By Nigel Wright [email protected]
Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal five years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s and although now retired, still continue to travel as much possible and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.
Dish of the day was an Indonesian favourite – Nasi Goreng (fried rice spiced with chilli, coriander and tamarind) served with crispy fried chicken, and whilst enjoying its fiery aromatic flavours, we gazed out on a perfect jungle paradise.
The restaurant was precariously perched above the stunningly beautiful Bahorok River and the village kids were having a hilarious time sliding from the veranda beside us into the deep tumbling water, five metres below. We were near the equator in the delightful village of Bukit Lawang in the Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra. Our driver had delivered us safely over 90kms of bumpy roads from Sumatra’s capital, Medan, a journey made specifically to visit one of the world’s few orangutan sanctuaries.
Orangutans are one of the two endangered species of great apes (the other being the gorilla) and the population in Sumatra has declined dramatically due to illegal trade of the animals and the devastation of one of the world’s most bio-diverse environments – the lowland rainforests of S.E. Asia.
Across the orangutan’s entire range, logging continues on a massive scale and forests are being destroyed by ill-advised conversion to palm oil plantations. These beautiful apes are believed to be the world’s most intelligent animals after humans. They can grow to 1.5m in height, can weigh more than 80kg and have a life span of up to 50 years in the wild. They have enormously long arms, reddish brown hair, mainly eat fruit and spend nearly all their life in the trees. Their name is translated as ‘man of the forest’ and they are found only in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.
After our delicious lunch, we hiked alongside the river with five other tourists, led by a Bohorok Centre ranger. There was much to see – huge colourful butterflies dancing among the trees and a dazzling array of bird life. Soon we saw our first orangutan, a large male quietly sitting on the opposite bank. The Bohorok Centre was opened in 1973 by two Swiss Zoologists, its aim being to preserve the orangutan population and rehabilitate previously captured animals, over 200 of which have since been released.
Excitement grew among our little group as we crossed the river, a precarious balancing act in a dugout canoe, and climbed up a steep hill through the trees. It was then that the rain forest lived up to its reputation – we were hit by an unbelievable downpour and were drenched within seconds!
Dripping but undaunted, we hauled ourselves up a greasy, muddy slope to the centre’s feeding station in dense jungle. We were advised to refrain from attempting to venture too close to the orangutans as they can be temperamental and are susceptible to human illnesses.
Thankfully, the rain stopped and the rangers, armed with bananas, called the orangutans and within moments, there were a dozen or so swinging their way through the trees above us. After initial gasps of awe, total silence ensued as in our own ‘Attenborough Moment’, we stared in absolute wonder at the athleticism of these majestic apes.
The reverent hush was eventually broken by howls of laughter when one of the males decided to relieve himself on top of the German gentleman next to us. Luckily, he was wearing a hat! The ranger said that many of the orangutans released back into the wild here were successfully rehabilitated, but some still relied on the feeding station – although the food provided was deliberately monotonous.
To avoid any over-exposure to humans, our stay was limited to half-an-hour and, all too soon, we were back at the river. Here the local kids offered us an alternative, if not very elegant transport back to the village, floating in large rubber tyre inner tubes. Instead, we took the opportunity to explore more of this tropical paradise, and return by ambling slowly along the riverbank. Back at the restaurant, we excitedly reminisced upon a truly memorable wildlife encounter over an ice-cold pint of Indonesia’s excellent Bintang beer.
A horrendous flash flood hit Bukit Lawang in 2003 when a 10 metre high wall of water hurtled down the Bohorok River and totally destroyed this idyllic village. Around 400 houses were flattened and over 300 people died. It really was a paradise lost and authorities blamed a combination of factors for the tragedy, suspecting that natural causes may have been exacerbated by illegal logging within the forest ecosystem.
We were devastated when we heard of the news, but thanks to the tireless relief work of several international cooperation agencies, the area is steadily recovering from this appalling loss of life. Tourists are returning, bringing valuable dollars, and can once again see the orangutans and visit the forest-feeding platform.
The Bohorok Sanctuary no longer operates as a rehabilitation centre as the immediate area is already over-saturated with orangutans. However, the apes that remain in a ‘semi-wild’ status still need to be cared for and controlled eco-tourism is being implemented. The centre survives on permit money from visitors and the Government pays for the salaries of the rangers.
The Sumatran Orangutan Society provides exemplary support for the orangutans at Bukit Lawang. Further information can be found on their website www.orangutans-sos.org. The Bukit Lawang Trust www.bukiylsesngtrust.org was established in response to the flood, provided immediate aid and since then has worked in the area to help the local people and set up a health clinic. We hope that once again, paradise can be returned to this magical place.
Orangutans can also be seen close at hand at rehabilitation centres in Borneo, probably the most famous of which is at Sepilok near Sandakan in Malaysian Borneo.