Seeing Orangutans in Sumatra: A Travel Guide
The hardest thing about travelling in Indonesia is working out where to go. When Anjali and I arrived back in Jakarta, we were tired and hungry. All of our clothes were dirty and –
We had no plan!
Indonesia is huge: the distance from the very western tip of Sumatra all the way to the edge of Papua is the equivalent of London to Baghdad… Imagine having to pick just one of the thousands of different travel destinations. It was impossible!
Finally we decided on two things: orangutans and the Banda Islands in South Maluku. The next hurdle – figuring out how to do everything. Lonely Planet gave us recommendations but other travellers’ blogs proved much more valuable. Hence this post, in the hopes that it will inspire other people to make a similar trip.
Most people who want to see orangutans in Indonesia go to Bukit Lawang in Sumatra or Tanjung Putih National Park, Kalimantan. Both of these are rehabilitation centres which means the chances of seeing orangutans are high and the tourist infrastructure is well-organised. Anjali and I wanted to see orangutans in the wild and so we dismissed both of these options. Instead we found Wisma Cinta Alam: a guesthouse in Ketambe, on the outskirts of Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra.
Wisma Cinta Alam was the first guesthouse to set up in Ketambe and has excellent reviews. The owner, Johann, seemed friendly over the phone and was very helpful in advising the best way to get to Ketambe. He organises a three day trek for 1,800,000 IDR for two people (£50 each person) and provides all equipment and a guide.
Getting There and Away
Ketambe is a seven hour drive from Medan Airport or, in our case, a half hour journey on a tiny propellor airplane. There were only nine seats and we were right behind the pilot! It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on a flight. The plane is run by Susi Air and costs 330,000 IDR (£17). It runs every Monday and Friday; tickets can be booked on the phone or when you arrive at the airport. The plane flies to Kutacane, an hour from Ketambe, but your guesthouse should be able to pick you up.
To return to Medan, we took a shared taxi for 200,000 IDR (£12). They run every day in the evening and early morning and your guesthouse will be able to organise it for you. We took the overnight taxi and were dropped outside the Damri bus terminal at 4.30 AM. Damri runs buses to the airport every hour for 30,000 IDR (£2).
At 4.30, it was cold and dark and there were groups of scary looking men standing around on the street corners. We were meant to spend the whole day exploring Medan. After an hour of wandering around wondering when shops would open we decided to flee to the safety of the airport instead. We sat there for ten hours.
We arrived at Wisma Cinta Alam late afternoon and were initially a bit taken aback at how disorganised the guesthouse was. Johann, the owner, seemed friendly. He also seemed incredibly high and both Anjali and I started off feeling extremely uncomfortable. (Later, he redeemed himself by helping us figure out to get back to Medan after our trek). It wasn’t the best way to start a trip into the jungle – we sent off SOS messages to my dad making sure at least someone knew where we were.
But, in the end, it all worked out. After all, this is Indonesia. What is life without a bit of chaos?
Udin, our guide, was a young Indonesian who had grown up around the forests and knew the trails like the back of his hand. With his off-key singing and enthusiasm, he made our trip. We spent each evening playing cards and laughing over everything. He found us the best spots to camp, made Anj a walking stick and carved birds out of sandalwood. If you can’t get him, ask for Putra; another guide who joined us most evenings for our card games and spoke amazing English.
But of course, the true highlight of the trip were the orangutans.
On our first day we spent an hour chasing after a male as he swung from tree to tree, branches and leaves falling down in his wake. But it wasn’t until the third day that we really got up and close with them . As we walked back to the guesthouse, hot and sweaty and in desperate need of a shower, Udin suddenly stopped. Following his pointed hand, we looked above our heads and… There they were, a mother and her baby and a young male that was attempting to woo her. We watched him chase her through the jungle and could almost persuade ourselves that he was calling after her, begging her for just one chance. She stopped and settled onto a branch and the baby crept towards him. Anj was convinced that the male was the baby’s father and that he was trying to persuade his parents to get back together. And indeed as he went back and forth between them, you could imagine she was right.
For a while, everything was fine. The baby swung like a mad-man, round and round upside down on his spindly branch and we cooed over how cute he was, laughed at how his fur stood like he had been electrocuted and then –
BAM. He fell from the tree.
I can’t fully explain how everyone’s hearts stopped in that moment. The baby had fallen! And he was crying – a high thin plaintive sound. His mother was climbing down a tree mere metres away from us, concern etched all over her monkey face. The guides were telling us not to move, to stay still and the mother was scooping her baby up into her arms and retreating to the safety of the trees and…
In Sumatra, the orangutans never come down. To have seen one as close as we did was truly a miracle. Udin texted me a few days later to tell me the baby was okay – apparently mother orangutans are well versed in which trees to use as medicines and how to massage broken bones back into place! It makes you wonder how much medical knowledge we’ve lost as we’ve moved away from traditional cures.
But trekking wasn’t just about seeing the orangutans. It was also swimming in a waterfall and lazing for four hours in a hot spring. It was eating fried noodles and drinking smoky boiled water; sleeping on the ground under a clear tarpaulin, showering in the river every night, watching out for snakes when you needed to pee. And, of course, dying as we trekked up impossibly steep hills.
But at the end of the day, we saw orangutans in the wild. It doesn’t get much cooler than that.
Watch out for my next post: finally getting to the Banda Islands, South Maluku.
A quick side note:
If you’re looking for other options, you can also check out Friendship Guesthouse – especially if you’re a solo traveller. As we walked through the forest, we bumped into lots of groups who were staying at Friendship and had banded together for the trek. Their website also has the best information on getting there and away.