I’ve been waiting to post these particular photos because they are some of my favorites from the entire trip, and I wanted to be sure to do them justice. The more I looked at them, though, the more I realized that words can’t really do them justice – these faces need to speak for themselves.
So, that’s mostly what I’ll do… I hope you enjoy meeting these apes as much as I did. 🙂
I will preface the photos by saying that these orangutans are semi-wild. They live in Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, and they are VERY accustomed to seeing people. “Jungle trekking,” as it’s affectionately called in Bukit Lawang, is one of the main ways people make a living in the town. Competition for guide services is fierce. White skin makes you a prime target for enthusiastic young men who sidle up to you asking “have you scheduled your jungle trekking??” If they get you, you’ll be signed up for a 1-2 day hike through the park: through mud, up and down hills, in the territory of mosquitoes, cobras, and of course, orangutans. For those looking for a little extra adventure, you could even “sleep in the jungle” under makeshift tarp tents.
The guides are more comedians than they are naturalists. They seemed to have memorized a docket of facts about the forest, along with an equally sized collection of one-liners that entertain tourists while they take them along winding paths that only cover a 1 km square area of the park, stopping along the way to meet an ape or two.
All of this is not to say that I disliked the hike. It was quite an enjoyable experience, and coming face to face with these animals in the jungle was breathtaking, really. It felt decidedly like a tourist attraction, but one in which the apes had the people wrapped around their opposable thumbs.
The trek began with a stroll through a “condom farm.” (A swatch of rubber trees.) The tree bark is sliced open, allowing sap to drip into coconut shells. It is then collected and processed into everything from tires to condoms.
Our main guide, Erwin, was quite the funny man. This is his interpretation of the “modern oranguatan.”
It wasn’t long before we stumbled upon our first actual orangutan. She was off the path a ways, but we crowded around as close as we could to get a good look.
Little did we know, our next encounter would be right on top of us!
And then right in front of us! This mother and baby pair were unabashed by our presence, and the little guy continued his afternoon snack, paying us no mind.
Once lunchtime was over, he clambered up the tree for a bit of play.
His mom stuck around to pose for the camera.
I think she had some training from Tyra…just look at her “smizing.” Work it, girl!
When she’d had enough, we marched on, slipping and sliding through muddy trenches filled with loose rocks, with nothing but a strategically positioned vine to hold on to.
Then we met another fuzzy headed friend…
It was incredible to see how human-like they truly were…right down to their hands.
This little one also enjoyed a hearty dose of playful fun.
Our next run-in was a little less carefree – this particular momma ape was protective and aggressive.
She even stood up on her two hind legs in an attempt to assert her dominance and scare us off. We listened.
After a few hours of trekking, we stopped for lunch: nasi goreng (fried rice) from a local warung. The guides didn’t bring any cutlery, but assured us that eating with our hands was the “jungle way.” One of our guides even made a “jungle table” for our pineapples.
While we were eating, a Thomas Leaf Monkey stopped in, hoping to find a few tidbits that someone had dropped. Our guides offered them one better:
One even tried to coax the monkey to take a piece of banana right out of his mouth!
It had been made pretty clear that feeding wild animals was neither smart nor healthy, but that didn’t stop our trek-mates from joining in the fun.
Close contact with humans is a quick way to spread diseases to these wild animals, and it also teaches them to be less afraid of humans, making them more vulnerable to poachers.
This monkey was a little late to the party, so all he found was a banana peel. He wasn’t shy about expressing his dissatisfaction.
Lunch was abruptly cut short when a rogue orangutan ambled over to our group. I was on the outer edge of the crowd watching the monkeys, so when I noticed a rather brave-looking ape headed our way, I alerted the guides, who quickly recognized our visitor as the notorious Mina.
“RUN!” they shouted. No explanation was needed – our formerly macho crew of brawny 20-somethings who had been exchanging stories about climbing active volcanoes dropped their nasi goreng and fled, shoving one another out of the way to avoid being the last one to escape.
As we crowded behind the guides to watch Mina devour our leftovers, the guides explained that Mina has been known to bite tourists, and she gets braver each time she wins in an encounter like this.
No one has ever been seriously harmed by her, but orangutans are incredibly strong for their size, so we didn’t want to take any chances.
After our brush with death (not quite, but the guides weren’t shy about making us feel like warriors for surviving a run-in with Mina), the rest of the trek was a walk in the park.
The forest was beautiful and peaceful, and I loved our stopover at this little oasis.
One of our guides was named “Harry,” but he introduced himself as “Harry Potter,” which earned him a few laughs. 🙂
When we finally made it out of the jungle, all that was left was to cross the river and head back to the village. Mom was hesitant at first, but it proved to be a refreshing cool off after a strenuous hike! It did a number on our shoes, though. In 90% humidity, those things never quite dried out…
While our experience in the National Parks wasn’t exactly the “take only photographs, leave only footprints” type, we all really enjoyed the trip. I’m not sure how I felt about the heavy handed approach – with the feeding of wild animals, the orangutans who clearly had lost most of their wild instincts and badgered tourists into dropping food for them. But, in the parks where orangutans are completely wild, you’re lucky if you even see a fuzzy arm or leg sticking out of a tree from 50 kilometers away.
I will say that this semi-wild reserve is leaps and bounds better than a zoo. It allows people to connect with these beautiful creatures, and see them as they are meant to be seen – free from the restraints of humans. If nothing else, it is a poignant reminder that orangutans really are our closest relative. And we all know we have to look out for family.
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