Dragging ourselves away from the orangutans, we started off on the trek through the jungle.
A trek through the Sumatran jungle has always sounded quite romantic and adventurous, but in reality it was hard work. Having a long-term dislike of the gym and exercise and a penchant for junk food probably didn’t help me either.
Nonetheless, I powered on, following Obiwan and Cucumber as they led us down slippery paths of mud and moss and up steep inclines, the path often no more than a 10-centimetre wide clearing on the ground, invisible to those unfamiliar with the area.
We were looking for jungle wildlife – orangutans, monkeys, birds, insects – but the two of them were like monkeys themselves. With my fellow trekkers, Andy and Alex, we watched in amazement as they leaped over logs, slid gracefully down hills and swung off ropes of liana vines hanging from the trees. We, on the other hand, stumbled and scraped our way along the track.
As Obiwan keenly searched the foliage above and around us for signs of animal life, Cucumber regaled us with stories of life in Bukit Lawang, and grilled us about life abroad. But Obiwan chimed in with what had to be the story of the day.
His father had been a guide in the area and Obiwan had accompanied him on many treks since he was a young child. Once, while walking through the jungle, he and his father had spotted a Sumatran tiger. When I asked them what they did he replied that, after he’d almost peed his pants with fear, they kept still for a very long time until the tiger moved on. Scary.
Fortunately – or unfortunately – we would be seeing no tigers on our trek today. There are estimates that there are less than 500 Sumatran tigers in the wild, with Gunung Leuser National Park having the largest population at just over 100 (according to Wikipedia). Illegal poaching and deforestation are the biggest threats to these beautiful animals.
As well as the elusive Sumatran tiger, the one million hectare Gunung Leuser National Park is home to the Sumatran elephant, the Sumatran rhinoceros, orangutans, and nine species of monkeys.
We continued on through the jungle and eventually made it down a very steep embankment to where we would be stopping for lunch – a small waterfall dropping into two levels of pools. Here, Cucumber pulled out of his backpack small parcels wrapped in banana leafs. Opening them, we ate still-warm nasi goreng with our hands, the delicious flavours of the rice filling our empty bellies and giving us a much-needed boost for the rest of the trek.
After a cool dip, we continued on. Obiwan had appeared distracted through much of the trek and when we asked him if there was anything wrong, he told us his heartbreaking story.
In 2003, a flash flood ripped through Bukit Lawang, washing away most of the houses and infrastructure, and killing over 200 people. Obiwan was asleep at the time, in his house with nine other people. He was the only survivor.
Obiwan was in hospital for a month and for that entire time he had no idea what had happened to his family. When he got out, he worked to rebuild his house.
Then in 2006, Mother Nature struck again when a landslide washed his house away. Again, he rebuilt the house with his hands. The week before I arrived in Bukit Lawang, another landslide had come crashing down the mountain above his house, spewing mud which now lay in a thick coating through his whole house. The clean up effort – and work to contain the cleared land above – required the hire of equipment for a price that was out of his means.
It was devastating to hear. Much of the damage has been blamed on illegal loggers in the area.
We continued the rest of the trek in contemplative silence, each of us wondering what we could do to help.
This part of the hike was much harder than the first section – something I hadn’t thought even possible after sweating my way through the start. Finally, after what seemed like endless hours of struggling upwards, slipping down hills, muddying ourselves and grabbing on for dear life to the thick roots of trees, we staggered through an opening in the jungle onto the rocky banks of the river.
The cool water of the river was a much welcome relief. We scrubbed the mud off ourselves and ate juicy, sweet pineapple (there’s nothing like fresh fruit in Asia) before we clambered aboard a series of rubber tyres tied together as a makeshift raft.
We held on as we were washed back to the town by the flow of the river, crashing over small rapids and avoiding the rocks scattered through the river. Our guides expertly avoided smashing into the small cliffs on the side of the river.
Obiwan’s story had certainly made it a sobering day – and we were determined to help him somehow – but it couldn’t change the fact that it had been an incredible one.
Next up is part four – and the final chapter – of my time in Bukit Lawang.