So, we've all seen THAT advert do the rounds in recent weeks...
Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you would have found it hard to escape the heartwrenching advert Greenpeace/ Iceland have been batting about which features ‘Rang-Tan’ and her story about ‘dirty palm oil’
If you’ve somehow missed said advert, then have a look.
What has a banned Christmas advert got to do with me?
Before setting out on my trip to Indonesia I knew an Orangutan Tour was pretty much top of my MUST-DO list. If you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll know I’m a bit off a wildlife geek who has a penchant for adventure – so an expedition into the Indonesian Jungle to see these awesome creatures was right up my street.
I knew that Orangutans were on the endangered list and in recent years, due to the western world’s use of palm oil, this was having a detremental effect on their numbers. I was eager to see them in (what’s left of) their natural habitat as well as support the areas that offer passive interaction and education through wild-life tourism.
Where in the wild?
There are several places in South East Asia where you can see Orangutans, all of them are in Indonesia. The islands of Borneo and Sumatra both boast opportunities to see Orangutans in the wild – the obvious one that always crops up is Borneo. Whichever one you look at booking, you can be sure that they will all be offering THE BEST Orangutan Tour.
I didn’t book my tour before I arrived in Indonesia.
I was open to suggestions from hearing first hand reviews on which actually was ‘the best’ Orangutan tour was.
One random conversation later and a destination on my radar called Bukit Lawang came up. This left me thinking on thing, ‘where the heck is Bukit Lawang?!‘
The majority of people I spoke to went to Borneo to do their Orangutan Tour. My main worry from their accounts was that they sounded very ‘package-y’ and not really what I was looking for.
Bukit Lawang is a small town in North Sumatra situated on the Bahorok River. It’s a stone’s throw from Gunung Leuser National Park, which is home to the Orangutans (as well as loads of other wildlife) and the perfect place to do the Orangutan Tour.
Bukit Lawang is on Java island. The nearest city is Medan, which is 86km away. To get to Bukit Lawang from Medan it’s either a 4-hour taxi ride or an even longer bus journey!
I had intended on getting the bus, but flight delays (yes, expect them!) meant I arrived too late to make the connections.
My only option was taxi – and even though it was supposed to be a quicker 4 hours opposed to double that time by bus – it still took 5 ½ hours to make the journey! It happened to be a festival weekend so getting out through Medan traffic was a mission in itself. The roads start nice and smooth; don’t be decieved, this quickly changes outside of the main towns. Boneshaker springs to mind – you won’t be sleeping on this journey.
Top Travel Tip
If you plan to go by bus to Bukit Lawang then make sure you are in Medan EARLY! It will take you the best part of a day to do the journey with a few changes for added adventure and tourist touts to dodge – they WILL screw you over at every opportunity.
A little bit of history and WHY here?
The area historically was famous for The Bukit Lawang Rehabilitation Centre for Orangutans. The Rehabilitation Centre was founded in 1973 by two Swiss zoologists. The purpose of the centre was to take care of Orangutans in the region who had been injured or orphaned as a result of deforestation – you will see the massive palm oil plantations in the surrounding areas which is a testament to how much of the local, once forested area has been commercialised. The centre still exists today, however, under different ownership.
The 'Town' of Bukit Lawang
Most villages in the UK would give Bukit Lawang’s status of ‘town’ a run for it’s money. It’s tiny!
You’ll get dropped off at the main road alongside Bukit Lawang. This is where you and your luggage then get out and the rest is by foot along some questionable pathways. Bear in mind now, it’s pitch black.
You’ll head down a little lane lined with a few locals sat outside their shops, then get to the rickety swing footbridge to cross the river, finally heading along another dirt track to one of the many lodgings that are situated there.
The accommodation in the area is, let’s say, rustic. None of the accommodation I looked at had hot water so you can forget your hot showers. The general style and facilities are basic but hey, you’re on the outskirts of a jungle and a long way from any major town.
I had booked 3 nights in this area to allow for my Orangutan Tour, although I only did the 2 day, 1-night trip. There are trips in every length possible, some are just one day, others over a week!
Around Bukit Lawang
Despite it being a tiny place with not much reason to visit outside of anything Orangutan-esque, there is enough to do for at least a couple of days.
- Walk alongside the river – depending how far you want to walk, you’ll pass through forest, rubber plantations where the trees still bear scars from where bark was removed to get the latex and IF you walk far enough, the edges of the Palm Oil plantations where jungle once stood – a testiment to how massive the problem of deforestation is. Watch out for the gangs of Macaques occasioanlly blocking the path near some of the guest houses and eateries. On the whole they will keep their distance however they can be agressive, particulalry if they know you have food on you.
- Visit the Orphanage – a very cute little cluster of colourful buildings surrounded by well cared for gardens. It was closed when I walked past but I was told by a local that you could visit it as well as make donations.
- Venture into the Bat Cave – Look out the for the sign ‘Bat Cave’ made out of old bottle tops in the ground. Depending on the weather it might be a slippery and muddy slope up to the the entrance. For a small fee (about £5 equivalent) one of the local boys will take you inside the cave to show you the rock formations and the bats.
Walking Around Bukit Lawang
Two things will become invaluable – take bug spray with you and liberally cover yourself with it – you’re in a jungle area AND near a river which means plenty of bugs
Also, pick up a long sturdy stick if you can find one for any unwanted ‘attention’ from the Macaques (of course, please don’t hit the Macaques with it, but use it to push them away if they get too close or aggressive).
IF you happen to be in Bukit Lewang at the weekend you’ll see a whole bustle of activity down by the river. Find yourself a vantage point and watch what locals get up to at the weekend.
The river is the hub for everything in Bukit Lawang and there will usually be dozens of children playing in the river – tubing seems to be the most popular pass time with parents chilling on the river bank. It’s lovely to watch local people just doing local things.
Jungle Expedition Briefing - in brief
The evening before the Orangutan Tour is the briefing, a time to meet your guide and to get to introduce yourself to the rest of the group.
You’ll be told what to take – you’re going to be carrying it all day – so you’re encouraged to pack light!
- Fresh underwear/ day clothes
- Waterproof/ Poncho
- Swim stuff (you get to swim in the river – this excited me muchly!)
- Basic toiletries & Towel
- Bug Repellant
- Sun Screen
- Camera & Spare Batteries
Day 1 - Orangutan Tour
The next day is an early start with a good few hours of meandering up and down through the muddy slopes. Parts of the path will go through shallow rivers, up steep inclines and down through slippery tree roots.
I did the trek in a pair of tennis shoes – idiot – which had next to no grip on the soles. To say I looked like Bambi in that frozen lake scene is an understatement. I’d suggest wearing something with a little more grip, especially if it’s been raining.
On the Orangutan Tour, your naturalist guide will stop regularly to point out loads of other species that reside in the Sumatran Jungle. Expect to see flowers, fauna, trees, bugs, fruits, nuts as well as foot prints and markings left by various other animals.
It’s a sticky, humid heat in the jungle and your efforts so far will be rewarded with a mid-morning break of fresh fruit cut into a beautiful display as well as a much-needed rest.
Watch out for the little suckers!
For the first time in my life, I got leeches!
I picked up the little suckers on my ankles while passing through the low lying streams. A first time for everything, so now I can tick that one off the bucket list! Don’t panic too much though, they were tiny and fairly harmless.
If you freak out with things like leeches, then don’t look down! They were everywhere, little tiny things making a beeline for anyone that stood still for more than a moment.
Leeches don’t believe in exclusivity, a few people in our group ‘collected’ them on their ankles.
Our first encounter with 'Rang-Tans'
We were blessed fairly early on Day 1 with not just one, but two Orangutans. A mother and a baby.
They were quite a distance away, up in the trees, so our guide showed us a good vantage point to see them; down a ravine, precariousley straddled and balanced on tree trunks, rocks and shrubs – certainly not UK Health and Safety rules here, but it was fabulous to get a bit closer and to see them, for the first time, in the wild.
They were relaxed and eating for most of the time, coming down a little bit to see if we had any food (warning – do not feed the orangutans) and ignoring us when nothing was offered. They moved with much more grace and elegance than us lot in the ravine scrambling about on tree roots.
Hi-ho hi-ho, it's off to camp we go
A couple more hours of walking, with more ups and downs through the muddy slopes of the jungle floor, dodging any more encounters with leeches, we arrive at our ‘campsite’.
Campsites in the jungle consist of a semi-permanent structure; a tarpaulin stretched over 4 wooden posts to form a kitchen, a river to wash in, and a hole in the ground to do your business. Certainly, no glamping here – but it was pure bliss.
Our group didn’t need much encouragement to ditch the backpacks, chuck on some bathing gear and make straight for the refreshingly cool river to wash off the day’s accumulation of sweat and mud – don’t worry, no leeches!
After the rejuvinating dip in the river, we sat chilling on the river bank with the late afternoon sun shining through the forest canopy while drinking warm cups of tea with condensed milk, a new combination to me, with biscuits. A very well-deserved treat.
A jungle downpour momentarily puts a dampener on things, but it didn’t last long.
The rain swiftly passed with plenty of time for a spot of jungle craft; stone carving, before dinner was served.
The rocks in the area are really soft, almost like a compacted claylike feel, which is handy because you can carve them with a pocket knife. Our guide gave us a demonstration and made a couple of carved orangutans in the soft red clay like rock, a testiment to his years of practice he’s perfected – like any pro, he made it look easy. Our attempts we’re a different story althogether.
The evening meal was served (rice and a type of curry) followed by a round of cards before bed.
During the night there was more rain.
Day 2 - Orangutan Tour
We were up early the next morning for the second day of treking. We were greeted by the sun shining through the forest which looked stunning coming through the smoke from the campfire.
A chilled start to the day gave time for us to watch a local mob of Macaques, watching us, probably hoping to scavenge any scraps of food we may have dropped.
The overnight rian made the slopes even more slippery than yesterday, so I stayed clean for all of 5 minutes!
It wasn’t long before before we spotted the first Orangutans of the day.
Wild vs Semi-Wild Orangutans
High in the canopy of the jungle were another mother and baby Orangutan. Our guide informed us that these Orangutans were both born in the wild, so they would never come down from the trees as they don’t associate the jungle floor and humans with food. They carried on regardless and ignored our presence totally unlike the pair we saw yesterday.
After walking a while longer our guide spotted a solo Orangutan in the distance. She was on the jugle floor, which meant she had been rehabilitated. She was a much older Orangutan who had been rescued from the tourist trade and reintroduced to the wild.
Although human contact isn’t encouraged after reintroducing them to the wild, she still associated humans with the potential for food and so came down to the jungle floor.
We stopped about 15metres from her, told to crouch down, keep totally still and silent. It was mindblowing to be this close to her.
Being so close did allow for some of my better pictures during the Orangutan Tour, mostly because she would sit and pose, which was a sad throwback and realisation from her previous captive life.
She hung about for a short while before realising we had nothing of interest and then wandered back off into the jungle.
But wow! just Wow!
Orangutans hate the rain
Rainforests are like the name states, rainy. We’d had intermittent rain during the day. However one downpour wouldn’t shift. Just as we were heading to our Second Camp the skies opened, it was relentless, we were soaked!
The torrent of rain did however bring out some intersting animal actvity.
There was another Orangutan nearby the Camp, sat in the tree. Our guide had told us how Orangutans don’t like getting wet, and that much like humans do, they use umbrellas! It was almost comical to see a large adult, solitary Orangutan pulling the big leaves from the surrounding trees over the top to create its own rain shelter.
As the rain continued...
…it brought out the Monitor Lizards. These large lizards are part of the same family as the infamous Komodo Dragons (thankfully not as big and not on a mission to bite us!). There were two Monitor Lizards fighting in the river, making a splash perhaps as a territorial act but a lot of noise and activity in the rain.
The pinnacle of out rainy animal activity was a lone Thomas Leaf Monkey. Previously we’d only seen them from a distance and in a group. Alas, like the Orangutan, it wanted shelter from the rain, as well as an opportunity to try and steal our food from the camp.
After a short while on the side lines, the monkey came right into our shelter, sat for a moment before grabbing a bag of rice. It was chased off by the guides and the monkey dropped the bag.
Looking very disgruntled that it a) lot’s its bag of food and b) had to sit out in the rain, it did give the opportunity to get some fabulous up-close photographs of this cute little fella.
Tubing it to Town
With the rain easing off it was nearing the end of our Orangutan Tour and almost time to head back to camp. Via the river.
The journey back to town was via tube – say that to a Londoner and they’ll assume it’s the Underground.
Our raft was a string of five large inner tyres lashed together with rope. Our rucksacks were put into watertight bags and tied on, we all clamberd on side-by-side and off we went, down the rapids, through the jungle and canyons back to base.
An exhillarating way to get home.
Rang-Tans plight against 'Dirty Palm Oil'
It’s heartbreaking that these creatures are being pushed to extinction.
The area of jungle near Bukit Lawang, Gunung Leuser National Park, is protected but it’s clear to see how much of the forest nearby has been cleared for palm oil plantations. It’s going to continue unless consumers change their attitudes to products containing Palm Oil.
I know for sure after visiting the Orangutans, seeing the jungle destruction and now seeing the ‘Dirty Palm Oil’ campaign by Iceland/Greenpeace I am super conscious of choosing products without it.
If you’re interested in trying to cut your palm oil usage, Ethical Consumer have a great list.
So was this the best Orangutan Tour?
After initially being reccomended a region of Indonesia I’d never head of, hearing mediocre reviews from similar trips in Borneo and exeriencing first hand this Orangutang Tour, I can firmly say you won’t be dissapointed coming to Bukit Lawang.
The downside is that it IS a bit of a mission to get to – on a good day, a 4 hour taxi ride. But because Bukit Lawang is a little more off the beaten track it has more of a rustic and authentic, less-packagy feel to it.
This is definitely a must-do if you are visiting Indonesia. The Orangutan Tour would be suitable for all age groups – we crossed paths with another group briefly which had some very young children doing the trek. Your guide will choose the best route for your group based on the ability of it so remember to inform him before the day what you are and aren’t able to do.
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So what are you waiting for?
Have you done a tour or expediition similar to this? I’d love to hear about it, please comment below.
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