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Bukit Lawang wild young orang utan learning to move across brarnches

Orangutans in Bukit Lawang, Sumatra – how to see the cuties in the wild and avoid the crowds

Bukit Lawang was a tiny remote village in the arse end of the jungle getting slowly approached by palm oil plantations till just a few years ago. But local and international effort kicked in to preserve the area for orang utans, tourist interest brought money flowing in, and it’s now – well, still a bit remote: roads have improved but it’s still 4-5 hours from Medan airport with long stretches of spring-killing potholes. But it’s grown into what feels like a string of charming small villages stretching along a blue riverside, covered in flowers. Sumatra is the only place I’ve noticed in Indonesia where people grow serious garden flowers, with  a particular fondness for odd multi colour grafts of Bougainvillea. It also has the bridge from hell: crossing this at midnight after a long day of travel was not fun.

The bridge from hell
Local market

And then, orangutans. The people of the forest. We went sure we’d even see them, but we got lucky and saw  three mother-child pairs over a day’s trekking. It was wonderful! The first was a semi wild one, close to the village – they used to be fed up to recent years, and got accustomed to humans supplying food. There were quite a few people around, maybe a couple dozen other tourists as most people had started from the same time and place, and she was bit antsy – kept moving towards us, so we kept moving back to keep the required  5m distance away. Her baby was 3 years old apparently – looked far younger, but they stay with the mother till they’re 8. Baby was a bit klutzy, still learning how to move through the trees with its mother’s grace and ease. – and fell on its head at the end of this video.

Mammy Orangutan

The second orangutan was wild, and didn’t come to the ground – only the ones used to human supplies go to ground level, where the predators are. (And predators there are – 5 months ago, a tiger killed two cows in the village). Her baby was tiny, about a year, still clinging to it’s mother for everything.

And the final one was the famous Mina. She’s written about in every blog or article about Bukit Lawang, including the Lonely Planet, being almost a fixture for so long. She’s 30, and alternates between friendly and aggressive. Her baby died on a feeding platform – natural causes, but she seems to blame humans – while still accepting their food offerings. She seems to be the only one that is still fed by the guides, and will readily feed from their hands. But when the food runs out, you need to move damn quickly away.

And move quickly we did. The walk so far had been easy enough – mud paths, some scrambling – but the last hour was a proper stretch, up and down cliffs, gripping lianas and vines for dear life, discovering a bit too late that the root you’ve just put your weight on, isn’t quite up to it. By the time we got to the riverside, we were knackered and soaked through… so just plunged right into the cool clear water, had a delicious pineapple, and floated down the river and rapids on giant tubes in massive comfort.

River tubing
The art of whitewater tubing – backwards

It was a lovely jungle trip. The weather was cooler and more bearable than expected, few mosquitoes, and the village river is perfect for swimming: clear water and just the right temperature. There were far fewer birds than I’d expected – we saw a giant peacock, and two hornbills, but little else, and no bird noise – just cicadas. However, there were tons of monkeys. The building next to ours was under construction (less hellish than normal : they didn’t seem to use any electrical appliances like drills, just hammering and sawing noise). The moment the workers finished, the monkeys would appear, using the phone line across the river as their highway, and start playing on the scaffolding.