Encounters with People of the Forest

Gunung Leuser National Park, Indonesia
July 29, 2017

Decades ago, the town of Bukit Lawang was no doubt a beautiful spot perched at the edge of the national park. But today, it spreads along both banks like cancer, with concrete monstrosities in painted in virulent shades with ever more being constructed each day. The cafes, restaurants and shops line the path along the river and edge onto the grounds of the Gunung Leuser National Park. The shallow, fast flowing Bahorok is where adults and children alike, splash, swim and float downstream on inner tubes. On weekends it is a veritable circus with weekending Indonesians swelling the numbers of tourists and music pumping out of bars. I wonder what the animals in the park make of it.

A trek in the jungle is the main reason to travel to this part of Sumatra and most guesthouses arrange treks for varying number of days. There is an unspoken but definite push to commit from the moment of arrival, the chilly attitude undergoing a distinct mellowing, once a deal is struck and the package paid for. Confirmed bookings for rooms disappear like smoke if there is no promise of a trek. I signed up for a trek along with four others from my guesthouse. Tommy and Maggie are from Argentina, travelling for almost a year while Tessa and Hans are from Holland, on the road for three months.

Barely an hour into the trek is a rubber plantation, the latex collected and taken to town periodically. This is home to a group of Thomas Leaf monkeys who like the nuts of these trees. Their strikingly patterned faces are everywhere. Some on the trees, some on the ground, they seem unperturbed by the masses of humans, so used to them are they. It is unsurprising, given the familiar way of the guides and the selfies deemed mandatory by many of the visitors. Some even hold out food for the monkeys for that all-important selfie.

Our guide, Joseph overheard a couple of comments we made and unknown to us, decided to take matters in hand. We walked along but soon after, a barely discernable rustle of leaves high in the tree-tops, a flash of orange in the distance and Joseph stopped to listen. Off he went down the steep slope, off trail, barely needing to hold onto the branches and limbs. We scrambled to follow, holding onto branches and vines, trying to find purchase on a mountain slope that was easily seventy degrees or more. Too many vines looked like snakes and it paid to check carefully before clutching at them. Balancing on trunks and roots, we saw it high among the treetops, swinging from one branch to the next. Orang means person in Bahasa and Utan means forest; orangutans have been so called in this part of the world because of their uncanny resemblance to humans and so they are called today. The bright orange of their fur is different from their darker, almost black cousins that I saw in Borneo.

We were to see more of these fascinating creatures over the next couple of days. Among quite a few females with their young in tow, was one massive male. Off trail they were sometimes, but many more, closer to the trails. Many are known by sight to the guides, from the days when they or their parents were regulars at the rehabilitation center while it was still in operation over a decade ago. The feeding center might be history but regular feeding is still a prominent feature here. Most of the guides offer bananas and other fruit to entice the orangutans closer. To make their clients happy, they say. Rehabilitation is a lost cause as each new generation learns of the easy access to food. We learned just how “wild” these animals were in a hilarious incident over lunch, the first day.

We had stopped at the old dilapidated feeding center to eat our packed lunch. No sooner had we entered the caged enclosure that used to be the viewing platform, than we had visitors. First came a troop of monkeys, wise to the ways of humans, knowing there was food to be filched. They slid between the railings and had to be constantly shooed away as they tried to dart in to snatch food. But we had yet more visitors in store.

Swinging from branch to branch came a young orangutan, peering in through the wire, eyeing us and coveting the fruits that were spread out on the floor. Being zoo animals inside a cage was a novel experience for us as she prowled around outside. Soon after came yet another one, this one known to the guides as “flat nose”. With her baby wrapped around her she was not to be gainsaid. Boldly she opened a window and clambered in, making a beeline for the leftover fruits. The guides had yelled to us to grab our backpacks and we had, but Joseph did not quite get to his pack soon enough. Flatnose sat, one paw reaching out for the pack while both she and her baby scarfed down the fruits with much lip smacking. A few tries at the tugging the pack proved fruitless and within a couple of minutes she was off, the backpack in her jaws, clambering up to her nest in a tree nearby. There she sat, gorging in the fruits still in the pack, having had no trouble opening the zippers. A one-sided conversation between her and the guides followed, alternately cursing her and enticing her with more fruit in exchange of the pack. But the cajoling interspersed with threats fell on deaf ears, as she proceeded to take items out of the pack. Unwanted objects were flung out hither and thither while edible ones were promptly devoured.

Joseph’s trousers floated down, getting caught on some branches, soon followed by a sheet. The battery pack was flung down the slope, taking the combined efforts of all of us for the better part of a half hour to find. The baby sat playing with the charging cable for a while until it too was flung down. An entire bunch of bananas, some fifteen in all, were consumed in under three minutes, the skins thrown down on our heads. A far cry from wild or even semi-wild, she clearly knows many of the words. Yells of “plastic, plastic” had her tossing down empty plastic bags. The toothbrush was taken out and went promptly into her mouth, wrong end in. The toothpaste was squeezed out of both ends and liberally graced all parts of the pack. An attempt to climb to retrieve the pack had her angrily pushing Joseph so he came tumbling down, thankfully landing on a pile of leaves, chastened but unhurt. He claims it is not the first time he’s encountered a pack-snatching orangutan. Wild animals? Most definitely not, not even semi-wild as the guides like to claim. Only when she was finished with her massive lunch, did she leave the nest. Armed with a branch, one of the guides fended her off while Joseph climbed up again to fetch his pack. I hadn’t laughed this hard in a long while. My sides aching, I doubted that anything else on this trip could match this unanticipated drama. I had not expected anything remotely this entertaining!

The trails are not marked but the guides seem to know their way unerringly. Not death-defying, but certainly not a stroll in the park, they go up and down, the ascents and descents steep and slippery after rain. NoenThe camps are set on the river banks, sometimes small streams, sometimes larger ones. Some are rudimentary shelters, some more established ones. But unlike the Amazon, where everyone slings hammocks between trees, here we bedded down on hardpacked mud inside the hut. The meals were a pleasant surprise. Our cook was clearly talented and we ate better than at most restaurants. The camaraderie around the campfire, tall tales told by the guides accompanied by numerous card tricks and games are a routine part of the treks and enjoyable in their own way.

Surprisingly, no animals visit the camps – at least none did, ours. For reasons I cannot fathom, the mosquito population seems to give the camps a wide berth – not that I was complaining! Some pig-tailed macaques kept up their chatter high in the trees up the cliff and a couple of monitor lizards swam by in the stream where we had been bathing just before. The laughing call of hornbills tantalized but they deigned not to appear. Neither did the snakes, much to my relief.

After returning to Bukit Lawang, I went walking one day, along a path on the cliff edge, overlooking the river. Some distance upstream, above some of the lodges, I saw a knot of bathers in the middle of the river intently looking at the opposite bank. Lo and behold, it was Flatnose, with her young. Most orangutans avoid rivers if they can, but the lure had proved too much for her. And for good reason. Just as on the trail, here too some of the people in the river laid out bananas and some food on the rocks by the river edge. Flatnose came cautiously, ate as did her baby. And then they lumbered off to the forest edge again. Perhaps a banner advertising Bukit Lawang should read: You don’t need to go into the jungle to see wildflife. In Bukit Lawang, the wildlife comes to you.

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