Trekking Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra in search of endangered orangutans in another world.
Ever since Leonardo DiCaprio hit local and international news headlines with his short but sweet visit to North Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park, I couldn’t stop thinking about the place. It wasn’t only the 41-year-old actor-cum-environmentalist who drew me to visiting this area, but the message he conveyed through his Instagram channel: that this was a special place that needed to be protected.
The lowland forests of the Leuser ecosystem are still home to ancient elephant migratory paths followed by some of the last wild herds of Sumatran elephants, numbering less than 1,000. “But the expansion of Palm Oil plantations is fragmenting the #forest and cutting off key elephant migratory corridors,” DiCaprio said on his Instagram page, which is making it “more difficult for elephant families to find adequate sources of food and water.” DiCaprio’s self-named foundation supports the protection and conservation of the Leuser ecosystem.
Gunung Leuser National Park covers an area of 7,927 km2 in Sumatra, and sits right on the border of North Sumatra and the Shariah-governed Aceh province. Along with Bukit Barisan Selatan and Kerinci Seblat national parks, Gunung Leuser forms a World Heritage Site known as the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra. This is the only place in the world where the orangutan, elephant, rhinoceros and tiger still coincide. Today, the Leuser ecosystem exists at a shaky crossroads, however ecotourism is playing an important role in assisting in the conservation of this glorious stretch of pristine rainforest that is under siege from palm oil plantations and other development projects.
Although you’re highly unlikely to encounter a tiger or rhinoceros in these forests unless you hike for many days deep into its depths, you will almost always have the chance to see orangutans on a two-day hike. These gorgeous creatures can sometimes even be seen right from the balcony of your accommodation in Bukit Lawang.
The gateway to the national park can best be described as a hyper tourist village. Bukit Lawang sits on the edge of Bahorok River, and has a cemented path large enough for two motorbikes that runs through its entirety. The river is the only thing that separates mankind from the wilderness.
In 2003, a terrible flash flood swept away almost the entirety of the village – which back then was made up of only a few cottages. Thirteen years later, Bukit Lawang has developed into a happening tourist hub filled with orangutan enthusiasts and those in search of a more simple and chilled existence.
The drive is approximately 4 hours from Medan international airport. Upon arrival, you’ll be greeted in English with “Welcome to the jungle, brother!” and the rushing sounds of the river will start to relax those tired-from-travelling minds. The village is filled with riverside cafes, Bob Marley bars, and ‘eco’ accommodation.
Lodging in Bukit Lawang is simple sans air-conditioning or hot water. Electricity isn’t stable, but this adds to the charm. People come here to experience wildlife and trek into the jungle, not to lounge around in five-star luxury.
Most accommodations can organize a range of trekking options for you. On our two-day, one-night hike into the national park, we spotted our first orangutan in the trees above us only an hour into the hike. Semi-wild and used to people, you can get really close to these endangered animals, who have been given names by the locals.
Mina does not like humans and is quite aggressive, often accosting tourists on their walks. It turns out she had been abused by humans when she was younger, resulting in trust issues, understandably. Other creatures you’re likely to meet on this trail are macaques, the punk rock-looking Thomas leaf monkey, pigtail macaques and even gibbons.
The hike itself is quite strenuous, as the region is hilly – which is actually the saving grace for why it has not been exploited by oil palm plantations. It’s extremely humid and hot, therefore not suitable for elderly hikers or people without a moderate level of fitness. Although the hike is a bit tough, you can stop and rest whenever the need arises.
We trekked 6.5 kilometres through the dense jungle, stopping for a light snack of fruits and a lunch of nasi goreng. One thing I noticed is that the trail is extremely clean, with no litter to be found. The guides have been taught from the beginning that rubbish means no guests, which in turn means no money, so even cigarette butts are brought back to Bukit Lawang, a refreshing change from other hikes in Indonesia.
We arrived at our riverside camp at 4.30 pm; with accommodation made of bamboo and tarpaulin. Our guide, Ipong (we like to call him Mowgli as he was so in tune with the forest) made a fire while we delighted in a refreshing bathe in the crystal clear waters of the river, with virgin rainforest towering above us on either side.
A team of cooks prepared a delicious dinner and we dined on the ground under the stars. It’s rare that we have the chance to experience pitch-black darkness – a welcome change from the incessant lights of the city. You will be provided with a yoga mat to sleep on, and although sleeping bags are provided, an extra set and a blow-up pillow wouldn’t hurt to act as a buffer from the hard ground beneath you.
Waking up to the sights and sounds of the rainforest – and hundreds of macaques frolicking and being their cheeky selves – was nothing short of spectacular. After breakfast, we walked upriver to bathe in a stunning little waterfall that has enough pressure to rip your swimming gear off.
Tired legs from the tough hike of the previous day were relieved when we were able to ‘tube’ back to the village on giant inflatable tyres, tied together to form a raft. Ipong made each one of us a leaf crown, donned tribal face paint made out of mud, and we were off downstream. Tubing gives you a completely different perspective of the forest, actually allowing you to see it rather than be right in the thick of it.
Of all the trips I’ve done in Indonesia, this one takes the cake. It was truly special and an experience I plan to repeat again, next time visiting the elephant sanctuary at Tangkahan and possibly doing a longer seven-day trek into the jungle to rediscover my inner Mowgli. I urge other outdoor lovers to visit this other-worldly place before it’s too late.
Fast facts: Gunung Leuser National Park
Getting there: Daily flights available with local airlines to Medan’s Kualanamu International airport. Flights also available from neighbouring Singapore or Malaysia. Ask your accommodation to arrange airport transfer (approximately Rp.600,000 one way) to Bukit Lawang, which takes around 3.5-4 hours.
Where to stay: Eco Travel Cottages or Riverside Guesthouse offer cheap and clean accommodation with fans. Riverside has a viewing deck with stunning views of Bukit Lawang and the forest. Eco Travel Cottages is situated right on the river.
What to bring: Sun block, mosquito repellent, headlamp, hiking shoes/trainers, long pants and long-sleeve top for the evenings, shorts and a light top for hiking, backpack, cash (the nearest ATM is half an hour away), camera.
What to do: Hiking, photography, orangutan watching, tubing, elephant excursion in Tangkahan, dancing to the live band on Saturday nights, relaxing.
Suitable for: Adventure junkies, animal enthusiasts, reggae fans.