You too can hang out in the jungle

Mike Gerrard rejected lying on a beach for an adventure in Sumatra. He climbed about in humid valleys, ached, sweated and wondered what he was doing there. Then saw his first wild orang-utan...

BEING DEFECATED upon by an orang-utan is the kind of thing you expect to happen to David Attenborough, so in a way I suppose we were privileged. The dung dropped from a great height and unfortunately we were downwind. Our guide sniffed and said: "He's been eating too much durian." The durian is the foul-smelling Asian fruit memorably described by an Anthony Burgess character as being "like eating a raspberry sorbet in a latrine", though there wasn't much raspberry sorbet about this whiff.

The Gunung Leuser National Park covers 8,000sq km of northern Sumatra. It's home to about one-fifth of the island's estimated 5,000-7,000 population of orang-utan, not to mention tigers, elephants, rhinos, clouded leopards, sun bears, tapirs and about 500 species of birds. Thankfully this wildlife population wasn't badly affected by last summer's forest fires, which were predominantly in the south - and, on an island the size of Spain, that's some distance away. Down in the south it was a different story, though, with the already endangered orang-utans having to flee their burning habitat, only to be popped in the cooking pots of starving villagers whose crops were also being destroyed.

This makes the work of the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Station at Bukit Lawang, on the edge of Gunung Leuser's protected jungles, all the more important. Here orphaned orang-utans are being reintroduced into the wild. This is no straightforward task, as an infant orang-utan will spend between five and ten years with its mother, learning how to climb, make nests to sleep in, and how to tell a durian fruit from something that might be deadly poisonous. These skills have to be taught instead by the staff at the station, while also weaning the apes off human contact.

Bukit Lawang is a tiny and laid-back riverside resort, surrounded by rubber and cocoa plantations. It takes about two minutes to walk round the centre, and 15 to walk up the path beside the Bohorok River to the rehabilitation station. Visitors are permitted across the river twice a day to watch the semi-wild orang-utans being fed; only about six people at a time can cross the river in a wobbly dug-out canoe hauled over on a pulley system.

"There's talk of building a bridge," said a station volunteer, Tanya Kemprud, "but I hope that never comes about. You need to make a balance between the needs of the orang-utan and the need to raise public awareness and raise money. A bridge will mean this becomes a tourist attraction, not a wildlife project. It will also mean that cats and dogs could then cross the river, bringing diseases."

When they arrive at the centre the orang-utans are quarantined for at least six months before being released into the jungle near the feeding station, where they may stay for a few days or even several months until they gain their full independence. They are deliberately given a monotonous diet of bananas, to encourage them to find food for themselves. Outside the quarantine area Tanya gives the handful of visitors an essential introductory chat.

"If an orang-utan approaches you when you go to the feeding station, just back away slowly and don't be tempted to touch it. They can give you disease, and you can give them diseases, which we're more concerned about. It might appear hard to resist a hug from an orang-utan, but I would ask you to make the effort."

As we climb the steep and slippy jungle track up to the feeding station, black gibbons are whooping in the tree tops. Slowly the orang-utans emerge from the trees to approach the feeders who've brought them bananas and a drink. One baby, as cute as they come, hangs upside-down from a branch with one foot while peeling a banana and pirouetting. Later he descends to the feeding platform to torment an older male, who responds with a wallop, causing the baby to bash the wooden floor in a tantrum. I'm not surprised to hear Tanya say later that we share 99 per cent of our DNA with these creatures.

"They are so intelligent, too," she goes on, happy to answer questions when we return to the station. "One of the orang-utans recently learnt how to unlock its cage by banging the lock with a rock so that it sprang open. One two-year-old took a few seconds to learn how to unfasten my belt, and then how to fasten it again."

We're interrupted by a call from the canoe man, waiting to take the last of us back over the river. "One moment, please," Tanya asks. "I have no more moments," he says, so we leave.

Next morning we leave Bukit Lawang for a two-day trek in the jungle. All visitors to Gunung Leuser must be accompanied by a licensed guide, and ours is Nasib Suhardi, who combines trek-leading with looking after his rubber trees. We walk through a rubber plantation, where we stop to see how the tree is cut and the sap caught.

"You cut the trees at 6am," Nasib tells us. "The trees self-heal if they're cut properly. You cut them three times a week, all year round. If you cut them every day you don't get as much rubber. If a family has between one and two hectares of rubber trees they should provide just enough to live on. Not getting rich, but enough so as not to starve. It's small money but regular."

Beyond here is a small durian plantation. "Orang-utans and tigers both love them," Nasib explains, "and the fruits fall in the night so we have to harvest them at midnight, because if we left them till the morning the animals would eat them. Westerners say they smell like shit but we like them. Want to try one?"

Nasib makes it sound so tempting that I can scarcely refuse, despite knowing that many hotels ban them from the premises because of the pervasive odour. Thankfully this one is more raspberry sorbet than latrine.

Nasib seems to know every plant and animal, though here on the edge of the jungle it is more flora than fauna - apart from a few small snakes, a turtle and butterflies that looked big enough to carry off your day- pack. We have a break and soak our chins with passion fruit, pineapple and oranges, welcome in the jungle's humid heat. We listen to the sound of white-handed gibbons. Near by, a tree crashes down. Then we hear an orang-utan calling; a large adult male, says Nasib.

"What are the chances of seeing one?" I ask. "Well," says Nasib, "sometimes we do, but I'd say maybe about 20 per cent."

He shows us the peacock fern which is a cure for bee stings, and other leaves to rub on everything from bleeding wounds to nappy rash.

As we camp that night by the river, Nasib busies himself crushing red chilli to make a fresh sauce for our evening meal of soya bean cake, rice, sweet vegetables and spicy vegetables. All I can say is that he must have brought a lot of red chilli with him. Breakfast is noodle soup and fresh pineapple, fortifying us for the steep climb of several hundred feet out of the river valley, deep as an axe-cut in the earth.

Why do I do this, I find myself muttering while the sweat pours off me. My thighs are burning as if the chillis have just reached them. Why do I take adventure holidays when I could be lying on a beach?

Then I discover why. "Sssh," says Nasib. He's heard the sound of an orang- utan somewhere in the canopy up above us. We stop and crane our necks, about the only bit of me that's not aching - till Nasib spots the dark shadow next to the trunk. Eventually it moves along a branch and the darkness turns to rust-coloured fur, and the shadow becomes a huge male orang-utan. It rips a bit from the branch and throws it in our direction, telling us he knows that we're there and doesn't like it. Sometimes they pee on humans, too, although ours decides to defecate, which may be coincidental. Thankfully it misses.

Not wanting to disturb it further, we walk on through the jungle till Nasib stops again. More orang-utans. He seems as excited as we are to see two females, each carrying a youngster. We stand silently looking up, and the mothers chatter and throw a few broken branches down. They don't seem distressed, merely wary. Slowly they move on, swinging through the branches, babies clinging underneath. We move on, too, and stop in a peaceful clearing. I sit on a log, open a passion fruit and sink my teeth into its sweet frogspawn seeds. A half-litre of water later and I feel almost human again. They say there's no pleasure without pain, and there are few pleasures to equal the sight of an animal in the wild. Even if it does try to shit on you.

FACT FILE

sumatra

Getting there

The author travelled to Sumatra courtesy of Travelbag Adventures. It offers a 17-day Longhouses and Rainforest tour, including a jungle trek at Bukit Lawang. Trips depart all year round and cost from pounds 1,175, including return flights, accommodation and some meals. Travelbag Adventures (tel: 01420 541007).

Orang-utan watching

For information about, and donations to help, the orang-utan of Sumatra contact The Orang-utan Foundation, 7 Kent Terrace, London NWI 4RP (tel: 0171-724 2912).

Further information

Sumatra (Periplus, pounds 11.95) is an excellent read, but Indonesia (Lonely Planet, pounds 15.99) and The Indonesian Handbook (Moon, pounds 15.95) also cover Sumatra in some depth.

Sumatra is mainly Muslim, so eat and greet with your right hand, leaving the left for toilet duties. Outside of hotels, the toilets are squatties. It is considered rude to blow your nose in public.

Sumatra is on the equator, so is warm all year with few seasonal extremes. The rainy season is roughly from October to April, though that only means it is even wetter than the "dry" season.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home