Bukit Lawang: one of the last few places in the world where you can experience orangutans living in the wild. After spending about three weeks in Nias (a tiny, low-populated island that is home to one of the best waves in the world,) I decide to step out of my comfort zone and spend some time in the jungle. I’m talking about the monkey-swinging, tiger-roaring, elephant-stomping kind of jungle; the real deal jungle. What the hell is this surfer girl doing in the middle of North Sumatra… in the heart of Bukit Lawang? There are absolutely zero waves around here, and not to mention, the tequila is pretty slim, too. Out of my element is an understatement, but that’s what it’s all about right?
Indulge. This word is continuously circling through my brain at all times. From the seldom, hot water showers to the 25 cent vodka shots they say could make you go blind. Regardless of the circumstances, I am always convincing myself to indulge.
As I sit here, three hours fresh into the jungle life, as wide-eyed and bushy- tailed as one could be, I invited any ounce of adventure into my life. That is what I came for. I look over the price sheet for the jungle treks, scanning over my options: half day hike, full day hike, three day hike, seven day, ten day, and so on.. Obviously I divert my eyes to the very bottom of the price sheet (the longest trek they offer.)
“Gimmie all you’ve got,” I ponder to myself, the ridiculous extremist that I am, as I mentally prepare myself for a month long trudge into the deepest parts of the Sumatran jungle. Well, I’ve only got about five days set aside in Bukit Lawang. So, that diminishes a lot of my options. This minor part of the trip was the conclusion of my two-month journey through Asia. Three days before I arrived to Bukit Lawang, I booked a flight home. Yes… That means I booked a flight home from Asia just one week before departuring the country. So what! That’s how I always roll.
Anyway, I gaze over my options and decide I want to trek through the jungle for three days. I desire to sleep with the monkeys and wake up to the roars of the tigers. After examining the weather forecast intently, I very quickly change my mind. Apparently, the weather forecast never changes here (as we are in the rain forest,) but three straight days calling for nothing but thunderstorms was enough to make me review the solo day treks. Without wasting any time, I book the half-day trek.
“So can we go now?” I impulsively ask the petite Indonesian man I had just reserved my trek with. He laughs hysterically, as I sit there, as serious as one could be.
“Oh! You really want to see orangutan right now?” He asks, slightly apologetic for chuckling so loudly.
“Yes! Now! I want to do it now!”
He stares at me with the most sincere face of disappointment while informing me that the early morning is the best time to see the orangutans, but, if I absolutely needed to go at this time of day, then he could make that happen.
You could have told me that there would be magical, flying, fairies if I waited until the next day, and I still would have gone right then. Queen of impatience; that’s me.
Forty-five minutes later, I meet up with my guide in the lobby of my accommodation. Turns out I am the only one attending this trek today, makes sense considering this was arranged less than an hour ago.
My guide, Dickie, hands me a pair of hiking footwear. Surprisingly, they fit like a glove. I assume my four-year old, raggedy vans weren’t proper jungle trekking attire. The trekking shoes are rubber, low-cut, tennis shoes with rubber cleats on the bottom. I am absolutely certain my vans were far sturdier.
Dickie and I embark on our trek, just the two of us. We cross a pretty sketchy, man-made, bridge over the river that was ferociously flowing through the center of Bukit Lawang. Bridges have always been a fear of mine since I was a little girl. But I longed for adventure and welcomed danger. So I marched across that bridge (incredibly hesitantly) like the badass that I am. The only thing on my mind was the creatures that await me on this trek.
As we were rambling greater into the jungle, several groups of people pass by going the opposite direction, out of the jungle. Maybe the man wasn’t lying when he said the morning time is best. We were indeed, the only group that was walking into the jungle as everyone else was leaving.
As we stroll passed one group, my guide and the other guide start chatting in Indonesian. He informs me that they saw many of the smaller monkeys, but no orangutans. The information didn’t faze me; I knew those orangutans were waiting for me to come into the jungle before they came out.
Deeper and deeper few go, for what feels like miles. From the very beginning of our trek to this very moment, several hours later, I have yet to put my Go Pro camera down; it is practically apart of my body now.
Dickie shares the secrets of the jungle with me, while firing up the excitement within. I was determined to see an orangutan. We take a brief pause and eat some of the fruit we brought with us. I glance up and see at least three different types of small monkeys wavering from branch to branch, not bothered by us one bit. I cannot stop observing them play so innocently. Finally, Dickie reminds me that there are other animals in the jungle and we should keep walking.
We pass another guide, who is on his way out. He tells us that there is hope. Mina, one of the more common orangutans seen, was nearby. We cut the small talk, and we are both on our way. At this point, I have zero idea of our whereabouts. But that’s why I have a guide, right? I keep on trekking while taking it all in.
Dickie informs me about Mina. Not only is this momma orangutan one of the more commonly seen ones, but also, she is one of the most aggressive orangutans in Bukit Lawang. He spoke horror stories of her attacking tourists and about how it is not uncommon for the guides to get bitten by her. I think nothing of his warning advisory, and remain ignorant to how dangerous these wild animals can be.
I stopped at what felt like every other plant to take a picture of it. I simply just couldn’t get over the diversity. Trees stretching into the skies as far you could see and shrubs of all shapes growing in every direction you could imagine. There I stood, completely engulfed by the plant life that covered the scenery before my eyes. I had seen this jungle before, in my dreams. It is the Disney-inspired image that every little kid imagines when he or she thinks about the jungle.
“When are Bagheera and Baloo gonna come out singing and guiding us through the jungle?” Dickie does not pick up on my Jungle Book reference, but still spares a pity laugh for me out of kindness and confusion.
After several hours of drooling over unique plants and watching monkeys smaller than a fox, frolicking from tree to tree, we start on the trek out of the jungle, discouraged.
The one thing I had came here to see, I had not seen. I wasn’t asking to see a tiger, or even an elephant; I wanted to see one dang orangutan. People fly here from all over the world because it is almost guaranteed you’ll see one. As I am walking with my head down, pouting to myself, Dickie grabs my arm and points.
There she was; that was Mina. But Mina wasn’t alone. She had the most charming baby orangutan attached to her, holding on for dear life as she sluggishly grazed along the floor of the jungle. We are a decent distance away from them; a comfortable distance. She is so much bigger than I ever expected an orangutan to be. Easily, Mina is much larger than I am.
Smile plastered across my face and Go Pro in hand, I manage to take my eyes off of her for a second to look at Dickie. He looks worried, very worried. Mina has made eye contact with us and is slowly moving our direction, making sure to not take her eyes off of us, as she is still holding her baby. Of course, I am stoked. This is exactly what I had hoped would happen. I stand there as she inches closer to us, Go Pro held up filming every second of it.
What I did not realize was that the Go Pro mount that was attached to my camera was bright yellow and incredibly similar to the shape of a banana. Dickie anxiously tells me to put it away, now. Mina is no longer inching her way towards us, she is walking at a decent pace. The baby orangutan has positioned himself on her back now.
The guides do not feed the orangutans, nor do they advise it because they are aware of how food can make the orangutans aggressive. Mina’s case was a little different. She was once a captive orangutan due to some disabilities that kept her from living normally in the wild. Humans fed her every day while she was in rehabilitation. Once fully recovered, Mina was released back into the wild. But her habits and expectations to be fed remained, which explains her aggression. Unlike a majority of the other wild orangutans, she was not afraid of humans.
I nervously scramble to put my Go Pro camera into my backpack. At this point, Mina is a measly ten feet from me, standing completely straight up and down. She has not taken her eyes off of us since the moment we made eye contact. Dickie takes his backpack off and tosses her the remaining fruit we had left in our bag, in hopes of acquiring some space from here and extra time. We stepped back rapidly, but without creating too much commotion. My heart is completely racing, but not a lick of fear resides within my body. I am with Dickie; he does this every day and knows exactly what he is doing. This is the thrill I sought out for.
After giving Mina all of our remaining fruit, she continues to get closer. Her aggression is noticeably growing. She is roughly eight feet from Dickie and I am not much further behind him. She was not satisfied with the insufficient one orange and one banana we gave her. Dickie shows Mina that the backpack is completely empty. Somehow, Mina has managed to get in between Dickie and I, yet still keeping her eyes glued to the backpack in Dickie’s hands. The baby orangutan is no longer on her back; he is on a branch further away. The situation was starting to really escalate and it was rather apparent. Mina is pissed and clearly wanted more food, or for us to get away from her baby; possibly, bot. As she approaches Dickie even closer, he throws the empty backpack at her. I am completely aware of the severity of this encounter, and needless to say: I am scared shitless.
“Run. You need to start running.” DIckie says to me calmly, without looking at me, although his unease is incredibly evident.
Run? What the hell do you mean run? I stand there frozen, thinking there is no way this man, my guide, expects me to run in the opposite direction of him in the middle of the jungle.
“RUN! DON’T STOP!”
Shit… This is serious. This ain’t a drill. So I do exactly what Dickie tells me, and I run. Sprinting deeper into the jungle, I become further away from what is comfortable. Somehow, someway, I turned into a track star and was running at least fifteen times faster than my normal pace.
With an immense amount of confidence, I glance behind me while still keeping up a relatively fast pace. I swear on everything inside of me, I turn around to a massive, angry, momma orangutan chasing me. Mina is doing this effortless swing-like glide trying to get to me. She can’t be more than twenty feet behind me. I start to lose my cool, as if I hadn’t already been losing my cool. This seriously cannot be happening to me right now. But oh! It was, in fact, happening to me.
I was in the Indonesian jungle, separated from my trekking guide, hopelessly running for my life, away from an orangutan.
“DIckie! Help!” I struggled to get those two words out, as I was in the sincerest form of complete panic. I am running up a gradual incline, slightly hunched over grabbing onto the Earth and reaching for any branch or lose stick to throw, if I needed to.
“Don’t stop running Haley! You will lose her!” Now, I may not be an experienced jungle trekking expert, but I am pretty damn sure I am not going to outrun a pissed off momma orangutan. There was no “losing her.”
Dickie’s voice sounded so far away. But again, I do exactly as he says. I keep running. The thought of how lost I am has not even entered my brain. I continue to run further into the jungle and further into fear and confusion. I don’t turn back to look at all anymore.
“I am here Haley, it is okay.” Dickie yells out to me. Yet, he wasn’t here. He was so far away from me that it felt like he was just a voice in my head. I don’t even notice the fact that my entire body is numb or that I am running at super sonic speed with zero fear of getting misplaced in the jungle. The only thought in my mind was Dickie’s voice telling me to run.
A sudden wave of security rolls over me; I am not sure what told me to stop running, but I did. I nervously look over my shoulder, expecting to see Mina staring at me. But she wasn’t there, nothing was. Did I actually lose her? There’s no way.
“Dickie!” I cry out in despair, as I notice my entire body trembling like an earthquake.
In the calmest, most reassuring, voice in the far distance, Dickie responds. “I am still here. You are safe. Come to my voice.” I follow his voice, with the greatest hesitance, in the direction I was just running from. I was so irrevocably petrified.
“Dickie?” I stammer, still shaking.
“Keep coming, Haley.” His voice still sounds miles away. But it can’t be; he can’t be that far from me. I keep my eyes peeled, scanning the entirety of landscape in front of me. I am waiting for Mina to swing out of nowhere and attack me. I continue to follow Dickie’s voice that is so full of confidence and comfort. I had only met this man a handful of hours ago, yet I found so much safety in his voice alone. I had placed every ounce of trust that I possibly could on him. He was all I had out here with me, and he was my only way of getting out of here.
I notice his voice getting closer to me. Dickie is still tranquilly, guiding me towards the direction of his voice. He is close, but he is with Mina. I begin to freak out again. Sweat is profusely emitting from my pores.
Dickie, still communicating without any sight of me, directs me to continue hiking downhill but to veer left.
“You will see the path we first walked in on, where we sat down to eat our fruit.” He confidently commands. I am utterly disoriented and don’t have a clue where I am or how he knows where I am, but I obey. Sure enough, I reach the exact spot we rested at to eat our snack. I fretfully laugh uncontrollably due to a lack of a more appropriate reaction. There is no way in hell I am where I think I am right now. How did I manage to get back to the log we sat at earlier today? I just circled right back to where the entire trek began, and somehow I did that solely off of a voice I heard in the distance.
I was, and still very much so am, completely impressed with how Dickie knew exactly how to get me right where I needed to be, in order to be safe from the wild orangutan that was following me. Finally, Dickie walks up to where I am waiting for him, with the backpack that he tossed at Mena in his hand.
“How…? Are you…? What in the world just happened?” I mutter, shocked and remarkably perplexed.
“I told you that you were always safe, it is all okay.” Dickie responds, remaining in the same confident tone. I ask a million questions and wonder how he got away from Mina safely, and how I got away safely. Dickie never really gives me a serious answer to any of the questions I was asking.
Dickie jokes, “I had a little talk with Mina while you were running. She was just joking with you. She wanted me to ask you when you were coming back to the jungle again?”
I try to spit out a laugh; nothing but an unpromising smile comes out. My facial expression says it all; I am as easy to read as a book. Is he being serious? I just experienced one of the most terrifying moments of my entire life and Dickie is making a joke out of it? So many thoughts and questions were running through my mind. I don’t think Dickie was scared for one moment; he exposed sureness the entire time. Deep down, he might have had his uncertainties or moments of doubt, but he never once portrayed that state of unease to me. The guides in Bukit Lawang study the jungle and train for years to become a jungle trekking guide. There is a reason why you need a permit to even enter the jungle; it is illegal to trek without a guide. Dickie proved that reason to me during this experience. Despite the terrifying fact that I was out of his sight and being chased by one of the most aggressive orangutans, he was able to get me out safe and maintain a presence of confidence. I could not have asked for a better person to guide me on this incredibly epic journey.
Note to self: Avoid bringing all objects resembling a banana when jungle trekking through orangutan territory.