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  • Writer's pictureMaureen Pfaff

Orangutan spotting in the wild - North Sumatra, Indonesia

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

These fascinating apes are native to Indonesia and Malaysia, and in Indonesia they can only be found on the island of Sumatra. Our trip starts in a tiny village by a river called Bukit Lawang. Trip Plan here.

Pick up & Arrival

After a quick flight from Singapore to Medan we got picked up by Orangutan Experience and started our 4h(!) car ride. The thing with Indonesia is, if you want to get anywhere more remote and not as touristy, the only way to get there usually is by car, as the country doesn’t have a lot of public transport inland. The car ride was very bumpy, so no sleeping! Around midnight we finally got to Bukit Lawang, a cute, sleepy village. It has such narrow roads that we had to complete the last bit by moped and left the car behind.

Trek day

The next morning we had banana smoothies and pancakes for breakfast. We even had company, some monkeys stopped by to say hi. Once acquainted with our guides we were off: through the entire village, across the only bridge that spans Bahorok River and into the jungle.

I was feeling more relaxed already. There is something about escaping our busy lives to go for hikes in nature that truly makes me calm down. Now the mission was to find some orangutans! 20min into the trek we saw... no orangutan, but our first Thomas leaf monkey. Native to Sumatra, these are the cutest little black & white monkeys, with very long arms.

They were jumping around, looking for food on the ground. I picked up a nut and gave it to one of them, which they eagerly took out of my hand.

Cute they were, but not the reason we were there, so off we went following the trek, which got steeper and more jungle-like. We were now completely alone with our 2 guides. They kept making noises to call the orangutans, and were communicating with some other guides in the National Park. Fingers crossed! We turned a corner and they suddenly told us to be very quiet and look up.

There he was, about an hour into our trek, our first orangutan. The young male was sitting on a branch at least 15m above us, munching on some food. A couple of other people had joined us with their guides, all eager to snap a photo. This was the first orangutan I had ever seen in the wild! I was pinching myself.

Sadly he didn’t stay on his branch for very long and started swinging his way into the jungle. We decided to turn around and go another way, deeper into the jungle as well, to the point where our lead guide got out a knife to cut away twigs in our path. Actually, calling it a path at all is pushing it. A couple of hours later without any more orangutan sightings we were getting hungry and took a break somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Our guides opened their backpacks and out came an abundance of fruit. First lots of fruit we were very familiar with like bananas and watermelon (even though this one was yellow, wait what?). But then they also unpacked fruit that we had never seen or hadn’t seen in a while: Mangosteen, Rambutan and Longan. Delicious!

The alpha male

Suddenly one of them got a phone call, that the alpha male (called “King Louis”, I’m not kidding!) had been spotted not far from us.

We packed up in a rush and were on our way. Almost running through the jungle following our local guides who seemed to know exactly which way to go. Not that I ever had a good sense of orientation, but there was no way I would have found my way out of this jungle without them! We kept running uphill and got to an area with some other people, telling us to be quiet. Looking up we saw something really big and orange. That’s him! Wow, he was huge, and the way he was moving from one vine to the next was majestic.

I could make out a smaller orangutan a bit closer to us, and it seemed that the big alpha one was making his way towards it. Our guide explained that the smaller one was a female and that the male alpha male was probably trying to mate with her. The closer King Louis was swinging the more unsure he became. He started making some aggressive sounds, and we backtracked to give him some space. We saw another smaller male not far away and watched him for a while until we could see all 3 of them disappearing into the jungle.

It was now around midday and we started making our way towards the camp, which would take at least another few hours. Time for lunch! We were served veggie rice & chicken on banana leaves as plates. So good, and sustainable! A few hours later around 4pm we got to our camp by the river and set up tents & sleeping bags for the night. Whilst waiting for dinner we decided to explore the surroundings a bit, hoping we would see some more orangutans.

Female & baby

Following the river we found another camp further down and could see something moving in the bushes. Out came a female orangutan with a tiny baby clinging to her. This was the cutest thing I had ever seen. She sat down on a tree across the river and decided to watch us, it was fascinating.

We had all dropped our packs, the guide washing a plate had put it down, and we were watching in disbelief. In one smooth motion the female made her way down the tree and came towards the river. Was she thirsty? Or curious? Suddenly she started charging into the river, coming straight towards us. In panic we all turned to run away, but instead of coming after us, she grabbed the soap, turned around and returned to her spot on the tree. She then proceeded to inspect the soap and started eating it. Oh no... That was terrible news. The soap wasn’t edible and would most certainly make her sick. The guide took a stick and tried to distract her, so she would drop it. However, she just hissed at him and continued to enjoy her snack. He then brought out some bananas. These finally got her attention! Nothing better than bananas, right? Whilst she was eyeing them up, deciding how she could get them, he had slapped the soap out of her hand. We didn't give her the bananas in the end, as these orangutans shouldn’t get the notion that humans feed them. They are wild and need to continue to find their own food to survive.

With huge smiles on our faces after this incredible encounter we went back to our camp just in time for dinner, which consisted of different meats and veggies with rice. After dinner we played some games with our guides by candle light. Exhausted from a day of hiking and so many orangutan encounters we crawled into our tent and fell asleep right away. The next day was Lukas’ birthday!

River tubing

The next morning, the guides told me to take Lukas to another area whilst they were preparing breakfast for us. We had been waiting for quite a while, when suddenly both of them started singing Happy Birthday whilst holding a huge plate of fruit.

It was the sweetest thing. Upon closer inspection the fruit had been arranged in a symmetrical form and we realised, it was supposed to be a birthday cake! Made out of fruit. The best! As presents they gave him a little soapstone they had carved into an orangutan head (which we turned into our fridge magnet).

After breakfast, which we absolutely couldn’t finish on top of the birthday ‘cake’, we packed up and started walking towards the river. Our guides were carrying a couple of huge floaties (made out of inner tyre tubes), which were then tied together. Once our bags had been strapped on, we were off down the river. It almost felt a bit like white water rafting as we passed some smaller waterfalls, and had to hold on tightly. After about an hour we started to recognize some of the houses and hotels, and realised we had come a full circle and were back in Bukit Lawang. Pretty soaking wet, but safe and sound! After that it was time for lunch and then back to the airport we went.

Spending such close time with these human-like apes was incredible! Orangutan means “man of the forest” in Indonesian Bahasa, and after spending two days hiking all around Gunung Leuser National Park to see them, I think that's the perfect name for them.

“Wander where the wifi is weak”
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