Sumatra, Indonesia…It was the sound of the jungle that took a hold of me; an indescribable, mad symphony of sounds at full volume with no control to turn down. The deep guttural bass of frogs, the roaring rush of the river, the incessant click-clicking of crickets, and the sudden screech of a squawking bird welcomed me in as I traversed a rope bridge and stepped foot into north Sumatra’s 10 million hectare of jungle.
I treaded carefully across it with a cumbersome rucksack strapped to my back. My hiking boots were attached to that and they swung around like pendulums, challenging my balance as I stepped one foot in front of the other. The river peeped at me through each precarious plank, her ear straining above frothy, flowing hair, excited with the hope of human fodder at every creak and groan.
At the other end of the bridge stood a long haired man with dark, dark skin. Every inch of his arms was resplendent in tattoos; beautiful motifs and body art representative of the Indonesian Batak. This was Selo (pronounced Si-Lo), my local guide, and over the course of the next two days we would be trekking in to the heart of Orang-utan terrain.
Classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN (World Conservation Union), sources believe there are now only 6,600 orang-utans remaining in Sumatra; one of the two last natural habitats in the world (Borneo being the other). The main cause of this is Indonesia’s deforestation process to aid its lucrative palm oil industry. As forests are felled, the only source of food vital for the orang-utans survival is also diminishing. Unbelievably over the last 25 years Sumatra has lost an unprecedented half of its forest… This means – Well, you do the Math. In recognising the threats, 2.6 million hectare of jungle spanning the provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh were assigned to The Leuser Ecosystem, one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots and the last stronghold for the Sumatran orang-utan. It was designated an UNESCO Tropical Rainforest Heritage Site in 2004, but has since been placed on a list of World Heritages in Danger due to the ongoing threats. Yes, sadly, logging still continues today, even inside the national parks. Sumatran orang-utans are critically endangered and without urgent action could be the first Great Ape species to become extinct.
‘I love the jungle,’ was one of the first things Selo said to me. ‘I love nature’ he advocated again, ‘the jungle is my home.’ Hmmm…He did have a strange resemblance to Tarzan – only without the loin cloth. And I was Jane, completely unprepared for the long trek ahead of us.
We ascended steep ravine after the next, pausing briefly to squirt myself with more DEET. Despite the diet of malaria tablets, I was aware I was being dined on by mosquitoes thirsty for foreign blood. My skin pricked and exploded in to a new itchy lump every five minutes as I scrambled after Selo. He raced on ahead of me, barely breaking so much as a sweat, like Tarzan, grabbing hold of vines and swinging across canyons. My heart was thudding against my rib cage as I concentrated on my footing, willing myself to keep up with him. As the jungle screeched at me with a new unfamiliar sound,the temptation to stop and scratch waned for fear of being left behind, lost to the jungle forever. I’d seen Bear Grylls in ‘Man vs Wild’ and there was no way I was going to sink my teeth in to a hairy spider or gooey maggot!
Indeed, the jungle was a harsh place but it was undeniably beautiful. It was a stifling October morning with the intense equatorial sun searing down at us. Its rays beamed through the gaps of the ancient Meranti trees; big solid red trunks, hundreds of years old that seemed to reach endlessly towards the cloaked sky high above us. We finally came to a stop and as I looked around I finally settled in to our surroundings. I was living a real life ‘Avatar’ or ‘Ferngully’ movie… It was magical. Somehow light squeezed itself through the dense foliage and sent luminescent shots of lime green dancing all around us like delightful fairies. Despite the animal noises and the odd slapping sound as I obliterated another pesky mosquito, there was something wonderfully peaceful about the jungle. Fantastical even. I wanted to linger in my repose, to imagine a technicolor world of radiant blue puddles and enchanted flora, but we were on the move again…
The blood, the sweat and the bites were worth it. We crossed our first valley and it was in that moment I truly realized Selo’s love affair with the jungle. We spotted our first flash of copper. Selo hushed my euphoria and motioned me to keep still. A wild mother and baby orang-utan were perched high up in a tree and gazed down at us with wariness. The light caught the ends of their frizzy orange hair and radiated a supernatural, unearthly quality about them.
I spent many Sunday tea times watching David Attenborough documentaries beside my own mother, and I seemed to recall in that precious moment that we share 96% of our genetic makeup with the orang utan. Originating from the Malay language, the word ‘orang utan’ literally translates as ‘person of the forest’, and as we peered at each other, one homo sapien face to another, I could understand the reasoning behind its terminology.
The mother locked her glassy, soulful eyes in to mine in our private ‘staring contest’, sizing each other up, anticipating the next move. Her eyes were as dark as night, black pools that shone with unwavering determination. Her long arms pulled her baby in to a strong grip and I suddenly understood the visceral duty of a mother to protect her child. ‘I don’t want your baby’ I thought, and broke my gaze first hoping she realized I meant no harm.
Selo held out a banana and started making bizarre noises… a long high pitched sound followed by a deep gruffing noise. He really did fancy himself as Tarzan. It worked though. The baby orang utan who Selo guesstimated was around two years old, came bounding down the tree, long hairy arms swinging from one branch to the next. His mother was not far behind him, keeping a watchful eye on her greedy toddler. With one swipe of the arm, the baby orang utan grabbed the banana then shot back up the tree towards the familiarity of his mother’s arms.
A couple of ‘punky’ monkeys at the sniff of food, came bouncing towards us out of nowhere. One of them bared its teeth at us; foreboding sharp fangs to warn us that if we didn’t give him food immediately, he was going to help himself. Selo threw a banana towards it and we carried on with our hike deeper in to the jungle.
Clothes drenched from perspiration, we finally reached a summit where the fast flowing Bohorok River could be seen way down below now. The sound of a toucan made its presence known. We had climbed 350 metres and were in the heart of dense jungle. A couple of white faced gibbons and Thomas Leaf monkeys swung high above us, following our steps towards our picnic spot. But they weren’t the highlight of the trip…
At first I thought I glimmered a fully grown man, standing high in a tree but no, this was no man. Or at least no man like Selo and I. There, twenty or thirty metres ahead of us, as we cooled ourselves under the shade of a meranti tree, was the King – the King of Apes, the King of the Jungle. At this rare sight, Selo bowed to him and eternally grateful for his hospitality I found myself doing the same.
If you enjoyed my story and would like to make a donation to support the orang-utans survival, you can do so by visiting this link –