Since packing my backpack two years ago, I’ve been spoiled with the wildlife I have encountered on my travels: koalas and dingoes in Australia, Komodo dragons in Indonesia and whale sharks in the Maldives, to name a few. Orangutans have been high on my wildlife list for a while, so when the time came to answer my travel bug once again, of course I picked Sumatra.
Sumatra is one of the two places in the entire world where orangutans still roam free. Nestled deep in Northern Sumatra lies the tiny village of Bukit Lawang. This lush paradise is used by travellers as a launch pad to begin their adventure through the Sumatran jungle.
Bukit Lawang, sits on the fringe of the Gunung Leauser National Park, one of the most diverse tropical ecosystems on the entire planet. This jungle is home to not only orangutans, but also elephants, rhinos, tigers and leopards. In recent years, it’s become a big tourist attraction, with Western tourists flocking to the tiny village in search of an genuine jungle experience.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Bukit Lawang. I had been on animal expeditions before that have been merely glorified strolls through a nature patch, encountering wildlife who were used to seeing hordes of tourists chauffeured through their green homes.
Fearing we were too late to the secret jungle party, I was pleasantly surprised how authentic everything still was. We travelled in low season (April), and while there were still a few tourists dotted around, the village was still taken up by daily life of the locals.
It’s obvious to see the village revolves around their main attraction, tour guides on every corner and restaurants lining the lanes. Though it may not be five star, accommodation is abundant and cheap as chips.
The Bahorok River Flooding
The village is separated by the roaring Bahorok River, with huge swinging suspension bridges joining either side of Bukit Lawang. Fifteen years ago, disaster struck while the village was sleeping.
A flash flood hit Bukit Lawang in the dead of night when the banks of the river burst. The village was destroyed and 239 people were killed, as well as 1400 loosing their homes.
How to get to Bukit Lawang
If you have pre-booked your orangutan trek, your airport pickup will be included with your package. If you’ve already booked your accommodation, there will also be an option for a hotel pick-up, for a slightly more expensive price.
You can alternatively get public transport which includes taking two buses, but we opted for the private car for the 96km journey. The drive takes about five hours, and is a rough ride. Roads are unpaved and filled with potholes and each driver seems to follow his own set of rules! Our journey cost 600,000rp for two people (about AUD57 or €35). On the way, our driver was very helpful and stopped to let us pick up snacks and also showed us the best place to get a cheap local SIM for our phones.
Where to Stay
All accommodation in Bukit Lawang is modest to say the least. It’s very cheap but very basic. Electricity is intermittent, as is running water. We stayed in the Indra Valley Inn, which has gorgeous views of the river below. The staff were lovely and the food downstairs was delicious. Monkeys entertained us every morning on our balcony, which eventually became a problem when we wanted to relax with an ice-cream!
Our room was really cheap, but did not include a sink, just a bucket of water to brush your teeth and wash your hands in! There also was no bathroom door, just an ill-fitted curtain separating the bed and toilet. Although this eventually would feel like luxury after spending a few nights on the jungle floor!
Who To Book Your Trek With
It’s completely acceptable to book your trek once you arrive in Bukit Lawang. You can browse the many, many tour guides in the village, or speak to your guest house who will either have their own trekking guides or recommend someone to you.
Our guide was a local young guy named Monang. He was incredibly knowledgeable about the jungle, and treated his surroundings with the utmost respect. I couldn’t believe how well he knew his was around the jungle, having grown up there he knew it like the back of his hand!
With us came his friend Mussa, who was in training to become a guide. The guides must spending a few years getting to know the jungle and the animals, as one wrong turn and you could be lost for days!
Monang and Mussa were really amazing guys; they were funny, down-to-earth and really good guitar players! When we arrived back to Bukit Lawang on our fourth day, we met up again in a local bar and had a few drinks and a sing-along with their guitars!
Cost of Trekking
I think the cost of trekking is pretty much the same for all tour companies. For a three-day trek, the general price was €110 per person, which included all food and the national park taxes. This price is based on a minimum of three people in your trekking group. There can be up to eight people in any one trekking group. However, as it was low season in April, will were the only two people in our group with Monang, so we had to split €330 between two people.
What to Pack
As this is a pretty detailed and important piece of information, I’ve written a seperate post on packing here. You can leave your main luggage in your guest house and bring just the essentials on your trek. Make sure you bring a smaller bag with you, no bigger than a rucksack. There’s no need for big hiking backpacks, you’ll just end up filling it with unnecessary weight. The most important thing to remember is: keep it light!!
What is the Trekking Like?
I consider myself a very active and fit person, but I’ve struggled with climbing hills since a knee injury a couple of years ago. We opted for a three day trek, which brings you further into the jungle away from the more well-trodden paths. Doing anything less than two nights/three days in the jungle is not really worth it in my opinion. If you’ve come all the way to Sumatra, make the most of it and spend a few days in the jungle.
However, be prepared, it is tough. I wasn’t expecting the trek to be so hilly. The hike includes a few very steep ascents over the three days. My hands were filthy from climbing up vines and grabbing rocks overhead. The hiking is hard, but it’s the humidity that is the killer. Make sure to communicate with your guide beforehand your fitness levels and abilities. We told our guide we were very fit and wanted to do the harder trek…I regretted this request at some parts!
The further into the jungle you go, the harder the trek is, yet the more rewarding it becomes. On the first day of the trek, you share the jungle path with day-trekkers, and easily “stumble” upon the more tame orangutans. They hang around closer to the village as they know they will be fed here by the eager hikers. While it’s amazing to see these apes, it almost feels like a zoo. Easily a dozen tourists gather around the base of a tree, lenses pointed upward toward the orangutan munching on the fruit he was bribed with.
By day two, there are no signs of any other trekkers, as everyone takes their own path. We trekked for a good four hours before we came across our prize: a mother and baby orangutan lazily trudging along through the greenery. It was so much more gratifying seeing these apes without the hordes of tourists around, all vying for the perfect picture.
Camping in the Jungle
The camping is less than glamorous , but unbelievably fun and adventurous. If you like your comfort, this may not be the trip for you, but I still urge you to do it. You’ll never forget your night sleeping in the jungle! There are a number of different campsites dotted along the banks of the Bahorok River. As we went in low season, we shared our campsite with no one else other than our two guides and a hilarious local guy who cooked our meals.
Although the humidity was stifling hot during the day, when the sun dipped behind the mountains its was slightly chilly and I was glad to be nursing my cup of hot black tea. When we arrived to the camp, we slipped out of our dirty clothes and hopped in the river for a quick wash. We rinsed our clothes and lay them out to dry, then took off for a bit of exploring around the area. The camp by the river is full of life, from the monkeys swinging in the trees to the giant monitors skulking around, lured to camp by the smell of cooking chicken.
The sleeping quarters are nothing more than a yoga mat on a floor of dried mud and a mosquito net for protection against the giant insects in the night sky. It’s not cold, there’s no real need for a blanket, but if you’re like me and need some sort of head support, I’d suggest maybe bringing a travel neck pillow or a towel to roll up. It’s not the most comfortable night’s sleep, but I was that wrecked after all our trekking that day, I was glad to just rest my body for a few hours!
I’m a really picky eater, a bad quality for a frequent traveller! I was nervous about the food in the jungle, afraid I wouldn’t like anything and go hungry for three days. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The food was out of this world, freshly prepared for every meal!
For snacks, we had fresh pineapple, oranges, mangoes, passionfruit and more. In the evenings, there were plenty of options to choose from: tasty chicken dishes, a traditional Sumatran fish casserole, fried potato cakes, fresh fruit, rice and more. For breakfast, we had banana pancakes and tea! Throughout the evenings, we could help ourselves to as much biscuits and tea as we wanted, there were times when I was actually to full from all the food I was gobbling down!
Ending Your Trek
The end of the trek was probably the most fun of the whole trip! Rather than hiking all the way back through the jungle, hikers take a traditional raft down the raging river back to Bukit Lawang!
We were soaked through, but luckily our belongings were safely wrapped up in water-proof bags strapped to the raft.
We spent few more days in Bukit Lawang, recovering from our tough trek and enjoying a few lazy days, reading in a hammock and enjoying some local dishes in the evening. We got the same car back to Medan. Our guide Monang travelled all the way with us to the airport to say goodbye, definitely a friend made for life. We are now in contact on Facebook, and without hesitation, I recommend him to any fellow travellers looking for advice on a tour guide in Bukit Lawang.