Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sumatra Day Two: To the Bat Cave!

Our first morning in Sumatra, we woke up early to meet our driver.  We checked out of the Marriott and climbed into an SUV, then merged onto the busy city streets.  There were lots of cars mixed in with motorbikes, pedestrians, bicycles and motorcycles with sidecars.  The sidecar motorcycles functioned as taxis and were called "becaks."  Every time we travel to the countries outside of orderly Singapore, I'm taken aback by how unsafe transportation seems.  As we drove through the city, Bryan snapped some photos of precarious travelers.
The driver is back there somewhere behind that mound of produce
Medan police on benches in the back of a pickup truck
No seatbelt laws in Indonesia!

Outside of the main thoroughfare of the city we began passing miles and miles of palm oil plantations. Palm oil production had really picked up in Southeast Asia over the past couple of decades, and it's devastating for the environment.  Rainforests are clear-cut to make way for the plantations, destroying the delicate habitat of many species, including the orangutans.  Although the palm oil plantations make me feel sad, they also have a strange kind of beauty.  The trees are all aligned perfectly and when you drive by, geometrical patterns emerge from the perfectly straight lines of the trees, creating a kind of optical illusion.
Palm oil plantation

You know you're really out of the city when you have to start dodging the cows that are lounging in the middle of the street.  Lots of cows were grazing at the palm oil plantations, and many of them wandered out onto the road, where they stood, seemingly oblivious to the cars and motorbikes swerving around them at high speeds.
Playing chicken with the cows?
I think the oxen have the right of way...

Finally we emerged from the palm oil plantations and saw mountains and rainforest ahead of us.  After about two-and-a-hours, we'd reached Bukit Lawang, the town adjacent to Taman Nasional Gunung Leuseur, the national park where we were going trekking.  Our car was met by the guide that would take us into the park the next day, a soft-spoken guy named Wilfan (if you want to go into TNGL, a guide is required!).  Wilfan (aka "Will") was the brother of Obiwan (yes, like Star Wars), the guy who organizes a group of guides to lead treks into the national park (for more information, see
Welcome to Bukit Lawang!
Will schlepping our bag to the inn

We planned to spend the day exploring Bukit Lawang, then spend the night at the Jungle Inn before heading into the national park on an overnight camping trip.  Obiwan met us at the Jungle Inn and said that there'd been a mix-up with our room and he'd have to upgrade us to the honeymoon suite for free!!  Woo hoo!  Bryan and I had gone from being exiled from one hotel for not being married to getting upgraded to the honeymoon suite at another!  Our room was fabulous- it was at the top of a long outdoor staircase, and it had a porch that wrapped around two sides.  One side of the porch was abutted against the jungle, and the other looked over the lovely Bahorok River with the national park on the opposite side.  There was a big, four-poster bed, a cozy hammock, and all the furniture looked handmade.
Jungle hideaway
Jungle Inn honeymoon suite
Love the stained glass windows
Too bad there's no hot water : )
Next to the bed
Comfy porch

We dropped our stuff at our room then headed back down to the Jungle Inn's cafe to get some lunch and to discuss our camping trip the next day.  Lunch was great but everything around us was so fascinating and thrumming with life that Bryan kept jumping up and wandering off to snap a photo every few bites.

After lunch and talking with Obiwan, we headed back up to our room.  The view was so fantastic that we decided just to lounge around on the porch for a couple of hours to see if we could spot any wildlife.  Our efforts were rewarded almost immediately when we spotted a group of long-tailed macaques swinging through the trees right next to our porch.  Upon closer examination, we spotted an unusual-looking monkey in their midst.  They appeared to be keeping company with a single pig-tailed macaque.  How strange!  I laid back and observed the monkeys from the comfort of the hammock as Bryan snapped photos.  Before long I heard him call me, and I turned around and saw the the monkeys were making themselves at home on our porch!  He also spied a fat monitor lizard sunning himself on a roof below our porch.
Pig-tailed macaque
Long-tailed macaque hanging out on our porch
Not sure why I look about 11 years old in this picture
Clouded monitor

After enjoying our front-row seat to the jungle for a couple of hours, we decided to head out and explore the town.  Obiwan had advised us to check out the Bat Cave, so we set off in that direction.  We made our way toward a big suspension bridge to cross over the river.
Bukit Lawang suspension bridge
The bridge and the Bahorok River

We crossed the bridge.  It looked sturdy from the shore, but once you were on it, it swayed easily in the breeze.  I thought its position high above the river would make Bryan worried since he's afraid of heights, but he managed it quite well.  And the view was great!  They must not get a lot of foreigners wandering around on the other side of the bridge because as soon as we crossed over, people became much more interested in us.  People called out greetings ("Hello Mister!!!") and waved like they were greeting old friends.  We were stopped by giddy groups of teenage girls, asking us to pose for photos with them.  They snapped picture after picture with cell phones, then scurried off, giggling with each other.  Others shook our hands.  It was all slightly hilarious to us- now I know how a celebrity must feel!  This had happened to me in Kenya before, but then I was in a place where white tourists rarely ventured.  Why here?  There were plenty of white folks headed for the national park.  And our white skin wasn't as conspicuous in Sumatra as it had been in Kenya.  It was all very strange.

Although cavorting with the locals was entertaining, we were having a heck of a time finding the Bat Cave.  Everyone spoke enough English to ask us for photos, but our inquiries about the location of the cave were met with nervous giggles and replies of "Not much English!"  It was all right though, because exploring was fun.  We stumbled upon a second, smaller, and much more treacherous bridge, and some sheep, one of which seemed to be harboring some hostility toward Bryan. I think the sheep had it out for Bryan because it knew Bryan wasn't a vegetarian.  I'm pretty sure that was what was going on.
Rickety bridge over the river
Sheep headed straight for Bryan

We crossed the big bridge a few times, asking people for directions along the way.  Eventually an older guy who spoke pretty good English got us headed in the right direction and we emerged in an open, green space with a sign that said "Area Flying Fox" and some long-tailed macaques high up in the trees.  It was quieter back in the wooded area, away from the river and the bustle of people and angry sheep.  We followed signs for the Bat Cave past a scenic little eco-lodge, some gardens, a couple of open-air restaurants, and eventually to a rubber plantation.

As we weaved our way along a path by one of the gardens, Bryan grasped my arm and said in a hushed voice, "What IS that?!" pointing to one side of the path.  I looked up and saw...what WAS that thing?!  It looked like a man-beast! After careful inspection and some hushed debate, we concluded that it was a big male pig-tailed macaque.  I'd become so used to the relatively petite Singaporean long-tailed macaques that it was hard for me to believe this creature was part of the same genus.  He was huge!  And despite the fact that we were at least 20 yards away from him, he appeared annoyed by our presence, raising his eyebrows in a threatening expression.  We backed off a little bit and watched him for awhile before he moved on.
I don't think he likes us...

It was interesting to see the things growing in the garden, since we don't see a whole lot of agriculture going on in Singapore.  They had pineapples, and I was struck again by how strange it is to see them growing out of the ground.
Pineapple in the garden
Leaf spout

The rubber plantation was fascinating.  The bark had been cut away from the trees and viscous white sap was running into strategically placed coconut shells.  I never would have imagined that this was what natural rubber looked like.  In some places, leaves had been jammed into the bark so that the white stuff would run down the leaves and then drip into the shell.  It was interesting to see a harvesting process that utilized so many natural tools!

When we were coming out of the rubber plantation we heard a big commotion that sounded like a group of angry pig-tailed macaques.  We looked around to see if we could spot them but instead we found this cute little lizard guy!  I think he's an earless agamid.
Green guy

Just as the skies darkened overhead and the thunder rumbled nearer and nearer, we reached the Bat Cave.  We paid the cheap entrance fee to some guys relaxing in a hut and headed off down a steep muddy path.  We had to do a little bit of scrabbling over rocks and climbing up homemade ladders to get to the main entrance of the cave, which smelled strongly of guano.  It was cool and dark down by the caves, which was welcome after all the walking.
Bryan on his way to the Bat Cave!
Lookin' stylish with the headlamp

We explored the cave awhile.  It was massive inside and there were a few bats flying around.  It was really dark inside so we didn't do much photography.  While we were inside it began storming outside.  Although the cave was great protection from the storm, I got a little claustrophobic thinking about what would happen if there was a flash flood (it wouldn't be the first flash flood in Bukit Lawang).  Despite my fears, the cave stayed dry until we were all finished poking around.
Stalactites inside the cave
In the cave entrance

Once satisfied with our spelunking, we emerged into the rain and decided to head back into town for some food.  It was pouring but we popped out our umbrellas.  Bryan's umbrella was damaged (I swear he uses them for swordfighting or something) so we traded umbrellas so he could use my fully functioning one to keep the camera dry.  As we passed by people on the path, I spotted some grins in Bryan's direction- he did look a little silly with my pink, heart-patterned umbrella!  In order to get out of the rain, we agreed to stop at the first place that appeared to be serving food.  It happened to be the eco-lodge, and we were grateful to duck into their covered dining area.  As soon as we sat down, two friendly cats hopped into our laps and made themselves at home.  It was cozy here, sipping Cokes in the warm, dry dining room with a cat purring away on my lap.  Bryan had some chicken and rice and I scarfed down another plate of tasty nasi goreng as we watched gecko battles playing out on the walls.

After dinner we continued weaving our way back toward the Jungle Inn.  We spotted a group of long-tailed macaques on the way, and some more sheep, and a few more locals stopped and asked us for photos.  We also paused briefly on the bridge to watch the kids tubing down the river.  This appeared to be a favorite past-time of the kids in the town- there were always wet kids racing up the banks of the river with black inner tubes, then jumping in and screeching as they zoomed down the river.  It looked great.
Hello Mister!

Bryan got this shot just as this lamb leaped into the air!

It was growing dark by the time we got back to the inn.  We got a couple of Bintang beers and took them up to our room.  I took a quick shower and as I walked out of the bathroom I shrieked!  A fat brown rat had run across the floor and hid behind a stand of shelves on the other side of the room!  Now I know that for most people, a rat in their hotel room would be a dealbreaker.  But you have to consider the following things: 1) We were IN the jungle.  It was RIGHT outside our window.  A little wildlife is hardly shocking.  2) There had been monkeys on our porch earlier and we had been ecstatic about that.  It seemed silly to complain about a rat when we were welcoming monkeys. 3) The local people have experienced a lot of hardship.  In 2003, a flash flood swept through and killed 230 people in the small village.  In light of all of these things, I would have felt like a spoiled rotten city girl if I'd gone to the front desk to complain about a little rat in our room.  Besides, if I'd seen the same rat while out on a hike I totally would have been excited about it!  But I didn't want to sleep with it in the room, so I recruited Bryan to chase it away.  And he totally came to my rescue and scooted it out the door.

A while later, we were lying in bed reading when I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye.  "IT'S BACK!!!!!" I shouted!  Bryan eyed me warily.  I'd been jumpy ever since I first saw the rat, and no doubt he thought I was imagining things.  But he inspected the room thoroughly as I stood on the bed, and he found nothing.  Not knowing what else to do, we settled back down, read some more, and went to sleep.

In the middle of the night, I went from horizontal to vertical in about half a second.  "SOMETHING RAN OVER ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" I squealed.  I had been lying down and something had run right across my chest.  I had opened my eyes just in time to see a dark blur.  Bryan was up and confused, again thinking that I'd lost my mind.  He turned on the lights and poked around a little bit.  On the floor in one corner he found a granola bar, with the wrapper gnawed open and about half of a bar eaten.  I continued standing on the bed, looking around like a crazed lunatic.  I know it's unlike me to flip out about animals- for goodness sakes, there was a huge gecko hanging out under our bed, and I was totally cool with him.  But something about that rat running right over me had really set me on edge.
Our gecko friend.  What's not to like?  He kept to himself AND he ate mosquitoes!

Anyway, we couldn't find the rat.  No doubt my shrieking had sent him deep into hiding.  Bryan put his other granola bars in a place he thought would be out of reach and I laid down, clutching my headlamp.  I heard so many things going bump in the night but I tried to take deep breaths and eventually I fell asleep again, and managed to sleep the rest of the night without having any wild creatures racing around on the bed.  However, in the morning, I got some validation.  I hadn't been hallucinating.  Apparently the rat had somehow managed to get Bryan's granola bar, despite his attempts at putting them out of reach.  The rat had hung out under our bed and swallowed up both of the bars in the packet.  It must have been such a huge find for him.  I figured he was off somewhere, napping like I would after a big Thanksgiving dinner.

So our second day in Bukit Lawang extended into the night with the adventures of our friend the Jungle Rat.  But he was all forgotten in the morning, because we had big plans!

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