Bukit Lawang – Sumatra

We flew from Singapore to Medan. The flight was quite short and had us arriving in the morning where we were greeted at the arrivals terminal by the driver organized by our hotel. I quickly stocked up on some seaweed flavor chips (we’re not spoilt for options here!) and we were on our way. The distance from Medan to Bukit Lawang is about 90kms, however because of the state of the roads, the trip took nearly 5 hours!

We stopped up in a dead end street where 2 scooters pulled up and loaded our luggage on. We were informed we had a 20 minute walk ahead of us to reach our accommodation – we didn’t mind at this stage as it gave us a chance to stretch our legs. The walk ended up being an easy stroll and was a great introduction to our home for the next 5 days.

We arrived at the Sumatra EcoTravel Cottages and were very impressed. There were 6 gorgeous bamboo style rooms overlooking the Bahorok River. We had one of the upstairs front facing rooms. I could have just stayed in the lodge for the week and been satisfied.

We were invited downstairs for a welcome drink and a briefing about the following days’ orangutan hike. Afterwards we ventured off in search of some dinner. We did this trip in February (2016) which is the wet season and evidently, the low season. That being said, all of the local restaurants were open with some having live music every night. We chose a small ‘resto’ on the river and each had mie goreng with a Bintang. Simple, but fresh and delicious!

Tuesday morning we had a 9am start for our 2 day jungle trek**. There were 2 other couples in our group. We set off back in the same direction we had walked in the day before, crossed a rickety suspension bridge that my husband had passed comment on the day before to the effect of ‘you won’t get me on that’ and headed into the jungle.

1 Day Orangutan Tour   3 Day Orangutan Tour

On the way into the Gunung Leuser National Park there were people collecting a white dripping substance from the trees. We found out that these are in fact rubber trees and the liquid gets used for many things; adhesives, cement and insulating to name a few. The bark of the tree is sliced and the sap trickles down into a homemade tray ready for collection later.

A few minutes later, only a few hundred metres into the National Park, we came across our first orangutan, aptly named Jodie, with her infant son. They were very playful, much to the delight of our group. We made sure to maintain a safe distance however I did manage to snap a few good photos.

After about 5 minutes of mad photo snapping, we continued on into the jungle. The walk was flat and fairly shaded at this point only pausing occasionally to investigate the crackling of in the trees above or in the rainforest in front. Some of the crackling turned out to be some silver face gibbons so high in the canopy that I couldn’t even get a decent photo with my long range lens.

Along the trail we walked – the further we went, the steeper it got but before we knew it, it was morning tea time. We stopped in a shady area and were offered some delicious fresh fruit. After some bananas, passionfruit and jeruk (small orange) we were refueled. We would soon be glad we caught a rest when we did! From this point, the walk not only got steep and slippery, but also very hot. Even though we were protected by the rainforest, it was hot!

We spotted another orangutan way off in the distance and snapped a few photos before continuing on.

Our next orangutan encounter was the infamous Mena. All of the guides and rangers had been speaking about Mena – their second wife was how they referred to her. We found out they were calling her their second wife as she has left her mark on them…literally. Mena is a biter and many of the guides proudly showed us their scars.

We approached with caution and she seemed quite undisturbed by our presence. We found a safe spot once we all passed and decided to get a few photos. Mena decided that she wasn’t feeling photogenic on this particular day however and made a bee-line straight for our group. We high-tailed it as fast as we could while our support team lured her the other way with some of our fresh fruit. We had escaped!

The next hour or so of trekking was by far the most physically challenging for me. At some points I was using both arms to pull myself up a completely vertical wall all while trying not to break the camera which was dangling around my neck. We did rest often though so don’t think you have to be super fit to complete this trek. We ascended one of the harder sections and stopped at the top for a quick rest. We had been sitting no more than 30 seconds when out of nowhere our support guide starting yelling to get packed up and move. Mena had followed us! She obviously wanted to make sure none of the photos we’d taken would be posted to facebook! So up we got and continued on.

After we were sure Mena had given up, we stopped for lunch. The Eco Lodge had prepared nasi goreng for lunch. It was delicious and perfect to replenish our energy before the afternoon session. Pete even managed a quick nap – as he does everywhere we go!

We came across one more orangutan before we reached camp. This girl had a beautiful nature and sat quietly while we made our way past.

The afternoon trek was mostly downhill, but in some instances, just as steep as the way we had come up hours earlier – vertical drop! We didn’t have any casualties just a few muddy bums! We were exhausted but with the promise of camp ‘just ahead’, we kept going. The sound of the running river got louder and louder and at about 3pm, we arrived.

We were shown our shared ‘tents’ and jungle toilets, then quickly changed into our bathers and headed straight into the cool river. There were bottles of Bintang, however, with no power they weren’t chilled. No problem. A few minutes in the river and they were cold enough to drink.

Just as we finished our swim, the heavens opened up. For those of you who have ever experienced heavy rain in the tropics, its indescribable. It absolutely poured with rain for well over an hour. We took the opportunity to have a rest and were definitely grateful that we kept pushing to make it to camp before it hit. There were other groups that trudged in during the downpour who were completely drenched – bags and all!

Once the rain passed, dinner was served. There was a delicious spread of meat, veggies and rice. All of the supplies are walked from the village upstream by one of the cooks or a local villager that gets paid for their services. After dinner our host showed us some cards tricks. He was pretty good and kept us entertained for an hour or so which is when we decided it was bedtime. We were knackered.

We slept surprisingly well considering we shared our ‘room’ with 4 strangers and potentially a great array of wildlife. The bedding was only yoga mat, however we each had a mosquito net which was a life saver.

Once morning arrived we slept in a little before making our way outside for breakfast. As soon as the food came out, so did the macaques! Also known as the cheeky monkey, there would have been around 100 macaques in our camp. They didn’t approach us but if you left your food unattended for even one second, it was gone!

After breakfast, we took a short walk upstream to have a swim in the waterfall. The waterfall was lovely and relaxing however just as we were getting packed up to head back to camp we spotted some local ‘crocodiles’. Well, the guides tried their hardest to convince us they were crocodiles, and some of the German tourists around were almost convinced…until my husband spoke in his most bogan, aussie accent stating ‘that’s not a crocodile mate, that’s a lizard’. Two monitor lizards basked in the sun near us then tried their luck for scraps near our camp.

Back at camp we had some more lovely fruit while our guides packed our belongings onto the river tubes ready for our departure. No, we didn’t have to trek back the same way we came, we rafted back!

We jumped into our tubes and headed down the river. So much fun! We had 3 large tubes tied together with my husband and I in the middle and a guide at both the front and the back to keep us stable. Our gear had been put in waterproof bags and was also strapped onto the tubes. It was a nice 30 minute trip down the river with us yahooing our way across the rapids every few minutes, and we were disembarked at our lodge. A well-earned early night in a very comfortable bed ensued.

On Thursday morning we set off after breakfast on another long drive to see the elephants. Again only travelling about 100kms took us 3.5 hours . The top speed was about 20kms/hour and although we travelled on the road the entire way, the package was advertised as an off road adventure!

We arrived just in time for lunch, which was ready as soon as we sat down. We ate at a gorgeous little retreat on the river and again the home-made food was delicious.

After lunch we made our way down to the riverbank and across another riketey (and probably quite unsafe) bridge for our elephant ride**. I have to admit, we were worried about this part of our trip. We have done the elephant rides in Bali and absolutely hated the way the elephants were treated. This most certainly isn’t the case at this facility.

As the elephants rounded the corner towards us, my concern turned to excitement. We mounted the only male in the pack. His name was Theo. He was beautiful. So well-mannered, and smart! They are incredible animals. As we were going through the muddy rainforest I dropped my camera lens which landed straight in a mud puddle. I didn’t even have time to tell the handler what had happened, just managed to utter a sound when, Theo spotted it in the mud. Without stopping he swung his trunk down, picked up the cover and offered it back to me! I just looked at my husband – whose jaw was also in his lap – with sheer amazement!

We kept trekking through the rainforest for a few more minutes until we came to a clearing where Theo’s handler jumped off and grabbed my camera to take some shots of us ‘commandeering’ the elephant. Once he had some photos of us, he jumped back on Theo and we headed into the water. At this point we found out just how cheeky Theo was. He picked up some water in his trunk and proceeded to shower the elephant in front…and her occupants.

The ride then came to an end and after the elephants had a toilet break, it was swim and bath time. This was my favourite part. The elephants clearly loved having a swim and showed us some great tricks they had learnt. Once they had a bit of a play, we got to give them a scrub. It was so incredible to be able to interact so closely with such amazing animals.

Once they were finished bath time, it was dinner time. This was a great opportunity for some fun photos. We got up close and personal to feed them bananas and cane sugar.


I really could not get enough of these majestic animals. I ended up with close to 800 photos of the day!

**I do not condone taking animals from their natural habitat to be entertainment for humans. In both cases above (elephants and orangutans) all animals have been rescued from poachers or from the destruction of their natural habitat and given a loving home. In both cases all animals are treated with love and care and money raised from the visiting tourists goes back into giving these beautiful animals a home

We woke on our last morning to another beautiful day. We didn’t have to leave until after lunch so we had plenty of time to explore. On our way down the river earlier in the week, we saw a great big timber structure on the river bank. It was about 4kms back upstream, but Pete had an idea…

As I was packing the last of our belongings into our suitcase, Pete disappeared , not unusual when I am packing 😉 When he returned he was wearing a look I know all too well. A look of excitement. I walked out the front door to find 2 tyre tubes – the same as the ones we used to float down the river in on Tuesday. Pete wanted to walk back up the river to the timber structure we had seen, then raft back down.

Now I am definitely not a risk taker. In fact, I am happy to admit I am a complete wuss, however I agreed to go for a walk and assess the situation as we went.

So off we went. An idyllic walk up the river (with a tyre tube) was actually exactly what I felt like after spending much of the previous 2 days cramped up in a car.

We walked and walked and each time we passed some ‘rapids’, I looked at Pete with pleading eyes. He kept convincing me to go just a little further. At about the 2km mark I had silently decided to go all the way to the timber structure…however I would then walk back down while Pete went via the river.

We finally arrived to find the structure we saw was in fact a retreat. We ordered a Bintang each and sat enjoying the view. Once we finished our beers, I informed Pete of my plan. He pleaded and begged and promised me that it was completely safe to go by tube (even though we were warned by numerous locals on the way up that it wasn’t a good idea).

I begrudgingly made my way down to the river, throwing nasty looks back to Pete the whole way down. When we we got to the river, I saw that there was another couple (and their guides) making their final preparations to head back to civilization (just as we had done earlier in the week), I convinced Pete to wait until they left so we could follow their lead.

I cannot explain my emotions at this point. My heart was thumping in my chest and stomach, there were tears and I was shaking like crazy! I was genuinely terrified. I told Pete in no uncertain terms what I thought of him in that exact moment. He reassured me that I would be fine and to try and enjoy myself. In I hopped and we were on our way.

About 100m in came the first rapid. I held my breath and dug my fingers deeper into the ropes around the tyre. I looked back at Pete and throw daggers with my eyes. He smiled and waved….

I made it! I was so angry that he was making me do this! Hang on. That was kind of fun…

A nice scenic float before the next rapids. These ones are the biggest ones on our trip back. I figured if I survive these ones I should be ok. Just before I enter them, the swirling water turns my tyre around. My back is now facing downstream and I am looking backwards at Pete again. He must be able to see the sheer terror on my face at this stage because he calmly called out “you’ll be fine”.

What do you know? I did survive, and for the 2nd time. This is actually quite fun! Don’t think for a second I gave Pete even the slightest hint that I was enjoying myself though 🙂 The rest of the way down, I got into a bit of a groove and may have even smiled once or twice. I did come off once but luckily it was in ankle deep water and I was able to catch my tyre and jump straight back in.

Once we reached the bottom and were safely back on dry land. I aplogised to Pete for all the nasty threats and name calling and thanked him for the encouragement. I even admitted that I enjoyed it 🙂

All that worrying had given me an appetite so we set off in search for one last meal. We came across a cute little local kitchen. We both ordered curry, which was made fresh to order. The chef told me him and his staff saw me stack it on the rapids which they could see from their balcony and then they proceeded to have a laugh at my expense!

It was time to make the long journey back to the Medan airport. Our week had flown by and was definitely a trip to remember, We would go back in a heartbeat.