I wanna hold your (furry) hand

Lake Toba was a pretty lovely place to spend a couple of days chilling out, but I was really only in Sumatra for one reason: Orang Utans.

A couple of hours north of sprawling (and not particularly exciting) Medan is the tiny little village of Bukit Lawang. It’s a charming little place, but it’s not the village everyone comes to see. Sumatra is one of only two places in the world (the other being Borneo) where Orang Utans still live in the wild. Just outside the village is a national park that protects both the rainforest and the animals that live there; on the edge of it is an Orang Utan rehabilitation centre that has been so succesful that the park can take no more of the animals, with the result that a second centre has been opened up elsewhere.

With that many Orang Utans living so close to the village, it’s no surprise that a steady stream of tourists head to Bukit Lawang to trek into the jungle to see them up close (although with this being Indonesia, that stream of tourists is more like a trickle compared to the flood that would visit if it were in most other South East Asian countries).

First monkey of the day

So at eight thirty in the morning, I met up with our guide, Alex, and the group of seven others I’d be trekking with – unusually for Indonesia, they were all English. It took us just a few minutes from the hotel to make it into the jungle, and in no time at all we came across our first close contact with some apes – a troop of Thomas Leaf Monkeys. They weren’t shy at all, and the adult male of the group came down from the trees to have a good look at us (and pose for photos), whilst the kids crashed around the trees above, chasing each other round, swinging from vine to vine and performing rather impressive leaps from tree to tree. Being a young monkey looks like a lot of fun.

It was a nice way to start the day, but we all knew we were there for one reason only, and so we soon moved on to try and find some Orang-Utans. Soon we came across another group standing at the bottom of a tree in silence staring straight up – and we quickly realised what the spectacle was. Perched right at the top of a tree was an adult female Orang Utan in her nest, while her child swung around the tree-tops above her. Exciting as it was to see one, she was so high up, with the sun directly behind her, that it was pretty hard to get a good view.

Getting close to Mina

The day continued in a similar vein, with regular glimpses high up in trees, often obscured by branches, and moving away as soon as we approached. Trying to spot wild animals is always going to be tricky, but it was pretty frustrating all the same. Our luck was about to turn though: as we sat down to have lunch, another group came running past us, as they were trying to get away from the notorious Mina. We’d heard all about her – before she was in the rehabilitation centre, she had lived with humans and had no fear of them. In fact, we had more to fear from her, as she knows humans normally carry food, and she can be quite aggressive in her pursuit of it. So we quickly finished our meals and headed in the direction she was supposed to be, and soon found her. She made a beeline for our guide, who managed to placate her by feeding her bananas one at a time, but as soon as they ran out she started heading straight for us, forcing us to make a quick exit down a steep hill to escape. While they may be shorter in height than humans, they are heavier, and much, much stronger, so it’s really not a good idea to get on the wrong side of one.

With all the excitement over, we headed back down the hill, down some waterfalls, to our camp by the river, with all of us on a real high from getting to see an Orang Utan so close up. We had no idea the best was yet to come.

Jackie

Soon after we made camp, we were all sitting around drinking tea, when Alex pointed out that another semi-wild female, Jackie, was heading down the waterfall and in our direction. She soon made it over to us, and perched on a short little tree just a metre away from where we were sitting, with her adorable little baby (with a cool little Mohican) hanging off her side.

She sat there for a good half hour checking us out, before coming down from the tree and holding the hands of the two nearest people from our group, Helen & Sheri. I really hadn’t expected to get quite so close to an Orang-Utan, and for the next twenty minutes or so, she sat in the middle of us, at one point even giving Sheri a great big hug (which sounds great, but with her huge size and vicelike grip I think Sheri was quite glad to be released again).

Making her way down from the trees

Hugging Sheri

Getting close

It soon became clear that Jackie is quite a bit smarter than Mina – rather than using aggression to get her way, Jackie lulled us into a false sense of security with her affection, and once our guard was down she made a beeline towards the kitchen tent. The guides managed to stop her just in time, and I ended up holding her hand and walking her back across the rover and away from the camp while one of the guides tempted her with some bananas.

Getting ready to walk her away from the camp

She knew she was on to a good thing with us, because as we woke up the next morning she was back in the tree above camp, and soon came down again to get close to us. This time chaos ensued. A troupe of long-tailed macaques had decided to take advantage of our distraction by sneaking round the kitchen tent from the back to try and get at the food, and as soon as we realised what they were up to we stopped watching Jackie for a second and she was off – straight into another tent where she had clearly sniffed out our fruit supplies. In no time at all she’d nabbed all our bananas, oranges and lychees (as well as Helen’s breakfast) and was back up in a tree just out of our reach munching away at her prize.

A Macaque takes advantage of the chaos to steal some toast

We were all pretty speechless. I’d come along on the trek hoping to see the Orang Utans, but I had no idea I’d be able to get so close to one as to be able to hold her hand. They are such beautiful creatures, so human-looking in some of their actions and facial expressions, and clearly very intelligent too. Bukit Lawang had never been on my original itinerary, but I am so glad I made it now. It was my last day in Indonesia after two months, and what a way to go out, as it’s without a doubt one of the best memories of the entire trip to date for me.

You can see all of my photos of the trek here

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3 responses to “I wanna hold your (furry) hand

  1. That’s terrible that you got so close as to actually touch the orangutan – I know it was a great memorable experience for you, but you could have passed diseases onto the orangutan (even a common cold can be dangerous for them), and they should be encouraged to live like wild orangutans, not come down to the ground and hang out with humans. Mina will keep attacking if guides keep feeding her.

    • I have to agree on the Mina front – it’s quite obvious that feeding her continues to provoke the agreesiveness as it means she continues to associate humans with food. With Jackie though, she is so comfortable with humans after living with them for so long, she just comes up to the camp herself, and initiates the contact, and the guards were very keen to feed her (she only got food when she managed to make a dash for the fruit). There are plenty of wild orang utans in the park who are succesfully living in the wild now, and they don’t come anywhere near humans, and the guides don’t encourage them or allow you to offer food.

  2. wow what an amazing experience – such fantastic creatures – I saw them in Borneo, but didn’t get anywhere near as close as you did!

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