top of page
  • Writer's pictureDeb Smithers

Sumatra Jungle Trek - Part 1

Day one, let the jungle adventure begin.

Finally, the day had arrived to begin this long-awaited trekking adventure, into the dense rainforest of the North Sumatran jungle to explore and spend time amongst the majestic Sumatran Orangutangs, wild and free in their natural habitat. To experience the extensive array of animals and wildlife, from the magnificent to the minuscule, that reside within this great part of the island. It is home to more than 360 species of birds, 85 species of mammals, and over 4000 diverse species of floral and fauna, from miniature endangered orchids to the intriguing giant Rafflesia (Corpse) flower.

The magnificent  Rafflesia flower with its vibrant color and size are a sight to see in the Sumatran jungle.
Rafflesia flower ( Corpse flower)

You can witness everything from the smallest armored spiders, the legendary Sumatran tiger, the Southeast Asian Water Monitor, Siamang Gibbons and, Hornbills, just to name a few, and of course, my main reason for this adventure, the Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo Abelii), which had always fascinated me with their meritorious strength and enchanting beauty.

The vibrant colour and remarkable  story of the protected bird of Sumatra
Hornbill of Sumatra

After spending days travelling from Jakarta to Medan, then down to North Sumatra, the Village of Bukit Lawang, to what's commonly known as the gateway to the jungle, I was beside myself with excitement to begin my trek.

After spending two days in the village relaxing, preparing for the trek, getting to know my guides, and being given the information needed to be

safe, smart, and prepared for the upcoming days in the jungle finally the day arrived. We were strictly reminded to only pack what was absolutely necessary to keep our backpacks as light as possible, we also would have to add 4 litres of water which would be needed for the first arduous day's trek into the jungle.

The human like faces and character of the Thomas Leaf Monkey
The Thomas Leaf Monkey

The morning began at 5 am, I am packed and ready to go, but first is breakfast of fruit and bread under the straw hut by the river's edge armed with my trusty wooden slingshot to keep the ballsy, gluttonous monkeys at a distance long enough so I can eat. You only have to let your guard down and eyes off your breakfast for a second and your food is swiftly swiped from your plate and heading somewhere up a tree top amongst the rainforest. I imagined that a good substantial breakfast would be necessary before the trek began. In the distance, you could hear the many sounds of the jungle wildlife beginning to stir.

Asian Water Monitor in Sumatra. Bukit Lawang
Asian Water Monitor

The Gibbons and Thomas leaf monkeys were calling to each other from afar and the giant Monitor lizards had already begun to make their way down to the Borhak River waiting for the warm sun to arrive and heat the river stones.

I will take the next few days to trek into the jungle with 2 other young women who are from France and Italy and are in their mid-20s. We have our 2 guides Antony and Hendra who are locals, and they have told us not to worry as they have been trekking through this jungle since they were youngsters, which was rather reassuring being that these two will be our only defenders for the entire jungle journey. My pack felt surprisingly light until I added my tent, sleeping bag, and first day's 4 litres of water. The first 4 hours of the trek were to be a very steep incline, straight up I was informed with the jungle becoming denser as we travel deeper in. I feel safe so far with my only real concern at this point being that I am the eldest, by about 30 years and I remember the worry running through my mind was, what if I struggled to keep up with the pace of my fellow walkers and in turn, I was to slow the team down or worse, get left behind.

Crossing this incredible bridge, one end the village of Bukit Lawang and the other, the buffer zone of the Sumatran jungle.
The suspension bridge, the gateway to the jungle

As soon as daylight arrives we are off across the Bahorok River, over the suspension bridge, and with our first steps into the jungle our guides offer to cut us thick, strong bamboo sticks to assist us on the incline up, and being the only one to take up the offer, I felt comfort in thinking it would also give me some kind of extra protection and as we begin the vertical climb and it takes no time at all for me to realize the bamboo stick Antony had hacked down with his machete was a very good idea. I decided that even though I was beginning to feel a little nervous now that I was heading into the buffer zone, I was determined to stay calm, and show no fear.

Lets begin trekking, Sumatra Jungle Trek. Keep moving , not forgetting to look behind.   behind.
Be assertive, Show no fear!

We first trek into what is known as the buffer zone of the Jungle. Here is where the original Orangutang Rehabilitation Centre and feeding platform was erected in 1972. It was initially set up to rehabilitate orangutans that had been rescued from captivity and eventually to be released back into the wild. The National Park rangers took on the important role of teaching the orangutans living in the Center the much-needed skills to live and survive when released into the jungle. It was hoped that most, after time in the rehabilitation Centre could readjust and reintegrate back into their natural habitat, but unfortunately, most of the orangutans had lost the ability to do so after their interaction with humans, many had been kept as pets with some having never lived in the jungle at all but in fact in the villages on chains, pens, and cages. The orangutans that were released into the buffer zone are still monitored today by those same amiable park rangers.

Over time it was decided that the visitor's behavior was not justly controlled and the area also became too touristy with some of the orangutans coming into contact with humans and the rehabilitation Center was closed down in 2002. Still, now several orangutans have not ventured far into the jungle but remain living close to the old feeding platform.

As we make our way along the back trails of the 'buffer zone', we come across a small rubber plantation, we learn how section by section the trees are stripped down and rubber is extracted, sold on, and even weighted down with bark and other vegetation matter to increase the weight for greater profit. Its harvesting is a means of income for some of the local people and the rubber is used for producing tyres, shoe soles, and industrial bands.

We met a man who lives and works on the plantation for most of his life. As we continued, we also see the Cinchona trees, learning that the bark from the tree produces Quinine which is used to treat Malaria by killing the parasite that grows in the red blood cells. Quinine is also in tonic water and I cannot help but conclude that before and during my next journey to the jungle I will follow a strict diet of Gin and Tonic rather than taking the dreaded Malaria tablets, which seems to me would be a more enjoyable practice to take indeed.

We trekked further and arrived at the old rehabilitation center and feeding platform where several orangutans are known to remain, these orangutans would have a difficult time returning to the jungle, outside the buffer zone and more than likely would not survive. It took no time at all and we were lucky to see our first orangutan, she is with a new baby and although keeping her distance, she appears as curious as we are.

The first opportunity to be up close and personal with this wonderful mother orangutan and her baby.
The inquisitive mother and baby orangutan, Sumatra.

They are magnificent, and although seeing these incredible creatures in the past in documentaries and books, nothing can quite describe the feeling I have of being face-to-face with her. We spent a few heart stopping moments in her presence, and before long we were on our way again, we had a long grueling trek ahead, the temperature was rising fast and we would need to arrive at the first camp before dark. The track through the jungle has now become steep and it seems we are all feeling the reality of the journey ahead. Everyone has gone quiet, concentrating on climbing, breathing, the dangers that surround us, and keeping to the track so as not to slip and tumble over the vertical drop to the side of the track.

We travel approximately 3 km in and the guide stops us, spotting a significant male high up in the forest canopy, at first, I found him difficult to spot until I see a large face staring down at me. A face resembling that of a wise old man, inspecting and giving permission for us to pass. He is large, strong, and robust looking, and being further into the jungle seems to give you a little more apprehension than the feeling down at the feeding platform. This is wild and you are in his territory. Antony and Hendra both remain close to us as we stop to quietly take photos, he tells us it's always best not to stop for too long, and to move on within a minute or two.

Keeping and eye on passers by and protecting the females of his territory.
Staring down from high up in the jungle canopy.

All you can hear is the clicking of the camera and the whispering of the team, it's quite a special moment. But, suddenly, out of nowhere I hear a loud thud like a huge branch falling from the tree, I can see the canopy swaying and within a second the guides are telling us to RUN!

I only need to be told this instruction once and I am off like an Olympic marathon runner, flying through the jungle at record speeds, in the wrong direction!!

With my heart pounding and my skinny legs leaping over logs and through fallen branches, my backpack bouncing from side to side and all the while hearing sounds of that similar to a bulldozer coming through behind me. I realize I am running alone in the opposite direction and at that precise moment, I believe I am going to die, torn apart by a wild orangutan. I am thinking of my daughter and the people I love. I can't run anymore and by now I can hardly breathe through fear, I see a huge old forest tree as big as a building and I decided to stop and crouch down as small as I can get, my head between my legs and trying to blend into the environment. I have been like that only for a few minutes but it felt like an eternity. At this moment I was scared as hell and gasping for air.

Massive tree roots, trees that are hundreds of years old and as tall as the sky.

Magnificent trees and their giant roots in the Sumatran Jungle.

I hear a guide calling me but I can't seem to find my voice through fear, he keeps calling and eventually, I let out a squeaky murmur, "I'm here, help"! One guide finds me curled up in a ball pushed up against a hole in the tree, he drags me up from the ground by the strap of the backpack and leads me back to the group. I am in shock and white as a ghost, the others are sitting on a fallen branch also shaken, one girl is fighting back tears and the guides tell us to relax, we are safe.

He explains to us that the orangutan that came down was not trying to come after us at all, but this orangutan is a young male, with females in his territory, and from afar he can see another male coming in too close, it his instinct to react and show his dominance to the other male to protect his group, intimidate and persuade him to leave. The guide decides that it is time for us to move on and locate a safer place where we can rest and eat some fruit for lunch, recuperate a little before another difficult few kms.

And with lunch, we settle a little but before too long we realize that there is another jungle surprise waiting just around the corner for us all, and that's another story in itself shared in Sumatra Jungle Trekking - Part 2.

To be continued in "Jungle Trekking " Parts 2 - 4

Getting to know yourself, going on a journey of self-discovery, learning what lights you up, what depletes you, and what your strengths and weaknesses are.

The fast flowing current of the Bahorok river in Bukit Lawang
Bahorok River, Bukit Lawang, Sumatra


bottom of page