Since leaving Bali in search of more thrills I'd found myself climbing mountains for sunrise, gazing into toxic turquoise lakes and sitting on the fringes of volcanic craters, but it could be argued the best was saved until last. Although I was never allowed any pets, my childhood bedroom walls were filled with dinosaur posters and my bookshelves filled with animal books. I eventually moved away from the Jurassic era and a little closer to modern day, falling into complete fascination with monkeys and apes in particular (only boosted by King Ceaser and the Planet Of The Apes franchise) so, when I learnt of a place in Western Indonesia that serves as home to one of the worlds largest remaining Orangutan populations, I jumped feverishly at the opportunity.
After flying from Yogjakarta through to Medan, we set off on a five hour drive across the torturously bumpy terrain beside the banks of the Bahorok River, into Bukit Lawang - a small tourist village in North Sumatra where our adventure would begin. The following morning, we packed a small day pack each consisting of essentials, and set off in to the heart of Gunung Leuser National Park. En route, the amazing guides Helmi and Bunglah proclaimed that orangutans are currently classified as critically endangered, and a large part of this is due to rainforest deforestation from palm oil plantations. Within the UNESCO site we were currently hiking in, however, they were protected and monitored, whilst remaining wild and in their natural habitat.
Within our first hour our guides brought us to a stop, patiently assessing our environment before pointing high up into the canopy. Soon enough, we noticed a huge nest within the trees and a broad dark face peering through the leaves at us. Our first orangutan, a huge male! From that point onwards, we encountered a handful of these incredible animals from the trees down to the ground during our trek, close enough at times to hold eye contact. Connecting with them in this way was truly an indescribable feeling. We also spotted the famously rare animals that call this jungle home, such as the Thomas Leaf Monkeys, White Tail Macaques, large Monitor Lizards and colourful Hawksbill birds.
Nearing the close of our first day of trekking, a nervous whispering spread across the five or six guides within the jungle, and their once playful demeanours very quickly became quite serious. Our guide, Helmi motioned for us to stop before approaching the next flatland, turning to us to explain the situation in a bit more detail. He told us that just around the next corner there lay a female Orangutan, feeding on the flat. Her name was Meena and she was known for being extremely volatile and at times aggressive. Upon asking why, he explained that she is a grandmother in this jungle, and not too long ago she birthed a stillborn child. She couldn’t accept this tragedy, however, and refused to part ways with her infant, which is not uncommon in these situations with apes. Traditionally, they carry the body with them everywhere, on their backs through the trees and across the ground when walking, and only once the head eventually removes from the body they bury and grieve. Helmi continued, telling us that in these instances, the corpse can inherit diseases and viruses very quickly, which could spread to other life in the jungle and create a chain of illness within the protected environment. So, in order to prevent this, Meena was put under with tranquillisers, and the corpse of her stillborn child was taken from her, treated and then buried. Apparently, since waking up without her child, she has been grieving heavily and acting very aggressively towards the guides.
This provoked some apprehension within the group, but as we approached, I found a composure and profundity in Meena that I wasn’t expecting, something far from the character I had drawn in my head. For me, one of my most memorable encounters was experienced in this brief moment. Time stood still as we slowly found open space around her as she ate. Her posture was so human; one hand stretched out behind her to support her, the other casually bent across her raised knee. She ate with her mouth closed, chewing slowly, watching each of us patiently, as if she was trying to gauge us and get a feel for our character, just like we do as humans in our first meetings. I remember her eyes falling on me. She sat still, holding her gaze collectedly. There was no anger, fear or an ounce of aggression behind her eyes. Just patient curiosity. She took a bite of her orange, without breaking stare. This utterly sincere moment, that felt as though it stretched over half an hour, was disturbed by a Macaque who had jumped onto the scene looking to steal some of Meena’s food, stirring up some of the passion we had heard so much about. As a confrontation began, we were ushered away to safety and forced to continue our travels. Until we reached our camp that night, I kept thinking of Meena. The closeness of our species, our mannerisms. Her ability to judge and identify the nature of our visit without animalistic emotion. Her composure.
We camped that night in the jungle beside a river, which offered us the perfect bathing spot that evening, after seven hours of trekking in the thick, humid rainforest. We heard brilliant stories from some of the other groups who told us of their own experiences - close encounters with local monkeys and orangutans who interrupted their lunch to steal all the fruit. The footage was massively entertaining.
Overall, the two days we spent within the jungle in search of these wonderful animals was incredibly satisfying. Not only to be so close to such majestic creatures whom share so much of our DNA, but to feel unrushed and able to observe them in their natural habitat, climbing, eating, nurturing their young, and playing, was an incredible honour - something I will never forget.
If travelling to Indonesia, make time to visit Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world. Join Sumatra Orangutan Trek group and experience it for yourself!