Guest Post: Bukit Lawang--Rebuilding A Habitat For Humans And Orangutans In Indonesia

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December 31, 1969

Today's guest post is brought to you by Daniel van den Berg. Daniel is a Linux system administrator and loves travelling abroad. Originally hailing from the Netherlands, he currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Two years ago I visited the village of Bukit Lawang on Sumatra, Indonesia. Although it was not the only place I visited with my group of friends, this was certainly a very special place, and I still have fond memories from that place.

The First DayOrangutan sanctuary - Volunteer Global - Indonesia

When we arrived in early February 2010, we were dropped off at the edge of the village, about 200 yards from the river Bohorok that flows through the center of Bukit Lawang. The village was completely dark--it turned out that there was a power outage at that time. Though not very uncommon in that area, it took us by surprise--a pleasant surprise, because when you’re used to the light-flooded environment of the Netherlands, arriving in total darkness is a very special experience.

Our guide led us to Nora’s Homestay, where we would stay for the night. Nora, the owner of the guesthouse, had some candles set up in the dining area, where she served dinner and drinks even though everything was pitch black outside. It was a great experience; fireflies lit up around us and the air was filled with sounds from the jungle.
At dinner, my friends and I met one of the jungle guides, who made us a great offer for a jungle trek--actually the main reason we were in Bukit Lawang anyway. We decided to stay with them in Indra’s Inn, located alongside the river, while we would be preparing for the trek.

You can feel how tourism is by far the main source of income in Bukit Lawang; for a village so small it has a relatively high number of tourist lodges, guesthouses and inns--and the competition grew even larger after a flash flood destroyed most of the local tourist resorts in November 2003.

Ever since, the people of Bukit Lawang have rebuilt their homes, and--maybe as important as their own--homes for tourists. The main attraction to the area is the Gunung Leuser National Park, with an orangutan sanctuary located inside the park. With 5,000 Sumatran orangutans living in the area, the sanctuary is the largest of its sort.

The Trek

The day of the trek we woke up very early; it was just after sunrise. Our first destination was the sanctuary, which doubles as one of the entrances for the park. After we crossed the river in a tiny boat, we walked up the hill where the sanctuary was, to discover that they had just started feeding a mother orangutan and her child!Orangutan sanctuary - Indonesia - Volunteer Global

It was a great sight: the two primates that sat on a wooden platform taking food and water--in a cup!--from one of the sanctuary employees. We were pretty far away from the animals, but at some point I could see the mother looking at us, and then she brought the cup to her mouth and drank from it. Apes learning from humans, and vice versa.

Run! Run!

However, not all orangutans learned ‘good’ behavior from the humans that want to take care of them. We learned about that halfway our jungle trek, a couple of hours later. The day before we already heard about a tourist who was bitten by an orangutan in the jungle, and the guides warned us that if one would appear outside of the sanctuary, we would have to run while he distracted the animal with some food.

This sounds rather trivial, but only minutes after one of our guides went ahead of the group to scout for orangutans, our other guide started shouting, “Run! Run!”
From the corner of my eye I saw the reddish fur of the ape move at an astonishing speed through the trees. We ran, and ran, until we met the other guide. He explained to us that this particular animal had been kept in captivity for so long, that every time she noticed that humans were around, she would attack them because she expected food from them.

The rest of the jungle trek was pretty safe and enjoyable though. At last we arrived at the river again, where a friend of our guides had already started a fire and was preparing dinner! We were exhausted, and after a quick bath in the river--and an accompanying shower from the clouds above us--we settled down and had the freshly prepared dinner, and we slept soundly in the jungle that night.

Heading Back

The next morning we were woken by dozens of monkeys in the trees around us. They had come after the breakfast that our guides were preparing, and while we were eating, they didn’t stop trying to snatch it from our hands. Apparently they were used to humans coming to this place--they weren’t afraid of us in the least.

Then we headed back to the village--not by foot, but we let the Bohorok river take us back on our huge inflatable tubes--and we saw all of the jungle once again. Something we noticed that morning was that the river was rather wild, and later that night we saw with our own eyes how a relatively calm river could transform into a swirling water mass. Bukit Lawang was restless that night: the people remembered the flash flood of only a few years ago just too well.