Jungle Boogie

Trekking day came and our guides Yahya and Putra checked that we had what we needed and enough water, and instructed us to pull our socks up over our trousers to prevent leeches from burrowing into our feet and ankles. Then we spritzed ourselves all over with insect repellent before heading off.

We walked back through the village to a swing bridge and crossed the river to the steep mountain ridge on the other side. Take note of the turmoil in the river. It comes up later.

We started to climb. And climb. And climb. Sometimes there were steps, sometimes just toeholds carved into the slope, but it was up all the way. I had to stop several times because my heart was pounding out of my chest, but the guides and Jack seemed not to be bothered by the climb at all. And I remind you that Jack is sporting two stainless steel knees. My original equipment is still in operation so far, thank goodness.

Along the way we passed two men carrying a 55kg block of raw latex out of a rubber plantation. They were about to start down the steep steps we’d just come up and I felt sorry for the downhill guy. He would bear most of the weight of the unwieldy load.

We continued to climb and the path grew more and more uneven. We were both mindful of where we stepped; it wouldn’t do to turn an ankle here.

We saw our first orangutans about an hour into the climb but we didn’t get any good photos. We decided right then and there that we would be present and enjoy what we saw and not worry about photography. Most of the time we needed two hands for safety on the trail.

After an hour and a half and 1300 feet of elevation gained we finally reached the entrance to the national park and the protected area. Our guide presented us with our park permits and after a photo op we forged ahead.

Once we entered the park the trail deteriorated dramatically. It’s still rainy season and it had rained all night long so the footing was slippery and often puddled. Both of us went down several times in the mud.

We started seeing more orangutans, including a mother and baby. They were much harder to spot and photograph than in Borneo because there aren’t feeding stations in open clearings. We’re in dense rainforest on narrow pathways and these are wild orangutans fending for themselves.

Our guides never hurried us. When we spotted animals we all stopped and watched for as long as we could see anything, then we moved on.

We were there for the orangutans but we also saw plenty of macaques, which we’ve had our fill of after living in Langkawi for so long, but eventually we saw Thomas leaf monkeys, a species only found here in Sumatra.

Despite the many people trekking through this park at any given time we rarely crossed paths with anyone else. The guides were good at giving us all our own experience.

Our trail lead us up and down, again and again, and as we crested another slope a large male orangutan came out of the forest right in front of us.

“Back, back, back,” said Yahya, and we quickly backed away from the animal. This individual is a known rogue who has learned that humans sometimes have food and he’s not afraid like the others. Our guides held us back until he saw that he wasn’t getting anything from us, and he moved off into the trees.

This is why we chose an ethical company. We’d heard that some guides call to the animals, or lure them with food. Our guides respect the forest and the animals and are dedicated to leaving no trace.

After a few more sightings our guides found a quiet spot to rest and within a few minutes we had a delicious lunch of nasi goreng and fresh fruit.

It was a welcome break before the long trek back. Even though the food was served in banana leaves, the guides gathered up the leftovers and fruit peels and packed it all out again. We left no trace.

As it turned out, we didn’t go back. Yahya gave us a choice: an easy uphill, then downhill to the river, or a more difficult up and down then up and down with the possibility of more animals. We hemmed and hawed. We were tired but we also knew we’d probably never be here again. Yahya sensed our indecision and suggested “the middle path,” and as a Buddhist I seized on that.

In the event, the middle path was a killer. The phones went into our pockets, not to see the light of day again until we reached the river because it took every ounce of strength on all four limbs to move forward and maintain balance.

At one point we climbed hand over hand up a near vertical rock face. Halfway up I stopped. I couldn’t do it. I had a long conversation with myself. I questioned my life’s choices and wondered where I had gone wrong to be in this situation. I wondered if I could call for an airlift. I wondered if I could just sit down and wait for a miracle. I couldn’t go on. But I had to go on.

Yahya talked me up, pointing to where to put my foot next, often taking my hand and hauling me up to the next foothold. I looked back at Jack who was doing just fine. He told me later his only thoughts were that he had no knee pain like before, and he wished he were in better shape. Yeah, me too.

As we rested on a narrow ledge before tackling another steep climb, Yahya asked us how old we are. When we told him he and Putra both gasped. When their parents and grandparents are that old, he told us, they can no longer come to the forest. They stay home.

“But we are here,” I said. Yahya grinned and nodded approvingly.

“Yes. You are here.”

We finally descended to the beach. We would return to the village by tubing down the river which was swollen and foaming over the rocky riverbed.

We knew ahead of time we’d get soaked. Jack had worn his swim trunks under his trousers but I had to duck into the forest to change into shorts. I found a rock to sit on and with hands shaking from exhaustion I pulled off my shoes and socks, then peeled off my sweaty trousers, all the while mindful that leeches were eyeing my veins. I dislodged one just as it started to attach itself to my leg. I hoped there weren’t any on my bum.

It took awhile to get recombobulated with shorts and reef runners and I returned to the river where Yahya helped us dislodge the remaining leeches from our ankles. It turns out our socks were no deterrent to a determined leech.

Putra laid out a spread of fresh fruit that we barely had the energy to eat. A third member of our team showed up with our tubing rig. He will guide us through the whitewater.

Once again we said goodbye to our phones and any possibility of photos, as everything got packed into plastic bags for the whitewater adventure ahead. I took a few photos of other rafts to give you an idea of what it was like, but they don’t come close to conveying the turbulent water we navigated on our way downriver.

Our boatman was an expert driver, fending off the boulders that studded the river with a bamboo pole, and keeping us facing in the right direction as the current tried many times to spin us around. It had rained heavily the night before and the river was running fast. We got sucked into whirlpools and spat out the other side after scooping up a large share of river, which then dumped on our heads. It was an exhilarating ride, the water bracing but welcome on our tired limbs.

We finally landed downriver from the guesthouse and we crawled out of the tubes on legs like jelly. Our guides and boatman shouldered our gear and the tubes and hoofed it back to home base with the energy of youth, Jack and I dragging our tails behind.

It was, without a doubt, the toughest trek we’ve ever done. So far.


Filed under Uncategorized

6 Responses to Jungle Boogie

  1. Suzy O'Hanlon Capenos

    Wow. Soon as I read about the leaches, I thought this will be interesting.Amazing trek!!! Orangutans. Beautiful pics of flora and fauna. The middle path back. Rapids. Uneven trails. I loved every moment of experiencing your adventure. Thank You Marce and Jack. Good bye Sumatra.

  2. Etive Sinclair Brown

    OMG these roots on a muddy pathway are so treacherous, how you managed all that is a miracle! And the scary orangutan, even if he was only looking for food…. and the end of your trip down the rapids. I can’t think of the highest award you should get but hope you are both OK.

  3. John Halbrook

    Thanks for taking us along on a really arduous adventure. Really enjoyed it, especially from my armchair.

  4. Darshna

    I’m completely in awe of your sense of adventure. I met you through Debbie when you were in Puerto Rico over a decade ago and I’ve tried to keep up with you ever since. You never fail to amaze me. Now that I’m retired, I’m looking forward to a journey that is at least a little bit adventurous in SE Asia. Onwards and upwards…

  5. Jason

    Absolutely stupendous! wonderful! Amazing! What an adventure!

  6. Bruce Bly

    Thank you, thank you, thank you… I’ve missed you guys; glad you’re back.

We love to hear from you!