Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Trekking through the jungle, North Sumatra

North Sumatra, home to some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world.

The Gunung Leuser National Park is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the last places where you can see the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan in the wild.

I entered the National Park through the village of Bukit Lawang and it was on the drive up that the questions began. Passing through an endless palm oil plantation, it’s an uneasy feeling when you see ‘London Sumatra Palm Oil Factory’ engraved on the side of the factory.

The resulting deforestation has pushed most of the region’s wildlife to the brink of extinction. I met a couple of the guys who worked on the plantation and you can see the worry in their eyes at the changing attitudes towards palm oil. The industry has provided countless jobs. Yet it seems they're positive with a future of sustainable palm oil production, protecting wildlife without losing their livelihoods.

It was a nice conversation to have before jumping back in the car and onto the jungle.

Bukit Lawang is a small village, located on the Bohorok River, just over 50 miles north-west of Medan. The name means “door to the hill”, which could not be a more fitting description.

I stayed in the Rindu Alam Hotel, before heading out at 7am with Roslin, one of the park’s patrol men and my guide.

Not for the faint-hearted, the trek takes ‘off the beaten track’ to a whole new level. I sprained my ankle, left with nine mosquito bites (despite smothering myself in repellant) and had the shock of my life when a snake shot past me.

I began by trying to map my route in, just in case my guide was eaten by a snake and I had to find my own way back. But after 1,000 left and right turns, with nothing to guide us but trees, it took a mere twenty minutes for me to lose all sense of direction. Luckily, Roslin said the last time he got lost was in 1998, when he returned a week later after taking a wrong turn (I was hoping he didn’t plan on repeating that).

It’s apparent from the moment you step under the canopy that you’re not alone. Monkeys, gibbons, cobras, elephants and tigers are just some of the wildlife that call the rainforest home.

My main agenda was to see an orangutan and I wasn’t disappointed. The animals are wild and despite there being 7,000, they’re spread out across nearly 800,000 hectares of rainforest - so finding them can be a challenge. But two hours into my trek, I stumbled across a mother and her baby, snacking on fruit and swinging from the branches above. It was worth seeing a thousand cobras.

I sat in silence alongside Roslin, watching them as they watched us, unbothered by our presence.

I wish I could have stayed forever, but eventually they moved into the dense forest.

As a patrolman, Roslin explained that his job was not only as an educational tour guide, but also to patrol the forest from illegal activities: including logging and poaching. Over 26 years, he’s seen and arrested a number of people - but he said the park has become a well-respected place among the local community, especially with people coming such long distances to experience a few hours in it.

The National Park motto: “take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints”. Meaning no feeding, no disturbing and definitely no touching. The kind of ecotourism that warms my heart.

If you’d like to read about the rest of my trip to Indonesia, click here.
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