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Orangutans in the Midst: Guerilla Tourism in Sumatra

Things have been bad in Indonesia for a long time – the rupiah devaluated horribly in 1998 under President Suharto when he swindled the country out of 35 billion dollars.

written (pre-tsunami)



Things have been bad in Indonesia for a long time – the rupiah devaluated horribly in 1998 under President Suharto when he swindled the country out of 35 billion dollars. There were subsequent riots and killings at political demonstrations in the capital. Recently then, too, the bombings in Bali, at the Marriott in Jakarta, a rebellion in Aceh and finally now the November 2nd, 2003 flooding of the village of Bukit Lawang deep in the island of Sumatra. I was wondering how much worse things could get.


The flash flood in Bukit Lawang, caused by a series of intense rains combined with illegal logging, killed over 300 people and left many more homeless. Why would anyone go to such a hard hit place? I wondered that to myself as I sat in a minibus north of an ugly Medan, weaving in and out of both sides of the road and passing overturned buses and burned out wrecks. I prayed for my impending road death to be a quick one. The only answer I came up as to why I would be here was to see the orangutans.


These fuzzy, orange “forest men” of the tropics can only be found in two places in the world: the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. In fact, Bukit Lawang was well established on the tourist trail before the flood. Rangers would feed the primates bananas from a platform and jungle treks offered visitors a chance to see them in the wild. One might even see other exotic fauna like Sumatran Tigers and Rhinos. When the floods hit late in the evening international tourists were amongst the hundreds swept away. I even heard of one traveller who climbed a palm tree and stayed there for hours to escape drowning. The town was devasted. What would it be like now in Bukit Lawang? Can one still see the orangutans?


The minibus finally jerked to a halt in the evening at the new tourist base for exploration of the Gunung Leuser national park, a place known by its phonetic approximation – “Crocodile” village. It was growing dark. Our driver yelled out to some long haired men. They sat dressed in shorts and Bob Marley t-shirts sipping Bintang beers in a concrete and palm frand shack complete with the obligatory third world plastic lawn furniture. My fellow tourists, there were six of us, were dumped bags and all and placed at the mercy of these jungle guides/bandits.


We were quickly assaulted with: “Where you stay?” and “How many days jungle hike?”


The questions were coming fast and furious. No one else was around. There were no buildings other than houses and small eating places. No officials, no tourist office, nothing but a small insignificant village. I resigned myself to my fate of dealing with these guys, just hoping I would not get ripped off that badly or robbed. We were marched to a house set off the main road and forced to take accomodation there. Guys named “Bob 70” and Adi then sat us all down together and before we had a chance to talk amongst ourselves demanded to know how long we would like to trek for. It was sheer pressure tactics.


After a hard bargain, we ended up shelling out $35 US each for two days of trekking, a lot of rupiah. That night, after some food at a local stall I went to sleep on my appointed tiled floor with only a cardboard thin mattress. The room was full of rat droppings. We were in a sauna of jungle heat and our only relief was a broken fan whose blades kept falling off and onto the ground making a horrible grating sound. I was forced to keep getting up in the middle of the night to replace the blades until I finally dispatched the fan with a dropkick. Sleep was fitful.


In the morning our guide Adi walked us all to Bukit Lawang, our first chance to see the remnants of the flooded out village. There was nothing left but rubble and shattered concrete, and in places entire buildings and streets had been swept away. Four months after the disaster and little had been done to clear the debris, much less rebuild the town. It looked horrible like it had been bombed. Huge logs were jutting out of the sides of thick walls. A westener I later met who lived nearby told me he was working to try and get the thousands of dollars in aid money that had come in to go to actually rebuilding the village. So far the money had been pocketed by locals.


Our group passed through the rubble and onward towards the jungle. The bridge to get into the national park was washed out so we had to cross the raging river on a makeshift raft of lashed together bamboo poles. Adi at this point, despite promising he would personally guide us, disappeared. He said he’d meet us at the camp site, and of course he never did. Instead two new guides who spoke minimal English met us on the other side of the river. Once in the jungle, these numbskulls led us around with seemingly zero knowledge of the plants or wildlife.


Somehow, though, we actually saw the orangutans and forgot all about how badly we were getting ripped off. After the flood even the tame orangutans were forced into the jungle. These gentle creatures slowly climbed down from the trees to greet us and take bananas. We watched a huge male effortlessly ascend a gigantic tree into the canopy.


We trekked deeper in the jungle gruelingly negotiating hills and stopping occasionally to burn leeches off our legs with cigarettes. Coming up a sharp incline we ran into Vicky, a 13 year-old female orangutan. Our guides told us they hadn’t seen in four months, and one of the guides motioned for me to crouch down.


“Do you want to carry?” he asked me.



Before I knew it Vicky had climbed up onto my back and was holding on to me with her hands and feet. I started to carry her up the steep hill. Damn this thing was heavy, I though, sweat pouring off my head. She gripped my shoulders and waist with hands and handlike feet, and I lugged her 40 kilos up the steep, muddy trail for fifteen minutes. By the time I reached the top my face had turned red and I was profusely sweating. We took a rest and fed Vicky bananas.


Vicky was sweet and you could see the emotion in her. She lovingly held our hands and hugged us as we sat in a circle resting. When it came time to continue the trek she wouldn’t let us leave! She started crying loudly and then she followed us as we literally tried to run away from her. It made us feel silly to see how effortlessly she could keep up with us. She playfully rolled downhill and broccaded through the trees. We couldn’t lose her and in the end she followed us for two days and stayed overnight in a tree above our camp.


All this orangutan-carrying and sweltering tropical heat had tired our group out and we made camp. A makeshit tent of twigs and tarp was already set up for us in the middle of the jungle. Our guides took us for a waterfall swim. They stripped down to speedos and came threatingly close to the women in our group. Both of the girls, fortunately, brought rather big boyfriends with them so they were spared the customary jungle groping that comes with the tour. When we returned from the swim and went to change someone noticed a huge hole in the tent. All our gear was gone.


Passports, money and cameras were all stolen from us in the middle of the jungle. It was presumed that our stuff would be safe with the cooks around to watch them. The camp broke into confusion.


“What the hell!” Where our are bags?”


Our guides were mysteriously calm.


“The orangutans must have taken them,” they replied.


Okay, sure. An orangutan swang down, cleverly cut a hole in the back of the tent, and grabbed not just one but two heavy backpacks all at the most convenient time of us not being around. It was much more likely Adi, who left us by the river, did meet us at our campsite after all like he promised. We were furious.


The next day back in “Crocodile Village,” Adi was nowhere to be found. We did find Bob 70, the other guy who arranged the tour. He came to greet us grinning.


“I hear you have had a problem in the jungle?” He asked, suspicously pre-aware of our plight. We explained we wanted our money back.


“No.” he said as he walked us back to where we stored our bags. He then had the nerve to demand an extra 30,000 rupiah each for that brutal first night when we arrived spent in the house with the rat droppings everywhere. It was the final straw. The slovenian guy in our group started yelling, calling Bob 70 a liar and a thief, and he demanded that he give us our money back.


Bob 70 replied that he didn’t have it and then in a true professional manner said, “Let’s go out onto the street so I can kick your ass.”


A great way to drum up repeat business, but with things such a mess in Bukit Lawang it is guerilla-style tourism that rules the day. At least the orangutans were enchanting.

Jim Klee

Jim Klee – sports a mangled passport and a well-worn rucksack. He believes travel to be a form of therapy against modern civilization’s madness. In 2002 Jim embarked on a journey starting with a one-way ticket no return to Mexico City. Some months later he discovered Tom Thumb sleeping in the shade besides his tent on a beach in Costa Rica. After surviving rip currents in Mexico, nearly freezing to death trekking solo in Patagonia, and getting knocked unconscious by submerged rocks while surfing in Australia, Jim decided to clear his head by beelining his way (mostly overland) to the Himalaya. There a regimen of Sufi poetry, yoga up in the mountains, and cheap gel pens resulted in a stack of notebooks containing an unpublishable travel novel. He re-emerged in New York City in late 2004 and Road Junky was born soon after.