Sumatra: Chasing Wild Orangutans

What was I thinking?  Why did I think it was a good idea to do an overnight camping trip in the hot humid Sumatra jungle. These were the thoughts that ran through my water deprived brain as we kept looking for the rare Sumatran orangutan. We’d been hiking around continuously for 3 hours in the heat and humidity, up and down near vertical trails, stumbling over thick brush and wayward branches searching for the damn big ape.

This was our first day out on our overnight trek in Ketambe with Gunung Leuser Trek. This is one of the few areas in Sumatra (the other being Kedah) where you can arrange treks in the national park to see wild Sumatran orangutans and other wildlife (unlike the more touristy Bukit Lawang, south of Ketambe, where the orangutans are semi-wild and have designated feeding times to attract the apes).

The hike started out fine until we started climbing and realized that the trail was at a nearly 60 degree slope.  The hiking poles we packed finally came in handy.  Along the way to the campsite we saw really huge squirrels that we mistook for monkeys and about four Thomas leaf monkeys. But no orangutans.  We were the only group out there.  The jungle was eerily quiet.

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Thomas leaf monkeys

Although we didn’t see an orangutan, G did mange to get a leech stuck on his back despite wearing special leech socks.  Unfortunately, Iful, our guide picked the little phlebotomist off G before we were able to take a picture of it.

Iful & G wearing their leech socks

After a freshly prepared lunch at the campsite and much needed rest, we set out again to find the apes but with no luck. We kept hiking and climbing, going around the same terrain hoping to find them.  Iful would watch for large movement in the trees or listen for fruit falling.  On one occasion, Iful, out on a scouting expedition spotted a big male orangutan but once he fetched us and we got there the ape was gone. We stayed in the general area for about an hour hoping to find him.

Scenes from the jungle including a fruit an orangutan bit into

We asked Iful if he had ever been out without seeing orangutans and he said only twice and he didn’t want to add another.  Nearly collapsing from heat exhaustion and dehydration we headed back to camp with the thought that we would be number three.

The tents we used at the campsite were called local tents made up of nothing more than clear plastic sheets and tree branches. We did have sleeping mats but they were too hard for my soft American body.

Life around the campsite

The next day was the same as the first. Iful was very determined to find us orangutans and took us on an epic hike climbing up and down the jungle looking for the apes. After 4 hours of fruitless searching, we resigned ourselves that we would not see any orangutans on this outing and headed back to camp.  Iful felt bad and was very apologetic that he couldn’t find us an ape.  At least we still had another chance in Kedah.  Just as we were approaching camp Iful spotted a mother and baby orangutan high up in the trees. Excited about finally spotting an orangutan we spent the next hour following them as they moved from tree to tree eating fruit and discarding its remains on the jungle floor.

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During our trek back to the lodge, Iful did spot another orangutan, this time a big male. Iful thought it was the same male that we missed the previous day. We were able to see this one pretty clearly as he wasn’t nearly as high up in the trees. Once we left the big ape, it was a long slow grueling trudge back to the lodge for a much needed shower.

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We stayed at Wisma Cinta Alam lodge owned by Johan of Gunung Leuser Trek, before and after our overnight camping trip. Basic bungalows, no sink, just a toilet with a bucket of water and a scoop used for flushing and to shower.  We were the only visitors there.

In closing

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Dangerously too cute

Side note:

We arranged for a private car to pick us up at Medan airport. Of course, upon arriving we couldn’t find our driver.  After a few placed calls, we finally connected with the driver who was actually waiting for us but did not approach us because D was Asian and he was looking for 2 Caucasian people.  G vowed to keep away from D anytime we hire a private car.

For the Ketambe trek we arranged it through Johan from Gunung Leuser Trek.  It includes a guide, basic equipment, meals and a porter.

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