Thursday, March 17, 2016

Sumatran Interlude

We flew into Medan, which is only 171 miles away but certainly feels like more. We are told that the  modern, attractive airport is the best in Indonesia.  It sits well outside the city center, through which one must pass to reach, well, everything else.  It takes ages to make our way through the traffic-clogged streets of uninspiring Medan. Three and a half hours to travel 100 miles to the jungle place we have booked in hopes of seeing/hearing siamang (black gibbons). We are surprised at the number of churches we pass along the way,  We spot six in the first hour alone, along with perhaps 25 mosques, many with shiny aluminum domes. It's a surprise because we are so close to Aceh, where there is shariah law and presumably few Christians.  Perhaps we are wrong about that.  Churches here are large and look well-attended.

Through the city at last, and into another small city called Binjai, which feels downright attractive after Medan.  It is not long before we hit palm oil plantations.  On the left, trees about 25 years old, which is their maximum useful life span as they get too tall to easily harvest.  On the right, those about 5 years old, maybe 12 feet.  I ask how old they are at first harvest--only 2 1/2 years. It's not an unattractive tree, but with miles and miles and miles of the one crop, it's overwhelming, sinister even. Nothing grows underneath them, and animals cannot live there. Where do they go??

The roads become a pit to pit 1st gear ride. and eventually we reach Bukit Lawang, where we will hike in the Gunung Leuser park (what's left of it) the next day. The park is a shadow of it's former self, picked away by people trying to make money one way or another.

Our first Bintang, Indonesian beer, by the river which is quite high as there has been a lot of rain.  In 2003 the entire village of Bukit Lawang was wiped out when a dam burst upstream--an act attributed to illegal logging in the park. It was nighttime and people were sleeping; over 600 people lost their lives. No wonder locals are watching the river closely.

Here is (evidently) Tom's guesthouse, on the other side of the river and down a ways.  Ours is cooler looking, and much smaller.

The entire village is entirely dependent on tourism.  There are hikes and camping in the park and rafting in the river.  Below is part of the walkway from the road where cars drop tourists coming to the village.  Deliveries of supplies for the many guesthouses are made either on foot or by motorbike along this path.
We had an interesting, looooooong, and largely very wet hike the next day.  Here is K with Omano, our guide. This is as we crossed the river to enter the park.

Just outside the park, someone has planted rubber trees 

 and cocoa
Park entrance

On our day-long hike we saw:  Thomas' Langurs and 4 semi-wild orangutans--see pix. We were able to watch the langurs for quite awhile--cool looking!  It hadn't started to rain yet...

The orangs were a different story. The guides know them by name and know which ones can be safely observed.  The ones in this area are semi-wild, meaning they were once in captivity.  Meaning they know that humans bring food.  We did encounter two aggressive females, and were quickly shepherded out of the way by our guide and his assistant, leaving the assistant to bribe them with fruit he carried just for the purpose.  Sad!  They said if they were alone they could outrun the animals, but with us they had to protect us by distracting the orangutans with food.

Tom got the first leech :-)  It was so cozy in his armpit...  All in all we satisfied 3 leeches during the day, and frustrated one other.
Well, the main hope for the trek was to hear the sound of the group siamang vocalization, and we did come close.  Omano and his assistant tried hard to find and then follow a group of them but just as they started singing, the rain began to pour down and they stopped.  We did hear lots of white-handed gibbon vocalization, which is much simpler and no group effect. Also in the area but not seen by us are pig-tailed macaque, loris, and civet cats.

Our second encounter with an orangutan surprised the guides (and us!!).  The assistant was forced to hand over the pineapple he'd brought along for our afternoon treat.

Omano knew how much I wanted to hear the siamang, so we traversed the relatively small area of the park for hours, 7 hours total rather than the 2 - 3 planned. I enjoyed the lovely forest, and tried not to think of the hill primary forest I had hiked in 30+ years ago, not so far south of here....

Can you see the stick insect?
The end of the hike brought us to a very long, steep, muddy and downright treacherous descent to the river.  Very long--several hundred feet anyway.  I would never have made it without the steady hand of the assistant guide.  You have to wonder how many tourists they've lost down this path, which in other places (even Malaysia) would have guide ropes. Thankfully we made it.  Here we are at the bottom, waiting for a "taxi" to get us across the river
 the taxi approacheth
and off we went.
And on the home stretch back to Bukit Lawang and our river-side guesthouse, this lovely sight.

The next day we traveled on to Berastagi, a hill top city famous for strawberries and other temperate climate crops. The road was quite good until we hit the palm oil plantation headquarters, where processing takes place.  Here the road is made nearly impassable by truckload after overloaded truckload of the oil fruits. 
There are so many palm oil trees you get to the point where it is a relief to see a different tree of any sort.  We did see some small rubber plantations, but nothing on the scale of the palm oil. The road condition is appalling, mostly, making travel long and uncomfortable, second gear down to first, up to second down to first.  People say the government doesn't care.  In one spot two boys age 5 - 8 use a hoe and buckets to fill some potholes, while another stands in the middle of the road with a pail collecting donations for the work.  Our driver stops and searches for a coin to give the boy.

It had rained much of the previous day, and heavily all night.  We occasionally pass along the river, which is high and carries a lot of branches and bits of trees. We think anxiously of Bukit Lawang.

Nearing Berastagi the road begins a long climb. Lots of hairpin turns, speeding trucks, and gorgeous views. 
 We reach Berastagi.  In a rather dramatic contrast to the jungle guesthouse, we stay in a resort with a view (weather permitting) of one of the local volcanoes. 

The next day we set off to conquer a volcano--Mt. Sibayak. The hike begins on paved road, steep at times.  That part took us an hour and a half--T leading the pace (otherwise it would no doubt have taken K a good deal longer).  Then there are steps, or what's left of them, to clamber up, about 30 minutes' worth.  

Here is T at the foot of the volcano

And nearing the top
Our first glimpse of the volcano
See the steam vents?  We were able to walk right up to them
Want to hear it?
There's a beautiful shallow lake in the caldera

We decided to climb up to a peak to check out the view.
T at the top

Sadly there is quite a bit of trash from campers/hikers
We hiked all the way back to the hotel...  The day's damage included major sunburn and at least two funky toenails, but it was worth it!

The next day we opted for rather more tame adventure,  Another hill: Gundaling Hill, reachable by car but of course we walked :-) 
 A pleasant walk from the town, around 45 minutes.  At the top, groups of people rent a covered area to sit and relax, or take a horse cart ride around the top of the hill.
statues on the hill top

One local volcano we did not visit was Mt. Sinabung, a classic-shaped number some 20 kilometers away.  Climbing it is not advisable because A) it is really steep, and B) there is regular volcanic action.  Indeed, the day before our arrival there had been "pyroclastic activity."  No one was allowed within a 5 kilometer radius.  A man at out hotel showed us photos from the place, indicating where jungle had been a few years earlier, and a village wiped out by magma and landslides.

And finally, here are some scenes from the town of Berastagi: 

 tofu maker at the market
The bus station

The famous cabbage statue

The next day, we had a pretty scary taxi ride flying down the mountain, into, through and out of Medan to the airport and the short flight home.