Stretching into the northern province of Aceh on Sumatra, Gunung Leuser National Park is home to Sumatran orangutans (one of the two endemic species to this island), Thomas-leaf monkeys endemic to the Leuser rainforests, bands of macaques, hornbills, sun bears, unique butterflies and the last remaining populations of Sumatran elephants, tigers and rhinos. This rainforest is a treasure of biodiversity, impenetrable and covered by a dense tree canopy, but under threat from oil palm plantations, illegal logging, population pressure and wildlife poaching. On one side of the park the busy tourist season brings in more visitors than is probably sustainable, while on the other it brings barely enough for it to be a real alternative to other lucrative activities. As is the case in most parts of Indonesia, the choices we make as visitors here represent the difference between tourism as a harmful activity, and tourism as a catalyst for improved livelihoods of locals and for preservation of biodiversity.
GETTING THERE: The main gateway community to the park is the charming village of Bukit Lawang in the North Sumatra province. Heading into the Aceh autonomous province, the best option for accessing the park is from the small village of Ketambe. In both cases the closest major airport and city is Medan. If you’re flying from Jakarta there will be plenty of direct flights from which to choose that can get you to Medan. Indonesian airlines don’t have the greatest reputation for safety, but luckily we didn’t experience any negative events. From Medan there are cheaper public transportation options to Bukit Lawang, but some say it’s a bit of a hustle and not really suitable for late arrivals. Guesthouses and hotels in Bukit Lawang can also arrange private transportation to the village that includes airport pick-up. This option should be around US $40-$50 per ride (in 2018), and if it suits your budget we would definitely recommend it. It takes several hours to reach Bukit Lawang from the airport in Medan, not because the distance itself is very long, but due to traffic and road conditions. We arranged our transportation through the guesthouse, Sam’s Bungalow. Once in the village someone from your accommodation will likely wait for you to take you to where you’ll stay, as the side of the village where most of the tourist accommodation is located can only be reached by foot. From Bukit Lawang we had to make our way to Ketambe, in Aceh, and opted for a shared ride which was also arranged through Sam’s Bungalow. This is a long trip, which takes up to 9 hours, so it will not be a comfortable, easy day and the traffic will seem chaotic and aggressive. The public transportation alternative will take longer in minibuses that won’t be much more comfortable than a crammed car, but they will be cheaper. Reaching Ketambe on public transport from Bukit Lawang could take two days. Going back to the Medan airport from Ketambe we arranged for a private ride which cost us around US $60 and lasted about six hours.
GATEWAY TOWNS/WHERE TO STAY: This map will come in extremely handy and it takes some time surfing the web for it. It’s the best we could find and includes the range of activities available at each gateway community. Bukit Lawang is the most famous tourist village with lots of accommodation options, giving you access to the east side of the national park. It became so famous because it was the location of the Bohorok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center which functioned as a rescue and rehabilitation facility from the late 70s up until the early 2000s. They have successfully reintroduced several dozens of orangutans into the rainforest close to Bukit Lawang, which is why trekking here almost guarantees orangutan sightings (these sightings come at a cost though; continue reading below about the issues in Bukit Lawang). In the past the orangutans used to return to a feeding platform daily, which would help supply them with extra nutrients and help the staff monitor the state of the newly released apes. Visitors were allowed to come at the feeding platform and watch the orangutans assemble in the morning and afternoon, but this activity has stopped in 2016. Although the platform was shut down, a lot of the older orangutans that were part of the rehabilitation center’s program are still used to human presence and associate it with food. We arrived in Bukit Lawang in mid-April, outside of the fruit season. When the trees have fruits wildlife is easier to see, but visiting outside this season meant smaller crowds on the trails around Bukit Lawang. We stayed at Sam’s Bungalow, which also has an excellent restaurant suitable for any meal of the day. Sam’s family and all his staff and guides are either from Bukit Lawang or from the surrounding villages. He and his guesthouse manager helped us book everything we needed and connected us with one of the most respected guides in Bukit Lawang, Wanda. Wanda is related to Sam and has in the meantime opened his own guesthouse just outside Bukit Lawang. Another gateway community on the east side of the park is Tangkahan, at the meeting point of the Buluh and Batang rivers. This is where a lot of the oil palm plantations have taken over the natural habitat and have set fires that destroyed the forests. Amid the destruction there is still secondary forest here with mix dipterocarp vegetation, where orangutans, elephants, and sometimes even tigers can be spotted along the rivers. The main attraction in Tangkahan is a patrol of tame elephants used by the park’s rangers to mitigate human-wildlife conflict to patrol the rainforest, but nowadays they seem to be there mostly as a tourist attraction. Visitors can ride the elephants and meet the rangers in Tangkahan, but as far as we could figure many guides in Bukit Lawang seem to think that this activity is in a grey area of ethics and sustainability. As a result, we avoided the experience because we couldn’t find anyone to confirm that it’s beneficial to conservation. In general, elephant rides at any destination hardly go well with the idea of ethics and humane treatment. In Aceh, in the central part of the national park, your best option for a gateway community is the small village of Ketambe, a low key destination on the Alas river, where the Ketambe Research Station is located. This station, unlike the one in Bukit Lawang, was dedicated specifically to research and remains closed to tourists. In Ketambe we arranged accommodation at the Thousand Hills guesthouse owned by Joseph, who speaks English very well. Everyone working there was very friendly, and they had some excellent nature books and good food. The village of Ketambe is very small and doesn’t have a lot of alternatives for eating out or for buying supplies. We arranged our trips into the national park through the guesthouse, which has started working with most guides in Ketambe that have a good reputation. Further north and much more off-the-beaten path lies Kedah, a village that has started to enter the radars of adventure travelers that want to go deeper into the national park or climb Mount Leuser, hiking through the pine forests. It is located nearby Blangkejeren where there is a small office of the national park. By car it takes at least another four hours to reach from Ketambe. We have no experience regarding the west side of the national park, but it seems like the only gateway settlement is the Ujang Padang Village from where an 8-hour ride by boat would get you to the Laot Bangko Lake where there are no tourist developments. However, it’s really hard to find proper information regarding this destination. The west side closer to the ocean is also at a higher risk of destruction caused by oil palm plantations.
ABOUT THE PARK & WHEN TO GO: There are so many iconic species to see in this national park that you could spend a lifetime returning to see them all, provided that their habitats will survive the expansion of oil palm plantations, poaching, road construction and illegal logging. The last years have seen an improvement in protections, but there is still much to do. The good part is that, given the chance, the rainforest returns quickly and the original vegetation takes over previously cleared lands. Gunung Leuser is named after one of the mountains which rises prominently in the northwest of the national park, and is a protected area roughly shaped like two lungs spreading over 1 million ha (2.4 million acres) of rainforest, pine forest and alpine habitat, lowland dipterocarp forest, peatlands and mangroves. It was designated a national park in 1980, one of the first five in the country. The park, together with two other national parks is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known as the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra. And since the mid-2000s, responding to local and international efforts by various NGOs, local governments have agreed to recognize and strive to protect an area more than double the size of Gunung Leuser National Park, known as the Leuser Ecosystem. There are almost 4,000 species of plants residing in what is Southeast Asia’s largest expanse of rainforest, with giant rafflesia flowers, impressive strangler figs, ancient banyans and other dipterocarp tree species with massive buttress roots, towering above the canopy at 60 m (200 ft) high, and connected by thick, twisted lianas. The thick vegetation of the rainforest and the many emergent tree species that rise above the canopy do a tremendous job of hiding wildlife. Spotting any of the 380 species of birds, 194 reptiles and amphibians or the almost 130 species of mammals that live in the park will be a hard-won victory. This is especially true if you’re visiting outside the fruit season, when strangler figs and other fruiting plants have already finished sharing their bounty. Coming here during the fruit season, roughly November to February and usually peaking in December-January, will offer better chances of catching a glimpse of the stunning hornbills, wild Sumatran orangutans and maybe some elusive siamangs. This is also when the wet season is in full swing, so heavy rains will be part of the daily experience and should last until March. However, when we arrived in mid-April we still experienced a good amount of rain. For a more insightful look into the ecology of the national park, you can check this online guide from the Orangutan Information Centre.
VISITING THE PARK: The trails in the Gunung Leuser National Park are unmarked and intricate — a maze difficult to solve — with steep and slippery ups and downs, which is why venturing long distances without a guide is not advised and against the park’s policies. There is an entrance fee (around US $20) which can be paid as part of the price of the guided trip. There are several types of trips from every gateway into the park, with many one day options, 2D1N, 3D2N and even longer. There is the possibility to go on a weeklong trek on an off-the-beaten-path trail which connects Bukit Lawang to Ketambe, a wilder experience with higher chances of spotting the more elusive species that stay away from human settlements. Guides will provide all the sleeping and food arrangements. Wild camping on your own is against park policy. Prices for guided trips vary: they aren’t dirt cheap but not expensive either and start at around US $40 pp for a day trip. Cheap services in sensitive conservation areas like Gunung Leuser can be the reason why those areas become endangered from excessive tourism (when we visited in the low tourism season we did not witness such prevalent destructive behaviors as described in this article, but did see some illegal practices from a few guides and tourists). Although Gunung Leuser is home to so many species that are considered “iconic”, like Sumatran orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants, you have to bear in mind that most of them shy away from human presence, have plenty of space to hide and survive today in very small numbers. Most of them are only seen by camera-traps. Orangutans, however, are not a rare sight, especially in Bukit Lawang. Visiting the park from here can almost guarantee a sighting, and that can be a problem. Most of the orangutans seen around Bukit Lawang were part of a rescue and reintroduction program at the center across the Bohorok river. Since 1978 they’ve been recovered by authorities from the pet trade, from forests cleared for other developments, and in general from difficult situations. They were prepared for a long time to be released into the forest and take on to a semi-wild existence. For decades they were fed twice a day on a platform at the center, where visitors could come and watch. This practice has stopped in the past few years due to controversial practices, but many guides will use to their advantage the orangutans’ habituation with the idea of humans giving them food in order to get their clients up close to the animals. That’s why you should say up front when you’re looking to book a tour with a guide that you specifically don’t want them to feed or interfere with wildlife. Wanda, our guide, is one of the oldest in the national park and frowns upon these practices. Many of the orangutans you will see around Bukit Lawang won’t behave fully wild — they may approach you and sometimes walk around at ground level, but the encounter with them is still a moving one. You’ll share the trails with more people than in Ketambe and certainly than in Kedah, but it’s still a good introduction to the national park if done with the right guide and with the right intentions. These orangutans are mostly survivors of traumatic experiences, and one female in particular, Mina (pronounced Meenah), has a bad reputation of behaving unexpectedly and attacking guides if they refuse to give her food. According to Wanda, however, Mina has been an excellent mother in the wild and has successfully raised several offspring. On the less visited side of the park, in Ketambe, the trails get even harder to follow and the leeches are much more determined to hitch a ride in your socks, shirt or on the neck. This is a place where the eyes of your guide will make a difference, because wild orangutans aren’t as keen to show themselves to human visitors, and they keep to their nests up in the canopy. Hiking or backpacking from Ketambe is a wonderful experience (despite the mud and leeches) and the only minus are the campsites, where garbage and plastic pollution by the river are a common sight. Once again, given that the rangers’ presence and the infrastructure are limited, it all depends on the visitors and the guides they choose, in order to leave behind the places better than when they found them. We hiked for a few days with Said (pictured), the guide recommended by Joseph at the Thousand Hills guesthouse, and it was an excellent experience. He is from Ketambe, proud to be a guide in Gunung Leuser National Park, and with a desire to contribute to its betterment. He spoke up to younger guides that weren’t collecting their garbage and packed out what we collected around the campsite from others. With plenty of temptation to make quick money from helping collectors to poach precious wildlife like hornbills, local people like Said make a huge difference in keeping these practices at bay and in understanding that their livelihood is connected to the wellbeing of the species that exist in the park. In bringing our money as visitors to places like Ketambe we can help people like Said to continue guiding in and caring for the national park, as long as we do our part and put no unnecessary pressure to get close to wildlife, leave no garbage behind or not care whether the places we explore will survive into the future.