Kansai Scene Magazine


The orange people of the forest
Sumatra, Indonesia

Deep in the rainforest of North Sumatra, live the "orang hutan", Indonesian for ‘people of the forest'. These fascinating creatures are known for their intelligence, long arms and reddish-brown hair. Once widespread throughout the forests of Asia, man's closest relative (they share 96.4 percent of our DNA) is now confined to two islands; Borneo (Malaysia) and Sumatra (Indonesia).

Gunung Leuser National Park, on Indonesia's largest island Sumatra, is the Indonesian home to orang-utans, as well as Sumatran tigers, elephants, rhinoceros, the biggest flower in the world (the one metre wide Rafflesia Arnoldi), and a myriad of other jungle creatures. The rainforest covers 950,000 hectares in northern Sumatra, straddling the border of the provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh. This protected forest is one of the only two places on earth you can find the orang-utans living freely in the wild.

People come from all over the world to experience the orang- utans on their home turf. The orang hutans are the reason that I too rerouted my recent Asian adventure to Sumatra. Unfortunately, the survival of these gentle animals has been threatened for many years now. Eighty percent of the orang-utans' habitat has been destroyed over the past two decades as trees are cut down and primary rainforest is cleared away. Furthermore, the friendly and passive orang-utans continue to be hunted or illegally captured for the pet trade.

Deeply concerned about the survival of the orange men of the forest, two Swiss zoologists named Monica Borner and Regina Frey created the Bohorok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Center inside the Gunung Laeuser National Park thirty-five years ago. With the support from various sources, including the World Wildlife Federation, they have made huge progress in the rehabilitation of orang-utans reclaimed from captivity or left homeless from diminishing rainforests.

The Indonesian government has now taken over the Bohorok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Center and visitors are welcome to see the orang-utans who have been released into the rainforest. To aid the orang-utans transition to the wild, there are two open feedings a day, during which the orang-utans come swinging from the forest canopy (they are the only strictly arboreal ape) to a platform in the park for a free meal of fresh fruit. Hopefully with time, the orang-utans will find enough fruit in the jungle on their own so that the free meal is no longer necessary.

Approximately thirty-five ex-captive orang-utans live in the rehabilitation centre in the semi-wild and are free to roam through the forests as they wish. A growing problem for the rehabilitation centre is the growth of tourism in the area. Non-authorized feed- ing and human contact make rehabilitation for the orang-utans into the wild impossible and worse, exposes them to human diseases. It is feared that if these problems continue, it will be necessary for the center to relocate.

However, for the local economy in Bukit Lawang, the main access point to the rainforest, eco-tourism is an important factor. A massive flash flood wiped out the village in November 2003 killing 300 people and stopping the Bohorok orang-utan Rehabilitation Center's activities for a while. Activities have started to re-develop the park and village into an eco-tourist viewing area, and according to Indonesian sources, meeting modern standards. Government funding alone is not enough and tourism dollars are needed to help both the people and apes in their fight for survival.

Even though Bukit Lawang is situated only 86km northwest of Medan the roads are highly damaged by storms and floods. After five hours battling the ‘highway', in the pouring rain, we arrived at Bukit Lawang in a private minibus that we hired at the ferry port in Medan. Literally meaning, ‘door to the hills', Bukit Lawang is a small village nestled on the banks of the Bohorok River, the focal point of village life. Mr. Alek, a village local, had been advised of our arrival and gladly helped us find our first night accommodation.

An early morning breakfast of banana pan- cakes and fresh passion fruit juice prepped our small group for the two-day eco-jungle trek that we organized with the local authorized guides the night before. Our guide, a friend of Mr. Alek, lead us up into the rain- forest hills. "Uuuuu ... Uuuuuu ...," he called out to the orang-utans. After about an hour walking he found a group of them up in the trees. We clicked away on our cameras from a safe distance. It was an incredible experience to be so close to such interesting creatures in the wild.

Along came a momma orang-utan with a playful baby clinging to her side. The baby was hanging all over her, grabbing everything in sight, pulling on her hair, swinging on the branches, laughing at the funny hairless crea- tures below and I could tell by the momma's expression that she was tired of the all the monkeying around.

We continued our trek along the trails through the rainforest, scrambling up vines, walking along streams, climbing down waterfalls, and passing massive trees until we reached our campsite for the night along the river. Our guide busied himself with setting up the canopy and cooking dinner while we refreshed in the frigid river waters. After a chilly night sleep under the canopy, we were awoken by the early morning sunlight. It had rained that night, as it does every day in the rainforest. The rainforest is always wet and moist, and according to the Lonely Planet "the difference between rainy season and dry season is wishful thinking".

We packed up and headed back into the jungle, climbing through the bush and holding onto the vines to scramble up the slippery ridge. Along the trek, in addition to the organ- utans, our guide pointed out white and black gibbons and thomas leaf monkeys. If you are lucky, you may be able to see toucans, moon snakes, and monitor lizards. If you are unlucky you will find leeches. In the rainforest these blood-sucking worms live in trees and drop on their victims as they walk by. I was luckier than some of the other travellers and didn't have any suckers stuck to me. However, the leeches from our morning hike did not spoil our appetites and after another fresh and tasty lunch along the river our guides packed us and our belongings onto five inner tubes roped together and we rode the rapids back to the village.

Text: Laura Markslag
Photos: Laura Markslag & Audrey Maloney

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Ways & means

Getting there
Medan, as the largest city on the island, has the most flights including many international services to Singapore and Malaysia. It is also possible to cross the Straits of Melaka from Penang (Malaysia) by express ferry (six hours). There are many drivers offering minivans from the Belawan ferry terminal (Medan) direct to Bukit Lawang. Bargain hard and expect to be shifted minivan at least once (in Medan). Prices vary between Rp 60,000 and 70,000 all the way to Bukit Lawang.

All visitors require visas, which can easily be obtained at the border at the time of crossing.

Access to the Gunung Leuser National Park is Rp 20,000 per person - payable either in Bukit Lawang, or at the orangutan feeding ground. Permits should be included in all treks and jungle activities, but check with the guide to be sure.

If you want to see wild orangutans, note that guides will sell their services to trek into the surrounding jungle for one to two days to search for them, often charging Rp 500,000 - 700,000 (¥6,500–¥8,000) per night, including provisions. Rates can be had for Rp 400,000 per night with hard bargaining.

During the wet season, October to March, expect rain at least daily, towards the late afternoon and early evening. The climate is always very humid, so pack a lot of drinking water if you are trekking.

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