My 30 day trip to Sumatra got off to a good start. After reaching Jakarta Airport in late afternoon I hurried off to buy a ticket for the next leg, tsunami city Banda Aceh at the northern tip. It had proved impossible to make an Internet booking with a non-Indonesian credit card and this flight formed an essential part of my plan. The miracle was evident when I found myself on a completely full plane early next morning which also was a holy Friday. The sheer size of Sumatra was reflected in the flight time of over 2 hours in a new Boeing. My next move also needed a miracle. I had been given the address of Fauna and Flora International (FFI) which happens to have headquarters in Cambridge, where I would meet a contact for making further arrangements. After a long search my taxi driver finally located an empty house at the given address. Since it was a Friday I skipped further searching and caught a fast boat to the exotic island of Sabang for a few lazy days (as already planned from Saturday). There I checked into Freddie's place as recommended by Lonely Planet. That same evening when I explained my predicament, Freddie himself solved my problem by producing the phone number of my contact and I could enjoy several days swimming in the Indian Ocean without concern.
After locating the FFI office, the next stage started with a 5 hour drive in their vehicle with two other passengers who might not otherwise have made the journey. We arrived at a centre called Mane on the edge of the rainforest. Here some 16 community rangers were being trained before taking up their duties in surrounding villages. I was assigned the VIP room and introduced to staff members who informed me about relevant activities. The centre also supports a rapid response team of elephants for escorting crop-raiding wild elephants back to the forest.
Next day I met two guides who prepared for a 6 day rainforest trek. We were driven down to a nearby village and set off in hot conditions, with me only carrying water and camera. The conversation was mostly non-existent but the body language of an exhausted hiker is universal. We had only walked an hour but the suffering was real. Much to my surprise, a truck came up the road and offered us a lift. The road was about the worst in my experience but clinging on was still preferable. Eventually the gradient eased and we were left with a short hike to an abandoned hut which provided shelter for the night. On the second day it was hard keeping up with the guides. The trail was now in the shade but it became quite muddy and there were streams to be crossed. Five hours later we reached a second wooden structure. It was interesting to see the guides cooking dinner of fried eggs, spicy noodles and the inevitable rice, with the entire cutlery consisting of one spoon and a wooden stick for the rice. The third day started with a lean breakfast and by 10 I felt quite weak. I understood it would take another 8 hours to reach next camp and this was too much in my condition when considering the difficult trail. However, instead of turning back the guides persuaded me there was an alternative camp some 5 hours away so I agreed to carry on. On the way we heard distant calls by gibbons and saw many elephant foot-prints. Eventually the rainforest gave way to a Savannah. At the end we came down a huge grass slope which provided beautiful views of green hills. Here we found a simple river camp with a tarpaulin for rain cover.
The fourth day was spent at leisure, with the river invigorating my tired body and aching feet. Only one animal was spotted but there were elephant tracks of impressive size. After this recuperation, the two day return trip was less arduous once the first steep hill had been surmounted. By that time I had also become used to the primitive menu and could enjoy the meals that were prepared with consummate skill. This journey took me through the best rainforest in the world and thanks to FFI, I was apparently the first tourist to visit this pristine area. Remarkably, we only experienced two bursts of rain during the six days but every plant seemed to be in perfect condition. The trail itself was overgrown but the alternative of dense jungle was not an option so I could see the way most of the time when lagging behind. On the return to Mane, I was fortunate to attend the closing ceremony of the ranger training which terminated with an elephant placing a floral wreath over the head of each student. Several high officials had travelled long distances just to attend the ceremony which added significance to the importance of conservation. An added bonus for me was to see the video of a tiger captured by villagers being released by helicopter in the area where I had just been.
Back in Aceh, FFI provided 4 hours transport to a small elephant camp near the coast. Again I was assigned the VIP room in the only building. Here my activities were less strenuous, consisting of swimming in the river and an elephant picnic in the jungle. There was hardly any trail for the elephants and some steep sections made it hard work being a passenger. On the road to Aceh we crossed a big river in the world's smallest car ferry with room for only one vehicle.
After this interesting side-trip I flew to Medan and continued by bus 3 hours to Bukit Lawang which is the rehabilitation centre for orang-utans. There are only some 5000 on Sumatra (plus a population on Borneo) and they all live in this area. I signed on for an overnight jungle trek and was escorted by two guides, with a third needed to carry food and large car tubes for rafting by walking the river banks. In the first hour we saw a Thomas leaf-monkey and later another posed obligingly at close range. One guide spotted the first orang-utan which turned out to be a known dominant male. It approached us and allowed time for several pictures, finally sitting on a liana only 10 m away before climbing up again. As if this was not enough entertainment, a group of tourists appeared without noticing the orang-utan descending fast, and in horror I watched as it came within one metre of a fleeing human. After this dramatic encounter we only saw a few distant orang-utans but not all treks are guaranteed sightings. The last part of the trail proves hard work, with steep and slippery sections and it is a relief to hear the river getting closer. The guides put me on a tube and ferry me across to camp where the cook is already brewing up. The last adventure is being caught in a down- pour while swimming and having to wait for drying out before entering my new home. Next morning, we float down the river on three large connected tubes, loaded by waterproof bags and me sitting in the middle. Although no more than grade 3.5, it is great fun and getting wet is a bonus in the hot weather.
It remained to see the feeding of rehabilitated orang-utans which was half an hour's hike away. Rangers attracted orangs by banging on trees and soon several animals approached for their breakfast of bananas and even special milk in one case. Watching carefully one can appreciate the strength of these animals who have over 96 percent of their DNA in common with humans. A family of macaques are attracted by the commotion and come within 1 m looking for food. Before the time limit is up a large male approaches closely and we must retreat down the path for safety. A stroll through the village shows what happens to a touristic hot-spot, with too many souvenir shops and empty restaurants vying for customers. Hopefully the growing number of visitors will not cause distress to the unique orang-utans and other shy animals.
The final week was without a firm plan. The idea was to have some adventures in the huge Kerinci National Park, accompanied by a guide. However, when I flew south across country to Padang I discovered a problem in that the phone number of my contact in this town contained a copying error. It was not until the next day that I tried the number of another FFI staff member who lived far away. By great luck I obtained the number of a guide called Doddy who agreed to look after me. Up to this moment I pondered the easier alternative of travelling north and join the tourist trail at Bukuttinggi which enjoys a certain popularity. So next morning I set off in a bus towards Kerinci in anticipation of an 8 hour trip. The long journey involved serious delays due to road works but we made it that night. The next obstacle was to call my guide without being in the possession of a mobile phone or phrase book in a town where my English was not much use. This problem was eventually resolved and Doddy arrived and invited me to his base camp. Spending most of his time in the jungle, there was not much need for a fancy place but at least I had free accommodation. Unfortunately his services had just been requested at another location. The new duty was delayed when I offered a million rupiah per day as well as car rental. In the end we agreed to skip the park itself and make excursions and hikes on a daily basis. My original aim had been to search for tigers but on being told that Doddy had not seen a single one in five years of camera trapping the odds against were almost astronomical. (There are said to be some 400 tigers in the National Parks of Sumatra.)
On day one we drove to the foothills of Mt Kerinci, a 3800 m volcano which dominates the landscape. The narrow and winding road provided stunning views of planted cinnamon forests full of red leaves, interspersed with large tea plantations. We made an easy hike beyond the gate and spent some time waiting for something to happen. In the event only a solitary ground squirrel showed up but the foot-prints of muntjack deer and wild dog were pointed out. Also notable was a truly spectacular epiphyte hosted by a thin tree.
The second day turned into a mud-bath. With four passengers in the back, we drove past Lake Kerinci and up in the hills. The objective Mirror Lake was reached in three hours, partly along muddy trails, and involved crossing a river in boots for safety. The 100 m size lake has an amazing blue colour and the invitation to swim proved irresistible. Unfortunately, the picnic was interrupted by rain which added to the slippery conditions. On the positive side, the distinct foot-print of the rare clouded leopard was newsworthy.
For a change, day three was almost entirely by vehicle. We drove up steep hills behind our town of Sungai Penuth, followed by a steep descent into hot jungle. After a short walk along the road my guide spotted a gibbon, and soon the whole family could be seen. They moved fast and jumped from one tree to another in an elegant manner. On several occasions I had already heard their evocative call which carries a long way but this was the first sighting and for me, a new species. At sunset we drove up the hill again to admire views of the distant volcano and the enormous flat valley of rice fields.
My final day was also an easy one. This time we re-traced the road to the volcano and continued to Seven Mountain. A short hike brought us to a camping ground where we enjoyed a picnic. Down at the end of the road we were invited into an army hut. Here I met an Indonesian zoologist who was cataloguing and preserving a sample of frogs. It turned out she had discovered a new species of forest frog. These tiny creatures only measured 2 cm in length. On the question of how the discovery was made, I was told she noticed a new sound while out exploring at night. So here I was on my last day witnessing the identification of a new member of the rainforest. It seemed quite ironic that the Indonesian army was assisting in the peaceful activity of hunting frogs, but for a scientist it was wonderful ending on a high note.
Sverre Aarseth, 25/6/2011