Sunday, October 28, 2007

Rumble in the Jungle

So another holiday season is over and Jakarta is once again full to bursting point with post-Idul Fitri returnees. In fact, it's probably even fuller than that, what with the annual new arrivals who've been told by their city dwelling relatives that the streets here are paved with gold. The reality, of course, is that they aren't paved at all full stop, but I wish these out comers luck anyway and hope that they manage to avoid the public order stormtroopers who will be trying to round them up in the coming weeks.

I spent my Lebaran holiday exploring the magnificent countryside around Medan in Sumatra and barely lived to tell the tale, more of which later. After flying to Medan via Air Asia, my holidaying housemate and I headed immediately for the hill town of Brestagi (Medan itself being nothing much to write home about).

Brestagi is a couple of hours away from Medan via jam-packed, Dangdhut rockin' seat squeezing, sweaty public bus. Thankfully, the conductor allowed us to ride on the roof with the spare tyre, which afforded us a pleasant cool breeze and plenty of mouth agape, "Hello Mr?" type stares.

Upon arriving we checked into the Wisma Sunrise View Hotel (an overpriced Rp.150,000 per night) and settled back to enjoy the magnificent views over the town and the quite breathtaking rising damp in the rooms. The next morning we explored the small but sweet town of Brestagi, located the inevitable Western backpackers' cheap eatery and had ourselves an authentic, Lonely Planet guidebook, banana-pancakes-cooked-by-an-Indonesian-Rastafarian breakfast.

After loading up with calories it was time to finally get down to brass tacks and do some serious hiking. There are two volcanoes next to the town, Gunung Sinabung and the smaller Gunung Sibayak. Being the limp wristed, nancy boys we are, we opted for Gunung Sibayak and set off from the park entrance through the drizzle. We reached the summit after a couple of hours of sweaty climbing and laughing at the Macaque monkeys in the trees (“I'm afraid it's Macaques, doctor”).

We then descended through the sulphurous mists of the volcano via a different route and bathed our aching muscles in the public hot springs of a nearby village. This was the perfect end to the day's expedition and we returned to the Wisma Damprise glowing with rude health.

The next day, it was back to Medan to catch an even sweatier public bus the three hours to Bukit Lawang, a well-known backpacker/tourist resort and orangutan rehabilitation centre and the stunning southernmost entrance to the enormous Gunung Leuser National Park which stretches all the way up into Aceh.

When we arrived, we checked into the superb Eco Lodge Hostel (081 26079983) and went out for a stroll. The cafes and small businesses that line the kilometer or two of the riverbank at the park’s entrance were full of smiling, happy Lebaran holiday families, cracking open the peanuts and jungle juice. Things haven't always been so jolly at Bukit Lawang however. Some of you may remember reading about the flash floods that devastated the area in 2004. A local guide at our hotel told us that over 50% of the businesses in the area were smashed to smithereens and scores of lives were lost in the deluge.

The Jakarta floods are bad enough but up here you have the additional problem of soil erosion and rain causing huge 60 foot high trees to come crashing down the steep slopes onto your house. It's a sad tale which could all too easily happen again, what with the continued environmental degradation and logging problems that bug the area.

The scenery at Bukit Lawang is simply stunning though. A huge roiling river cuts a swathe through a plunging gorge of virgin jungle in which orangutans dwell in the wild. After watching the orangutans gorge on bananas at the official feeding site, we decided to take our lives in our hands and surf a huge tractor tyre inner tube down the river, as many locals were doing.

Now, the Lonely Planet, every cheap skate’s favorite travel guide, explicitly warns against tubing and I guess that such a hazardous enterprise would never be allowed in the West without crash helmets and lifejackets. As I rode the bucking white water I fell off twice, bounced my tube against rocks, banged my legs against the bottom and mainlined pure adrenaline as I wondered if I'd ever be able to stop without breaking an arm. Sheer lunacy.

The next day, it was time for an overnight jungle trek. Our trusty guide, Jungle Eddie (real name Dedi) introduced us to wild orangutans and took us yomping over extremely steep, raw jungle terrain before we pitched camp next to the river in the late afternoon.

During the night it rained cats and dogs but we remained dry in our bivouac. The next morning the river had risen a couple of feet and was surging along powerfully. Our guide presented us with a stark choice: either shamble back to base camp on our sore legs via the way we had come the previous day or spend half an hour rafting back to the Eco Lodge on four tractor inner tubes lashed together with rope. It was probably indolence rather than masochism that caused us to choose the latter.

It was heart in the mouth time again as we bounced terrifyingly along whilst waves dumped cold water over us. The concerned expressions on our guides' faces told us that they were rafting at the edge of their abilities. We made it back, shell-shocked, and unwrapped our rucksacks from the three layers of plastic bags our guides had sealed them in before we set sail. Time for a beer.