“You’re in the jungle, baby!” Nazim, the proprietor of our jungle “hut,” proclaimed.
He shined a flashlight on our sleeping bags and we spotted a giant spider scurrying into the darkness of the corner. I’ve heard those iconic words screamed by Axl Rose countless times through my speakers, but they had never been more applicable than in that moment. Water, electricity, basic sanitation facilities be damned — this is the home of the poisonous, the strong, the predator.
Yes, indeed. We were in the jungle, baby.
I’ve always been drawn to the jungle. As a child, I vividly recall visiting the simulated rainforest experience at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, marveling with wide eyes at the exotic flora and fauna, hearing the strange and foreign sounds, feeling the blanket of dense humidity. To this day, the word still sounds exotic to my ears. So when the opportunity arose to spend three days and two nights searching for wild orangutans in the jungles of Sumatra, I was in.
Accessing Gunung Leuser National Park from Singapore (or most major hubs in southeast Asia) is relatively easy Take a flight into Medan (only an hour from Singapore), spend four-and-a-half-hours in the car (the distance itself is minimal, but like other densely populated areas of Indonesia, the traffic is horrendous), and then you’ll arrive at Bukit Lawang, the gateway to Gunung Leuser National Park — one of the last places on Earth the critically endangered wild orangutan calls home.
Most tourists opt to spend the night in Bukit Lawang, but we wanted to jump right into the thick of it and try our hand at spotting these majestic creatures.
It was surreal.
Upon entering the park you begin to experience the sensation of traveling back in time to a lost world, the canopy above you reaching to the heavens and blocking out the sun, shrouding the forest beneath in darkness and mystery.
As you walk deeper into the forest, you are greeted by the deafening cacophony of cicadas, often heard but rarely seen, screaming through the trees. About 30 minutes in, our guide, Kamil, abruptly raised his hand — stopping us in our tracks. In the distance we heard the quick rustling of branches, and out of the canopy appeared an enormous wild male orangutan engaged in a brute-force territorial battle with another male.
As quickly as it began, the battle was over — the losing party fled into the forest, and the victorious male’s temperament instantly transformed from ferocious to complete calm and curiosity. It’s difficult to express the emotion you experience while looking into the eyes of these majestic creatures. We were careful to maintain a distance (this male was well over 200 pounds), but I couldn’t wipe the massive smile off my face.
We soon came to realize that we had fortuitously booked our trip at the perfect time. In this season, the fruit is ripe and the mating season is in full swing: the orangutans are extremely active, and visitors can witness them at a close proximity. By the time the rains arrive in November, most of the orangutans disappear deep into the forest, not to emerge again until the dry season begins the following year.
There’s a primal quality about sleeping in the jungle; it wakes something that lays mostly dormant inside you with only the occasional opportunity to burst forth.
On the first night in Sumatra, we quickly learned why they call it the rainforest. Heavy, incessant rainfall beat against the roof of the hut as we lay awake, watching flashes of lightning rip across the sky like a blaze of fireworks, listening to thunder echo like a beating drum. In the morning, mist rose from the river at the base of the mountain like tendrils of smoke as the sun burned away the last of the night like remnants of a fading dream.
The rainfall made scaling the mountains and crossing the rivers a bit more challenging than it may have otherwise been, but the reward of spotting orangutans and other creatures that call the jungle home justified every slippery step.
If, like me, you’re constantly in search of adventure, a departure from the mundane, a trip that speaks to your soul, Sumatra is for you.
Since moving to Singapore, I’ve been on a number of trips that reminded me of the importance of travel, of stimulating your senses (Bangladesh and Iran come to mind). Although short, my trip to Gunung Leuser National Park reminded me of why I will continue to push myself to see as much of this beautiful world as I can.
I hope, one day, you’ll experience the same.