Bukit Lawang: "The Great Ape of Sumatra"

Bukit Lawang
North Sumatra
June 27, 2008

Dear Family and Friends,

The Rindu Alam Hotel sits along the banks of the Bohorok River, a rocky, mountain stream that runs into the Batang Sarangan, a river that flows northeast into the Selat Melaka, the Straits of Malacca and the Andaman Sea.

The Bohorok is what you would expect from a jungle-mountain stream -- rough, cold water, lush green hills nearby and a blue-gray sunset that consumes the batteries in my camera.

A victim of the flash flood that tore through here five years ago, the Rindu Alam has newly furnished rooms and many young trees and flowers. But I didn't come here to see the flora. I came for the fauna.


With our guide in the lead, Utami and I cross the swaying footbridge over the river and climb up the steep paths through the rubber plantation, and into the jungle. There's no sky here, only a narrow green tunnel filled with butterflies, ants, termites, spiders and birds.

The nimble guide strolls up the 45 degree path. Utami, all 40 kilos of her (88 pounds), quickly follows. And then there's Mr. Jan, bringing up the rear, camera in one hand and walking stick in the other, sweating and struggling, slashing at the trees, and stabbing at the ground to find purchase on something stable. I stop to take a breath; I stop to take a deep breath; I stop to take a satisfying breath to consider, "...I am hiking...through the jungle... of Sumatra ..."

Up ahead the guide gives off a series of grunts and assorted guttural sounds. In a minute some trees above begin swaying and swishing about. In another minute a dark shadow appears high up in the branches. Then, slowly and cautiously, grasping at the narrow and bending branches, and using all fours, the world's largest arboreal mammal, a great ape and our distant cousin, Pongo abelii, the Sumatra orangutan shows up looking for a late lunch.

Our black-faced, black hands and toed, red-orange-brown hairy friend reaches out for the leaves and fruit that Utami is happy to share. I am happy to stand aside and shoot my photos of this handsome and grateful creature who lives alone in the forest canopy. He is probably older and heavier than Utami and neither of them show any fear of each other. This is not a zoo, my friends. This is the jungle and this alpha-male is wild. But how could you not love that face?

When papa is satisfied with his meal, mama shows up. And just like every other young woman I've seen in Sumatra , there's an infant on her hip. The baby seems curious, maybe a bit frightened and only cares about hanging on to mama. Mama is hungry so we have another mouth to feed.

Orangutans once roamed over all of Southeast Asia, but now they are confined to a few forest preserves here in Sumatra and on Borneo.

Not wanting to be up-staged by the orangutan, a troop of Presbytis thomasi makes an appearance overhead. Thomas's leaf monkey, indigenous to Sumatra , is small with black and white coloring, perfect for blending in with the streams of light and shadow of this jungle. They have black shoulders, a white chest and a very long tail of white and black stripes. Their heads are black and white with patches of white on each side of a spiky black crest, reminiscent of the hipster Mohawk haircut of years ago. This stylish coiffure has earned them the nickname, "funky monkey."

After a bumpy drive and a humid hike, I am feeling a bit funky myself so it's back to the riverside hotel for a (no hot water!) shower and a vegetarian dinner.

Our day ends and the rough stream and dense hills grow deep blue and black.

Are those the howls of Pongo and Thomas? Where will they sleep tonight? Do they have enough to eat? Will they survive in their environment? After all, they seem so...so....what's the word I'm looking for? They seem so...human.

Ramar Jan


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