Friendly people, powerful volcanoes and cheap massage; Bali and Java had not disappointed. Traveling westward via one of Southeast Asia's many budget airlines, Sumatra loomed large in my mind. Family and fellow travelers had assured me that the island was amazing 15 years ago and continued to be a must-see, despite the low number of backpackers.
My first impression wasn't good. Medan, the biggest city on Sumatra and main travel hub, is considered one of the grittier places in Indonesia. Arriving at a central bus hub, I was met with an immediate scam from an uncharacteristically hostile man at the bus station. Thankfully the interaction was short and within 20 minutes I was wildly bouncing around in the back of a local minibus. Mildly entertained by the scratched, skipping music videos produced by 'Medan Media Publications,' it was only when we left the noise of the city behind that I caught my first glimpse of the Sumatran countryside. Small villages punctuated vast expanses of palm tree forest while local children yelled 'hallo!' while chasing the minivan. An hour into the ride, the villages remained uniform while the forest dwindled. We had entered the area dominated by the Palm oil industry where huge portions of land are routinely burned to produce the valuable substance found in western beauty products. The industry is responsible for huge deforestation in both Sumatra and Kalimantan, another Indonesian island blessed and cursed by its rich jungle. The industry pushes into the Gunung Leuser National Park, one of the richest tropical ecosystems in the world and one of the few remaining habitats for orangutans.
The orangutan, or 'person of the forest' in Bahasa Indonesian, is threatened by extinction in both Kalimantan and Sumatra. An intelligent and solitary creature whose mostly vegetarian diet include nuts, fruits and leaves, the orangutan is threatened due to extensive habitat loss from the logging and palm oil industry. Combined with the seven year nursing period where mothers pass on all essential information to their offspring, the orangutans are in serious danger. Like similar conservation efforts in Southeast Asia, the industrious people of Bukit Lawang have worked to create a tourist experience with the hopes that finances earned from tourism will outweigh the benefits of deforestation and will loosen the grip of the palm oil industry. Despite the additional complication of exposing orangutans to human illness, of which they are highly susceptible, the effort has been successful.
Arriving in Bukit Lawang, a small village deep in the heart of Sumatra, I located a charming guesthouse and arranged my jungle trek. Like most tourists, I opted for a two day, one night jungle experience. Starting early the following morning, our small group encountered our first orangutan within roughly twenty minutes of entering the jungle. As part of the rehabilitative process in the National Park, orangutans were fed at a local feeding station for years before the population was considered strong enough to survive on its own. A recent change, several of the orangutans in the area are considered to be 'semi-wild' and are more comfortable coming down from the forest canopy to take a look at the visitors. Weening the orangutans off human food is challenging, especially as commitment to the cause varies between trekking companies. While my guide refused to feed the orangutans just to please his western guests, many of the guides feel pressure from their groups to feed orangutans so the group is able to get a better photo or even a selfie with the animal. This practice is damaging for the orangutans who don't develop a healthy fear of humans and won't pass along basic survival skills to their young.
Encountering these magnificent creatures was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. While slow moving on the ground, once they take the arm or bag of a human, you won't get it back until they choose to return it. While close to orangutans, we were told to keep our bags closed at all times. When an orangutan decides to take a bag, it will carry it to the top of a tree, empty its contents, take any food, and then leave the bag hanging at the top of the tree, almost like a small warning flag for tourists. After the orangutans spent a few minutes on the forest floor, examining its guests, it would quickly return to the safety of the canopy and move gracefully through the forest. In addition to seeing a variety of orangutans, we heard the call of the black Gibbons, played with the pink-haired Tomas monkey who is only found in this National Park, spotted huge turtles and witnessed Sumatran peacocks call to each other in the dense jungle.
Later in the evening, after a large dinner with abundant tea and spicy cuisine, I sat under the stars and asked one of the guides about life on the edge of this fragile ecosystem. Bukit Lawang is built on the banks of a gushing River that separates it from the National Park. The locals wash, play and drink from its rushing waters, but it hasn't always been a purely positive relationship. Early in the morning in November 2003, when Omar was a young man, he warned his mother that the river looked higher than normal and that they should leave their home on the banks of the riverbed to be safe. Gathering a few nearby family members, Omar and his mother ran to higher ground. During a flash flood upstream, a natural dam broke and sent the river raging through the community of Bukit Lawang. After the water settled, 239 people were killed and most of the riverfront development was destroyed. Omar lost family, but like so many other community members, he had to move forward. Today the basic infrastructure has been rebuilt and the tourists are slowly returning. Omar and his fellow guides seem to look forward to the future of Bukit Lawang and Gunung Leuser National Park, rather than to the tragedy of the past. They seek to protect the natural habitat of the orangutan from exploitative interests, to maintain their rich way of life and to invite the outside world to their home in the hopes that we will see the value in the jungles of Sumatra apart from oil and logging.