these rules. The risk of passing diseases on to these animals is incredibly high, they will in turn pass them on to other animals, none of which have any resistance to the disease. Its a huge problem in the park, it seems to be commonly accepted that the guides do it because they think thats what the tourist want, and often the tourists don’t know to say any better. We spoke to a ranger who has spent his whole life trying to stop it – the permits to enter the park (which every tourist needs) have been dramatically increased recently, although still very low in western money, and yet none of this is going back to the Park to help protection. In fact, in some cases, the guides pocket the money themselves and don’t even pass it on to the government.
Its a very tricky situation, and made us all realise how hard conservation is and the sheer number of hurdles you have to deal with, particularly when it comes to education. Thankfully, our guide Wanda was amazing – he’s worked with OHP for years, and is incredibly knowledgeable on orangutans, the local plants (we tried loads of the plants we saw the orangutans eating, which I would not of done if Wanda hadn’t shown us it was OK!) and on local conservation issues. We all learnt a lot from him.
After our great, though slightly tainted, experiences of the orangutans near Bukit Lawing, we were all excited (and a little nervous) to start on our 5 day trek deeper into the National Park to hopefully see truly wild orangutans, collect some plants, watch their behaviour, see all the other wildlife and fall asleep to the sounds of the jungle!
If you want to know more about Sumatran orangutans and their behaviour, you can visit their Meet the Animals section in my park. There are some links to further reading there too.
Click HERE for post two!