“You’re in the jungle baby!” Nazim, the proprietor of our jungle ‘hut’ proclaimed as, shining my flashlight on our sleeping bags we spotted a giant spider scurrying into the darkness of the corner right as we were about to turn in for the night. I’ve heard those iconic words screamed by Axl countless times through my speakers, but never had they been more applicable than here. Water, electricity, basic sanitation facilities be damned, this is the home of the poisonous, the strong, the eat or be eaten. Yes, we’re in the jungle baby.
I’ve always felt drawn to the jungle. Even as a child, I vividly recall visiting the simulated rainforest experience at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, marvelling with wide eyes at the exotic flora and fauna, hearing the strange and foreign sounds, feeling the breathtaking pulse of the dense humidity. To this day there’s something exotic sounding about the word, and when the opportunity arose to spend three days and two nights searching for wild orangutans in the jungles of Sumatra, I was in.
Accessing Gunung Leuser National Park from Singapore (or seemingly from most major hubs in Southeast Asia) is actually relatively easy. A flight into Medan (only an hour from Singapore) followed by 4.5 hours in the car (the distance itself is minimal, but like other densely populated areas of Indonesia the traffic is horrendous) and you arrive at Bukit Lawang, the gateway to Guning Leuser National Park, and one of the last homes on Earth of the critically endangered wild orangutan.
Most tourists opt to spend the night in Bukit Lawang, but we wanted to jump right into the thick of it and try our hand at spotting these majestic creatures. Immediately upon entering the park you begin to experience the sensation of travelling back in time to the Lost World, the canopy above you reaching up to the heavens and blocking out the sun, enveloping the forest beneath in a shroud of darkness and mystery. As you walk deeper into the forest you are greeted by the deafening cacophony of cicadas, often heard but rarely seen, screaming through the trees. About thirty minutes in, our guide Kamil abruptly stopped us with a raised hand. In the distance we heard the quick rustling of branches, and out of the canopy appeared a huge wild male orangutan, engaged in a brute force territorial battle with another male.
As quick as it started, the battle was over, with the losing party fleeing into the forest and the victorious male instantly transformed from a temperament of ferocity to one of calm and curiosity. It’s difficult to express the emotion you experience looking into the eyes of these majestic creatures. We were careful to maintain a distance (this male was well over 100kg) but I couldn’t wipe the massive smile off my face, a feeling that would continue throughout the course of our time in the park.
We soon came to realize that we had come at the right time (unbeknownst to us at the time of booking). At this time of year the fruit is ripe and the mating season is in full swing, leading to extremely active orangutans that can be witnessed much closer than other times of year. By the time the rains arrive in November, most of the orangutans disappear deep into the forest, not to be seen again until the dry season begins the following year.
There’s a primal quality about sleeping in the jungle, an awakening of something inside you that lays mostly dormant but quietly claws at the subconscious and occasionally has the opportunity to burst forth. The first night we were there we quickly learned why they call it the rainforest. Heavy incessant rainfall beat against the roof of the hut as we lay awake, watching flashes of light like a blaze of fireworks as lightning ripped through the sky, the smashing boom of thunder like a drum beating time in the night. In the morning the mist rose from the river at the base of the mountain like tendrils of smoke as the sun burnt away the last of the night like remnants of a dream.
- The view from our jungle hut – I literally spent hours gazing into this forest completely mesmerized.
- There’s only one way to cook your food and sterilize water, the old fashioned way. Few meals have ever tasted so flavourful and rewarding.
- Our jungle hut. When I said in the middle of the forest I wasn’t exaggerating, there’s not a soul for miles around.
The rainfall made scaling the mountains and crossing the rivers a bit more challenging than it may otherwise have been, but the reward of spotting the orangutans and other creatures that call the jungle home justified every measured and slippery step we took throughout the treks.
- Nature’s playground, pretty damn rewarding after trekking the humid jungle.
- One of the smaller river crossings.
- Without doubt the best fruit platter I’ve ever tasted.
If, like me, you’re constantly in search of adventure, a sense of something different, a trip that speaks to your soul, Sumatra is for you. Since moving to Singapore I’ve been on a number of trips that reminded me of the importance of travel, of getting out of your comfort zone, of stimulating your senses (Bangladesh and Iran come to mind). Although short, this trip reminded me of why we do what we do, and why I will continue to push myself to see as much of this beautiful world as I can. I hope you do, too.