Our first stop was the orangutan feeding platform. Taman Nasional Gunung Leuser is home to an orangutan rehabilitation program that used to take in orangutans that have been rescued from the pet trade. Although the program is not currently taking in any more orangutans, it continues to work with those already released back into the forest. The apes are reintroduced into the wild habitat, but as they make their adjustment they are fed by workers at a feeding platform twice a day. The diet is bland- just coconut milk and bananas- to encourage the orangs to search for food on their own. In order to get to the feeding platform, you have to clamber into a rickety wooden boat full of rusty nails. The boat is attached by a rope to a cable that stretches across the river, and the boat guys drag you across in about 30 seconds. We asked them why they didn't have a bridge here since they have them further up the river, and they said that they wanted to discourage the orangutans from crossing the river and getting closer to town. Neat!
|Pretty view while we wait for the boat taxi|
Once crossing the river, we went up to the Visitor Centre to get our permits, then headed up up up to the feeding platform. Although a guide isn't required for watching the orangutan feeding, a guide is required if you plan to do any trekking in the forest. Because we were leaving directly from the feeding platform to go on a hike, we'd already met up with our guide, Will, and his brother-in-law, Pi'in (I think that's how you spell it but Pi'in didn't speak much English). Will was guiding us and Pi'in was coming along too, which turned out to be great since Pi'in had an eye for spotting wildlife! (Will was an awesome guide, and if you're planning on going to Gunung Leuser and need to book a guide, I recommend getting in touch with Will, Obiwan, and their team through this webpage).
The hike to the platform involved stairs, stairs, and more stairs. We just kept going up and up as I began to regret my heavy banana pancakes that were turning into a brick in my stomach. After about 20 minutes of steep stairs, we came to a cluster of hushed hikers, all standing at a low fence, intently watching two guys up on a feeding platform. There was already an orangutan with a baby headed for the platform. Apparently there are some days when no orangutans show up, so we were thrilled to see a mom and her frizzy little baby right off the bat!
|Hand over the bananas. Now. Please?|
The guys on the feeding platform told us that there was a juvenile female orangutan hanging around in the trees off in the distance, but she was staying back because she was afraid of the mama orangutan, who apparently has a bad temper. After mama and baby had eaten enough bananas, they swung through the trees and away from the platform, the adorable orange fuzzball clinging to its mommy's stomach. After they had moved away, the juvenile moved in closer, tentatively looking around as she moved. It was so fun to watch her move through the trees, sometimes hanging on by her hands and sometimes by her feet, equally comfortable either way.
|Right at home in the trees|
Eventually the young female, who the guys said was named Jackie, came right down to the feeding platform for some coconut milk. As she drank it, she continued eying her surroundings suspiciously, as though that mean mama (named "Meana") might pop up behind her at any second. After gulping a few cups of coconut milk, she grabbed a bunch of seven bananas, jammed the whole bundle into her mouth, and scooted back up into the trees as I laughed out loud.
|What was that sound?!|
Jackie moved up into the trees and sat a little ways off, in a place where she seemed to have a good vantage point of the forest around her. Up there, she looked much more at ease and the bananas were gone in no time.
When feeding time was over, the guys who had been doing the feeding climbed off the platform, leaving some banana scraps behind. There were still orangutans around- the mom and baby were visible in the tree off to our right, Jackie was in a tree to the left of the knot of observers, and another juvenile orangutan had swung into the scene. The new juvenile worked her way over to the platform to scavenge some leftovers just as a male pig-tailed macaque showed up to do the same thing. Despite the orangutan's obvious size advantage, the macaque was aggressive and made a few swipes at the orangutan, who seemed more amused than anything else. She placidly swung from the tree, munching on a banana as the macaque postured, swiped, and raised his eyebrows at her.
|Jamming those cheek pouches full!|
The macaque didn't hang around for long, perhaps because Meana and her baby were also heading toward the platform. It was nice to see the mom and baby again but the guides all kept shouting at everyone to move back, warning that Meana can be aggressive, so it was a little tense. Bryan and I moved toward the back of the crowd, but some of the people seemed unafraid and I kept thinking that they were behaving like they were at a zoo, where barriers protect the people. But...this was the jungle. If Meana decided she wanted to clobber someone, she could have easily done it. Anyway, Bryan got some good photos of her.
|Meana can be a little greedy with the grub.|
|Mom? Can I have a banana?|
|Pleeeeeeeeeeease?! Just one?!|
|Come on, Mom! You have like 10 of them!|
|YESSS!!! Finally! OMNOMNOM BEST BANANA EVER!|
Eventually it was time to get moving on our hike. We headed away from the platform and deeper into the forest. The reasons for requiring guides in the national forest were immediately apparent. Will was leading us along a path that we never would have been able to follow on our own- there were no markings or signs, and the underbrush was thick. If we'd lost Will and Pi'in, I think we probably would have just sat in the forest screaming until someone found us or we wasted away.
As we got deeper and deeper into the forest, all the sounds of the outside world dropped away and we could only hear forest sounds- gurgling streams, singing birds, screeching cicadas, the steady hum of mosquitoes, and leaves crunching underfoot. It made me think of how, sometimes when I'm at Bukit Timah I can hear the highway, or I can catch a glimpse of a mall's signboard through the trees. It was nice to be truly isolated in nature - being out and away from the city is something that Bryan and I really miss about living in America, where it was a lot easier to get away from the hustle and bustle.
|The gin and tonic tree|
Will was an excellent guide. He set a steady pace but we took lots of breaks, and he pointed out plenty of interesting stuff along the trail, aided by the sharp eyes of Pi'in. He showed us a tree where some of the bark had been cut away. He said that quinine can be extracted from the bark, and handed us each a piece to taste. It tasted like a gin and tonic, which I dislike. Will said that the locals brew up a tea with the bark and use it to treat malaria. I was silently grateful for my tasteless Mefloquine pills.
At one break, Will pulled some fruits out of his backpack and we enjoyed a mid-morning snack of passion fruit and bananas. We asked him a little about himself and his family, and learned that his father had also been a guide, and he had started teaching Will and Obiwan about the forest when they were very young. I asked him how many siblings he had and he said that he has a sister and brother now, but before the flood he had three sisters and two brothers. The 2003 flood had taken his parents as well. I was horrified that he had experienced something so awful and Bryan and I both choked out the inadequate sentiments that people recite when you learn something tragic about someone's life. Before long, we moved on.
The forest was peaceful but every once in awhile we could hear monkeys in the distance. However, because the foliage was so thick, we couldn't always see them even though they sounded close. We hiked all morning, up and down, up and down along muddy paths. It was tiring work, especially in such a humid climate, but we just kept on trucking.
|Me following Will|
Sometime around noon we heard voices up ahead and caught up with a couple of other groups of hikers who had stopped to watch some local wildlife- an orangutan and her baby relaxing right over the path, and a group of white-handed gibbons further back in the trees. The orangutans were great, but Bryan and I were ecstatic about the gibbons! We'd been hoping we might get the chance to glimpse some in the wild, and luck was on our side! Plus one of them had an insanely adorable little infant clinging on for dear life. One of the things I love about gibbons is that their big strong arms and their smaller, less muscular legs make them look like they were put together upside down. They were difficult to get photos of because they were in the backlit tree canopy, but Bryan did his best and we really enjoyed just getting the chance to watch them swing through the trees. I think the orangutans look a bit clumsy and awkward sometimes, what with their huge size and the way they kind of lumber around. The gibbons seemed particularly graceful in contrast.
|See that little baby arm reaching around her back?|
|At ease in the trees|
Eventually we stopped by a small stream for lunch. Will pulled brown paper-wrapped packets out of his bag and handed them around. Inside was my favorite! Nasi goreng...mmmm. We ate it with our fingers and Bryan and I polished off every last grain of rice. As we ate, we watched a couple of turtles in the stream. One was an overly friendly softshell turtle (specifically, I think it was a Malayan softshell) who kept hanging around like a begging dog. I love softshell turtles, and I call them portabella mushroom turtles because I think their shells look exactly like big mushroom caps. Man, turtles are awesome. The other turtle we saw was completely different, but I haven't been able to identify it for sure. I think it might be an Asian Leaf turtle.
|Apparently looking like a mushroom is great camouflage|
|I love the red scales on his front legs. He's like a dragon!|
|The sweaty couple|
|Nice place to relax|
We'd descended into a valley to get to the waterfall and now we had to climb our way back out. We spent awhile clambering up a muddy incline and Will promised that once we got to the top, we'd be done going up for the day. I cheered. Hooray! No more up!!! We ascended for awhile and then Will turned around, wide-eyed and said in a hushed whisper "Orangutan!" Sure enough, hanging directly over the path ahead was a female orang and her little baby. Will guided us in a wide berth around her and we emerged at a flat surface, overlooking an amazing view. We stopped for a break and Bryan snapped some photos of the orangutans back down the path. I felt so lucky that we'd spotted so many orangutans. Obiwan had warned us before we left that sometimes people go out and never spot a single one. We'd been incredibly lucky with all our sightings, and I credited the sharp eyes of Will and Pi'in. We'd gotten lucky with seeing babies too, but that's a little less surprising when you consider that young orangutans stay within visual contact of their mothers almost all the time for the first five years of their lives, so it wasn't as though all of the orangutans we saw with their moms had just been born.
|The nature photographer taking a break!|
|View into the valley|
|Everything was so green and vibrant!|
|Look at that fiery orange fur!|
|And those soulful eyes!|
When we headed away from the orangutans and the killer view, Will told us that it would only be about another hour to camp. I was feeling reinvigorated after our break and we all happily soldiered on. We had one more bonus for the day- funky monkeys! They're actually Thomas's langurs or Thomas's leaf monkeys, but they're locally referred to as funky monkeys because of their characteristic hairdo. What fantastic mohawks! They're so cute! And that baby?! So sweet.
We were going to be camping along the river, so that meant descending all the way down into a river valley. Again, we made our way downwards, toward the sound of rushing water. This part of the path was really steep and muddy. I wondered how we ever would have traversed it if it had been raining, but luckily we didn't have to find out. We finally emerged from the forest and into a campsite along the water. There was another group at that site, and Will said we'd be camping across the river. A bubbly, enthusiastic guy named Amad greeted us with a black inner tube and encouraged us to take our boots off. Once I was barefoot, he got me to plop down in the tube, told me to hold my boots up, and he jumped into the river, dragging me behind him in the tube. I had a moment of fear when he disappeared under the water, but he bobbed back up, laughing, and dragged me safely to shore on the other side of the river. Just like that, we were at camp! There were two structures- one tent was up on a hill and had sleeping mats in it and another structure was closer to the river and had a fire and delicious food smells wafting from it. It looked like Amad had been busy.
As soon as we got into camp, I went up into the woods, peeled off my sweaty clothes, tugged on my swimsuit, and raced down to the inviting river. I waded in and laid down in the cool, refreshing water. Just as I heaved a sigh of supreme satisfaction, the skies opened up and released a torrential rainforest downpour. Bryan was sitting on the shore with his feet in the water and we both laughed, grateful that the rain had held out long enough for us to reach camp. After such a hot, sweaty day, the cool rain was absolutely delightful.
After enjoying the rain and water for awhile, it began to get dark and we changed into dry clothes and got comfortable in the tent. Will made us some fantastic lime tea and we sipped it and chatted with him awhile. Before long, Pi'in and Amad came into the tent, carting tons and tons of dishes. They spread out all kinds of food on the floor of the tent and I was amazed at what they'd done over an open fire in the middle of the woods. Amad had lugged in all this kitchen stuff while we'd been hiking and he'd done amazing things with what he'd managed to carry to camp. I've never eaten so well on a camping trip in my life!
|Feast in the forest|
We ate until we were stuffed and almost as soon as I put down my fork I felt ready to go to sleep. But it was still early so I struggled to be sociable. Amad asked us if we knew any tricks and Bryan and I both laughed, a little confused by the question. Soon enough, we found out what he meant. Amad had a whole assortment of card tricks, which he began to show us, one after the other. Now Amad is an awesome chef, but as it turns out, he may have missed his calling as a performer because he was quite a showman and he had a serious library of tricks. Once he'd exhausted the card tricks, he pulled out a box of matches and began brain teasers. Bryan was pretty good at the brain teasers but they were clearly not my forte. Even with Will and Amad giving me generous hints, I was not doing so hot. What can I say? It was a long day. Let's see how you do:
|Move ONE matchstick and re-place it to make the equation true.|
Currently it says "1 + 1 + 11 = 130" and you can move and re-place one matchstick one time to make a true equation. You cannot break the matchstick. I'll post the solution when I post the next day of our trip. This was just one of Amad's many matchstick tricks, but I'm only going to post one- I can't ruin all his secrets!
After we did tricks and brain teasers for awhile, we taught Will and Amad how to play "Bullshit." Unfortunately, Pi'in didn't speak much English and our Bahasa is pretty limited to "Thank you" and "Good morning," but maybe sometime Will and Amad will teach him the rules. Anyway, he seemed to get a kick out of us shouting "BULLSHIT" at each other periodically. After a few rounds of our game, Will and Amad taught us to play a game called "Shithead" (it was a classy evening, what can I say?) and it was pretty fun too. But after a couple of rounds, I found myself struggling to keep my eyes open. Bryan and I ended up tucking in pretty early, and I slept like a baby despite the hard ground. Surprisingly, even after all our hiking, Bryan had trouble sleeping, but luckily the next day wouldn't be as demanding as the one we'd just had. The next day, we'd tube down the river!