The scariest moment of my life! Imagine trekking the deep dense Sumatran jungle and being chased by one of Bukit Lawang’s biggest male orangutan! Yep, that happened to us.
A surreal and unique experience with unpredictable weather conditions and orangutans flying down from the treetops to get a closer look at another ape-like species.
There are just two places left on the planet which are home to wild orangutan. North Sumatra’s jungle where beautiful Bukit Lawang happens to be the gateway to the jungle. The second place is the island of Borneo over towards the east and has more than one jungle for orangutan-seekers to explore and see swinging orangutans.
We visited Gunung Leuser National Park as we found responsible trekking with Indonesia Tourist Guide Association through our hosts. Our jungle trek needed to lead by a responsible licenced guide who supports the orangutans and their welfare.
How to choose a responsible wildlife tour company?
It’s simple, do your research! Google is a wonderful resource, especially with more and more places becoming accessible to travel. It’s important to ensure we are supporting local communities to fund their environment and cultural conservation.
- Do your research beforehand and check licences and accreditation on the company you plan to tour with.
- Scope out their website to see if their ethos matches sustainable tourism and check if they have a policy in place.
- Check out TripAdvisor for personal travel reviews from those who have toured with them.
The Garden Inn
We found the most natural and sustainable quirky accommodation right on the edge of the jungle in Bukit Lawang. Even orangutan swing by to say hello!
The Garden Inn is run by OJ and his kind wife Brigitte and a bunch of jungle boys, who in the evenings sing acoustic jungle songs to their guests. Magic.
‘In the jungle the mighty jungle, the orangutan sleeps tonight. See the monkeys, see the birds, see the orangutan in Bukit Lawang‘
Set back from the river rapids in a flourishing garden of greenery, every room at The Garden Inn is built to match its surrounding environment. Brigitte organised a wooden shack with a private room and bathroom built on stilts for our stay.
The Garden Inn serves amazing Indonesian cuisine and the tastiest fried snacks ever, I couldn’t stop eating them! Oh, and they had the cutest little kitten prancing around so life was pretty complete for me here in the jungle.
Landing in Medan
Medan is a huge city with not much dimension to it. Even the taxi driver said it’s not an exciting city to explore, right before he slammed the anchors on and nudged a pedestrian crossing the road! Soz hun.
We didn’t spend much time in the city before grabbing a local minibus to Bukit Lawang, an interesting experience in itself! We love how some of Asia’s bus operating systems work. With limited information regarding bus departure times and locations, we were pointed in the direction to a parking lot where a load of vans were waiting. We asked for “Bukit Lawang” and a guy took our backpacks off and chucked them on the roof. We jumped on board and waited until the bus was full before setting off!
Getting to Bukit Lawang
The minibus stops along the way to pick up a few extras, jumping on and off the bus throughout its journey. At one point, we counted the number of people squeezed into the van. A total of 23 heads including a couple of kids and a guy hanging out the side door. There are only 12 official seats on the bus! Classic.
After 2 hours travelling sandwiched between two guys in the backseat, one blowing smoke in my face and the other not-so-slyly reading Sam’s Kindle, we passed through a forest of palm trees. We couldn’t help be reminded about stories of how areas of the Sumatran jungle is being set on fire to be made way for purpose-built palm forests for the palm oil industry. Basically, for the cheapest cooking oil on the market, that is frankly pretty bad for your health!
I don’t want to get all environmental on you all, but since travelling, we soon realised how amazing our planet truly is. We also learned pretty quickly how much we are destroying it.
We have agreed to make changes and live a more eco-friendly lifestyle when we return home to Yorkshire. If you’re not up on the environmental climate crisis or find it overwhelming on the news, in the newspapers and online… give Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘Before the Flood’ a watch on Netflix.
This documentary will give you a pretty good scientific understanding without all the bullshit. Facts are facts at the end of the day. You can make up your own mind about today’s climate crisis if you watch this programme. It’s pretty unbelievable… and who doesn’t love Leo!
Anyway, back to the orangutans!
Welcome to the jungle
Scrambling off the backseat of the bus we fell into a crowd of becak drivers, waving their arms in the air fighting for our business to take us into the jungle.
To our surprise, someone in the back had a piece of paper which said ‘Loren’ (close enough ey!). Brigitte had been so kind as to arrange a becak to their accommodation, without even knowing our time of arrival. Hopefully, he hadn’t been waiting too long as the bus journey ended after 3 hours!
Zooming through the streets to get as close to The Garden Inn as possible, we disembarked after 5 minutes and walked the rest of the way, approximately 10 minutes through the village along a path not wide enough for vehicles.
The streets are pristinely clean and lined with impressive wooden-built structures of restaurants, guest houses and quirky handmade shops. We love how these sustainable living conditions are built to blend in with its jungle environment. They have become our favourite places to relax and spend time in.
We approached the entrance of The Garden Inn and it took our breath away! It looked even more beautiful than the pictures we had seen on their website and Instagram. Brigitte’s husband OJ greeted us with the biggest welcome and ushered us to kick off our hiking boots and relax in their hand-carved wooden chairs. We ordered dinner and arranged our jungle tour later in the week.
Exploring Bukit Lawang
OJ introduced us to Yannick & Valerie also staying at The Garden Inn, German siblings who were joining us on our jungle tour. OJ suggested we explored the area together and so we agreed to meet the following morning for a colourful fruit salad and a mission to the Bat Cave and a dip in the Bahorok River.
Bat cave & river dip
After a fruitful breakfast and learning how and why our paths crossed in Bukit Lawang, we made our way over the suspension bridge to the other side of the village. Following paths lined with luscious green palm trees and pineapple plants, we came across a forest of Hevea Brasiliensis trees which produce latex. The process is called rubber tapping when a quarter-inch groove is sliced into the tree, peeling back the bark to relieve seeping latex. This is not damaging to the tree as the tree is not required to be cut down.
A small fee is required to enter the bat cave with a guide (although we didn’t learn much, it’s more for safety as we scrambled up and over rocks). It is pitch black in there! Don’t forget your head torch!
It’s pretty epic to see the caves reflecting a variety of limestone colours when the sun shines through the cracks. Eventually, we reached the cave with bats and pointed our torches to the ceiling to see the ceiling covered in bats chilling upside down. How cute are bats?
We exited the cave and made our way down to Bahorok River for a dip where the locals enjoy chilling and brave young jungle boys leap from the big tree sunk into the water.
Bukit Lawang jungle tour
Today is the day! We finally get to meet the swinging orangutans of Bukit Lawang and we are so excited, and so is our guide Ero. Ero is Bukit Lawang’s local tour guide with over 10 years experience, it’s safe to say, he knows the jungle like the back of his hand. To gain his Indonesia Tourist Guide Association licence, Ero trained for 2 years in the jungle with the orangutans.
Encountering our first orangutan
The early morning jungle trekking leads us to our first Sumatran orangutan, a female sleeping high up in the trees, her reddish-orange hair contrasting against the green leaves made her easy to spot. We didn’t expect to see orangutan so early on!
Awestruck, but with not much action from the female orangutan, we continued through the jungle in search of more active orangutans. We came across a small tour congregating around a tree to find two more orangutans, woah! A mother and it’s young feeding off fresh wet leaves from the rainfall last night. The mother orangutan didn’t bat an eyelid at us as she munched away on her breakfast leaves.
Probably the coolest orangutan in the jungle
Next up, the coolest orangutan in the jungle. This guy was chilling, hanging from a few trees as he observed us. He created a variety of shapes in the tree, as if he was posing for us to take more pictures, it was hilarious.
This guy is a fully grown male orangutan aged approximately 15-20 years. You’re able to identify this by noticing the fully grown cheek pads on the side of his face.
The King of the jungle
Ero aimed for a new route to avoid other small tour groups in the area but stopped as we heard a commotion in the trees. An orangutan came flying overhead through the treetops at speed, that fast we couldn’t even catch him on camera. He was soon gone, but shortly behind him was another orangutan…
Orangutans are solitary and territorial, meaning they don’t hang around in packs and protect their area of the jungle, especially if there’s an opportunity to hit on a female orangutan. Ero told us he was fighting for his woman and fiercely chasing the orangutan out of sight.
However, this orangutan is pretty special, he’s one of the biggest male orangutans they have in Sumatra, but he wouldn’t normally be hanging around this part of the jungle, he’s usually protecting his patch deep within Gunung Leuser National Park.
As he came flying through the treetops, he clapped eyes on us observing his ape-like aggression and decided to get a closer look.
Ero had pre-warned us during the safety information at breakfast, even the most curious orangutans normally hang from trees to investigate you but if any come down to ground level, you should certainly keep your distance. Well, this aggressive orangutan decided to come down didn’t he. He plonked himself on a fallen tree with his back to us!
Is this real? I couldn’t believe my eyes, the size of this orangutan is insane. Do you remember the big-foot from the Henderson’s TV programme, well, that’s all I could think of! This guy has long, shaggy orange-burnt-like hair and rubbery hands as big as my head.
‘the scariest moment of my life!’
We snapped a few pictures but he clearly urged a closer look and suddenly jumped off the log! As soon as he left that log I ran for my life, no joke. I had no idea how fast these furry creatures can run but going on the speed in which he flew through the trees, I wasn’t taking any chances, and neither was anyone else.
Luckily he was just curious and it was a scare-tactic. Conscious of his aggression we disappeared out of sight as quickly as possible without panic to give this beast some space.
I said in a previous blog post, the scariest moment of my life was when we visited Komodo National Park and a dragon thrashed himself at us, but this was way scarier!
Jungle dining experience
As we climbed higher through the jungle we reached a lovely little viewpoint with tree cover.
When planning a feast in the jungle, it must be well out of the way of orangutans. By this point, we were starving, and so very happy to see the jungle boys crack out a fruit salad and Nasi Goreng.
Nasi Goreng is a staple Indonesian meal, it’s awesome, simple but effective. Basically, egg fried rice, cucumber and carrot topped off with prawn crackers wrapped in a banana leaf. Yum!
Ero warned us about the next part of the jungle. It is protected by an orangutan called Mina and we have to be careful if she surprises us with a visit as she doesn’t quite like humans from her past experiences.
Mina is semi-wild. Previously she was kept in captivity as a pet but conservation managed to release her into the wild. Eager Mina soon showed her face by racing down from the trees. She hung from a tree to for us take a look at her. She is so beautiful.
Following in the footsteps of its mother, the cutest baby orangutan slithered down a skinny tree to say hello. With its bottom lip hanging out checking out its surroundings, he soon climbed back up the tree before it flopped over, leaving him hanging upside down grinning at us.
The baby stays with its mother for 6-7 years or more until the mother feels it’s ready to be independent.
Surprisingly, another orangutan joined us making it the ninth orangutan of the day! This was Mina’s other son, obviously much older than the baby. He approached us on the ground but Ero was happy for us to stay a little longer as they proposed no threat.
The most curious orangutan ever
We soon left marching through the jungle towards camp, but orangutan spotting isn’t over yet! Now, this curious orangutan is my favourite. Extremely inquisitive, super cute and cheeky.
He was trying to get a closer look but without us noticing. You could sense how he was trying to work out how to sneak up on us to get closer, it was hilarious. We spent some time observing as he was very playful and it was our last stop before heading to camp.
Camping in the jungle
As we clambered down a steep slippery hill grabbing onto trees so we didn’t slide into the river, we arrived at the campsite for the night. The camp was set up with a few shacks along the river, filled with mattresses and mosquito nets.
‘I soon realised it was rats! Eeeekk!’
It was so nice to bathe in the river as the jungle is hot and humid. The lads cooked dinner and after we played card games and the jungle boys showed off their skills by performing card tricks. The jungle’s unpredictable weather sent a heavy downpour which suddenly ended camp games as we ran for cover.
A storm broke out in the middle of the night. Thunder and lightning kept me awake for some time. I heard squeaking sounds outside our tent and when I listened closely I soon realised it was rats! Eeeekk!
Waking up in the jungle
I was seriously hoping to step outside and be greeted by orangutan when we heard monkey noises from the tent. However, it was a bunch of monkeys running upstream. There were tonnes of them but one big alpha male stood out which looked like a baboon with its red bottom, he was huge!
We sat watching the monkeys run around while eating our breakfast sarnies. No idea where they were going, but they were not interested in us one bit.
Originally, the plan was to hike through the river, yup, that’s right, through the river! Due to heavy rainfall, the river was too high so we had to backtrack the way we came down, up the slippery steep hill.
Leaving camp at 10:00 we set off climbing up the mountain. As a reward reaching the top after a tough morning climb, out came the fruit, yum, pineapple just what we needed! Yannick and Valery we’re trekking for a further two nights with Ero, so here is where we part ways and say goodbye. It has been an absolute pleasure meeting these guys and hopefully, we can arrange our paths to cross again in the future.
Please, just one more orangutan
Adi leads us through the jungle for approximately 2 hours. We called by a waterfall for our staple lunch, Nasi Goreng. It seemed extra humid today but as soon as we made it out the jungle, the weather was sweet.
It would have been rude to not have a dip. Although the river was pretty high and fast from the storm last night so we had to be careful swimming in such a strong current.
‘Do you know when you have that feeling of being watched?‘
Do you know when you have that feeling of being watched? Well, we spotted a cheeky little orangutan hiding up in the trees admiring our swimming techniques. He was adorable and very curious as to what we were doing hanging around the river. But, then again, so were we.
Rubber dinghy rapids bruva
To our surprise, we saw a load of jungle boys coming our way with giant black rubber dinghies. Super excited, hoping this was our exit out the jungle, they plonked them by the river and began prepping them for us to climb on board. Absolutely buzzing we were tubing through the jungle!
With our backpacks strapped and wrapped in waterproof protection, we jumped into the rubber dinghy with Adi at the front, as he would navigate us through proper river rapids! We couldn’t believe how fast the river was flowing and it safe to say, we got soaked!
It wasn’t Adi’s first rodeo as he manoeuvred our tube over to the edge of the river. We climbed out the tube waving goodbye to Adi and noticed he’d dropped us off bang outside The Garden Inn. What an incredible end to our jungle tour.
In total, we came face to face with 11 orangutans in Gunung Leuser National Park thanks to Ero. We feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to experience these fascinating creatures in their natural habitat. Its been one of the best experiences ever and recommend Bukit Lawang to see orangutan.
A huge thank you to The Garden Inn for having us, we had the best 4 days hanging in the jungle with you guys!