A Trek Among the Wild Orangutans of Gunung Leuser National Park
Almost everything in the jungle can kill you. Whether it’s plants, animals, insects, river rapids or slipping down a steep mountainside that leads to your doom, it’s positively lethal out there.
Luckily our guide – Jhony Jungle – was there to keep us safe with his heart-warming tales of the various dangers.
“Oh look, a bee is in the tent,” I remarked one evening.
Jhony responded, his brow furrowed: “If you are stung seven times by this bee, you will die.”
Then he showed me a huge hole in his calf where he was stung by one of these bees. His words later rang in my ears when I climbed out of the tent to go to the toilet at midnight and three of the bees landed on my body (one in a fairly intimate location). Fortunately, I managed to stay completely still until they departed and I ran back to the tent shaken but unscathed.
I wasn’t so fortunate with the flora. One slip into a pile of jelatang, the Sumatran equivalent of a stinging nettle on steroids, and I was left with a painful and tingly palm which didn’t alleviate for almost 10 days.
If this sounds like not a lot of fun to you, you’re mistaken. Trekking in the northern Sumatran jungle of Gunung Leuser National Park was possibly the best experience of my life. It’s wild and untamed like a jungle should be; teeming with life everywhere you look, yet utterly peaceful at the same time. If you like a bit of adventure in your life or are a wildlife fanatic, there are not many better places on Earth to visit.
The Sumatran jungle contains various monkey species, including the Thomas leaf, long and short-tailed macaques and the noisy white-handed gibbon. There are many species of snake, frog and lizard, and small-scale life varies from beautiful butterflies to huge millipedes.
Then there’s the big, dangerous stuff – elephants, shy Sumatran rhinos, sun bears and the highly endangered Sumatran tiger. Birds such as hornbills, owls and woodpeckers are common. But there’s one wildlife attraction in particular that draws intrepid travellers to Gunung Leuser – a chance to get up close and personal with the last wild Sumatran orangutans in the world.
The very first morning of the trek set the standard which was to continue for the ensuing four days. We picked up a trail a couple of kilometres outside Ketambe village and started with a climb. The trail was narrow and untamed. Jhony used his machete to clear the way through the foliage. It began to rain fairly early on and we put on our invaluable waterproofs.
“We will not see orangutan in the rain,” Jhony informed us, frowning. “They hide in the rain and are not active.” Putting all thoughts of an early ape sighting aside, we pushed on through the dense trees.
About an hour into the morning trek, the orangutans made Jhony look a fool when we stumbled upon a group of five of them eating and climbing about in the branches above. One was making itself a nest out of leaves and small branches, dropping a few unwanted specimens pretty close to our heads.
The apes make a new nest every day before moving to another tree in a nomadic fashion. One of the orangutans was a new mother with a small baby clinging to her chest. 100% wild, 100% untamed, 100% adorable. The close genetic relationship between humans and orangutans is undeniable when you observe their young. The impossibly cute baby certainly tugged on my maternal heartstrings.
We spent about half an hour watching the group go about their daily business, which mostly involved eating fruit. The rain poured down into our faces as we peered up at the creatures but we couldn’t care less about getting wet. Fuzzy limbs stuck out from branches as they lazily slung themselves from tree to tree.
A young male came tantalizingly close to the ground; he seemed to be as interested in us as we were in him. His damp fur created a striking halo of orange against the white clouds. Sumatran orangutans are lighter in colour than their cousins in neighbouring Borneo. There is no way they can deny that they are ginger.
After spending four days in the wilderness, during which time we had experienced four unforgettable orangutan sightings, Jhony had to practically drag me out of the jungle. Our final morning began with the wonderful alarm clock call of the white-handed gibbons. They whooped to a deafening crescendo as we trudged down the steep mountainside we had climbed the previous day.
An orangutan napped in the trees above, barely 200m from the gibbons. The power tool noises of cicadas almost drowned out the gibbons’ calls. Two minutes later excitement rose as we heard the distinctive bark of a sun bear somewhere in the vicinity.
The Sumatran jungle was overwhelmingly alive and thriving, largely untouched and undisturbed by nature’s biggest problem: humans. There are not many places left on this planet which allow you to forget the existence of the modern world and experience the richness of the natural world.
Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park is one of them.