Scotsabroad's Weblog

April 28, 2014

Bukit Birthday

Filed under: Holidays,Indonesia — scotsabroad @ 2:23 pm

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I don’t suppose many children born in Inverness 14 years ago had the experience of spending their April birthday jungle trekking in Sumatra looking for orangutans. We have all just had an incredible holiday in North Sumatra. We flew to Medan a couple of weeks ago and got driven for about four hours to Bukit Lewang, meaning, door to the mountain. It is on the edge of the Leuser National Park on the Bohorok River. We stayed at the Ecolodge and it was there we met our guide Adi, who talked us through the next day’s itinerary. He also helped us negotiate the town in the dark to look for the Lewang Inn and dinner.

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A fun walk with torches, over rickety bridges in heavy rain accompanied by the constant roar of the river. It was only on our return to Jakarta that I read about the town being extensively damaged by a flash flood in 2003 that killed over 200 people. That might have accounted for the height of one of the suspension bridges over the river. On this night there was a power cut and the Lewang Inn lay in darkness. Undeterred, it welcomed us in with oil and candle light and we listened to our dinner being cooked in the dark. Delicious. We spent our first night getting used to the sounds of the jungle. We are already quite used to sharing our toilet with toads.

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Early next morning we set out into the jungle looking for orangutans. We headed to a regular feeding site and instantly came across two  casually taking the free bananas on offer. We then spent the rest of the morning walking through the jungle. Magnificent trees, some two or three hundred years old, various monkeys crashing through the branches, the shrill noise from acadia, suspended termite nests and some challenging slopes – all of us soaked in sweat and being bitten at every stop by large mosquitoes.

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We came across the notorious Mina, a fiery female orangutan who has bitten many people. Our guide was openly concerned for our safety (has he just taken the  safety clip off his large knife?).We retreated from her neck of the woods and then came across one of her daughters, also with a child, and quite temperamental too. We do not know how lucky we are to have seen four orangutans until speaking with a German couple a couple of days later. They did the same trek on the same day and saw no orangutans. Lunch is another memorable nasi goreng, produced out of a rucksack, by a river.

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Then it was tubing ( inflatable truck inner tubes tied together) down the rapids, back down the river to the town and another dinner at the Lewang Inn. They even made Cairo a birthday cake. Great place. On our drive to and from Bukit Lawang we passed through encroaching miles of palm oil plantations and large processing factories welcoming lorry after laden lorry bearing the fruit. The biggest risk of all to the magnificent orangutans and their incredible habitat.

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We moved on heading back to Medan and over the Batak highlands to Danau Toba. We saw Gunung Sinabung from a distance. The volcano has been active recently and we could see its smoky plume mixing with low cloud. A huge drive to Parapat with a stop at a traditional house. The only other stop is at a big run-down, empty, fly inhabited rest house for lunch at Simarjarunjung. We were told we would be able to see Lake Toba on a clear day from the windows. We couldn’t.

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We arrived at Parapat to catch the 6 o’clock ferry to Tuktuk on the island of Samosir. The boys had time to play some football in the square and we had too much time to look at the condition of the ferry.

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Between 75,000 and 30,000 years ago Mount Toba erupted in what was the biggest catastrophic event in the history of mankind, destroying all life in the area, covering South East Asia in volcanic debris and plunging the earth into years of darkness which created a mini ice age. The mountain collapsed into a deep caldera that filled with water but the island Samosir erupted upwards as a cinder cone. Once the dust finally settled Sumatra had the world’s largest and deepest crater lake and the largest island (nearly the size of Singapore) within an island – although it is actually joined to the mainland by a narrow isthmus at the town of Pangururan. We stayed at Tabo Cottages. Good rooms, good food and singing waiters.

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The weather changed and we had blue skies and warm temperatures. We used the resort’s boat (waiters included) to head for a swim at a waterfall. As part of the deal we stopped at a local mainland village. We were shown the school. We felt a bit uncomfortable interrupting the lessons and resisted the invitation to sit at the front of a class and be sung to by the children. We waited outside while listening to My Bonnie lies over the Ocean (honestly) as I slipped the uniformed headmistress some money.

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The boys loved jumping off the boat by the waterfall and the picnic lunch was delicious. The singing waiters were wearing a bit thin, as was their repertoire on the return journey, so we retired to the front of the boat. No thoughts about health and safety. On our return to Tuktuk Cairo and I borrowed the resort’s bikes and headed for the Stone Chairs. Before the island became 100% Christian, about 150 years ago, the Batak people followed traditional animist beliefs and rituals. The 300 year old stone chairs was where village matters were discussed and wrongdoers were tried. Above the chairs (as the lonely planet describes) … was where the accused were bound, blindfolded, sliced and rubbed with chilli and garlic before being beheaded. We all hired crap bikes next day to look for the King’s Tomb. The tomb is in Tomok about 5km from Tuktuk. He was the king who adopted Christianity. There are protestant and catholic churches in every town. Don’t know what he would have made of the giant Wicker-Man we saw on the shores of the lake. The whole village of Tuktuk is very laid back. Second hand book shops, beautiful old scooters and wood carvers. Shona secures a medicine box stained with shoe polish and I pick up a traditional house carved by one of his apprentices. Great place and great people (apart from the woman who rented us the bikes – hand me the chilli and garlic).

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We headed back to Medan. On Samosir and on the roads through every town to Medan we constantly saw older school children riding atop school buses or on  scooters, their white school shirts covered in pastel paints and markers. Some rode in good-natured packs, yelling greetings to others. We established that this was an end of exams ritual in Sumatra.

We were to spend a night in Medan before flying to Bandah Aceh next day. Medan, Indonesia’s third largest city, is grim by day but sad (almost hopeless) at night. Very much like Jakarta but somehow without the colour or the noise – or the hope? Early next morning we head for the airport and a 45 minute flight to Bandah Aceh. From 100% Christianity a few days ago to what we thought would be 110% Islamic fundamentalism. The lonely planet describes… this far-flung corner of Indonesia has recently grabbed headlines for all the wrong reasons. Earthquakes, tsunamis, civil war and sharia law are what people think this northern state is all about. Aceh has always been different.

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We landed and had a tour of the town. The town was hit bad by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. One, still hopeful, outcome of the tsunami was that it provided the opportunity to open the almost sealed province to relief organisations and to renew peace talks between Jakarta and the GAM (Free Aceh Movement). At the moment Aceh has a lot of autonomy, most aid agencies have pulled out and there is still peace. The Acehnese people we met were friendly, fiercely proud of who they were and optimistic. They don’t mention being Indonesian ever. It was difficult to imagine the nightmare of 2004 when 61,000 Acehnese were killed by the tsunami. NGOs responded vigorously to Aceh’s plight after the tsunami and the results were both positive and negative.  

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http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/jan/27/banda-aceh-community-spirit-peace-indonesia-tsunami

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We visited the Tsunami Memorial Museum. The photographs are incredible. We watched shocking film footage of the tsunami as it hit Aceh. Until there was a power-cut. We were ushered out of the building. I am disappointed not to have seen the clock that fell from the grand mosque. A cool water memorial on the lower level with a sphere for every country that came to the aid of Aceh. We visited the most famous of the tsunami sights, the boat in the house and the 2500 tonne power generator vessel that was swept 5km inland by the wave. The ship was still able to generate power for a month after the disaster. We also visited the Museum Negeri Banda Aceh. They seem proud of having had women rulers in the lineage of the Sultans of Aceh. We took in the beauty of the Grand Mosque but did not enter. We drove down to the fish farms and the grey sandy beach. Our driver lost his fish farm and his lucrative prawns in December 2004. They were ready to be harvested but he wanted to wait until the price went up closer to the new year. We drove down to the harbour and saw the traditional shark fishing boats. Pointed fronts and squared off backs. Tiger shark skins and other shark bits were drying in the sun. The Acehnese eat the meat and sell the rest. Some impotent Chinese a ready market. We drank delicious coffee at a local café and ate sweets flavoured with coconut. Aceh is a cool place and has a lot more to offer than just memorials to the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.

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After all the travelling, we were looking forward to ending our holiday by catching the ferry from Aceh to Pulah Weh and spending a few days in the same place. Getting on the ferry was a bit stressful, especially with our bags, as we squeezed in as other passengers squeezed out – and we were directed to a lower deck area with airline seating, cockroaches and frosted windows. Very claustrophobic. Thankfully, the journey to the island was only about 45 minutes. We went up-top on the way back. Weh is a tiny tropical rock off the tip of Sumatra.

We arrived at Sabang and drove to Freddies. Red lifebuoy soap and a noisy rooster with no idea of time. No phone service and no wi-fi. No problem but Dundee are still in the promotion race. Owned by a South African who arrived as part of the relief NGOs in 2004 the place is well-known for his cooking. We didn’t meet him but his assistant produced some lovely food out a very interesting kitchen. Sell by dates don’t apply here. Great place. We spent the week on the beach. Cairo devoured book after book from the second-hand bookshelf or swapped with other guests. Lucas fished unsuccessfully but it was a pleasant way to spend some time for his dad. He also played with local kids, collecting hermit crabs and playing football. A clean stretch of white sand heavily armed with local policemen for the first few days. They fished and relaxed before heading off on patrol.

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An old WW2 pill-box on the beach is a reminder of the Japanese invasion and a Michael Morpurgo book called Kensukes Kingdom. Easy to believe that the last Japanese soldier stationed on a Southeast Asia island surrendered in 1974. 

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The only exploring we did was to point zero. The furthest West you can go in Indonesia. The place was mobbed with Indonesians taking selfies and countless photographs of each other. An entrepreneurial restaurant owner produced certificates from 0 km. Her young son typed in our family name on the computer and a generator brought the printer to life. We stopped at a busy dive centre at Teupin Layeu on the way back. The overwhelming colour was orange, as visitors put on their buoyancy aids, tried on their masks and snorkels and headed to a boat.

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Sumatra is a brilliant place. We are now looking forward to heading to the Banda islands in July. Getting everything into two bags might be a challenge. Indonesia is a wonderful place to travel. We are so, so lucky.

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Sumatra even encouraged the boys to reflect last night. 

My favourite part of the holiday was the orangutan walk. I particularly liked this part because of meeting the orangutans and the river rafting. I also enjoyed the beach and the warm sea. (birthday boy)

My favourite thing about Sumatra was walking in the exotic forest and surprisingly seeing Mina. Mina is an orang-utan with anger issues described in the guide book as aggressive.We had to make a quick change of direction when we met her. At the time she had a baby so she was very protective of her baby. There is a story of Mina grabbing on to people’s packs for at least half an hour. Later on during the hot and humid walk we met Mina’s sister Jackie. (Lucas)

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2 Comments »

  1. what a fabulous description, the best ever, of a fantastic holiday
    Ian and Linda

    Comment by ian and linda — April 30, 2014 @ 1:29 am | Reply

  2. Wowser….lonely planet eat your heart out. Great run down of your amazing holiday. Very lucky boys….seeing and experiencing so much. Luv Shari x

    Comment by Shari — April 30, 2014 @ 8:01 am | Reply


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