Close Encounters of the Ape Kind

October 1, 2014 frvtravel

A trip to the jungles of Northern Sumatra literally puts travellers in touch with the men of the forest.

Text By Marco Ferrarese
Pictures by Chan Kit Yeng

“Please hold still. Don’t move.”

Our guide Ricky, the Indonesian version of a Rastafarian with dense knots of hair reaching down to his lower back, hushes in the direction of the jungle. “It’s OK… it doesn’t hurt.” My girlfriend, a petite Malaysian Chinese who dared to step a bit too close for the sake of a picture-perfect moment, is crouching next to an orangutan twice her size. The primate hovers at mid-air, three limbs clutched onto a web of rattan lianas, its right hand held around her left thigh. Its facial expression remains unchanged besides the intermittent flinch of its black lips.

“Fantastic then, keep not moving…” Ricky’s voice sounds as calm as the surface of a swimming pool on closing day, but we can all surmise that he’s hoping for this to end without a fractured femur. The air remains dense with anticipation until the bemused ape releases its catch and slowly lifts his arm back up into the vegetation. My girlfriend remains still for a few long moments, and it’s only when the orangutan takes its gaze off her that she slowly retraces towards our group, moving away as swiftly as she can. Indeed, these are beautiful creatures, but they can also tear a human limb apart very easily. Don’t get me started on the bites.
Ricky’s back of neck releases as a large smile returns to pit his face. “Who’s up next for pictures?” he says.

In our group of six, some fiddle with their cameras, but nobody dares to step an inch forward.
I know, it’s completely silly to get that close to orangutans in the wild, but it’s also true that besides Bukit Lawang in Sumatra, Indonesia, there are very few other places in the world where one can literally “get in touch” with semi-wild men of the forest. And that’s exactly why we decided to visit and hire guides to trek into the park, an experience that rewards those who want to rough it up for a night in the jungle with incredible encounters.

Situated 86 kilometres northeast of busy Medan, the village of Bukit Lawang has been home to Swiss-managed and WWF-funded Bohorok Rehabilitation Centre since 1973. Foreign funding stopped in 1980 when the Indonesian Government took over, and by 1996 the centre stopped admitting orangutans as it no longer met the standards of species re-introduction. Despite deforestation and lack of resources, the orangutans continued to attract tourists and provided vital lymph to the village until a flood tore it down to its foundations in 2003. Bukit Lawang was re-built with foreign aid in 2004, and today the new village is a stitched-up collection of thatched huts and concrete guesthouses lining the two sides of the Bohorok River. The swing bridges that connect the two embankments give the place an eerie atmosphere, as if someone has taken out the batteries from its wall clock and pushed its hands back in time.

We arrived on a bemo – the standard Indonesian ramshackle mini-van – and lodged at a simple guesthouse. We came all this way to see the orangutans, but we didn’t want to do so artificially from a feeding platform. We didn’t have to wait long before Ricky approached us with a broad smile and a swing of his long, curvy hair.

Click to view slideshow.

I can’t help but laugh when I see a smaller orangutan pour liquid from a condensed-milk can into its mouth.

“Please give me some business, or I’ll have to go back to work at the rubber plantation,” he said and we couldn’t refuse such an utterly honest pickup line.
The next morning, Ricky and two other guides lead us and four other travellers through a rubber estate and deep into the jungle. Less than two hours into our morning slog, we have our first encounter. Perched in the midst of lianas which trickle their way down to the ground, our first sample of orange-coloured fur doesn’t panic as we surround it. Observing the animal’s relaxed movements is mesmerizing, but when it reaches out and grabs my girlfriend’s leg, everyone’s hairs raise. I reckon that’s a bit too much to expect from a first-time contact.

Just minutes after the ape let go of her, we continued deeper into the jungle on our way to the lunch stop, and the canopy ahead of us starts rumbling. Ricky and his friends quickly hold us back and intimate not to move and let them handle the situation.

“It’s Mina. She’s got quite a temper as she recently delivered her baby,” Ricky tells us, “just stay back and keep still.”
He barely has time to finish speaking when the canopy shakes apart and a big orangutan rushes forward in our direction. Its grin is filled with a mouthful of angry teeth: clinging under its armpit, a baby scans the scene with awkward curiosity. Mina stops a few metres ahead of us as a thunder rumbles inside of her ample chest. It’s only when Ricky takes out a bunch of fruit and offers it to her that she retires back into the thicket: she’s appeased with our token, and we are free to move on.

By the time we reach our campsite next to the riverbed, we get to know that besides orangutans, the jungle wriggles with black gibbons, black leaf monkeys and a few emerald-coloured snakes we are very careful not to touch. In the pitch-black darkness that follows a glorious sunset, the sound of the nearby river and the hoot of monkeys paint the night with jungle awe. We gather around a fireplace as our guides serve us dinner, before taking out the guitars and playing a mix of reggae and canopy clatter that help summon the spirit of Bob Marley across half the world.

The final surprise comes in the early morning. As we wake up and head for the river for our ablutions, we notice that something is waiting next to the campfire’s remains. I can’t help but laugh when I see a smaller orangutan pour liquid from a condensed-milk can into its mouth. It looks exactly as if it were a human sipping the last water drops from a cup.

“You are very lucky today…this is Jackie,” explains Ricky as he tries to catch the ape’s attention. Like two friends who haven’t hung out in a while, man and beast cross gazes until the latter drops her makeshift cup and comes closer to our encampment. The other guides, who were toasting some bread over the fire, quickly reach for the food supplies and stash them out of orangutan reach.

But Jackie seems more amused by men than food, and comes very close, her steps slow and her eyes timidly fixed on the ground before her. It seems like she’s silently asking to be allowed to sit among us humans. We take turns to stand inches from her and admire her closely as the obvious shutters flicker madly. The kindle alighting Jackie’s eyes exudes a placid intelligence, and that’s the most haunting memory I carry back with me downriver.

Sitting inside of inflated tractor tubes, we float all the way back to Bukit Lawang until we stop at a bay nestled below the swinging bridges. From there, it’s a short slog uphill to reach the village main thoroughfare.

“Come back again soon,” says Ricky as he collects the tubes and puts them on a canoe, preparing to tackle an upriver trip. As the sputter of his boat’s engine fades behind the furthest river bend, I wonder if his next batch of tourists will be as lucky as Ricky said we were, or if it’s all part of the business deal he sealed with the men of the jungle.

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