Face to face with an Orangutan

Bukit Lawang, a small village on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia is one of my all time favorite places we’ve been to. Mainly for one reason, Orangutans – I pretty much love these animals!! The village lies on the banks of the Bahorok river and backs onto the huge Gunung Leuser National Park which is home to tigers, rhinos and elephants but it’s mostly know for its Orangutans thanks to the rehabilitation center that started up in 1973. The center has been closed for many years now due to the population of orangutans growing too much, but they still have a feeding platform where they put out bananas as a lot of them still rely on this food source as they are semi wild.

We’d had a bit of a nightmare the day before with us illegally sneaking into the National Park (combat style) as we didn’t want to pay for the compulsory guide. After many sweaty hours hiking we managed to see some orangutans playing in the trees but soon after we were caught by a guide who went ballistic at us, just throwing all sorts of reasons at us why it was illegal to hike there without a guide ‘you could be attacked by a wild animal!’ ‘You could get lost, then we have to come and find you’ but this one clearly summed us up ‘you could be planting a bomb in the national park!’ Anyway, this angry man made us follow him back to the village where we were escorted between offices and officials. His biggest irritation seemed to be that he had to actually do some work, and was huffing and complaining about having to walk the 15minutes to find us! In the end we were given a fine, and they threatened to take us to the police station if we didn’t pay. This was 5 days before we flew home, we knew it was likely just a scare tactic, but hey it worked. We managed to convince them that we only had a small amount of money and got away with paying less that the price of a guide. We were free to go and walked back to our hotel with our tails between our legs.

But the next day was a whole other story – we hired a huge inner tube from a shack in the village, it was lined with wide mesh so you couldn’t fall through, and both of us fitted in nicely. We walked about 1km up river, and of we went riding the rapids in a tube. It was ridiculously fun, and cost about 25p! There were some great sections where water poured down rock ledges and you had quite a fall down them. At the end we had to paddle like mad to get us to the shore before we reached the dam, then we’d hike up and tube down again, and again. We spent all day doing this; one time though we must’ve gone down the wrong side of a rock and we managed to go below the rock which had water pouring over it and it sort of sucked us in. We weren’t going down river anymore we were spinning around almost sideways, like when you have a bike upside down and you hose the tire to clean it, if you hold the hose in one spot it makes the tire spin super fast….now put two helpless people on that tire and stick it in a river, that was us. The power of the water flowing down the rock was hitting the side of our tube and pushing it down under water with us clinging frantically to the sides. Just to make matters worse I looked up to see some locals nearby having a chat, all oblivious to our catastrophe except for one man – Mr. Angry from the day before, clearly recognized us and gave us a smirk which said ‘I can see your in a very sticky situation but I’m busy smoking your money’. So there’s me trying to act like all is under control…but up close I’m effing and blinding at Craig to ‘GET US THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!!!’ ‘WE’RE GONNA DIE!!’. Eventually, something gave and the water pushed us away, only further down river we managed to veer off into a whirl pool where we were stuck for 5minutes turning in huge circles along with rubbish and sticks that collected in mother nature’s washing machine.

After that run, I was a bit shaken up, we had no lifejackets and I’m a terrible swimmer so I was happy to end the day there. But Craig was still loving the thrill and said it was probably just happened because the air in the tube had gone down. So we got it pumped up in the shack and walked back up again. This time we walked even further along so got to try out some new section of river. As we floated between rapids, I spotted an orange blob on a rock ahead; there was dense forest behind it so it stood out like a saw thumb. Boy did I start squealing like a pig with excitement ‘ORANGUATAAAAAN!’, I got my water proof camera out and filmed but was shaking too much with excitement. When we were parallel with this incredible animal she looked up as us and her eyes followed us down river. Craig managed to paddle us to the shore and held onto a rock. Then she sat up and started walking towards us, her arms were huge as she was leaning forward walking on all fours coming our way. Occasionally she stopped to pick a berry from a rock pool, as she put them in her mouth you could see her teeth, they were like massive human teeth and a yellowy brown colour, damb girl – get flossin’! It was quite crazy how fast she got to us with her giant strides, when she got within a few meters of us we pushed off the rock, and then we realized we were wedged on the damb thing! By this point the she was about 2m away, we both had to jump out the tube, push it into the river and jump back in; that certainly got the heart pumping! We went down river a bit but I wasn’t ready to leave yet so Craig grabbed onto another rock, and down she came again towards us. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as excited, but I was also wary, as the size and power of an orangutan could kill you, and the locals say they have their own character, some will hug you, and some will punch you. Craig was clearly starting to shit himself, due to him being so much closer than I was, his body was stretched half out the tube holding onto the rock, so his face was really close to the orangutan, she got within 1meter of him as we let go and said goodbye. It was so sad as we left she turned to the forest ‘who am I supposed to play with now?!’, the next walk we did up the river I managed to get a photo from across the shore before she ventured back into the forest.

Orangutan up close and personal!

 18th December 2009


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