Location: Sumatra, Indonesia
Date: June 2017
Sumatra is relatively unexplored for me. It’s so close to home (Singapore), perhaps too close. For some reason, it has just never been at the top of my list.
But a chance encounter with two Brazilian permaculturists and yogis in Thailand led me to a short stint of teaching yoga at a resort in Lake Toba, which is where this story starts.
Sumatra is so underrated. Its highlands is a top agricultural producer with some of the most sought after coffee beans in the world and the best avocadoes I’ve tasted (and so affordable!). Every car ride was filled with smoking volcanoes, cocoa plants, peanuts, palm, tea, corn, and more visual feasts than the eyes could take in.
I mean – a city like Berastagi has got to be serious about its agriculture when its top tourist attraction is a cabbage monument right? Don’t forget to visit the fruit market when you’re there.
Canvasing the scenic hills of Lake Toba against the backdrop of roaring volcanic giants Sinabung and Sibayak, I met a spunky cyclist – Olga. She had been cycling through Myanmar, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and found herself in Indonesia.
Not only has she become a faithful yoga student, but she is also a film maker who survived and did disaster relief for the earthquake in Nepal while shooting a documentary in the Himayalan mountains.
She said, “I want to go to Ketambe and find orang utans!”
I had no clue where Ketambe was on the map, but it sounded adventurous enough after a month of a relatively regular routine.
On top of that, it sounded pretty off the beaten path. Most tourists go to Bukit Lawang to join packaged tours, but Ketambe, she said, is for the real travelers. You try to spot wild orang utans instead of rehabilitated ones.
Ketambe is actually located in Aceh province, which is governed by its own Shariah law.
Admittedly, I have always loved local – the more off the beaten track, the better.
But of late, I start to ask more questions about the level of comfort and service that I have come to expect of professional operators.
So when I first read the TripAdvisor reviews of Jhony Jungle Ketambe, I had doubts.
Plastic tents? Sleeping on thin mats? Muddy, slippery slopes? Mosquitoes and leeches? And what kind of guesthouse doesn’t have hot water?
The great outdoors used to be my home; but in recent years, I would probably classify myself as a happy glamper rather than a rough-it-out camper.
Still, I took a deep breath and went along. Because, if not now, then when?
From crossing waist-high rivers and climbing over fallen trees to swinging on lianas like orang utans and jumping into waterfalls, every day was a real jungle adventure.
You know all those treks you go on with well-maintained routes and designated spots? None of that here. The forest is dense, and unforgiving.
Each time I looked ahead and thought: “but there is no road”, the guide kept going and we kept following. Each time I slipped and nearly fell, I asked: “Are my shoes are too big? Is my bag is too heavy?” But then, the truth is: “Don’t think, just walk. Trust your feet.”
We had so much help from our great guides along the way, but I loved how au naturale the days went by.
Orang Utans are especially difficult to spot because they love hanging and sleeping in tall trees. You have to hike up to get close to them, and they move much slower than expected with careful, impactful movements.
But the most memorable encounter was witnessing a Orang Utan mother with her small, tiny child clinging onto her as she swung from tree to tree.
Finally settling on a branch, she begins to build her nest. She extends her strong long arms in a slow, controlled manner. She pulls and breaks branches within arm’s length, and places them under her butt. Slowly, the mother and child goes out of sight, completely covered by branches and leaves. If not for the guides’ keen sense of sight and smell, you would never know that they were there, chilling in their nest.
My love-hate relationship with the tropical outdoors continues, because the mosquitoes and leeches cause so much suffering at the end.
As I sit here now with huge welts on my arms, I cannot help but wonder why I find myself in the wilderness over and over again.
Shinrin-yoku – perhaps that’s what this is. As you walk in the jungle, you hear only the sounds of lively birds, playful Thomas’ Leaf monkeys, gushing waterfalls, and the breeze in the trees.
You come to learn about how everything in nature is somehow designed as one system. It is difficult to find the same peace and strength as when you are in the company of the amazing energy of nature and wildlife.
So here I am, sitting in the Medan airport with my backpack, my boots and my yoga mat, feeling utterly exhausted once again by this adventure. I have missed the last flight out from being stuck a terrible jam in the mountainous roads and torrential rain, and going to overstay my visa-free period once again.
Is this worth it?
After every adventure, I say, never again. Then I jump headfirst into yet another adventure that is often as random, as spontaneous.
I guess it is worth it then.
P.s. If you’re interested to do wildlife spotting in Indonesia, do look out for what kind of experience you’re looking for. It’s very different if your focus is to shoot orang utans in action, trek in the jungle or ride an elephant. If you just want to see or take really good photos of Orang Utans, you don’t have to trek or camp in the jungle. The level of comfort can range from barely basic to luxury, just a matter of cost and authenticity.