Today, you can only see critically-endangered orangutans on two islands: Borneo and Sumatra. I chose the latter and went on a two-day Sumatra orangutan trek. Things didn’t exactly go as planned. Here’s the story.
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Orangutans in Indonesia: A Brief Overview
Before we get to my Sumatra Orangutan trek story, let me explain why orangutans are so special.
What Are Orangutans
Orangutans are primates (great apes) that live in the jungles of two islands in Indonesia and Malaysia. A few centuries ago, they were present all over Southeast Asia and South China. Unfortunately, their numbers decreased so significantly that they were almost extinct.
Today, it’s impossible to say how many orangutans are left, but scientists put the number somewhere around 100,000. That might sound like a lot, but a mere century ago, there were well over 200,000. The Sumatran orangutan is the most critically-endangered sub-species, with less than 10,000 individuals left.
They are among the most intelligent animals on the planet and can live for over 50 years in the wild. They use various tools and techniques to get food and spend most of their time in the trees.
Why are orangutans endangered?
There are many reasons, but two primary ones.
Humans hunted them for a long time and used them as pets. Orangutans don’t do well in captivity and don’t have a lot of children if they aren’t in their natural habitat. The second reason is that various industries – mostly palm oil extraction businesses – cut down a lot of their trees.
Today, Indonesia and Malaysia protect these incredible animals, and their numbers are stable. Nevertheless, choose an ethical and serious company when going on an orangutan trek.
My entire Sumatra orangutan trek in video format
Where to See Orangutans in Sumatra
There are several places on the island of Sumatra, but Bukit Lawang is the most popular and accessible choice.
The Bukit Lawang orangutans aren’t too far away from the village, and sometimes they even stroll across town. More on that later.
Various companies operate out of Bukit Lawang, and the village has a reasonable amount of tourist infrastructure, including guest houses, shops, and restaurants.
How to Get to Bukit Lawang
Bukit Lawang is a jungle village, 3-4 hours by car from Medan in North Sumatra.
To get to Bukit Lawang, you first have to travel to Medan. Luckily, Medan is a relatively large city with an international airport. There are daily flights from Jakarta, Singapore, Bandung, Surabaya, Bali, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang.
From Medan, you have three choices: private taxi, shared taxi, and public bus.
A private taxi will set you back about 30-50 USD, depending on your bargaining skills. A shared taxi (or “tourist shuttle”) costs between 15-20 USD and it is by far the best option in my view.
Here’s what I recommend: contact your tour company in Bukit Lawang and tell them you know about the tourist shuttle and that you want a shared one. Otherwise, they’ll send you a private taxi.
The public bus is infrequent, and you have to change buses in Binjai. The schedules change all the time. As such, it’s best to ask your hotel in Medan or Bukit Lawang what the current routes and schedules are. On the plus side, the public bus will cost no more than 5 USD each way.
Be aware that Bukit Lawang is an (almost) cash-only town. Few places accept credit cards, so you’ll need to have enough IDR on you. If all else fails, they will accept Euros or Dollars.
How to do a Sumatra Orangutan Trek
You can’t go into the jungle alone. It’s prohibited by law, and it would also be completely foolish. As such, you’ll need a guide.
I can recommend the company Sumatra Orangutan Treks. They offer two-day treks from Bukit Lawang and their guides were excellent and professional (even when I almost died from food poisoning and headaches, more on that later).
You can contact them via Whatsapp +6282284294191 or Email at email@example.com.
If you book with them, tell them that I sent you and ask for Helmi, the coolest guide in all of Sumatra.
How Much Does a Sumatra Orangutan Trek Cost
The trek itself costs around 100 USD, depending on the company. That includes two days of trekking, one night in a jungle hut, permits, and all the food you’ll need.
Apart from that, the shared taxi from Medan to Bukit Lawang is about 15 USD each way. The guest houses in Bukit Lawang will set you back between 10-50 USD per night.
All in all, I spent 200 USD on my three days in Bukit Lawang, including two nights in a guest house (one before and one after the trek), as well as food and two shared taxis to Medan.
What to Be Aware Of in Terms of Ethics and Protection
There are two main rules when it comes to orangutans:
- Do not interact with them (making eye contact, touching them, posing with them). Every single interaction can be dangerous for the animal or yourself. Orangutans don’t mind humans, but you need to keep your distance;
- Do not feed them. There are professional conservation centers, but for tourists, giving them food is a no-go for many reasons.
If your Sumatra orangutan trek company doesn’t abide by these rules, choose another one, as you haven’t picked a serious tour operator.
Where to Stay in Bukit Lawang
There are many guest houses in the village. If you want a proper bed and AC, you’ll have to book one of the premium rooms, as these creature comforts are not standard here.
I stayed at Junia Guest House in one of their more expensive bungalows and can warmly recommend them.
My Brutal Sumatra Orangutan Trek: the Story
Here’s the full story of my Sumatra jungle trek. Everything is in the video above, so if you want to witness my suffering firsthand, check that one out.
Day 1: Traveling from Medan to Bukit Lawang and Exploring the Town
After a night in Medan (I had flown in from Jakarta the previous night) I took a shared taxi to Bukit Lawang. The scenery along the way was breathtaking. We saw lots of jungle communities as well as palm oil trucks. We made it to Bukit Lawang after a four-hour drive and I settled into my guest house.
Ten minutes after checking in, a fully-grown orangutan strolled into the garden of my guest house. It was my first encounter with these magnificent creatures and I kept a safe distance of around ten meters.
I rushed to the reception and told them that an orangutan had just wandered into the hotel. They were surprised but not super-excited. Apparently, this happens from time to time but I was still incredibly lucky to see an orangutan in the village.
I then went exploring on foot. Bukit Lawang is a peaceful community with friendly people and a handful of foreign visitors. This is a completely different world from places like Bali. Mass tourism has yet to reach this corner of Indonesia. All in all, the place feels raw and authentic.
After walking through the village, I had dinner and a few beers before hitting the sack early.
Day 2: First Day of My Sumatra Jungle Trek
The next morning, my guide Helmi picked me up at the hotel at around 8 am. Together with another guide and a fellow hiker from Indonesia, we set off for our Sumatra orangutan trek.
During the first three hours of trekking, we saw three orangutans, lots of monkeys, and a wide variety of bird species. The jungle landscapes were awe-inspiring.
Overall, the trekking was physically-challenging but we had great banter and enjoyed the steep ascents, fruit breaks, and homemade lunch.
Later that day, the weather changed drastically. The whole day had been extremely sweaty and hot, but there was no rain. Around 2 pm, it started pouring down. And this was tropical rain, not some light drizzle.
The next three hours were agony. We had to trek through dense rainforest in the worst possible conditions. It’s safe to say that everybody was relieved when we reached our campsite at around 5 pm. We had been hiking for about nine hours, leaving us drenched and exhausted.
An hour or so later, the guides prepared a tasty dinner and we spent the rest of the evening playing cards and singing songs in our rudimentary jungle huts.
Day 3: The Worst Headache of My Life
The next morning at around 5 am, I woke up and felt terrible.
At that point, I vomited for the first time. That would become a pattern. I felt a combination of fatigue, food poisoning, and the worst headache of my life. In total, I threw up 15 times on that day.
Luckily, it wasn’t malaria or anything of the sort. To this day, I still don’t know why I got so sick, but it was probably a combination of drinking jungle water, general fatigue, and not having enough spare clothes (I only brought three t-shirts and all three were soaked on the first day).
In the end, it took me four days to recover from that illness.
After rejecting the guide’s breakfast due to my severe stomach ache, I spent an hour lying on the jungle floor.
I was in absolutely no condition to hike, but there was no alternative. We were in the middle of the Sumatran jungle, after all. Luckily, the guides adapted the pace.
We had to hike for another two hours to get to a river. We then took a raft back to Bukit Lawang.
Those 2-3 hours of hiking and rafting were painful, but I got through them. They undoubtedly worsened my sickness, but there was no other way to get back to civilization.
We arrived in the village and I returned to the guest house where I had left my luggage. I spent the rest of the day going back and forth between my bed and the toilet. It was the worst sickness of my life.
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Days 4&5: Still Feeling Terrible
I spent the night after the trek in Bukit Lawang. The next morning, I took a shared taxi back to Medan.
In Medan, I checked into the Radisson for some well-deserved comfort. I spent a night there before flying to Bandung where I finally recovered, around 4 days after starting the Sumatra orangutan trek.
Sumatra Orangutan Trek: the Bottom Line
Sickness aside, this was one of the best treks of my life.
The orangutans are magnificent creatures, and you won’t forget their majestic presence. Apart from that, the Sumatran jungles are jaw-dropping, and among the most untouched places to visit in Indonesia.
I would recommend this trip and also the company.
But be aware that this is not some little hike in your local forest. This is serious jungle trekking that requires fitness and preparation.
You need to be in reasonable shape and you also need some proper gear. Make sure that everything you bring into the jungle is waterproof and that you have more than three t-shirts.