“Our Great National Parks - visit to Gunung Leuser”
Earlier this week I found myself binge watching Netflix's new five-part series, Our Great National Parks narrated by Barack Obama, who prioritised protecting the public lands and waters in the U.S. The show is global-reaching with footage and facts from national parks across five continents,
including the waters of Monterey Bay, California, the terrain of Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, the rainforests of Indonesia’s Gunung Leuser National Park and the far southern landscape of Chilean Patagonia.
It was the episode on Gunung Leuser National Park that brought me back to my early days of exploring protected areas. For years, the enchantment of the East has beckoned me. Lured by the mystery deep within Sumatra’s untamed wilderness and curious about its cultural groups, I arrived in Indonesia with excitement.
My first point of interest was the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre on the edge of Gunug Leuser. I travelled to the entrance to the park at Bukit Lawang near the port city of Medan, Northern Sumatra. Here, contraband orangutans, confiscated by the Government and NGO groups, are brought to the Centre where efforts are made to readapt them to their natural habitat in the adjacent forests. North Sumatra and Borneo are the two areas where the endangered great apes can be found in the wild. It was a short hike through the rainforest on a path that followed the Bohorok River. Communities that live within the reserve could be seen, with women washing laundry in the river and children who playfully swam in nakedness. A guide led us to an observation post where a large supply of bananas were placed. Within minutes, the first orangutan arrived and was soon joined by seven others. Once the bananas were gone, a few orangutans left while a few stayed to the delight of observers. It was quite marvellous to see the arboreal acrobatics.
My quest for additional nature and culture continued a bit further south in the village of Brastagi, the mountain home of the Karo Batak culture. I arrived at the end of the rice harvest which was the cause for much celebration in the villages surrounding Brastagi. Dancers in traditional barb gracefully swayed to the soothing accompaniment of the Gendang or Karo orchestra. Travellers like myself were welcomed to the joyous gathering which continued until dawn. The next day, I hiked to the top of Mount Sibayak, a volcano still spewing sulphurous smoke from its crater. The path was easy to follow and when I reached the summit, I could see other volcanoes and small villages from a 360-degree vantage point. On the way down the volcano, I treated myself to one of nature’s Jacuzzis with a swim in the local hot springs.
I resumed my travels with a gruelling 21-hour bus ride southward to BuKittinggi. It was one of those rides where 65 passengers are crammed into a 44-seater vehicle, but the mosaic of verdant rice terraces, jungled gorges, volcanic mountains, and raging rivers helped make the journey pass with interest. During my stay in the town, I set off for another memorable hike that took me to Maninjau Natural Reserve in search of the unusual flowering giant – the Rafflesia. The largest individual flower on Earth was also depicted in the Netflix documentary. You can often find it due to its unpleasant odour of decaying flesh. Like the orangutans, it is native to the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo. We were fortunate to find one in bloom.
The last wild space during my exploration was across from Sumatra at the western tip of the island of Java. I took a boat to reach the area and Ujung Kulon National Reserve. It is one of the last refuges for the one-horned rhinoceros of which only 60 exist. To reach Java, I sailed past the remnants of Krakatoa , the volcano that exploded in 1883 and created the most violent natural explosion the world has ever known. Today its offspring Anak Krakatau emits faint rumblings. A boat was to take visitors from Payambang but reliability was not our friend that day. Six other travellers wanting to visit the reserve hired a fishing boat to do the five-hour journey by wooden prahu. Over the four days in the reserve, none of the 60 rhinoceros were spotted but we did find fresh tracks and recent droppings. Natural wonders were everywhere and we saw scores of chattering monkeys, colourful spiders, tree snakes, birds galore, green turtles and along the reefs offshore, marine life and corals. The boat ride back made a fitting end to a spectacular appreciation of the natural adventure. We entered the small port at night to the drone of the small engine, bathed in the light of the full moon.
We do not offer The National Parks of Sumatra or Java, but can offer similar wildlife experiences in Borneo
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