On The Traces Of Wild Orangutans (Where To Go Jungle Trekking In Indonesia)
When we did our research about Indonesia, which places to visit and what to do, we stumbled upon jungle trekking experiences in Northern Sumatra, home to the Sumatran Orangutans.
After doing more research we found out that Sumatra is one of the only two remaining places worldwide where you can still find those endangered animals in their natural habitat.
Many tour operators offer jungle trekking for one or more days, which gives you the chance of seeing orangutans in the wild.
We did a lot of further reading to make sure the tours are not harmful to the animals before we booked our 2-days jungle trekking tour.
In this post, we put together everything you need to know about your sustainable orangutan trekking in Bukit Lawang, Northern Sumatra.
At a glance:
Jungle Trekking With Orangutans in Northern Sumatra
Sustainable Trekking Tours at Gunung Leuser National Park
The Gunung Leuser National Park in Bukit Lawang, Northern Sumatra, encloses a wide range of protected ecosystem.
The former orangutan sanctuary, which reintegrated captivated orangutans, is closed since 2005 and both the wild and rehabilitated orangutans still live in the area close-by.
The reintegrated animals can be found playing at the abandoned feeding station of the old sanctuary.
But before we tell you more about our experience we want to point out some important details.
Orangutans are wild animals, which is why it can never be guaranteed that you will see them.
Some people are super lucky to see more than 10 a day while others only see one or two during a 2-days jungle trekking tour.
So please keep in mind that they are wild animals and respect them in their home.
We booked our jungle trekking experience with Bukit Lawang – Jungle Trekking.
Run by the amazing Janine and Dodi Heryanta Peranginangin, a German-Indonesian couple.
They know how important it is to protect the orangutans and support many social projects in the area.
We were impressed how well trained and educated their team is, also they do not leave any waste in the jungle and won’t feed the orangutans.
However, in some cases, it might be necessary to lure them with banana peel if a situation gets too dangerous for any participants.
Day 1 – Rubber Plantations & our first Orangutan encounters
To increase our chances of seeing the orangutans in their natural habitat we opted for an overnight 2-day jungle trekking.
Not only will it help to see them, it also sounded adventurous and exciting (a little scary) to spend a night in the jungle. :)
Our trek started at 9 AM right after breakfast at the restaurant of Bukit Lawang – Jungle Trekking.
A great kickoff into this adventure was walking along all the rubber plantations which are an important source of income for the local farmer.
Not so funny were the mosquitos, which really like the rubber smell..
Rubber Plantations in Sumatra
We had no idea how rubber is extracted and more important how much time it takes.
To drain the rubber the farmers cut the tree’s bark so that the liquid can stream down.
At the bottom, they place a coconut shell to collect the liquid rubber.
It takes up to a week until the coconut is (only) half full.
The farmers sell their harvest on the weekly market, where all the rubber is collected in big chunks and sold per kilograms.
Unfortunately, we can’t remember the price but it wasn’t much more than a couple of US$ per kilo.
That’s how little the farmers earn for one week of work.
Entering Gunung Leuser National Park
After a further 10-20 minutes walk, we reached the entrance of the Gunung Leuser National Park.
Our 2 well-trained guides briefed us about the most important facts before entering the Gunung Leuser National Park.
Like, for example, that it’s not warm rain coming down from the trees but rather monkey pee. Ugh! :D
The Park is home to many animals besides orangutans like elephants, rhinos, tigers, leopards and different monkey species.
The most famous monkeys are the Thomas’ Leaf monkey, macaques or the Siamang (a gibbon species).
Our first Orangutan encounter
It took us another 30 minutes after entering the National Park until we had our first encounter with orangutans.
To be precise with the famous Mina.
You can identify her by the big scar on her forehead, which she sadly owes to a human.
This encounter is the reason why she doesn’t trust humans – who can blame her.
The guides have to be especially cautious with Mina so we kept our distance.
Besides her, we suddenly saw a small orange bundle – her baby.
Mina was lying on the floor eating while constantly watching her little one, which was playing cheerfully in the trees.
Not even the crossing macaques could disturb this perfect family idyll.
After another group of tourists arrived Mina suddenly got uncomfortable.
We were about 10-15 people watching her and she still distrusts humans.
So we continued our jungle trekking tour deeper into the park until we came across another group of day trekkers.
They pointed into the trees where we could see movement.
Another orangutan, and another, and another.
2 fully grown females and their young ones.
The younger orangutans were again enjoying themselves jumping from branch to branch more than 3 meters above the ground.
After the first few hours, we’d already seen 6 orangutans!
After another walk up and down the mountainous landscape of the Gunung Leuser National Park, we made a short break.
Our guides Jimmy and Sardi prepared the delicious fruits they carried with them.
The trek itself was not easy even though we were only carrying the most important things like another pair of clothes, sunscreen, mosquito repellant, toothbrush and water.
It’s incredible how much weight our two guides were carrying including all the food for us!
That said we also enjoyed one of the best Nasi Goreng we ever had in the middle of the Gunung Leuser National Park.
Next to a bunch of ants which luckily helped clean the forest floor by carrying away the rice we dropped while eating out of our banana leaves.
We will always remember this amazing lunch! :)
Falling Asleep in the Jungle
Strengthened we carried onto the last part of the trek.
I have to admit, that I was already super exhausted by that time.
Jimmy and Sardi had to bear with my grumpy mood, which Berni is already used to while hiking. :D
After the last uphill and downhill stretch our camp was finally in sight.
The cook, who took a different path to the camp, carrying all the equipment and ingredients, did an incredible job preparing dinner for us.
We all sat together with a couple of self-made candlesticks and enjoyed plenty fo the delicious food.
That day we had luckily seen 6 wild orangutans which left us grateful and super tired.
So it didn’t take too long until we fell asleep in our large tent with sleeping bags and a mosquito net protecting us from the wild animals.
Day 2 – Eye to eye with a male Orangutan
The next morning started with another delicious meal before we headed back ‘home’.
Our two guides were still keen about finding more orangutans but it didn’t look like we would get lucky that day.
We stopped at a clearance for a short break to enjoy some fruits.
One of our guides was pointing at a gibbon in the distance swinging from branch to branch.
Everyone put their backpacks down and we focused on the gibbon and on taking pictures.
As suddenly a voice shouted ‘Take your backpacks! Hurry!’.
And there he was a huge male orangutan not more than 3 meters away looking right at us.
He seemed gentle and was moving very slowly but our guides warned us that he can be quicker as we are and we have to be cautious.
So we kept our distance and looked humbly into his so humane eyes which felt like looking into another person’s face.
The perfect end of our 2-day Jungle Trekking
Being so close to this beautiful orangutan which looked at us like gently saying ‘Hello!’ was proof that those great apes are more alike to humans that we could have ever imagined!
After this last encounter with a wild orangutan, we made our way to the river where we ended our jungle trekking experience by rafting back to Bukit Lawang.
We were lucky to have seen so many orangutans during our trek and are grateful for the amazing guidance of the team of Bukit Lawang – Jungle Trekking.
They are also playing a huge part in some local projects.
For example, they try to reduce the plastic waste in the community and help the locals to understand why the orangutans can be from great importance for a sustainable long-run tourism flow.
Tourists are welcome and important for many locals.
Raising awareness about the benefits of long-run tourism incomes might help to raise a voice against the increasing amount of palm oil plantations and deforestation.
Do you love animals, nature and a good cause?
Then you are in the right place.
Make sure to check our tour operator and their great causes at Bukit Lawang – Jungle Trekking.
They gladly organize other activities besides jungle trekking like cooking classes, crafting workshops (Berni made a necklace out of a coconut shell) or you can participate in one of their projects.
We helped paint the canvas tote bags and took part in handing them out at the local market where we had so much fun talking to the locals.
Different Orangutan Species & Where to Find Them
Orangutans belong to the great apes and share approximately 97% of their DNA with humans, which makes encountering them in the wild even more special.
There are 3 different orangutans species left on our planet the Sumatran, the Bornean and the recently found Tapanuli.
While the Sumatran and the Tapanuli Orangutans are found on Sumatra, the Bornean Orangutan is located in the Malaysian and Indonesian areas of Borneo.
The Sumatran Orangutans are only found in Northern Sumatra, Indonesia.
Estimations say that there are about 14.600 Sumatran Orangutans living in the wild, with the Gunung Leuser National Park being one of their protected habitats.
Compared to the other 2 species the Sumatran Orangutans are thinner and have longer hair and faces.
With its hair being of a much brighter red the Bornean Orangutan can be found in the Malaysian and Indonesian areas of Borneo.
In the wild, they can get 35 – 45 years old.
With more than 54.000 individuals left, the Bornean Orangutan is more common than the Sumatran one.
Their long arms can reach up to 1,5 meters in length, which is why they are so good at moving among the trees.
The Tapanuli Orangutan can also be found in North Sumatra but further southeast than the Sumatran Orangutan.
In 2017 the Tapanuli Orangutans were identified as a distinct species.
Compared to the other 2 species the Tapanuli resembles the Sumatran Orangutans more than the Bornean but they have smaller heads and flatter faces.
Among Tapanuli Orangutans both males and females have beards.
Apart from their looks also their calls sound different from those of the Sumatran and Bornean Orangutans.
It’s believed that they are exclusively arboreal, which means that they only live in trees.
Probably due to the Sumatran tigers living in the area.
With less than 800 individuals this species is the most endangered of the 3 and also the most endangered amongst the great apes.
The Most Severe Threats Orangutans Are Facing
All three kinds of orangutans are critically endangered, which is the most severe level of extinction risk, with deforestation being one of the main threats.
Illegal logging, fires and the tremendous increase in palm oil plantations are the most common reasons for the decreasing forestland, which leads to other great threats like poaching.
Palm oil is a particularly harmful threat because it is in high demand and accounts for over 1/10 of Indonesia’s exports and the palm oil industry pays the locals pretty good compared to other industries.
Some owners of palm oil plantations order the farmers to protect the crop not hesitating to kill an orangutan or any other animal which comes to close to the fields for a reward.
Bushmeat trade & poaching
Another big threat is the bushmeat trade which is still a huge problem in many parts of Indonesia as well as holding orangutans as pets since owning an orangutan is seen as being a status symbol in some wealthier classes.
Those threats make it more and more urgent to educate the local farmers about the importance of the forest and that protecting the orangutans can be an advantage for long-run tourism increase.
Many tourists are interested in learning about the orangutans and are looking for a sustainable experience which both helps the orangutans and the locals.
As do you right now. ;)
Together we can all create change!
If you are interested in learning more about the threats those great apes are facing read this BBC earth story.
How to Get to Northern Sumatra, Bukit Lawang
We absolutely recommend visiting Bukit Lawang and booking a sustainable jungle trekking tour with Bukit Lawang – Jungle Trekking.
In the Gunung Leuser National Park, you can witness wild orangutans enjoying life in their natural habitat, instead of visiting them in a Sanctuary.
However, getting to Bukit Lawang, where almost all tours into the National Park start, is not that easiest.
After all, it should be a bit challenging to visit those precious orangutans, don’t you think?! ;)
When you fly in you’ll arrive at the Kualanamu International Airport in Medan from where you start your journey to the 86km away Bukit Lawang.
There are different possibilities on how to get to Bukit Lawang from Medan Airport.
Getting To Bukit Lawang by Private Transport
Most accommodations in Bukit Lawang offer a private pick up from the airport which starts at 50 US$ and takes about 4-5 hours.
This is definitely the most convenient and easiest way to get to Bukit Lawang but also the more expensive one.
The cheap option is to take the public bus.
Getting To Bukit Lawang by Public Transport
If you choose to take the public transport (as we did) you have to take 2 busses.
First head to the ALS bus (Antar Lintas Sumatera) at Medan Airport which will take you to a city named Binjai, half the way to Bukit Lawang.
The tickets for the first bus cost around 30.000 IDR.
You don’t need to haggle as this is a standardized price which is also displayed at the bus.
From the drop off in Binjai take a tuk-tuk (rickshaw) called becak in Indonesia.
It takes you to the next bus station where a minibus to Bukit Lawang is waiting and costs about 10.000 IDR.
The second bus costs approximately 25.0000 IDR but be aware that the bus mafia (yes, that’s no joke) might try to scam you.
We had to wait for 2 hours to finally get on a bus for a reasonable (75.000 IDR) price.
The whole route, from the airport to Binjai and Binjai to Bukit Lawang took about 6 hours driving time in total.
If you prefer an easy arrival and want to avoid such a scam we recommend choosing Private Transport instead. ;)
What to Bring for Jungle Trekking in Sumatra
If you want to spend the night in the jungle you will need the following items for your jungle trekking experience in Northern Sumatra:
- light clothes for the day like T-shirts and shorts (long shorts to prevent mosquito bites)
- long and thin trousers and sleeved shirts for the evening (to keep the mosquitos away)
- light and warm socks
- comfortable good walking shoes/boots for the jungle trekking
- flip flops for the time at the campsite
- 1 small waterproof/water resistant backpack per person
- raincoat/waterproof jacket
- waterproof bag for your personal belongings
- light sleeping bag (check prior if one is available at the campsite)
- swimming suit and travel towel
- refillable water bottle
- sun lotion
- insect repellent
- mosquito net
- toilet paper (available in the accommodation)
- camera, mobile phone
- personal medical kit and recommended medicine like anti-diarrhea medicine, dehydration salt, aspirin and antibiotics
- MONEY because there are no cashpoints in Bukit Lawang (money changer are available)
Where to stay in Sumatra, Bukit Lawang
Bukit Lawang offers all types of accommodations depending on your needs and budget.
Most of the guesthouses are situated close to the Bohorok River.
So they offer great views of the river and the surrounding jungle.
Make sure to check if they have warm water because many don’t. ;)
Bukit Lawang – Jungle Trekking offers low budget accommodations as well and they also have a great restaurant.
They offer delicious homemade food for a good price!