Monkeys, orang utans and too many spiders!

Trip Start Aug 14, 2012
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Trip End Ongoing


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Where I stayed
Greenhill Guesthouse

Flag of Indonesia  , Sumatra,
Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Our flight landed in Medan, Sumatra at 7:25am which was the same time we'd left Penang in Malaysia, due to the time difference. We left the airport, once having withdrawn 100 worth of Indonesian Rupiah (1,500,000), and caught a taxi to the local bus stop. When we turned up, there were already a few minivans waiting. The driver of one came to meet us in the hope that we would use his van and once we agreed on a price (1 each for a three hour journey) we did. The outside of the van was worn and could've used a new coat of paint, however the inside was such an eyesore it might have been easier for the driver to buy a new minivan. We wondered for a moment whether Sumatra was going to be like India - luckily it wasn't. The journey wasn't as bad or as long as we expected. The driver would look for possible passengers with every glance meaning we would stop for a minute or two every now and again, but apart from that it was ok. About twenty minutes from Bukit Lawang a local man got on. I thought he said he had just been 'fishing', I was unsure if I heard him correctly so repeated 'fishing'? and he obviously then misheard me and said yes then introduced himself and shook my hand. At the bus stop just outside of Bukit Lawang whilst waiting for our pickup from the guesthouse, Kate mocked me for shaking his hand after he had just been 'pissing'! I was confused and tried explaining that he had just been fishing, apparently I misheard and had just shaken hands with someone who had just relieved themselves in a bush ten seconds earlier!

We got picked up and were shown to our guesthouse. The scenery was lovely, a river running in view of our balcony with lush rainforest behind it and our room was also set back into the rainforest on our side of the river. It was made from wood and there were some gaps for creepy crawlies to get in, but it was much better than our bamboo shack on Rabbit Island in Cambodia where we failed to stay even one night due to an eight-legged resident. The real problem in this bamboo hut was our toilet and shower; they both had a wall and a roof but there was quite a large gap between these! We had a shower, got some lunch and then booked a 3 hour jungle trek for two days time. We had a large hammock on our balcony, large enough to fit both of us in, so we both fell asleep for an hour.

At about 4pm the rain came, and it came thick and fast and lasted long into the night. During the rain, the tree in front of our balcony was visited by five or six Thomas Leaf Monkeys, which only live in North Sumatra.

After a good and cheap local dinner we sat around playing draughts for a bit before heading up to our room. We had left the outside light on, which was a mistake as our balcony was now being used by large moths, a praying mantis and a lot of other unknown insects, but these critters would be the least of our problems. We made it inside, whilst keeping the insects outside, and headed to the bathroom to get ready for bed. Once inside the bathroom we looked up to see a hairy, tarantula-style, huge spider the size of my palm (or Kate's hand) on the roof. I wanted to introduce it to one of my size 12 flip flops but Kate wouldn't let me incase it was poisonous, I missed it and it landed on me! We ended up both going downstairs to get someone to get rid of it, a large broom did the trick and although he didn't kill it, he did chase it away. He also told me that the guesthouse has never had any problem with spiders biting people and none of them were deadly anyway! With our spider fears, that was not particularly reassuring! After that, we also started to hear the phrase, "hey, this is the jungle!" Knowing that the spider had gone, we went to use the bathroom again but as we approached the door, all of a sudden a large bang came from with bathroom and we heard stuff getting knocked over. I banged on the door hoping to scare off whatever it was out there. We were both too scared to open the door, so instead of brushing our teeth we shared our last chewing gum, made sure the mosquito net was tightly wrapped around the bed and tried to get some sleep.

It was probably the worst night's sleep of our trip (ones we'd spent in a bed anyway) and we decided we would forego the 22 we'd paid for the next two nights and move to the new, brick-built guesthouse next door. However, over a yummy breakfast of banana and chocolate porridge, we realised we wouldn't have enough cash on us to pay for the room next door and last us until we left Bukit Lawang, and the nearest ATM was a 20min motorbike ride away. We gradually came to terms with sleeping in the treehouse for the next two nights and focused on the good points of the hut i.e the amazing view, effective mosquito net and comfy hammock and the fact that we'd feel an achievement of staying there afterwards.

In the afternoon we went for a walk in the village and decided to stop off for lunch somewhere before heading to the orang utan feeding platform at 3:30pm. For lunch we ordered tacos, both of us believing it would be the Mexican dish, but what turned up looked more like a Cornish pasty. They were filled with chicken and fresh vegetables and were so tasty we ordered a few more whilst in Sumatra. Filled up on a good lunch, we set off to the feeding platform. When told where the platform was, all that was mentioned was that we would pass a waterfall and it's a ten minute further walk. On the other side of the river we saw a National Park Headquarters, but thought it couldn't be where the platform was because there was no sign and we hadn't passed the waterfall. So, we kept walking, and walking for twenty minutes or more until there was no more footpath. We turned back and on the way we bumped into an elderly couple asking if we were out for a walk. We said we were looking for the feeding platform to which they told us was at the National Park Hq, and we had to cross the river by boat to get to. Cursing our stupidity, we realised we only had ten minutes to get back there. We retraced our steps in the ridiculously humid heat and made it in time, but we were both very hot and very sweaty. The National Park of Gunung Leuser contains both wild and semi-wild orang utans. The semi wild ones having been rescued from destroyed forest areas, or people who would have them as pets. Once we had registered and paid for a pass, we set off to the platform. This was another twenty minute walk away, but this one was very muddy, slippery and steep. We made it to the top, albeit a little sweatier.

One of the rangers went to the platform and started to bang a stone on it - this was obviously the calling method used. About five minutes later a ranger spotted one high up in a tree about one hundred yards away. I saw him and called Kate over, then as we were both looking, another orang utan appeared next to the first one but quickly disappeared down the tree. The first one however, slowly made his way over to the platform, stopping every now and again to stare at us and every swing seemed to be very calculated. We were stood fifteen feet away from the platform and the male orang utan. We were amused at the way it moved, the way it was drinking the milk provided by the ranger (using a little tea cup whilst hanging upside down from a tree), but most of all just in awe and very privileged to be so close to such an endangered animal whose only natural habitats in the World have been whittled down to Borneo and Sumatra.

We stood for ten minutes just taking pictures of this orange haired ape and commenting on the smallest of movements he would make. I think we both knew that this was the best part of our trip so far and that it would be hard to beat, especially as it was going to get better. We were told that another male was heading to the platform from the same direction as the first, and that we would have to keep our distance as he was 'the dominant male!' The younger male was also aware of the dominant male's presence and started to leave the platform and head towards us. The rest of the people stood near us, and Kate, backed away leaving me standing there gawping at this majestic animal swinging towards me. The orang utan was a matter of feet from me as the guide shouted for me to pick up my bottle of water that I had left on the ground - it was right under the orang utan. I was unsure of what to do, so I hesitated and the guide then shouted for me to leave it which for some reason prompted me to pick it up!! As I bent down and grabbed the bottle, the orang utan outstretched his right arm and placed his hand onto my bag on my back and grabbed at it. Luckily, I had both straps on my shoulders and the orang utan pulled its arm away before heading back off into the trees. The attempted mugging hadn't worked and we were very grateful as the bag had all of our valuables, passports etc in it!

With the younger male gone, we were now all transfixed by the dominant male who now occupied the platform. This older male wasn't as graceful when it came to drinking the free milk; he placed each hand to the side of the bucket and dipped his face into it. Again we just stood in awe of this magnificent animal for about ten minutes just taking pictures. The ranger then informed us that two more were on their way from behind us. The crowd all moved to one side and I decided I would join them this time, as we watched a mother and a young baby swing through the trees. The mother stopped about twenty yards from the platform and about five from us, she was soon joined by her offspring who sought protection from us and quickly cuddled up to her.

The sky then let out a tumultuous clap of thunder, and the clouds which produced it were heading our way. A couple of minutes later the fat rain drops started to ease down slowly. The rangers said we had to leave as once the rain began properly, we wouldn't be able to walk down the slippery mud path as it is too dangerous. We were on a high as we headed back to our treehouse and prepared ourselves for having another cold bamboo shower whilst looking out at the rainstorm. Afterwards, we had a hot cuppa on our balcony. Whilst enjoying our cuppa and watching the rain continue to pour, the tree just in front of our balcony filled with monkeys as it had done the previous night, but this evening brought the more common macaque instead if the rarer Thomas Leaf monkey. We had seen plenty of these in India, but seeing them in their natural habitat, rather than the rooftops of Varanasi, was far more beguiling. After appearing to be in a calm state, they instantly exploded into life, screeching at one another and springing from branch to branch with relentless and untempered energy. Soon after, they made it down from the tree and onto the metal rooftops of our guesthouse before disappearing into the garden off the next one, probably to cause more mischief.

After talking with the guesthouse owner, we found out the mammal making the banging noise in our bathroom the previous night was a cat (not a rat or monkey or anything else wild and unpredictable - phew)! So that night I only needed to check the toilet for furry eight-legged friends and poisonous red centipedes - this became the ritual before either one of us used the bathroom - before we got ready for bed. As we were so tired from the lack of sleep the night before, we both slept pretty well under our mozzie net.

The next morning we were up at 7am waking up Pandi, the guesthouse manager, to make us some porridge before our half-day trek. We realised that the Indonesians seem to get up a lot later than the rest of Asia who seem to be up by 5am. But we eventually got our porridge and Bike, our guide for the morning, turned up. He was sporting socks over his trousers, so we figured this was the right look to avoid unwanted leeches!

We had planned to start our trek at the feeding platform so that we could catch the morning orang utan feed, although often no apes turn up. This is a good thing because it means they would rather find their own food as opposed to 'boring' bananas and milk, but obviously we were hoping there would be hungry apes up there. Again, we were very fortunate. The stone was banged on the platform and a few seconds later, we heard rustling above us. In the big tree we were stood underneath, the dominant male had made his nest for the night and was making his way down and over us to the feeding platform - he obviously hadn't strayed far from the previous night. The guides told us that he was actually wild and over 35yrs old, so the biggest orang utan you can get. Apparently, he had learnt about the feeding platform through semi-wild female orang utans that he had 'befriended' who had been rehabilitated at the Center. They hadn't seen him for the last two months until yesterday evening, so he obviously fancied visiting their 'restaurant!'

He feasted on the bucket of milk and two bunches of bananas. Even though this male was over 35yrs, he ate like a two year old child, dipping his head in the bucket of milk, peeling bananas with his teeth and then shoving two in his mouth at the same time. It was only after he had finished eating that he looked his age, sitting on the platform wearing a placid look. He sat like this for almost twenty minutes before another male turned up. Even though the new arrival was over one hundred feet away, the dominant male sensed the intrusion of 'his' feeding platform, he leapt from it and into the trees in a flash. He had gone 15 to 20 feet in a matter of seconds, this was enough to scare off the young pretender.

We had only been trekking for ten minutes before we spotted a sleeping orang utan up in a tree. The rainforest is such an unbelievably rich and vast habitat that we were expecting to see all sorts of wildlife, we did but it was mostly trees and plants. One of the trees was over 300 years old and was the biggest tree that either of us had seen. The rainforest here had been getting destroyed acre by acre for trees just like this one, and this gargantuan sized tree would only fetch up to €5000.

We did happen to see four Thomas Leaf monkeys directly above us in the tree canopy. We only saw one spider, which was a relief to both of us. We don't know how he managed to spot it, but our guide Bike, managed to see and pick up one of the smallest frogs in the world - it was the size of a thumbnail! Our guide told us the animals he had seen and that once he even got stung by a scorpion. He said that his leg around the puncture swelled up to the size of a melon and the pain lasted for three hours. He also told us that he killed the scorpion and then ate its brain because the Batak people (the local people of Sumatra) believed that would help ease the pain! Our guide was a bit crazy. He picked up a couple of huge ants, these ants looked like they had come from Chernobyl they were that big, and he preceded to place one on his tongue and then close his mouth. We weren't sure if he was going to swallow it, but then he opened his mouth and it crawled out and onto his cheek before falling to the ground! He then offered us a try, we both declined! Oh, and Kate also fell over on her backside during the trek, I don't think anyone would be surprised by this!

After the trek we headed back for a shower and some lunch before having a doze in the hammock again. At about 4pm, the macaques returned, bringing their own brand of insanity with them! They were on a scavenger hunt, raiding people's balconies for food, or what ever they liked the look of. We saw one with some crackers in his hand and another with a large fruit called durian. The fruit brought a lot of attention from the other macaques. This attention was unwelcome and forced the fruit holder to retreat to a balcony higher up. Unbeknown to the monkey, a person was on this balcony, startling him into dropping his prize. The other monkeys sensed their opportunity but were also unaware of the human presence and were too scared to advance. The man tried showing his dominance and tried scaring the monkeys away, but to no avail. Even though the monkeys were all out for themselves in trying to get this dropped fruit, when confronted by a threat they all grouped together to show a united front. The man retreated but only to go and get his camera. The monkeys then knew that they had the freedom of this balcony and just sat there without fear, two more felt so relaxed there that they started mating.

The next day we woke Pandi again to make our breakfast before leaving at 8am to walk 1km (quite a long way with a backpack) to catch a mini bus to Lake Toba.
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