Jungle trekking in Indonesia

On Sumatra, Indonesia’s main island, there are three huge national parks. The Gunung Leuser National Park is one of them and it’s perfect for a true jungle experience. Our adventure starts in Ketambe and from there on, there are only these certainties: 1) you’ll need a guide who knows how to handle a machete, 2) leeches will travel with you, 3) you won’t get lost since there is no path… 

The Gunung Leuser National Park is one of the world’s most important protected areas, mainly because it’s the home of many endangered animal species: elephants, tigers and yes, orangutans. The name is actually Indonesian: ‘orang’ means man, ‘utan’ means forest. So literally, an orangutan is a ‘man of the forest’ in Indonesian.

Ape versus jungle

If you don’t want to go home without having seen an orangutan up close, then I highly recommend Bukit Lawang on the east side of the park for a soft version of jungle exploring. The location is easily accessible (a two hour drive from the airport in Medan), which is perfect if you want to explore the jungle without too much of a hassle. In Bukit Lawang, a beautiful and easy path through the rainforest leads to an orangutan rehabilitation centre. Semi-wild apes are fed here several times a day and as a tourist you can witness this first-hand. A chance of a lifetime to see orangutans in their own environment.

And then, there’s the tough version. In this case Ketambe is your starting point. It takes you eight hours to get there by car from Medan, on roads that are hardly worthy of being called roads. Up next is a walk through rainforest with two guides (one in front to clear the path and one in the back for safety) swarms of mosquitoes and more leeches than your arms and legs can bare. But it all adds up to a fabulous adventure…

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The real jungle experience

After deliberation, we chose the ‘tough’ version. If you’re hoping to see spectacular close-ups of orangutans merrily swinging from a tree in front of my lens, I can honestly say right now that you’ll be disappointed. Nature is unpredictable and chances of an orangutan encounter in the wild are very low. But we got so much more in exchange! Crossing rivers holding our shoes up in the air, having lunch around a campfire, taking a dip in a hot spring …  Even our sleeping accommodation (wooden huts with no hot water and limited electricity) had something magical about it. I would do the tough version again in a heartbeat.

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Ketambe and orangutans

Interesting fact: the orangutan rehabilitation centre used to be in Ketambe (also called Gurah), as a part of a large research station. The research station is still there today (a huge part of the rainforest around Ketambe is only accessible to researchers), but the rehabilitation centre was transferred to Bukit Lawang in the seventies. Researchers were worried that the amount of tourist trying to catch a glimpse of recovering orangutans, would disrupt nature too much and compromise their research. What’s left in Ketambe today, is wild jungle and limited accommodations that probably haven’t been updated since the rehabilitation centre moved away. I liked the rustic atmosphere though.

Taking a ride on a motorcycle to buy beer and water in a local shop…

Rainforest checklist

What do you need when going into the Indonesian tropical rainforest?

  • Sturdy shoes for a good grip. All year long, dry or wet season, the rocks and paths are always wet. Slipping is a part of the experience! Make sure the shoes are convenient to get in and out, it saves you a lot of time if you have to cross a river. One of our guide was wearing Crocs!
  • There’s a few preventive measures you can take against leeches (like wearing long sleeves), but the only thing that really works not to get bitten, is staying out of the jungle. Check your body regularly, sometimes you’ll feel the bites immediately, other times the itching kicks in after you’ve removed the slimy creatures from your body. Use a leaf!
  • Use sunscreen, even though you’ll barely see the sun through the huge canopy of leaves.
  • Wear special clothing that dries up very fast and a waterproof jacket to protect you from the monsoon rains.
  • Use waterproof bags for your possessions (camera, wallet etc). I didn’t have waterproof bags and my digital camera (my first SLR Canon 300D) ‘died’ two days after our jungle trip due to humidity and erosion.
  • Bring an extra pair of socks. Your feet will wet whether you like it or not and a dry pair of socks will avoid blisters.
  • A cap is also a good idea as a protection against the rain and insects. The immense banana leaves in the jungle are a nice alternative!
  • A plastic bag, to wrap up all foods and leftovers along the way. You don’t want tigers or other jungle inhabitants to smell the food…
The morning of your jungle journey
A guide and a manchete… Good to have them on board!

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This is how you take a break in the jungle. Sitting down is not recommended, you never know what lies (and crowls) beneath…
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Crossing a river is quite tricky with the treacherous currents. “Hati-hati”, the guide sometimes shouts. It means ‚be careful’ in Indonesian.
Lunchtime
How to get hot water to boil the noodles: hang a plastic water bottle with a hole in the cap over the fire and wait until it is completely black …

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Arriving at a hot spring a few hours later.

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A little leech souvenir. Thanks to the rain, the mosquitoes didn’t bother us too much.
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The only monkey that crossed our path.
Monkey see, monkey do: the banana leaves turned out to be very efficient!

In the late afternoon, the monsoon rain kicked in along with a thunderstorm. Lightning illuminating the forest, branches breaking everywhere and animal noises all round. Unforgettable!

Back at the jungle huts, we talk about the day with a ‘kopi tubruk’, an Indonesian cup of coffee with lots of sugar. In the meantime one of the locals tries to teach us a song. I found the song on Youtube later on: it’s called ‘Malam terakhir’ or ‘final night’’.  Very suitable for our final night in the jungle.

Malam Terakhir

Why you should go to the Sumatran jungle now:

  • The Indonesian rainforest is famous for its orangutans, but they are endangered! This might be one of your last chances for a close encounter with these impressive animals in the wild.  You can read all about it in the 2012 WWF Living Planet Report.
  • All Indonesian islands together (there are nearly 14,000) account for about one tenth of the rainforest in the world. But every day huge amounts of tropical rainforest are dissapearing. Trees are cut at a furious pace and the fertile land is exploited for agriculture and the production of palm oil. If you want to experience the authentic jungle, don’t wait too long because it might not be there tomorrow…
  • ‘Back to nature’ is a trend! Eco-traveling and eco-accomodation is booming and Ketambe is the right place for it. I read that there are plans to build a road straight to the jungle from Bukit Lawang to Ketambe. The road isn’t there yet, so come to Ketambe before everyone else does…
  • kristofpattyn

    Toch weer mooi gebracht hoor, als lezer voel je je er bijna bij!

  • WOW! what an awesome trip you had! I so envy you, have never been to Leuser 🙁 I had a few chances to explore rainforest and national parks in Java island only, particularly in West Java.

    • I haven’t been to any of the other national parks yet, so I’m equally envious 😉 But Leuser was definitely unforgettable!

  • Ika

    Amazing journey about Sumatran rainforest. As an Indonesian I haven’t even explore many places in Indonesia. I guess I should start soon 🙂

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  • I am very envious…. I will remember this place on my list once I am in Indonesia again…. the things that I need to see about my own country…