Friday 19 October 2012

Bukit Kencur Trekking - North Sumatra, Indonesia

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It poured torrential sheets of rain the night before creating mudslides and an ever dampening environment, 10 minutes in I was soaked to the bone with sweat, and the leeches were so bad we had to douse our legs in tobacco water and tuck out pants into our socks and still we found them sucking our blood. Welcome to our Sumatran jungle trek.

That may not sound like a great way to describe such a great adventure, but let me be clear: despite all of that it was an experience like no other, and that’s a good thing!

Stuck between a choice to visit the jungle where the animals were semi-wild (due to the orangutan sanctuary and fairly consistent tourism), versus an area where they were wild, we chose the wild option with full knowledge that we wouldn’t see as much, but what we did see would be in its natural habitat. So while our Orangutan sightings were reserved for the sanctuary alone, we did manage to see the lushest jungle I have ever laid eyes, in real life and in my imagination along with a smattering of small wildlife, a 4-meter python and about 2 thousand+ bats. 

We started our day with a 30 minute motorcycle ride, and if I thought the narrow, cracked, and down-right torn up paths of Bukit Lawang were difficult to navigate on foot ... well I got a wake-up call when I perched on the back of a tiny Indonesian man's tiny Indonesian bicycle and every muscle in my body tensed as every 23 seconds I was sure I was going to go flying off the back of this thing while we maneuvered our way through the boulder like streets. Talk about adventure, and I hadn't even left the village yet.

Half an hour later I peeled myself off the back of Bike's bike (yes, the guides name was Bike, and his assistant guide/chef/jungle hacker was Chili), and my legs wobbled beneath me thanks to hanging on for dear, sweet life. Luckily we had a quick breather to pack some supplies before heading into the jungle, so by the time we actually set off I was raring to go.

To get to our "little" section of jungle that we would call home for the next 2 days, we were able to pass through a working rubber plantation and got to see the interesting (and painstakingly slow) method they use to harvest and collect natural rubber.  I didn't get a great photo but this wiki will at least give you some background, if you're interested. It was fascinating and humbling and a great lead in to our journey.

jungle fungus is cool

To get anywhere in the Sumatran jungle, you go up, or you go down, and if you want to cover any distance at all you do both, several times over.  And these are no gentle slopes either my friends - these are essentially walls made of earth and I still cannot decide if going up or down is better - one's harder, one's 1256 times scarier.  But it's always worth it. At the bottom you're often rewarded with a cool river to wash your grime smeared sweat face (trekking is sexy), and at the top you get a view, a rest, or both.

What a perfect place for lunch!

After a few good hours of trekking (and one exciting side excursion to track some white headed gibbons that the guides could hear in the area) we lunched at the waterfall of my dreams on beautifully greasy Nasi Goreng. That was one of the times where you literally have to take a moment to think about where you are, pinch yourself, convince yourself it's real and then giggle like a made thing because you're actaully having lunch in the depths of the jungle, in Sumatra, next to a waterfall and with all the pinching and convincing you still don't quite believe it. I repeated this process several time throughout the week. I'm lucky, I'm fortunate, I know it, I'm thankful for it.

After a supremely scenic lunch (oh who am I kidding, look at these photos, it was all scenic!) it was on to the campsite! I'm still amazed at how our guide managed to know his way through the trail-less jungle. Sometimes he would veer sharply off what appeared to be a slight trail into nothingness that he had to hack his way through with a straight blade he had slung around his hips - amazing. But low and behold, an hour later we were nestled in along the banks of a river that would be our resting place over night.

we stink.

Once we settled in we wasted no time in going for a swim and then hunting for the world's largest (and quite rare) flower, the Rafflesia - we found it, but sadly it hadn't yet bloomed.

our swimming hole

The evening passed pleasantly with a delicious meal, some chatter, a whole lot of jungle noise, and a bit of frog and nightlife hunting.  Attempting to sleep with the nightly noises of the jungle wasn't necessarily the most restful experience, but it certainly was a cool one (if you could get past the guide snoring like a transport truck).

pre-bloomed Rafflesia

Day 2 proved to hold the most exciting adventure of the journey yet ... the bat cave! This was a bit of a side journey that the guides had mentioned while walking the day before and we leapt at the chance, especially since it was only going to take use about 15 minutes off "trail". This little excursion was easily the most challenging part of the trek as it involved a very steep, very muddy decent, with very tired limbs.  We luckily managed to get away with just a few stumbles and were rewarded at the bottom with a cave entry that was about 1 metre tall and 1/2 a metre wide... which we crawled through for about 10 metres - it felt really real at this point.

Coming out the other side of the tunnel we stepped into a cavernous area that had a sliver of light coming from above, more than enough to see with for now, and luckily too, because as soon as the last person stepped out, the guide pointed to a spot about a foot above our heads on the wall where a python (estimated to be about 4 metres long) slithered past and into its home. Terrifying. Cool. Let's go deeper into the cave, shall we?

The next bit involved a lot of guano (read: bat poo) and jumping down into caves with eerily soft landings, but once we got passed that delightfulness, we were in the main entry of the bat cave system, and it was amazing! Well underground at this point we could just see the enormous space we were in, and several other "rooms" that led off it. Have you ever wondered what it sounds like when you wake up several thousand resting bats? Let me tell you ... crashing waves of thunder. It was astonishing, and more then a little startling, and as cool as it was, I was also very happy to be out again some 10 minutes later.  It was all visions of vampire bats making nests in my hair, and once those images flap through your brain there is just no going back.

hiked it!

The rest of the day passed much like the first, and by mid-afternoon with several ups, downs and another motorcycle ride under our belts we were happily showered and napped and ready for the next!

This trek was easily a highlight, and if you ever make it to the area I couldn't recommend it enough... I would happily return to do it all again without question. We benefited from having to very capable guides, one who used to be a former hunter (he once saw a Sumatran Tiger about 20 feet away from and peed himself - I don't blame him at all) and managed the entire trek barefoot - leeches and all. As I said at the beginning of the post, and is really the best way to describe this adventure ... this experience was like no other! Thank you Bukit Kencur.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Welcome to the Jungle: Hanging out in North Sumatra

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Did you think I had up and abandoned you? I hope not! It's been my goal since starting this little blog to post once a week, at minimum, and well it's obviously been a bit longer than that. Sorry. Sort of. You see I've been off in Indonesia for the last week and I didn't quite get a post up before leaving. Forgive me? What if you look into that sweet Orangutan face? I thought so... keep reading because there is more where that came from!

Welcome to the Jungle! It’s an oft-heard quip by locals who are wittily channeling their inner Guns and Roses fan boys and girls. But welcomed to the jungle we were! With a week off of work for the National Day holiday, Other Half and I flew off to Sumatra in Indonesia to see what we could see.  We started our journey in Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra and had planned on moving from there down to Berastagi to hike up a volcano. That didn’t quite come to pass however as we were quickly became charmed by the tiny village and the slow pace that we decided a few days of rest and relaxation among the sights and sounds of the jungle would do us just fine instead.

Bukit Lawang

Bukit Lawang is essentially a village that has prospered through tourism, with the main draw being the Gunung Leuser National Park Orangutan Sanctuary.  Coving approximately 950 thousand hectares, the National Park originally opened the Rehabilitation Centre in the early 1970’s to help orangutans that had been released from captivity, teaching them the necessary skills to survive in the wild along with protecting the orangutan population from hunting and deforestation.

Sumatra wasn’t originally on our (albeit rough and ever-changing) “to see” list when we arrived in China, but with a strong recommendation from a couple who went last year, and our original plans foiled by skyrocketed flight costs - it quickly leapt onto our radar and we found ourselves anticipating the trip more than either of us would have thought.

Bat Cave - Entrance and Interior

We spent the week exploring the jungle, visiting the rehabilitation centre, poking around bat caves (no Alfred’s or bat-mobiles in sight), and finding the lazier spots along the rushing Bohorok river to swim and lounge. We also happily indulged in fresh fruit juices and smoothies on a daily basis, ate enough Nasi Goreng (Indonesian Fried Rice) to last us a life time and discovered that our guest house had the greatest banana pancake/crepe concoctions this side of the Seine. 

Our humble abode for the week

But of course, it wasn’t without its adventures here and there.  There was no hot water, which after a two day trek (more on that in another post) means no mercy for getting the stink off and with no running water to the toilets there was a rather awkward moment when we had to discover what to do with our, um, waste.  Other Half also managed to snap a picture of a cheeky little monkey darting into our room and snatching my new sarong (you know, instead of stopping the monkey for instance – in his favour, he did rescue it from the roof later when the monkey dropped it after realizing it wasn’t food).

Making his way in to steal our stuff!
Long tailed macaque and Thomas Leaf Money

All in all a great week and whether it was because it was never on my radar, or the exotic sights, sounds and names of things around me, there were many points throughout the past week where I had to pinch myself to remember that I really was hanging out in the Sumatran jungle.  

Did you know that this is how pineapples grow? I did not. This fascinates me.


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