A trip to the jungle of Bukit Lawang, Northern Sumatra, brings travelers in close proximity to the men of the forest.
by Marco Ferrarese.
“Please hold still and don’t move,” says our guide Ricky, an Indonesian Rastafarian with dense knots of hair reaching down to his lower back. We are deep into Gunung Leuser National Park’s thicket, home of semi-wild orangutans, and the cause of his concern.
“It’s fine… it’s not hurting me.”
My girlfriend, who stepped a bit too close for the sake of a picture-perfect moment, is crouching next to an orangutan twice her size. The primate hovers at mid-air, three limbs clutched onto a web of rattan lianas, its right hand clasped around my girl’s left thigh.
“It will let go soon…,” Ricky’s voice sounds as calm as the surface of a swimming pool on closing day, but we can all surmise that he’s hoping for this to end without a fractured femur. Seconds run slowly until the bemused monkey lets go of her, lifts up its arm, and disappears into the vegetation.
Please don’t tell me, for I know very well. It’s idiotic to get that close to orangutans in the wild. But I will defend myself by saying that besides Bukit Lawang, there are very few other places in the world where one can truly “get in touch” with semi-wild men of the forest. Situated 86km northeast of busy Medan, Bukit Lawang has been home to the Swiss-managed, WWF-funded, Bohorok Rehabilitation Center since 1973. Foreign funding stopped in 1980 when the Indonesian government took over, and by 1996, the center stopped admitting orangutans because it no longer met the standards of species re-introduction.
A flood tore the village apart on Nov. 2, 2003. Today, the village is a stitched-up collection of thatched huts and concrete guesthouses lined along the bends of the Bohorok River. We came all this way to see the orangutans avoiding an artificial experience from a feeding platform. We didn’t wait long before Ricky approached us with a broad smile and an utterly honest, irresistible pick-up line: “Please give me some business, or I’ll have to slave off another day at the rubber plantation.”
The next morning, together with two other guides and four other travelers, we walked through a rubber estate and deep into the jungle. Less than two hours later we made our first encounter: perched in the midst of lianas, our first orange-colored man didn’t panic as we surrounded it. But when it swung down the canopy and reached out for my girlfriend’s leg, we all did, as we realized that we were just vulnerable guests in ape world. That feeling intensified when, minutes after the monkey let go of my girl, the thicket ahead of us started rumbling again. Ricky held us back, intimating to freeze and let them handle the situation.
“It’s Mina. She’s recently delivered her baby,” he explained, “and she’s a bit grumpy.”
He barely had the time to finish talking when a big orangutan emerged from the viridian background, a thunder rumbling inside its wide chest. Clinging under its armpit, a baby ape scanned the scene with awkward curiosity. The ape retired only when Ricky handed out a bunch of fruit as passage token, leaving us free to move forward.
By the time we reached our campsite next to the riverbed, we had discovered that besides orangutans, the jungle wriggled with black gibbons, black leaf monkeys, and a few deadly emerald-colored snakes. The final surprise came in early next morning, when we realized that someone was scavenging around our campfire’s remains. My surprise turned into laughter when I saw a smaller orangutan pour liquid from a condensed-milk can directly into its mouth. It looked exactly like a human sipping the last drops from a cup.
“You are very lucky today… this is Jackie,” explained Ricky. Like two friends who haven’t hang-out in a while, man and beast locked gazes until the latter dropped her makeshift cup and came closer to us. Jackie seemed more amused by men than our breakfast, inching forward with timid eyes fixed on the ground between us as if it were silently asking to be allowed to sit among us humans. Jackie was so tame we could stand next to her for pictures. It stood placid, with a serene calm in her eyes. That’s the last jungle memory I have before I jumped into an inflated tube and slid downriver to Bukit Lawang.
“Come back again soon,” Ricky said as he collected the tubes, put them on a canoe, and prepared to tackle an upriver trip. As the sputter of his boat’s engine faded behind the farthest river bend, I wondered if his next batch of tourists would be as lucky as us, or if such awe-inspiring encounters are all part of the business deal between humans and men of the jungle.