By Bianca Caruana
There are few places on this earth that present us with such an array of rich biodiversity that our vision beholds views of innate flora and fauna in whichever direction we cast our eyes. Not too far from Australian shores, there is a place that embellishes one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the world, not too far behind that of South America’s miraculous Amazon Rainforest. That place is the Gunung Leuser National Park, situated upon Indonesia’s own largest island, Sumatra.
While many of us speak of the Amazon and its wonders, it’s a rare occurrence to hear one speak of the Gunung Leuser and the hundreds of species of mammals, birds and reptiles that roam its impenetrable forests, including endemic species such as the Sumatran tiger and Sumatran orangutan. Sumatra has the second-largest concentration of orangutan in the world, and while its neighboring island of Borneo is suffering from the raging fires of greed and prosperity, the Gunung Leuser maintains some refuge with federal laws that prohibit destructive encroachment.
Getting to the Gunung Leuser
Two buses and four hours lands you in the midst of Sumatra’s central tourist destination for orangutan sightings. Bukit Lawang, the gateway to the Gunung Leuser National Park, is located 73 kilometres west of the island’s capital of Medan.
The juxtaposition between the two areas is remarkable. You start your journey veering through masses of cars, buses, motorbikes and anything with a set of wheels. You hear loud horns while taking in the sight of thousands of people going about their daily lives in the bustling capital. Not long into the journey, however, the noises subdue and you pass through small towns of traditional Indonesian houses encompassed by palm trees and endless plantations, until you arrive at the small, nonchalant town of Bukit Lawang.
This riverside town is located alongside the banks of the raging Bohorok River. Many locals make their living here through tourism, and you can find a number of jungle-themed guesthouses for half the price of the main tourist spots throughout Indonesia, including $10 per night for a family room at The Rainforest Guesthouse. Ex-poachers and loggers now play an important role as guides in the forest with the increased income drawn in from those wanting a glimpse of the infamous Sumatran orangutan.
We join a two-day, one-night tour through The Rainforest Guesthouse, one of the oldest locally-operated guesthouses in the area. Nella and her family built the guesthouse after devastating floods swept through the area in 2003, leaving a deep fracture in the town’s tourism industry and social and economic development. Nowadays you barely witness the remnants of a harsh time, rather a sea of smiles and welcomes wherever you go.
Discovering the Gunung Leuser
Embarking on a steep path through thick vegetation, using intertwined roots of the tallest trees as steps through the forest, we trek through the Gunung Leuser heading deeper into her core and into the home of the orangutan. As solitary creatures, we look high into the trees for a slight rustle of branches, or the partial image of the brown primate that calls this place home.
Soon after, we see movement. Up ahead is a large female carrying a baby. She sits on a branch in the tops of one of the shorter trees and watches curiously at us. Brave and hungry, she climbs down to greet us. Mina is a semi-wild female who was released here many years ago after being rescued from the wildlife trade. Since then she has beared two young in the wild, one that stays by her side and another who is almost ready to leave her. Her eldest, an eight-year-old female, is at the age where a young leaves her mother. Orangutans spend 6-to-8 years by their mother’s side.
During the trek we see six different orangutans, some wild and cautious, others semi-wild and inattentive. We encounter the grey, mohawked Thomas's langur, both black and white-handed wild gibbons, the cheeky long-tailed macaque, pig-tailed macaque and water monitors. At night we dine on a generous Indonesian jungle dinner under candlelight in our wooden shacks, under a sky full of the brightest of stars. Our chatter and the rainforest's night dwellers is the only thing heard.
The next day on our way back to Bukit Lawang we encounter more orangutans and wildlife. The descent is steep, but we are rewarded at the end with a river tubing adventure down the Bohorok River. I look around at the beautiful surroundings, and admire how deep into the jungle we have ventured.
I wonder why a place so untouched and pristine as this has not been invaded by the plague of tourism that sweeps through similar destinations. If the boom was approaching, it would be approaching fast and the locals would be ready for it. Yet they are thriving off the industry, without exploiting it. They have concerns for the animals and the rainforests at-heart, which makes this place all the more wonderful to explore.
Ins and outs
Bianca is a freelance writer from Sydney, Australia with a strong passion for responsible tourism, fair trade and community development. She has travelled to 40 countries and has spent the past year travelling through south east and southern Asia sharing stories of goodwill and finding ways that we can travel ethically and responsibly around the globe.