This post is embarrassingly late, but finally, with presentations and literature reviews out the way, I have some time to sit down and tell you about one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
When my friend Mike mentioned to me that he wanted to go trekking in the Sumatran Jungle it seemed like a pretty cool idea, but with work deadlines looming I wasn’t too sure it was a good idea for me to join him. Fortunately, Ben, a fellow chemistry friend from Edinburgh, was also going and told me with some Nike attitude to “just do it” – boy, am I glad that I did! I quickly booked the flights from Singapore to Medan (Indonesia) and got the necessary Friday and Monday off work. And then in typical last-minute style, I left it until 1 am the night before to consider what I would need to pack for a trek in the jungle…. “change of clothes, camera, towel, water bottle…. that ought to do it.” Turns out I’d taken ‘packing light’ a little too far as I really could have done with a change of shoes/ flip-flops, swimming stuff and a waterproof (who knew you’d want a waterproof in the rainforest?) but I managed none-the-less.
On the Friday morning of our departure, I met with the others at Pioneer hawkers centre at 7 am to get some breakfast before our long journey. We were 7 in total – Mike (English), Elie (French), Francesca (Italian), Cat (English), Matt (Welsh), Ben (English) and myself (the token Scot). Mike had organised the trip after hearing about it from our Spanish friend Toni who had already done it recently, and so I was in the fortunate position of not having to worry about anything. After some greasy noodles, we took the hour+ train to the airport and the 1.5 hour flight to Medan, where we were picked up by our driver and taken north for 4-5 hours, through towns and then countryside to Bukit Lawang – a small village by the river which was to be our main base for the weekend! It was a colourful little place with painted houses, small shopping streets and wooden-planked bridges the crossed the river. We met are tour guide, Thomas, and took one of these bouncy bridges to the quieter side of the river where we were welcomed to Thomas’ Retreat, a cute little hostel on the river bank.
It was about 4 pm and we weren’t to begin our Jungle mission until the following morning so we had the evening to ourselves to relax and explore and Thomas encouraged us to take a dip in the river. With Francesca clever enough to bring two sets of swimwear, she leant me a bikini and we all enjoyed the fairly strong currents of the refreshingly cool, though rather murky water right on our doorstep, with the mass of green jungle looming just a. Then, after a brief wander round the shops, we settled down for delicious Indonesian dinner, a couple of beers, and a wee game of cards. There were a couple of other people staying at the house and the locals and staff were in high spirits which really gave us that Friday feeling. When the guitar came out the karaoke kicked off and everyone was joining in to all the classics and latest big hits. The local guys really showed off their skills, particularly with the rhythm/beats on the wooden box, and we were even treated to some Indonesian music too which was excellent. Chris and Andrew, two Aussies who were staying nearby, came over to join the party and they further increased my excitement about our trek, having just completed one themselves with only good things to say about it. The hours slipped by in good company and before I knew it it was time to call it a night and get some much-needed sleep before the long day ahead.
In the morning we had some more tasty (and very cheap) food at the retreat before packing our bags and starting our trek. Within 3 minutes we were already in dense Jungle, with an initial steep ascent. I was very glad that I’d decided to wear shorts as it was hard work fighting through the first bit of vegetation. I was loaded up with Mosquito repellent (thank Elie!) but I still ended the trip with more bites than everyone else combined.
Thomas gave us lots of interesting information throughout our trek and was a brilliant tour guide. He later told me that we were one of the luckiest groups that he has ever taken, because we saw more species than most people ever get to see. This first spot was a group of white-handed Gibbons, far up in the tree tops, quickly swinging from branch to branch! It was an incredible site! Apparently, only 1 in 20 groups would ever see them in the Sumatran Jungle.
Once we were forced to move on from our close encounter, it wasn’t long until we had another, far closer one: orang-utans! Two orang-utans, one male and one female, were sitting on trees at eye level just 2 metres in front of us down a steep embankment. Being rather solitary creatures, it is unusual to see both sexes together at one place, and both of them were curious about us, and not too camera-shy.
A call from Thomas further down the trail alerted us to the presence of more orange-furred friends. Higher up, sitting in a nest she had made, was a mother with her baby! I couldn’t believe quite how human they looked, particularly the baby as he “monkeyed around”. Closer to ground level was also a Thomas Monkey, who didn’t seem phased one bit by our presence. It was a spectacular sight and I was reluctant to leave when it was time to move on.
We had a quick break after a few hours of trekking and were presented with what can only be described as a feast of different fruits – watermelon (red and yellow), bananas, oranges and passionfruit (my personal favourite). We gorged on fruit, unaware that we were to have lunch in an hour, but by the time we stopped again we’d already built up an appetite. Lunch was still warm and consisted of fragrant rice with egg and veg, yum!
As we finished lunch the rain came in. Although my bag got a little wet, I felt comfortable in just my vest and no waterproof because the rain was fairly warm (just like in Singapore). However, the ground became more precarious to walk on as the rich orange mud started to loosen, and a couple of the group had some slips and we all got a bit grubby. The mood never dimmed though, and we hiked on through the afternoon until we encountered the rarest find of the trip – a black gibbon. Even Thomas himself was amazed to see this ape hanging in the distant trees. I tried to take a photo or two but he was very far away and surprisingly well camouflaged.
Just when we thought we were done with our luck for the day, we had our last ape encounter, not far from our camp destination. No-one had any difficult spotting this find as a mother orang-utan and her child sat on the ground, almost blocking our path such that we had to walk right past them! I don’t think any words can describe how amazing this experience was so I’ll let the photos do the talking.
After about 10km of trekking we arrived at our base camp, up stream of Thomas’ Retreat where we stayed the previous night. We eyed up our sleeping arrangements – 7 roll mats under a tarp – and then donned our swimwear and jumped into the river, which had cleaned up a lot from the rainfall. Ollo, the chef with an infectious laugh, brought us some amazing tea and biscuits by the river and I marvelled at the luxury that one would never expect to find in the jungle of all places! It was so relaxing just sitting by the river with no plans and everything taken care of. The pack of cards were brought out again and we sat on roll mats on the ground by the fringe of the jungle and played some games. Dinner was cooked by Ollo and the others and just as darkness fell, candles were brought out and we feasted on Indonesian curries, spiced beancurd and savoury popcorn, as well as a can of beer and a ‘cheeky’ smoke for those interested. It wasn’t until late at night, after a hilarious round of “this is a cup” game, some magic tricks and puzzles, and a midnight feast for the boys with munchies, that we finally said goodnight to a fantastic day.
I was first to wake in the morning (presumably due to all the mosquito bites I’d received) and took a quick dip in the river to freshen up. Thomas brought me some tea and biscuits and I chatted with him and Ollo before the other rose for breakfast. Once everyone was up and changed into swimwear (thanks again Francesca!) we started a rather precarious trip up-stream along the root-covered rock of the riverbank, heading in the direction of a waterfall on the other side of the river. Using rubber rings covered in tied rope-netting we were ferried across the flow and clambered up the banks and into the jungle following the stream that met the main river we had just crossed. I must say, it felt rather odd to be walking through a tropical jungle barefoot in just a bikini…. but the waterfall was worth it – a ledge of riverbed that created an overhang which one could stand behind as the sheet of water pummelled down. We splashed around in the neck-deep pool before rafting back down to our campsite to pack up our things.
We had one last goodbye from an orange-furred friend who had come all the way down to the river to wave us goodbye, and then we packed the bags into plastic sacks (to stay waterproof) and hopped onto the rubber ring rafts, which had been lashed together to form two larger rafts. One guide sat in the front and one at the back of each vessel and they used long wooden branches to change our direction as we enjoyed the ride back to Thomas’ Retreat in Bukit Lawang. It was no kayaking adventure, and the rapids only hit Grade 3 at most, but rafting with friends is always a great laugh – especially when Matt gets thrown off the back and is clinging to the side to try to hop back on! In just half an hour or so with were already back where we started – much more dirty and tired than before, but very, very happy!
Once again, we enjoyed good food and good company at the hostel, and certainly a good sleep after two days of trekking. We woke up at 6am on Monday morning with one last treat before starting our journey back to Singapore: The Bat Cave!
The sun was already up and we started our hike in the opposite direction to our previous venture two days prior. This allowed us to see more of the local area, the little houses and farm lands where the Palm trees grow for palm sugar, or the rubber trees for rubber. It was interesting to hear first hand from Thomas how people there felt about such produce compared with the allegations in Singapore and the Western world. We walked on, along paths that were much better defined than the trails we took in the jungle.
“AAAAAH!”, I screamed. Out of nowhere I felt agonising pain in my lower right arm and looked down to see a small black and yellow bee, quite unlike a friendly bumble bee, stuck in my skin. I instinctively brushed it off but was still yelping in pain and Thomas saw my arm and just shouted “RUN”. We all legged it down the path, but unfortunately for Elie, Matt and myself, we were at the back and didn’t escape so easily. As I ran, I felt two more attacks right on my spine which felt like a knife in the back. When we stopped running I had 4 stings in total, Elie had one and Matt had one dangerously close to his eye. Thomas gave us some cream to rub in but even now, 5 weeks later (whoops, this is a late blog indeed!), I still have lumped marks on my arm from the stings.
Fortunately, we were out of the bee territory and almost at the bat cave. We started our decent into thicker, darker jungle and climbed along perilous stone walk-ways between boulders that had been weathered by running water. We reached the first cave, but were informed that we had further to go. With our head torches on, we went deeper and deeper and the space got smaller and smaller until I thought we were at a dead-end. I saw one single bat fly past and was admittedly a little disappointed. However, Thomas then pointed out to me a hole in the cave wall in front which he told me to climb up through. Being more than a little claustrophobic, I had to watch Ben go through first before I could bring myself to contort myself through the awkward space which twisted upwards and left. After so crawling, squatting and shimmying we were in the open again in some sort of large chasm. We could see the sky and trees above and continued forwarded to the much larger cave. It was deep in this cave that we saw what we were looking for. Hundred of bats lined the walls and the ceiling of the dark space – the smell was awful. They were actually quite cute, with little pig faces. Thomas remarked that there were not that many and said that if we could have been here a few hours later then all the bats would have returned from their night hunting and would fill every wall space available.
However, we didn’t have long to dwell, and rather quickly headed back along a different bee-less route to the Retreat to quickly pack up and eat delicious banana porridge (which is essentially rice-pudding because they use rice instead of oats) before saying farewell to Thomas and his diligent team and taking the long car journey back to the airport. We spent our last Rupiah on food at the airport – which paled in comparison to our feasts over the weekend – and we enjoyed a last game of cards or two, and then boarded the plane back to Singapore, where lots of lab work lay waiting for us!
It really was a fantastic trip though. Thanks to everyone that made it so special!
The semester is drawing to an end now – those taking classes are studying for their exams, and in just one more week, they will be finished. I will be very sad to say goodbye to many new friend who are only on exchange for one semester and I hope to see them again in the future! I am also a little jealous of those that get to go home to their families for Christmas, but I have a very special trip planned to a country I’ve wanted to visit for a long time….
I’ll tell you all about it in my next post in the new year!
I leave you with these cheeky little ones!