Monday, 18 October 2010


I arrived in Tangkahan - the first stop of my Sumatra holiday - in the jungle of Gunung Leuseur National Park. It took 4 hours by bus from Medan and was raining. Four hours on an Indonesian bus can be a somewhat grueling experience. After politely but firmly refusing an invite to stay with a local lady I arrived at the village of Tangkahan. It was raining and I was very tired, but all the same - after having to have my picture taken with about 20 of the local girls - I was happy to have arrived! To enter the village you have to cross the river via a raft. It is a rather warm and humble experience and a lot more pleasurable that crossing the street in Jakarta of a busy evening! The first night I did very little but have a rest and eat, although I was politely approached by the waiter in the guest house restaurant and informed - as simultaneously he delicately removed it - that I was being fed upon by a leech! It was okay though as it was this that made me realise I was in the jungle again!
While eating dinner I had arranged my activities for the next day. The village is famous for its' elephant camp. This camp acts as a staging ground for patrols of the national park. The elephants are used to cover larger distances quickly and patrol the borders of the park on a twice-weekly basis. I guess then, that this is also partly funded by tourism. While waiting for the elephants and trainers to make their way down to the river, I sat with some of the locals in a warung next to the camp. While sitting there some of the local girls were giggling and my met one of my favourite Indonesians ever. Sat there was a lady of about 50-60 years in hysterics and apparently elated with the amount of hair on my arms and legs! After a cacophony of cackles and calls of "Bulu", which I think means body hair, I joined the elephants at bath time in the Batengserangan river. I also had a ride of one called Youni. Youni was the elephant I infact spent all of my time in awe of. She is only a young elephant - about 20 years old - but she has great character. While all the other elephants were busy behaving and being inspected after toilet time - Youni had slipped away discretely for a quiet snack. Her mahout (trainer guy) just smiled and said "she's always eating", with this I realised that she was an elephant after my own heart and almost fell in love with her!... I had a great chat with her trainer who spoke in English with the odd interjection of Indonesian to clarify matters. It was a pretty cool experience and I even got a kiss from Youni! Something that I'll probably never forget!

After lunch I was ready for some more fun and took part in some tubing with a local guide. He didn't really speak any English - while also not being very chatty - so we spent most of our time on the river communicating with grunts and shrieks at approaching the next rapid and getting wetter. For those that aren't familiar with tubing, it is essentially like rafting but instead you sit in the innertube of a tractor tyre, pretty good fun! We managed to make it into a small inlet and floated to the Galugur waterfall. It was really nice and entirely secluded, we had the whole place to ourselves!  I love the feeling of serenity and calm that comes with nothing but hearing the sound of pounding water against rock. Something about it really strikes a chord of peace and contentment within me... afterwards we continued tubing down the rapids of the river and then walked back a few kilometres to the village. When we arrived back in the village we visited a smaller waterfall and a very small hotspring. Had it not been a Sunday it would have been a lot more peaceful - as the local tourists from Medan would not have invaded the easily accessible facilities of the village - in this case the hotspring. This meant I shared the hotspring with a lot of Indonesians and was subjected to the routine "Hello mister" question and answer routine but all in all didn't really mind because the spring was pleasurable enough after a long day!

The next day was time to leave Tangkahan and make my way to Bukit Lawang. Bukit Lawang is famous throughout Indonesia for it's huge orangutan population. There are only two islands left in the world where orangutans can be found in their natural habitat - Sumatra and Borneo - so the opportunity to see them was probably a once in a lifetime for me. I met my guide at a hotel and checked in pretty early in the morning. Because it had taken around two and a half hours to get to Bukit Lawang we had a relaxed day planned. First thing we did was head to a bat cave. After temporarily breaking my camera in Ujung Kulon - and therefore not being able to take any pictures of the bat cave there - I was quite happy to have the opportunity to photograph this one. The cave was quite slippery and had many rocks but overall was pretty cool. Afterwards we walked through the village to the feeding platform.

The feeding platform is the product of a successful repopulation program set up in the 1970s to boost the number of orangutans in the wild. Alongside the eco-tourism that has grown alongside the program the jungle has successfully been repopulated. This repopulation or rehabilitation has resulted in the term of 'semi-wild' orangutans and has received some flak on internet travel forums towards Bukit Lawang. In all fairness the 'true travellers' that do head into Aceh or Kalimantan to get a 'truly wild' experience do run the risk of not seeing any orangutans at all. I wanted to give myself the best chance of seeing them in the jungle, so I chose to see them in the place giving me the best chance to see them in the jungle. The feeding platform then, is where rangers of the Gunung Leuser National Park feed newly rehabilitated orangutans. Fortunately there is a small platform from where tourists can view the feeding and have an opportunity to take a photo. The only unfortunate thing is having to bump your way through a few tourists to get a photo. I found myself having bitter feelings towards an old man as he had decided to set up his tripod camera right at the front of the platform obscuring the view for about 50% of the other tourists... I put it down to him being fat and old and incapable of completing a jungle trek to see them in a more natural setting. I was happy with the experience at the feeding platform though as a mother orangutan with her baby crawled straight past the fat old man and climbed a tree on a small hill behind the viewing platform. Luckily all the old people - including fat tripod man - were incapable, or too lazy, to climb the hill and get a closer look. I managed to get about 5 metres away and was quite happy with that although now I was looking forward to getting into the jungle to see some swinging around on their own. I was however quietly amused at the end of the session, when the tourist horde had left, when a troop of long-tailed macacques invaded the platform areas to liberate the scraps of banana left over from the orangutans!...

The next day, before we set off into the jungle, Sabar my guide sat me down and explained about one orangutan in particular that he didn't want to bump into. The Lonely Planet guide describes her as 'the notorious Mina' and apparently she bites and chases tourists to steal the fruit that they take into the jungle. We had been walking in the jungle for an hour and a half and suddenly one of my guides rushed off ahead after making a noise - monkeyesque... - and then Sabar said "we've found an orangutan"... what was even better was that we had found two. A mother, who really wasn't bothered by my presence, and an adolescent who decided to throw sticks at me when I was trying to take a photo!... After about 10 minutes if being in the company of the orangutans, it felt like it was time to move on because we had bumped into a group of tourists who obviously wanted to take some photos. I realise that Bukit Lawang is not the remotest jungle in which to see orangutans in their natural environment but I'm satisfied. I have been in remoter jungles without seeing another tourist for a few days, but I've also never been that close to an orangutan either. After another 6 hours of walking, 5 in the jungle and 1 through a rubber plantation we arrived at a place called the Landak River.

The Landak River was beautiful an serene. It had slow running water trickling through rocks and you could see your feet at the bottom when you paddled in it. What was even nicer was that the place is untouched by the relative tourist hordes of Bukit Lawang and has only a few huts from what I could tell. It was great we slept on the upper level of a wooden hut, in the open air with macacques and thomas leaf monkeys swinging around in the trees. The hut we stayed in is the permanent residence of a local called Hendro. Apparently his dad is one of the first tourist guides in the area and so he knows the jungle of the area very well. Hendro was a fascinating person to speak to... albeit when we could understand each other, as both of our language skills in the opposing tongue are somewhat skewered. I did find out - with the assistance of Sabar - that he patrols the area alone to protect the local orangutan population from illegal logging. He doesn't get paid for it, but is more than content. He sees it as a much more attractive option than making a life from tourism or once again patrolling the border of Aceh as a soldier. He chooses to live in the Batu Kapal area - besides the river - and patrols the jungle that the majority of tourist probably never see!... We stayed at his gaff and had a saltfish stew with rice and sambal, I'm not sure whether it was the romance of being on the edge of the jungle with a running river and eating food that had been cooked over an open fire or whether the food was just delicious, but it was one of the best meals I had eaten in a very long time!

After trekking back to the main village I showered picked up the rest of my stuff and then headed for the bus station. After 5 hours and two buses I arrived in Berastagi. It was late and I was a bit grumpy but after finding my guesthouse easily I decided to head to the top of a popular local hill to catch sunset behind Mt. Sinabung. Sinabung is a volcano that had only just stopped erupting. It became active again after 400 years and decided to stop just before I had planned to visit the Berastagi area... luckily!... The sunset was nice and once I had arrived back at the hotel for my evening meal I spoke to one of the staff to arrange a trip to the other volcano in the area, Mt. Sibayak.

Sibayak was really nice, we could hear gibbons in the jungle as we walked up the track to the top of the mountain. On the way up I was asking my guide Pak Karim - who from now will be referred to as Captain Dinkus - about the recent eruption of Mt. Sinabung. He told me that it was now safe and that we could attempt it the next day if I liked... forgetting to inform me that half the track may well be missing as he hasn't climbed it since the three new craters emerged!... My faith in his common sense was now somewhat frayed and I was now a little worried while at the summit of an active volcano in the abilities of my 'guide'... He was a nice man at heart but a little dumb. The crater of Mt. Sibayak was really cool, it smelt pretty bad, as did the one at Tangkuban Perahu in Bandung the last time I visited a volcano. I ate lunch on the edge of the caldera and it is a pretty invigorating feeling. I don't know why - as it reeks of an odour that can only be described as a hybrid of popcorn and farts - I think it's the sulphur!...  I guess it must be experienced to be understood. On the way down, Captain Dinkus had informed me that we would be taking stairs. What he failed to inform me is that these stairs were around what felt like a kilometre from the crater and across rocks and loose scree! Not the safest stretch of 'path' I've ever walked but at least these steps do exist. Captain Dinkus also failed to inform me that some of the steps were non-existant or had faded away as they were over a century old and were in almost daily use!... I'm okay I didn't tumble to my doom and despite the efforts of the Captain I really enjoyed the climb!

When I arrived back I was beat. I got talking to a Dutch lady and she was really nice and we spoke about some of the cool places she has been to. While I was talking one of the hotel staff asked me if I would mind talking to her 'friend' for twenty minutes. I reluctantly agreed as this was a chance - I guess - for her to practice her English. This quick chat rapidly turned into a full-blown English lesson once I realised that she was copying notes out of her text book for me to mark... once I realised what was happening I helped the girl out by playing some memory games as her knowledge of the vocab with which she was dealing was almost non-existant. I was a little annoyed with the lady at the hotel though as she didn't inform me that she was the local English teacher and was charging the girl, who was not her friend at all but one of her students! I did quite enjoy the teaching though and it was completely of the cuff and relatively successful which made me feel pretty good!

The next day I had organised a guide and a motorbike to see some waterfalls and a traditional village to get a look around the area. Unfortunately I think Captain Dinkus had informed the staff at the hotel that we had built some kind of a rapport, resulting in him being my guide for that day as well!... After a short trek to Sikulikap waterfall we visited one that I've been looking forward to seeing for quite a long time. We arrived at Sipiso-piso waterfall and it was beautiful. Although Captain Dinkus thought it was better that he wait by the motorbike while I walk to the waterfall alone!!!... He was very concerned about theives in the area but didn't has never heard of a fabulous new invention called the d-lock! Nevermind, I walked to a hut that had a perfect viewing point of the waterfall and stayed there, away from Dinkus for about an hour. I then decided to walk back and have dinner in one of the local warungs. On the return leg we stopped off to see Dokan village where houses can be seen of traditional Batak-Karo design. They were pretty cool but it is debatable whether they were worth enduring Captain Dinkus's complete lack of skill in riding a motorbike. I'm certainly rubbish at riding a motorbike, but after living in Jakarta I have been accustomed to being a passenger on one... I can safely say that Dinkus has the worst skill at changing gears on a motorbike of any Indonesian that I've had the pleasure to ride with... it was almost painful! After arriving back at the hotel I was very tired from the volcano the day before and Dinkus' motorbike escapades didn't exactly serve to energise me! What put the cherry on the cake of Dinkus services - which were terrible and yet very well paid considering - he still managed to find time to ask for a tip!... I was amused and just left him to it after reluctantly thanking him for his time.

My final stop was on my trip to Sumatra was Lake Toba. I arrived in good time and was caught the ferry to Samosir island by around 2pm after the final day of the Captain Dinkus show!... I met a German guy called Marco en route and we managed to avoid the few touts there. He had a tip to stay at some good accommodation called the hotel reggae, that sold it to me straight away! I was quite happy and really calmed by the vibes of the lake. I got on quite well with one of the lads at the hotel called Jonny. After a fish curry dinner with Marco we went on a little recce around the village of Tuk Tuk and stumbled across a performance by a traditional Batak-Toba band. They were pretty cool, but were all steaming from drinking Tuak... the locally produced palm wine! We got chatting to some other lads from Sweden and Chile and proceeded to see another band, who were knocking out Bob Marley and Inner Circle covers, at a place called Roy's Pub! After that we visited the famous blues bar and bumped into Jonny and the boys from the hotel. A nice night!

My head the next day was sore! I had my first hangover in quite a while. I decided to sit on my balcony for quite a long period and just take up the relaxing atmosphere of the lake.  By that point I had made up my mind that I wanted to relax at the end of my holiday. This meant that I'd made a conscious decision not to push myself beyond enjoying the peaceful vibes of the lake and it's indigenous community. I made my way to the hotel bar at about 3 pm and Jonny invited me to visit a small waterfall with him. I asked if it was difficult and he assured me that it was very easy. We took his motorbike and headed for the hills. After parking the bike we started walking uphill - and due to the heat and alcohol consumption of the night before - I was pissing with sweat. After about ten minutes of walking past different plots of various vegetables and palm-wine 'taps' - I can't think of a better word - we got to the trailhead for the waterfall. While walking to the trailhead we encountered a FUCKING COBRA! It must have been hunting mice or something in the long grass of one of the plots but as it heard our footsteps it hightailed it however its' escape route was on a collision course with me so I legged it and cacked my pants. Moments when you encounter dangerous wild animals like that are strange you don't really have time to panic you just instinctively freezr or get out of the way... I was a little alarmed now. I agreed to proceed to the waterfall regardless and continued along the trail. After about 30 minutes of walking slowly, I slipped over. The fall was unexpected. I had been making my way across wet rocks and had been fine. I slipped as the thin dusty mud under my feet gave in to my body weight!... I was okay though and managed not to fall fifty-odd feet into the river below. I did however abandon the walk after continually pissing with sweat and after arriving at a 7 foot high rock wall. I didn't have the desire or energy to continue and after the happenings of the previous hour or so thought that I just wasn't enjoying it any more. Instead we walked back to the bike and headed to Perhalu village to enjoy a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding hills. It was very pleasant and a nice way to end the day.

My final full day at the lake and penultimate day in Sumatra was mostly spent reading my book on the balcony enjoying the breeze coming off the lake and two trips to a local restaurant that sold freshly barbecued lake fish! I had wanted to eat fish from the lake for the first couple of days but hadn't got round to looking for any. The first restaurant I went to said that they did indeed sell fish from the lake itself. I asked him what he had in and he said "tuna". I informed him that tuna wasn't a freshwater fish... he then went on a huge sales pitch about how this fish was special because it was fresh in from Sibolga... I then asked him again: "do you have fish from the lake?" and he said "not today"... So I thanked him for his time politely and left. The next place that I saw advertising lake fish was also a pain, I walked in and the owner was asleep on one of the tables, I decided not to disturb his slumber and left. I walked for a few more minutes and found a small little hut with a few tables and a few customers that advertised lake fish. I asked the owner, who is presumably the namesake of the restaurant "Jenny", if they had fresh Lake Toban fish and she answered yes. The restaurant had a nice enough view of the lake and was open so that it caught the breeze, the restaurant also had a nice welcoming vibe as Jenny took my order herself with her baby asleep in a sling and then walked in the back and cooked my sweet and sour fish herself. It was delicious and so simply cooked just served a little steamed rice. In fact I enjoyed it so much that I went back for dinner too! I ate a barbecued fish with a lemongrass and garlic paste the second time and it was even tastier, the fish was called Tomba, but as I can speak no Batak beyond the word for welcome - "Horas!" - that is pretty useless to me except for the knowledge that it's delicious!...

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