Jungle magic

G Magazine (issue #26, May/June 2010)

Carolyn Barry comes face to face with Sumatran orangutans - unforgettable animals with an uncertain future.

Sumatran orangutan

There are only about 6,600 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild.

Credit: Carolyn Barry

gourmet lunch

A gourmet local fruit spread for lunch.

Credit: Carolyn Barry


Outdoor bathroom at the Ecolodge Bukit Lawang.

Credit: Carolyn Barry

Ecolodge Bukit Lawang

Ecolodge Bukit Lawang where we stayed.

Credit: Carolyn Barry

Suma and Sumi

Suma and her baby Sumi.

Credit: Carolyn Barry


Sandra drops into the feeding platform.

Credit: Carolyn Barry

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Mina gently leans down to blow raspberries on baby Ketrin's tummy. The toddler squirms and begins a playful tussle with her mother. Any mother-baby interaction is endearing enough, but to witness this bonding between two critically endangered Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) in their native habitat is a truly magical experience and a privilege.

Here, in the Gunung Leuser National Park (GLNP) in Sumatra, Indonesia, is your best chance see these critically endangered animals in the wild. Logging, poaching and planting of palms for oil harvesting have reduced the species’ once healthy numbers by 90 per cent in the last century. With only about 6,600 Sumatran orangutans left, some experts predict it will be the first great ape to become extinct.

The World Heritage-listed park, designated a protected area by the Indonesian government in 1980, encompasses one million hectares and is home to around three quarters of the Sumatran orangutan population, not to mention other critically endangered animals including the Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus), Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) and Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis sumatrensis) – one of the most endgangered of all mammal species, with only 170 to 230 individuals left in the wild. The greater Leuser Ecosystem of which the GLNP is a part is one of the most biologically diverse habitats on the planet, playing host to 194 species of reptiles and amphibians, 350 birds, 205 mammals and more than 8,500 varieties of plants.

The region is located in a remote part of Indonesia's largest island and straddles the provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh. It is a land where mountains rise sharply from the lowlands with peaks that stretch out and touch the clouds. The jungle, scarred at times with the occasional blemish of illegal palms, appears as an impenetrable giant green wall. It is a place where butterflies, insects and birds flutter about as though you're in a giant terrarium. It is the incarnation of Avatar's magical world.

An inspired expedition

Travelling in March, it's the end of the wet season and there's not much rain falling; but the intense sun and extreme humidity create a steamy reminder that you're deep in the tropics.

For 12 Australians, there's no place they'd rather be. This trip is no ordinary holiday; it is the culmination of months of fundraising aimed at saving this precious habitat.

Organised through Inspired Adventures, a company specialising in fundraising trips, this expedition was the brainchild of not-for-profit group Rainforest Rescue. The group’s primary focus is on saving the Daintree in far north Queensland, but side projects include teaming up with the Indonesian-based Orangutan Information Centre (OIC).

This is the first fundraising trip to Sumatra, but Rainforest Rescue plan to make it an annual event, with Sri Lanka as a potential second destination.

"This kind of [fundraising] trip makes it accessible to everyone," says Tara Hunt, from Sydney. "It restores faith in humanity."

Over 10 days the group will attend orangutan viewing sessions, trek four days through the jungle, catch a ride on a semi-wild elephant, visit a local orphanage and head north, where logging and illegal palm plantations have devastated the once pristine jungle. Here they will visit a tree-planting program run by locals, one of the projects their fundraising efforts will support.

"I've always given money to PETA but I wanted to do more than to just give money," says trekker Lauren Henley, 21 from Brisbane.

Elephants and banana juice

Bukit Lawang, a village of around 3,000 people is the tourist gateway to the adjacent GLNP. While you're far from modern comforts, the quaint surroundings are not primitive. Wander through local shops and you can find cheap clothes, trinkets and traditional food – and know your money goes to the locals. Or stop for Bintang beer or a banana juice on a balcony overlooking the meandering Bohorok River. Accommodation is authentic and comfortable, often made from timber or other local materials - about a dozen small operators offer lodges to bungalows.

We stayed at EcoLodge Bukit Lawang Cottage at the far end of the village, where rooms featured a semi-outdoor bathroom, some with traditional ceramic pot bathing. Organic vegies feature heavily on the menu of their open dining area. For dinner, you can't go past the gado gado (steamed vegies with peanut sauce) and chicken rendang, and for breakfast the banana pancakes are to die for. Stock up on nasi goreng (noodles), an Indonesian staple, before heading off to trek through the jungle.

Into the jungle

The GLNP was once a release site for orangutans who had been illegal pets or had become homeless due to habitat loss, but the program was discontinued in the early 1990s. Today, 223 ex-captive orangutans live in the jungle. The only human intervention in their lives consists of twice-daily feeding sessions from national park rangers who provide bananas and milk for those who feel like venturing down from treetops.

Crude wooden planks and a bamboo fence mark the orangutan viewing area, which is about 10 metres from the feeding platform. There’s no guarantee how many, if any, orangutans at any given feeding session, as they are free to roam the jungle. We were lucky enough to see several individuals make their way to the small wooden platform and grab some bananas. As you watch them adeptly peel bananas and hold a cup to drink milk, their human-like characteristics are striking. Their habit of shifting from hand to foot as they shimmy up trees gives new meaning to the word ambidextrous.

When feeding hour is up, the four-day journey to Tangkahan begins, and it doesn't take long for the jungle to encapsulate you. The tracks are narrow and at times crude, but it's wondrous to be surrounded by the visceral sounds, smells and feel of the jungle; you could very well be in another century.

Impish long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) swing by to check you out and Thomas leaf monkeys (Presbytis thomasi), identifiable by their small head and triple Mohawk black and white fur, are not uncommon. Tigers are an unlikely sighting, but you may see footprints if you look closely. If you're lucky, you may catch a glimpse of 33-year-old Suma watching attentively while her baby Sumi awkwardly learns to clutch and climb branches. Or you might come across Mina and Ketrin wrestling each other affectionately.

While the animal life is amazing, don't discount the plants. The world's largest flower, Rafflesia arnoldi, is found exclusively on Sumatra and Borneo. Weighing in at 11 kg, it’s known as the ‘corpse’ flower after the distinctive rotting aroma it emits to attract pollinating insects.

Each night guides set up the camps in idyllic locations along the river. They use their extensive knowledge of the forest to concoct meals like fern stir-fry and banana skin curry.

Full circle

The journey finishes with a trip to the northern part of the park, where reforestation efforts are underway. The contrasts between the virgin jungle to recently logged area is stark and more than a little confronting.

The sun blasts down on the exposed land, which offers no protection from unbearable heat because the once 50-metre- high canopy has been reduced to eye level. Palms are by far the tallest trees, and in this area, they are dead. It is the first time I am happy to see a plant die.

Illegal deforestation and planting of palms (to harvest the oil, used extensively in everything from cosmetics to food) in the national park years ago has emptied the area. Animals can neither live in them or off them, rendering the land biologically barren.

"To come out and see that dry desolate, poor area was so depressing and it really affected a lot of us," says Leree Roden, a mother of four from Sydney. "It was a complete journey."

The good news is that the money raised by the trekkers ($40,000 and counting!) will help fund local education programs and forest regeneration. The tree-planting project has already seen the removal of 6,000 illegal palms and the start of restoration of 200 hectares of national park.

It has also helped the area's economy and has other benefits, says Baron (in Indonesia it is common for locals to have a first name only).

"I'm happy to be helping the national park," he explains. "Now there's a sense of ownership; people's incomes have increased and we have a relationship with the national park that we didn't before."